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Deadly storm routs Chesapeake boaters

Fatality among 11 marine police incidents, as cold front apparently surprises many on the water

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Temperatures near 100 F and a passing cold front combined July 25 to create a deadly storm system on Chesapeake Bay. Boaters from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal to as far south as Colonial Beach, Md., were slammed by 50- to 80-knot winds. Both the Coast Guard and the Maryland Natural Resources Police were inundated by calls for help. Even the Baltimore County Fire Department responded to three boats in distress. Eight Coast Guard boat crews assisted 77 people, while the marine police handled 11 incidents, including one fatality.

Warren D. Smith and Elmer Sappington, both in their mid-60s and from the Annapolis area, were riding personal watercraft in the Bay when the storm approached. They were about a half-mile south of the Bay Bridge, racing for the safety of Sandy Point State Park, when the storm hit with estimated winds at 60 mph and waves up to 6 feet high. Sappington later told officials that "bolts of lightning were striking all around us." He was knocked off his watercraft by the force of the wind and waves.

Smith was also knocked off and was lying unconscious in the water. Sappington pulled him aboard and hailed a nearby tugboat. The marine police were called and transported Smith to the Anne Arundel Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Sgt. Art Windemuth says Smith died from electrocution, but "he wasn't struck directly by lightning. The lightning bolts have thousands of volts of electricity. This accident points out that you don't have to be directly hit to be hurt or killed in a storm like this."

Windemuth thinks that, in some instances, boaters were caught unaware in places where they couldn't take refuge as the storm came up quickly. "Most of the accidents," he points out, "happened en route to safe harbor." Other accidents occurred because of vessel wakes "causing damage to other boats and even capsizing several boats." He stressed that the most important precautions a boater can take "starts before leaving the dock - make sure your equipment is working properly, check the weather forecast and have a plan should a storm come up."

North of Baltimore, near the mouth of the Middle River, Hart Miller Island is a favorite weekend spot for boaters to play. Neal Panzarella had his 25-foot Sea Ray anchored in shallow water and was napping while his guests swam. He awoke when a sudden wind gust jolted the boat. He could see the storm approaching from the west. He quickly gathered his crew, raised anchor and headed for his slip at Bowleys Quarters Marina. "The wind came in gusts and the shoreline disappeared in the rain," he recalls. "I had the boat at three-quarters throttle just to stay in place." When that squall ended, he raced into Middle River, but several hundred yards from the entrance to the marina he was hit again by a gust and ducked into Frogmortar Creek. With the wind pushing him farther into the creek and not knowing the depth, he turned to head out, getting hit broadside by a gust, which listed the powerboat. He finally tied up safely in the marina. He described the storm as "unbelievably strong. It lasted an hour or so, but the intense part was probably 20 to 30 minutes ... only it seemed like forever."

Panzarella admitted he "threw caution to the wind" when leaving the dock. "It was just so hot. I wanted to get in the cool water. When I anchored, I turned on the radio, but I didn't hear any of the warnings. I figured if anything came up, I was close to home. If I had known, I wouldn't have gone out."

Meteorologist Mark Weber writes a Chesapeake Bay weather blog with weekly forecasts. On it, he predicted, "A strong cold front will sweep across the Chesapeake by Sunday night." In addition, the National Weather Service had forecast the storm. In Weber's opinion, "most casual boaters do not take the weather seriously and most do not stay tuned to a weather radio during summer afternoons on the water." They should, he explained, because "summer storms can develop quickly over the Chesapeake. Waiting for a dark sky to the west is often too late for those who are a half-hour from the nearest port. A storm can develop overhead in what appears to be an otherwise clear sky in 15 minutes."

The National Weather Service had been monitoring the developing conditions. As early as Friday morning, "thunderstorms that may produce strong gusty winds" was added to its Hazardous Weather Outlook. Sunday morning, a severe thunderstorm watch was issued, followed by eight severe thunderstorm warnings and seven special marine warnings for Chesapeake Bay and its major estuaries. A severe thunderstorm warning means the National Weather Service expects a severe, damaging thunderstorm to occur in a targeted area within a short period of time (generally 30 to 60 minutes).

The Coast Guard joins the National Weather Service, Weber and Windemuth in urging boaters to pay close attention to the weather reports and weather advisories "prior to and while boating." Sector Baltimore Chief Petty Officer Keith Moore warns, "Storms can turn a normal day out on the boat to a battle of life and death. In an emergency as large as this was, a number of unprepared mariners can take a toll and create a very difficult situation for all responders. We could not have done this alone; we are incredibly thankful to our state and local agencies for helping us to carry such a difficult burden."

The Coast Guard crews rescued two people from a capsized kayak, three clinging to a buoy after being knocked off their personal watercraft and five people from a capsized raft, among others. The marine police responded to calls from six capsized or overturned boats from the Susquehanna River to Isle of Wight Bay.

As Weber observed, "Most casual boaters do not respect the Chesapeake Bay as a body of water which can become quite tumultuous during inclement weather."

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue.