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Schooner sunk by barge

The crew sailed into the path of a tug and barge on the C&DCanal

The crew sailed into the path of a tug and barge on the C&DCanal

Robert Pulsch and his two adult daughters anchored their 96-year-old schooner, Heron, at a bend in the Elk River waiting for a current change in the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. After a long day of motoring up Chesapeake Bay from their winter dock on Maryland’s ChesterRiver, the family sat down around 9 p.m. and ate a good meal of London broil, roasted potatoes and gazpacho. Then they got some rest.

At 3 a.m., the crew headed into the canal’s western entrance, three miles from ChesapeakeCity, toward a frightening encounter with a tug and barge.

“We had a fair current, doing 7 knots with the current,” Pulsch, 73, says. Older daughter Ann Marie Pulsch, 47, was at the helm. Pulsch says he was on deck, checking the GPS. Younger daughter, 34-year-old Susan Pulsch Petracco, was below as Heron — a 45-foot, 6-inch B.B. Crowninshield-designed gaff-rigged schooner built in 1911 — approached the lights of ChesapeakeCity and the Route 213 Bridge.

“The water was just as flat as a pancake,” says Pulsch, who is from Port Monmouth, N.J. “A tugboat did come down past us. I was watching the GPS for the buoys. We were on the right-hand side of the channel. There were a lot of lights in the background.” Lost in those lights, says Pulsch, were the running lights of the 71-foot tug Schuylkill and the oil barge it was pushing.

“All of a sudden Ann Marie said, ‘Look!’ ” Pulsch says. “There was a big, white spotlight right in front of us. It frightened us. It blew our mind. I told her to go to port. That could have been a mistake. He was pushing a 300-foot barge and I didn’t realize it, and I didn’t see the lights.”

Pulsch says he wasn’t looking that closely. “I can’t really say it was the tugboat’s fault,” he says. “I did not have the radio on. I did have a radar reflector on.

“It was cold that morning [May 14],” he continues. “Of course we had oilers on, and my daughters had three layers of clothing on underneath. They had boots on. We didn’t have life jackets on. My youngest daughter was down in the hull.” She was getting gloves for her father, who was going to stow the anchor rode.

Heron, which Pulsch restored between 1996 and 2002, was struck by the port bow of the barge, rolled on its side, and immediately driven to the bottom of the 40-foot-deep canal, with Petracco inside, Pulsch says. Pulsch heard the splintering of wood at the impact and later assumed the schooner had been demolished. From that instant on, though — as the barge went over Pulsch and he, too, was driven beneath it — he remembers little. “It was all the noise,” he says. “I don’t remember anything until I started surfacing. I said, I hope I’m going up.”

Pulsch and Ann Marie surfaced on the far side of the barge, the daughter clinging to a “life pod” that had floated from the cockpit, he says. Petracco was nowhere in sight. “I said to myself, That’s it. We’ll never save her,” says Pulsch.

Pulsch says he was told by the crewman at the helm of the tug that he had thrown the engine in reverse and slowed from 7 to 5 knots, then sounded a general alarm, called the Coast Guard, and opened the pilothouse windows to listen.

“When we popped to the water [surface], we started yelling, Help! Help! Help!” Pulsch says. “They heard us. They got a life ring to Ann Marie. I was floating away from the tugboat.”

The two survivors had been hauled aboard the tug when, “All of a sudden, Ann Marie yells to me, ‘We got Susan!’ ” Pulsch recalls. “We received a miracle.”

Pulsch says Petracco later told him that she had found an air pocket and breathed a couple of times when she was in the boat. “She doesn’t know how she got out,” says Pulsch. “We hit the port side of the barge. They pulled us out the starboard side. She surfaced right alongside the tugboat. God was with us. Unbelievable.”

The crew of the tug hauled Petracco on deck, wrapped blankets around her and put her in the engine room where it was warm. “The fire company [members] from ChesapeakeCity were right on the scene,” Pulsch says.

They transported Heron’s crew to land and then to a hospital. Pulsch and Ann Marie were treated and released; Petracco was held overnight out of concern that she might develop pneumonia, her father says.

Heron had to be raised because it posed a hazard to navigation, according to the Coast Guard. “I got hold of the insurance company right away,” Pulsch says. “There was an insurance adjuster right in Baltimore. They hired the barge because I had salvage insurance.” He says the adjuster told him that Heron is “very salvageable.”

“That made me feel good. Those old boats, we’re only caretakers for them. I built a whole new hull for it. The hull looks good. I hope it can be restored,” he says, but he adds: “I’m not doing it.”