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Volume 15, Issue 12 ~ March 22 - March 28, 2007


Springtime Perils of a Beckoning Bay

Chesapeake Country natives don’t need newspapers or books to tell them that spring turns the Bay’s always-fickle weather reckless as a teenager. Newcomers — for whom Chesapeake Bay has always been a magnet — may have taken warning from James Michener’s Chesapeake, the primer for modern-day water-drawn emigrants. But weather watchfulness is a lesson easy to forget when a warm day calls you to the Bay. So it’s a lesson worth repeating — as Margaret Tearman does in this week’s paper.

Her story, “Sailors Down: How March winds taught Southern Maryland teens a lesson,” describes how a wild wind can sneak up on boaters and how it can blow small crafts as easily as if they were sheets of newsprint. Even cautious boaters on the lookout for it. Even in a protected harbor.

The boats upturned by this March wind were small two-person day-sailers. Don’t make the mistake of believing sailboats are more vulnerable. However you go on the water, weather can overpower you.

Bay Weekly’s first edition, back on April 22, 1993, chronicled kayaker Phillipe Voss’ death on the Bay on December 5, 1992, an alluring warm day. December 5 earned itself a worse reputation on the Bay when, in ’93, a fishing boat, El Toro II, foundered in suddenly stormy weather in the Virginia Bay, throwing 23 people into 51-degree water. Their rescue took two hours. Three people died.

In both accidents, the killers were cold shock and hypothermia.

If you’re wearing the right kind of PFD, it can help save you from the gasping response initiated by the shock of cold water. But it can’t keep you warm enough to survive.

Reading Tearman’s dramatic story, you’ll learn a lesson that can help you survive. It’s the 120-Degree Rule. Unless air and water temperatures add up to 120 degrees, the rule cautions, it’s too cold to go into the water without a wet- or drysuit.

The teenage sailors Tearman writes about wore wetsuits and were out of the water in minutes. They emerged no worse for their dunking.

Taken to heart, the 120-degree caution could start a Chesapeake fashion. Instead of the “usual foul weather outfit of sandals, shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt,” Bay Weekly Sporting Life columnist Dennis Doyle’s fishing buddy Mike could don a wetsuit on his cool-weather fishing excursions. Following suit, fishermen, sailors and kayakers all over the Bay would not only be cold-water proof; they’d also never have to wonder what to wear on below 120-degree boating days.

Look how dashingly bicyclists wear their Spandex. Why shouldn’t boaters make a life-saving, form-fitting fashion statement?

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