Loss of local sailor ‘staggers’ community

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Mike McDonough, 50, an experienced sailor who had explored “every nook and cranny” of the Chesapeake and, in 25 years as an Annapolis, Md., sailing instructor, had always emphasized the importance of life jackets, was found drowned after he set out alone in late November in 20 to 25 knot winds on his 39-foot racing boat.

Mike McDonough, 50, an experienced sailor who had explored “every nook and cranny” of the Chesapeake and, in 25 years as an Annapolis, Md., sailing instructor, had always emphasized the importance of life jackets, was found drowned after he set out alone in late November in 20 to 25 knot winds on his 39-foot racing boat.

Maryland Natural Resources police say McDonough, whose body was found by construction workers Dec. 4 by the westbound causeway of the Chesapeake BayBridge near KentIsland, was not wearing a life preserver.

Valkyrie, McDonough’s one-off boat, was found on the evening of Nov. 30, banging up against the southern side of the bridge, lines from its mast trailing in the wind across the eastbound lanes, according to Sgt. Ken Turner. The hull of the boat had been damaged by pounding against bridge pilings, he says.

Friends describe McDonough as an expert sailor who eschewed life jackets for himself.

“For such a passionate sailor and such a knowledgeable sailor and such a good sailor to have lost his life falling overboard on the Chesapeake is most shocking to us,” says Kristy Goode, owner of the ChesapeakeSailingSchool where McDonough worked during the sailing season. “We all need to take a step back and say: You know what? We should wear a life jacket. You can still be fearless and be prepared.”

Tim Cutrona, who had sailed with McDonough since they both were teens, says his friend was “a very sure-footed guy. He’d clomp around the boat making sure he had sure footing all the time. We’d certainly sailed through many rough storms through the night. For him to fall off a boat just staggers the imagination.”

But Cutrona says his friend didn’t wear life vests. “That’s something we’re all going to get better at now,” Cutrona says.

McDonough had crewed on Cutrona’s sailboat in races on the Chesapeake until a year ago, when he bought the Owens 39, a yacht with a long history of winning races, Cutrona says. Goode says McDonough moved aboard Valkyrie about a year ago and recently had moved the boat to a new slip on the Eastport side of Back Creek.

Frequently, Goode says, McDonough would take the boat out in the afternoon or evening, any time of the year. “A lot of times he never really asked anyone to go with him. That was his way of unwinding from the day. He was good at it,” Goode says.

Goode says McDonough was also good at teaching new sailors.

“He was one of the sailors, when you were learning to race, you said: I want to be like him,” Goode says. “He was always in teaching mode to make you a better sailor. [He would say] ‘You’ve got to feel the boat.’ Not everyone has that innate skill. Mike did. It was always a learning experience to sail with him.”

Cutrona recalls that, “When it was just the two of us, we worked well as a team.” When there was a larger crew, McDonough “worked the crew to get more out of the boat.” He was “highly involved in running all aspects of the boat. Good helmsman and good foredeckman.”

Goode says he was, “as fluid as the boat was when he was sailing,” adding, “His life revolved around the water. He explored the Bay, knew every nook and cranny, had always explored some place that nobody else knew about.”

When he was not on the water, McDonough was reading about it, Goode says. “He was constantly reading poems, nautical lore. When Patrick O’Brien’s books came out, he was always the first one in line.”

Goode says McDonough could quote passages “from the [Rhyme of the] Ancient Mariner to the most recent book on racing and what changes had been made to the racing rules.”

Friends say McDonough, in his first year with Vlakyrie, won the final race in the Screwpile Regatta near Solomons, and finished third in his class in the Governor’s Cup, sailed from Annapolis to St. Mary’s. He had also won his class twice in the Annapolis Hospice Cup Regatta and had won the annual regatta at the ChesapeakeSailingSchool.

In Annapolis sailing circles, Goode and Cutrona say, McDonough was a celebrity. “I think more people in Annapolis knew him than [knew] Gary Jobson or visiting celebrity sailors that often grace this port,” Cutrona says. McDonough’s reputation for expertise on the water left his friends wondering what must have happened on Valkyrie.

“Something unexpected had to happen,” Goode says. “He would lock down the wheel and go forward to fix something, tighten something down. Something jolted the boat just enough to have him lose his balance. He [was] prepared for just about anything else.”

McDonough was separated from his wife, Coleen, with whom he had maintained an amicable relationship, according to friends. Their son, Henry, 17, sailed with him in the sailing school regatta and received the trophy for that victory at a memorial service for McDonough on Dec. 9. Goode says the trophy was renamed the McDonough trophy.