Maryland records 25 boating fatalities, most since 1992

In the most deadly year for Maryland boaters since 1992, Kevin Gladhill knows how close he and his fishing buddies came to being statistics on a blustery day last February.

"The probability of survival that day was between slim and none. We got slim," says the Department of Defense police officer from Washington County. "For some reason, we were spared."

Twenty-five people, ranging in age from 14 to 81, have been killed this year in boating accidents. The victims were sailors and watermen, sportsmen and pleasure boaters. Only one — the youngest — was female.

The numbers have shaken Natural Resources Police officials, who lobbied the General Assembly for tougher boating regulations and arranged officers' schedules to provide more weekend patrols on rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

"There's only so much we can do. The water is a dangerous place, and people need to be aware of their surroundings and actions," said Sgt. Art Windemuth, spokesman for Natural Resources Police.

Warm weather in May coaxed recreational boaters out early, and quickly rising temperatures kept them coming back weekend after weekend, he said.

"We started out with a bang and went right past spring to summer. It was one perfect weekend after another," Windemuth said. "With the increased level of activity came the fatalities."

The first two deaths, however, involved professionals. Two watermen were killed during the opening weeks of the year in unusual accidents. Samuel Todd fell overboard in Dorchester County's Fishing Bay and although he was rescued, he succumbed to the cold. Richard Quapy died when the fishing boat on which he was riding slammed at high speed into a navigational marker in the Gunpowder River near Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

In April, brothers from York, Pa., died when their fishing boat capsized and dumped them into 50-degree Chesapeake Bay water near Calvert County. The year drew to a close with another double-fatal, when a sailboat sank off Sandy Point State Park on Dec. 19.

Maryland boating deaths peaked in 1979 at 37, and during the past decade the state has averaged a dozen deaths a year. By mid-2011, it was obvious to state officials that it might be an above-average year. On June 23, the 11th death was recorded, compared with just four by that point the previous year.

Gladhill and his two buddies set out from Chesapeake Beach for the fish-rich waters near the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant on Feb. 10. It wasn't long before the calm waters became whitecaps whipped by 25-knot winds roaring from the northeast. A 4-foot wave crashed over the stern and capsized the boat, tossing the three men into the water.

"We went down so fast that everything — flares, radios, GPS, cell phones — was gone, like vaporized," recalled Gladhill, who has had extensive military winter-survival training. "We held on to the hull for dear life and prayed we would be blown to shore. I kept thinking, 'I can't believe this is happening. We always prepared for every contingency. We even had man-overboard drills.'"

Guide Dennis Fleming, aboard one of the few boats in the area, saw the accident and raced to the rescue, pulling the freezing men to safety and sending a Mayday call. After treatment for hypothermia, the three men were home in time for dinner.

According to Coast Guard statistics, roughly 90 percent of victims in fatal boating accidents weren't wearing a life jacket. State records show 16 of the 17 victims in 2009 failed to take that simple precaution. More than half of last year's 13 victims were not wearing a life jacket.

Gladhill and his passengers credit their life jackets with keeping their heads above the frigid water until help could arrive.

"We had all the things you were supposed to have in winter, but we made a mistake. We should have pointed the bow of the boat into the chop, said adios and gone home. But we didn't recognize the danger," Gladhill said. "If you're going to do something hazardous — and boating and fishing are hazardous — you've got to be aware every second. You can't be complacent."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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