Five boaters spent hours stranded in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay after their 14-foot power boat capsized Saturday, floating in the water before they were rescued by the crew of a sailboat returning from a regatta.
Though a child on board was wearing a life preserver, none of the other passengers were. The boaters broke no laws, but state officials said the incident should serve as a reminder that everyone is safer when wearing a life vest.
Jose Reyes and four others were aboard the 1967 Appleby returning to Sandy Point State Park when a large wave caught their boat, causing it to flip around 9 p.m. Saturday, said Sgt. Art Windemuth of the Department of Natural Resources Police.
Reyes, 12-year-old Oscar Flores, and his father, Oscar Samuel Flores, 32, all of Silver Spring, were able to cling to the overturned boat and keep their heads above water. But two other passengers, Anna Daci Garcia, 36 and Carlos Eskabar, 31, of Hyattsville were not able to make it back to the boat and instead clutched a cooler, Windemuth said.
Only the 12-year-old was wearing a life vest, Windemuth said. He said Reyes told rescuers that the abrupt wave hit before the adults could grab vests. The law requires only children under 13 to wear one, but Windemuth said adults should always do the same.
In the 17 boating fatalities last year, 16 people were not wearing life vests and eight fatalities were the result of alcohol or drug use while boating. In Saturday's incident, Windemuth said, no alcohol was involved. But even though Reyes had some boating experience, Windemuth said that "part of boating is knowing how to operate a vessel in certain sea conditions."
Windemuth said Reyes used a battery-operated light to attract passing vessels. He was unsuccessful until Captain Larry Vazzano and four crew members aboard the Wharf Rat, a CS 40 sailboat returning from the Eastport Yacht Club's Solomons Island Invitational race, came across the capsized boat around 11 p.m.
Vazzano, 59, a retired teacher from Mt. Airy, said his crew was passing the Magothy River and the Baltimore Light lighthouse when he and several others heard faint cries.
"We heard, 'Help. Help. Help us,'" Vazzano recalled, saying at first they thought the sound might have been a bird in the distance. Then, Vazzano said, he saw the flashes of light. "We motored over and saw three people clinging to a small overturned boat," Vazzano said. The crew on the Wharf Rat called mayday, alerting the Coast Guard of the capsized boat near the Bay Bridge. They then threw a "man overboard line," a U-shaped ring with a nylon rope. The boat circled the three stranded boaters, picking them up.
After Reyes was pulled aboard, he told Vazzano that Eskabar and Garcia were still in the water and had drifted away from the boat.
"I thought, 'These folks are done for it,'" Vazzano said. But after offering the three blankets, food and water, Vazzano said they heard that Garcia and Eskabar were rescued by Department of Natural Resources Police.
Cpl. Aaron Parker with the Maryland Natural Resources Police was the first to find the pair who had been buoyed by the cooler for close to three hours and called another patrol boat to assist with the rescue. They were taken to Gibson Island Marina, where they were then taken to Baltimore Washington Medical Center and treated for shock and chills, Windemuth said.
Each year, the Natural Resources Police receive close to 3,000 maritime-related calls, according to Windemuth. Of those calls, 301 required boating assists with 201 serious enough that they caused more than $200,000 in damage or required more than first aid treatment to boaters involved.
"I've never done a real rescue," said Vazzano, who belongs to the Rock Creek Racing Association and is a licensed Coast Guard captain who owns the Atlantic Sailing Experience LLC. The 25-year veteran sailor said he regularly attends safety seminars, including one this past spring, practicing the technique the crew used to pick up the group Saturday.
"It was a textbook case," he said. "I imagine they would've lasted another hour."
He said that when the crew returned to shore, the rescued boaters gave them hugs.
"We were ecstatic that we were in the right place at the right time," Vazzano said.
For safety tips, Windemuth said boaters should check out http://www.dnr.state.md.us/boating.