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Experienced sailor dies during day sail

A series of unexpected events leads to the death of a skipper known for being safe on the water

A series of unexpected events leads to the death of a skipper known for being safe on the water

As they prepared for a Saturday cruise from Rock Hall to Annapolis, Md., Patrick Tocci told his son, Ryan, 26, and three of his friends — all inexperienced boaters — what to do in the unlikely event that he, the captain, fell overboard: Throw the flotation device and slowly circle in the boat until he grabbed it.

On the sunny, calm afternoon of Sept. 9, that was not enough information. With the 42-foot ketch Vision Quest’s engine disabled, Tocci (pronounced Tossy), 58, of Palmerton, Pa., decided to use the dinghy to move the boat. Then his dinghy engine caught fire and, not wearing the life jacket he required others to don, he jumped into the water. But when the crew threw him the line, he was too far away to get it. A woman on board dove in to help the skipper, but by the time other boaters reached them, Tocci was unconscious. On shore, he was pronounced dead, apparently from drowning.

It was an unfortunate sequence of events that led to the death of a sailor whose family thought of him as a stickler for safety.

“Obviously, there were mistakes made here,” says Ryan Tocci, who will not give the names of his friends who were aboard. “But he was a very safety conscious guy. This was uncharacteristic.”

The father, a widower, had owned cruising boats since about 12 years of age, according to another son, Patrick Tocci II. He says his father had taken several boating courses.

“It was his favorite thing in the world to do,” Ryan says of his father, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran. “I’ve never seen this man take anything more serious. He could go down on a Saturday and not take the boat out and just work on it and it made him very happy.”

The cruise began at Haven Harbor Marina in the late morning, according to Ryan Tocci’s account, which is corroborated by Coast Guard and Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police statements. On board were the father and son, two female and one male friend of Ryan. (Official reports did not contain their names.) The plan was to cross the Chesapeake Bay to Annapolis, tour the town, then return late to Rock Hall. Their blue-hulled vessel was a Challenger 42. Its name came from a book and movie about wrestling, the senior Tocci’s other passion.

The weather was warm but not hot, and the sky was clear, Ryan recalls. With little wind, they resigned themselves to a day of motoring. They had brought out some snacks and drinks and were offshore from Rock Hall when Vision Quest’s engine quit.

“My dad tried to get it started again,” Ryan says. “He realized he wasn’t going to be able to get it back up. He apologized to all of us.” But no one was upset, the son says. “At that time, he was deciding what to do about the boat, whether to have a tug boat come and get us or not.”

Ryan says his father “felt really bad about not getting us to Annapolis. He wanted to get us to a place where we could anchor and cook out. He let up the sails for a while,” but the air did not stir. “So after a while, he said maybe possibly with some care, we’ll have the dinghy pull the boat and get us to a place where we could anchor.”

The dinghy was lowered from its davits and then the motor was mounted, and Ryan, in the dinghy with a friend, started it. They moved the dinghy to the bow of the boat and attached a line to begin a tow. Ryan remembers his father had another reason to move the boat: A nearby fleet of fishing boats toward which Vision Quest was drifting.

The tow moved the boat, but not in the desired direction.

“We were just about to shut it down, anyway, when the motor stopped,” Ryan says. The two younger men got back on the boat, and the father tried the sails again, without effect. It was then that he called TowboatU.S. and was told it would be about an hour before a tow arrived, Ryan says.

Sitting in the cockpit at the helm, Ryan saw his father had climbed down into the dinghy. “At that time he realized the motor had no gasoline in it. He had a little can of gasoline in the dinghy. He decided to fill it. The gasoline was not getting into the motor. We could see a little bit of it starting to go into the ocean. We yelled down to him about it,” Ryan says.

“A couple seconds later, he decided to start the motor. I have no idea whether the motor was ever started. We saw a small flame. It got bigger and surrounded the motor. At that time, everybody on the boat yelled: Fire! Fire! My father turned around, saw this and because of the fire jumped into the ocean. As he jumped in and popped back up, he yelled for help.”

The lifeline was too short. A woman on board dove in and tried to tow the line to Tocci, but he was already too far away, so she swam to him and tried to keep him afloat. Two other boats arrived, responding to the shouts from Vision Quest, and Tocci and the woman were pulled from the water then taken ashore, while the boaters performed CPR on Tocci, according to the DNR police. The Rock Hall Volunteer Fire Department met the boat at the shore and tried unsuccessfully to revive Tocci. Minutes after the good Samaritans had left the scene with Tocci, the tow boat arrived, according to BoatU.S.