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Chance encounter leads to rescue

Group of five clings to a cooler and their overturned skiff for three hours until sail-racing crew arrives

Skipper Larry Vazzano, at the helm, and crew were returning from a day of racing when they spotted fellow mariners in distress.

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A group on a fishing outing quickly faced a life-or-death situation in July when their vessel capsized, leaving them clinging for several hours to a cooler and their overturned boat in Chesapeake Bay.

Jose Reyes, 38, of Silver Spring, Md., was fishing with four others at 9 p.m. July 17, according to police.

Reyes, along with Oscar Flores, 12, Oscar Samuel Flores, 32, Anna Garcia, 36, and Carlos Eskabar, 35, was near Sandy Point Lighthouse aboard his 1967 14-foot wooden Appleby open fishing boat.

Reyes told investigators he was heading back to Sandy Point Park when his vessel capsized because of a large wave.

"Being a 14-footer, there was not a lot of freeboard. It wouldn't take much for water to come running over the gunwales," says Sgt. Art Windemuth, spokesman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police.

Oscar Flores was the only one wearing a life jacket and there was no VHF or EPIRB aboard the boat, according to Windemuth. Winds were 12 to 25 knots with clear visibility and waves of 2 to 6 feet. The passengers had no time to get their life jackets on before they landed in the 80-degree water. The signal whistle Reyes had on board fell into the water, according to Windemuth.

Garcia and Eskabar, both from Hyattsville, Md., were able to cling to a floating cooler, while Reyes and the Floreses grabbed onto the overturned vessel. Reyes detached his 10-hp Mercury outboard from the vessel and let it sink to the bottom to allow the vessel to float better, according to Maryland Natural Resources Police Corporal Aaron Parker. During the course of almost three hours, the two parties drifted about two miles from one another, heading north towards Baltimore Lighthouse.

At about 11:30 p.m., Larry Vazzano, captain of the 40-foot Canadian Sailcraft sloop Wharf Rat, says he saw a battery-operated navigational light flashing off his port side. It was a light Reyes was able to retrieve from the boat.

"We were returning from Solomons Island from a race," says Vazzano, who runs the charter company Atlantic Sailing Experience. "It had been so hot during the day, we thought it would be nice to have a cool night cruise back."

Vazzano, 59, along with crewmembers Brian Robert, Wesley Bramble and Kathleen Hazlehurst Knust, were under power passing Magothy River and the Baltimore Lighthouse. They were about 150 yards away from Reyes when they saw his light off the port side.

"I immediately throttled back and called in a mayday over the VHF radio," says Vazzano. (The Coast Guard states they received the call at 11:36 p.m. and the Maryland Natural Resources received it at 11:40 p.m.) "We were pretty close - I could hear their cries over the engine."

Vazzano says they threw a rescue sling over the side and began circling the capsized vessel. Reyes and Oscar Flores grabbed the line first and were able to climb up Wharf Rat's swim ladder. The second time around, Oscar Samuel Flores grabbed on, but was too weak to use the ladder, so the crew pulled him aboard.

"We got them blankets, hot drinks and food," says Vazzano. "Reyes told me that there were two more people out there clinging to a cooler, so we communicated that to the authorities ... I think we were just in time."

Parker departed in a 19-foot Boston Whaler from the Pasadena area heading south shortly after 11:40 p.m. while a 21-foot Zodiac was simultaneously dispatched from Sandy Point, heading north to retrieve the capsized Appleby.

There was about a 2- to 3-foot chop, according to Parker. He reached Garcia and Eskabar at about 12:20 a.m.

"They were just north of Baltimore Light and about three-quarters of a mile offshore," says Parker. "They were totally exhausted, but elated to see someone. I got them on board and they just collapsed in the vessel."

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard transferred Reyes and the Floreses from Wharf Rat at about 12:30 a.m. All parties were transferred to Gibson Island, where medical personnel were waiting, according to Parker.

Garcia and Eskabar arrived at 12:35 a.m. and they were transferred to Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie for treatment of hypothermia. They were later released. Reyes and the Floreses arrived at 1 a.m. and declined medical treatment.

Parker says he then took Reyes and the Floreses back to Sandy Point Park. The Zodiac found and retrieved Reyes' vessel at 1:04 a.m. and managed to get it back to the park by 4 a.m.

"They couldn't turn it over, so they had to tow it still upside down," says Parker. "You have to go slow when a boat is upside down to make sure it doesn't start sinking."

Parker assisted Reyes in getting the boat onto the trailer and Reyes and the Floreses left for home at about 4:25 a.m.

"It was a long night, but any night that ends with lives saved is a good night," says Parker.

Vazzano says he's never done or seen anything like this in his 25 years of sailing.

"I'm out on the water so much, I guess it's just a matter of time," says Vazzano. "I'm just glad I happened to be there."

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.