boat cover illustrationCold Bay Tales

illustration by Betsy Kehne
Tragedies - and the authors' own scare - remind us that even casual boaters must be careful in winter.

By Sandra Martin
and Bill Lambrecht

Midafternoon on Tuesday, December 29, we launch our kayak from the reedy east shore of Chincoteague Bay. The temperature is mild for the time of year, in the mid-40s. The tide is beginning to flow, and mist erases the hard lines of bridge and horizon. We are excited by freedom and eager to taste winter on Chincoteague Island.

As far as sea kayaks go, ours is as sturdy as they come. Big, too: a ruddered, tandem 22'6" Current Designs Libra, with a beam 30 inches at its widest. Never in eight years on the Chesapeake Bay has it flipped or swamped. And many of its hours were earned in winter when the Chesapeake offers its clear water and solitude. But when it comes to scary and tragic incidents, there's always a first time. There may not be a next.

We cast off during a holiday outing, a week away along a sister bay. Tuesday brings a respite from howling winter weather; the kayak outing is unplanned, hatched after lunch on an impulse into the warm air on the edge of a front. We paddle a vague northwesterly course, toward an island and some duck blinds.

Within a score of strokes, we are swept up in fog. In less than two minutes, we can no longer see the island or the duck blinds. Worse, the shore from which we embarked has disappeared.

But the dense, misty fog enveloping us is sensually exciting. We drift, as if in a cloud or a dream, with all sides and the air above us the same dense gray. After a time, it's slightly unsettling, especially because these are unfamiliar waters. We decide that it's time to turn a 180 and return home. So we paddle. And paddle. And paddle.

The fog is thick and damp, touching cap and cheek like light rain. Always it clings, confounding eye and feel. Seabirds are everywhere and nowhere. A loon calls. Does that mean deeper water? Below, the bottom is unfathomable. Geese, ducks and gulls combine their calls.

Our heading is southeast, or at least we think that's the direction we're heading. We are blundering through this gray veil with no markers to guide us. The ebbing current is strong and, we continue to notice, the water is deep. With a tap of the right foot, we adjust the rudder, thinking we will head straight to the shore where the water, as in the Chesapeake Bay, is a foot or less. And then we will follow the shore home, sit by the fire and recount our fog-bound moments adrift.

We realize now that we're digging hard with our paddles, and we can hear ourselves breathing. We adjust course again. And again. But still no land. And instead of shallower, the water is becoming deeper. We stop once more and drift in the current. A 78-inch paddle will not touch bottom.

It's time to face facts: We are lost in the fog. We have been paddling in the wrong direction. But which direction, we do not know. At the fish market the day before, a young clammer who had just come in had warned us about the tide. He said it wasn't the best idea to head out to flounder grounds without a motor because of the tide that rips through Chincoteague channel in its detour from the Atlantic.

But in our kayak we weren't going that far; indeed we had just put in on a whim to paddle around for a few minutes. We weren't going on a journey, something that would prompt us to use some of the caution that we, as newspaper people, lecture others about. We had no compass, no radio, no cell phone, no food, no water and not many layers of clothes. And here we are, drifting to who knows where, with no more control over our fate than the grass, feathers and flotsam drifting in the riptide.


Winter Tragedies

You don't have to look too far or too long ago to see what can happen to people who end up in water in winter. Dec. 5, 1992, was a good day to cross the Chesapeake Bay in his red kayak, Phillipe Voss of Annapolis decided. The wind was gathering and would reach to gusts of 35mph in the coming hours.

On Dec. 8, beach walkers saw a red kayak swamped in the water. On Dec. 9, they found Voss' body.

A year later, also on Dec. 5, one of the Chesapeake's worst modern fishing disasters occurred. On that day, the El Toro II began taking on water four miles off of Point Lookout near the Maryland-Virginia line. When the toll was taken, three people had died from 90 minutes of exposure to the 53-degree water.

Mid-Atlantic winters may be mild compared to elsewhere in the country. But our waters can still be deadly. Hypothermia - plunging body temperature - is generally regarded as cold water's main culprit. In truth, the first danger and often the real killer is cold shock. An involuntary gasp is the body's first reaction. The lungs may fill with water, stealing control over breathing. Strength drains swiftly, and panic can take over.

Experts say you're lucky if you have 15 or 20 minutes. In that time, a paddler must right the boat and summon the strength and leverage to lift his or her dizzy, weak and possibly hyperventilating body back into the vessel. All this water just a few degrees above freezing, amid roiling waves that seem huge when you're at sea level.

"What we're really talking about here is buying time to get back in the boat," said Moulton Avery, kayaker expert on cold shock. "If you capsize and can't get back in the darn boat, your ass is in the water."

Hypothermia sets in when the body can no longer produce mre heat than it is losing and the body's internal temperature drops below 95 degrees. The symptoms:

People venturing onto the water in winter are warned to take every precaution so as not to end up in the water. They're supposed to top heat-holding clothing with dry suits, shoes and hats that cover every inch of the body but the face. Boaters are supposed to leave a trip plan at home and at the marina so, should they fail to return, rescuers will know where and when to look.

But sometimes even professionals succumb to the sea.


Makings of a Disaster

Near us in Chincoteague, another sea outing had gone awry. A day before, Ocean City fishermen Jonny Mitchell and Micah Fooks had headed out in Mitchell's 33-foot boat, Predator, to pull conch traps from the ocean floor.

Mitchell, 28, had earned a reputation as one of the hardest working fishermen along Maryland's coast. And one of its most generous. He'd already pulled his own traps for the season. But in the waning hours of 1998, he'd awakened before dawn and headed into four-foot seas as a favor to Fooks, who hadn't gathered his traps before his boat had broken down.

The pair planned to return that evening, several hours after sundown. But by early the next morning, Predator hadn't return to port. Coast Guard vessels were dispatched, fishing boats joined the search and NASA swept the ocean with surface radar from its facility at Wallops Island, just across Chincoteague Bay from where we drift.


Our Channel Marker

In our kayak, webegin paddling again in the fog, hesitantly, without a clue to direction. In the mist we can make out something protruding from the water: a channel marker emerges. But which one? There are a series of these single red markers leading out to the ocean, and we have no idea which one we see. We paddle for it - seemingly forever - but by now the tide is so strong we are carried beyond it and must paddle back to grab on. We get a line around the marker.

The fog has grown so thick that we can see only a circle around us. As the fog flows, visibility shrinks and stretches, or so it seems. The circle comes as close as 20 feet; it may stretch to 75 feet. The channel marker, Red 4, is the center of our circle of comfort.

In the distance we can hear hammering, and we tell ourselves it's coming from a new motel going up on Chincoteague's Main Street. We can also make out the swish of traffic, perhaps even trucks accelerating across the bridge over Chincoteague Channel. But we can't be certain from which direction the sounds come; they're off starboard and now they're directly in front of us. Sometimes they echo and they even seem to come from behind us.

"In fog, the transmission of sound is good but direction can be hard to determine," retired Coastguardsman and Natural Resources Police officer Mickey Courtney later explained. Moving air can make sound seem to come from different directions.

Louder in this fog than man-made sound is the squawking of sea gulls, which seems to be all around us. We can hear the burbling made by ducks, too, as they skitter down in threes and fours onto the surface. We hear the flap-pop of their wings and their feet dragging when they lift upward.

But the mind plays tricks when we try to pinpoint the direction of civilization. So we focus on the louder noises made by the birds or on the traffic. The hammering has stopped. Then we realize one of our problems: The tide is swinging us back and forth from the end of the line tied around the marker.

Even if we weren't swinging, Courtney warned, we might have fallen into two-dimensional vertigo, where you feel yourself turning. Paddling or steering against the imagined turn, you find yourself going round in circles. We need a compass, or at least a clear message from prevailing wind or waves, to set us right.

On our own without that safety kit that didn't get replaced in the hatch, the question is whether to paddle for it now or wait for the fog to lift. That choice, of course, is complicated by our uncertainty about which way to paddle. We have a sense where the shore lies, but only a sense. If we head in the wrong direction, we dramatically increase our chances for bad trouble.

We are not, as they say, in a life-threatening situation. Unless, of course, the fog persists and we're much farther from civilization than we think. Or, somehow, we end up in the frigid waters of the open bay.

But with darkness fast approaching, we know that our decision time is nigh.


Nearby, Disaster

At this very moment, tragedy is playing out seven miles to the east. In the late afternoon, a fishing boat has discovered the life raft with Jonny Mitchell and Micah Folks. Mitchell is dead, Folks in bad shape; his body temperature has plummeted to 87 degrees.

About noon the day before, Mitchell's vessel, laden with conch pots, took on water at the stern and foundered in a matter of seconds. It remained unclear whether the pots shifted, whether a rogue wave descended on the boat or what might have caused the accident.

Whatever occurred, the two men were landed in the 54-degree water, clinging to Predator's partially submerged bow. They spotted the boat's life raft drifting nearby and, wearing life jackets, plunged into the icy water. They made it to the raft where Mitchell would die.


Decision Time

Our situation in the kayak is trivial in comparison. Unlike the ocean, the water in Chincoteague Bay is relatively calm. We conclude all we need to do is stay afloat and, when the fog lifts, paddle for the shore. We can wait for nightfall and presumably see the lights from the shore. But we're ill-prepared in yet another sense: We hadn't bothered to get a weather report before shoving off.

So we don't know if the fog will stay around, or whether freezing rain or strong winds might arrive - or what might happen.

In the distance we can hear the traffic; close by, the birds. Still, we're afraid to hazard a guess on which way to paddle. Then, off of port, a thin black line appears on the horizon. But as we focus on it, it seems to disappear. It could be the shore or it could be an island in the distance. It could be an illusion of drifting fog.

Now we think we see a thin black line on the port horizon. Darkness is coming, and so is the rain. We decide in an instant to untether and to make a break - toward the thin black line on port.

We paddle vigorously and in a handful of strokes, it seems, we see the outline of marsh grass. Then lights and soon a structure. A little farther on, a gratefully familiar port. The fog has lifted ever so slightly, and now it is thickening again. But that is okay, because we are nearly home; we have made the right decision.

We had ventured, unprepared, into the winter weather. But through a bit of luck, we avoided the chance that took the life of Jonny Mitchell.

Beating the Cold

Outdoors or on the water in winter, guard against hypothermia in these ways:

-Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control

Recovering the LostHoward Shenton
by M.L. Faunce

Howard Shenton spent 'many, many man-hours' looking for victims lost to cold wintery water.

When boats go down or swimmers drown, bringing home the bodies falls upon Maryland's Natural Resources Police. In cold weather, the forces of nature complicate the job. Success in recovering lost bodies on the Bay is due in large part to retired Natural Resources Policeman Howard Shenton of Shady Side.

"It was one of the worst jobs we had to try and recover a drowned person," recalls Shenton. "If a person drowns in the cold winter months, the body is going to stay submerged for a long time."

Shenton understands all too well why recovery is so important. "Until the body is found," he says, "in the minds of the victim's family, there's still hope this person is still alive. So, we spent many, many man-hours out in the Bay dragging around."

Shenton understood from reading Jacques Cousteau's The Silent World that a body would stay on the bottom until buoyed to the surface by internal gases. In the cold of winter, that might be many months. "In looking for a solution," Shenton says, "I rigged a dragline between two boats. I got the idea from the crab potters who, after a storm, would take a line with hooks and work it in a circle between two boats to recover their pots."

Randy Witter, a lieutenant with Natural Resources Police calls this method of using a 50- to 100-foot line dragged between two boats with hooks "longlining."

"The problem is that out on the water there are no landmarks to fix your sight on," Witter explained. Unless you have an eyewitness, locating the site of an accident is nearly impossible.

Other methods are sometimes used in recovery operations. Using scuba divers in the Bay is less efficient because of visibility problems, especially during the warmer months. Trained dogs, another recovery tool, can sniff out cadavers even under water.

Natural Resources Police keep no statistics on recovery efforts, but Witter said boating accidents account for a minority. Most deaths, he said, are a result of swimming accidents and suicides. Yet of the four persons lost since December, 1998, at least two were boaters: a kayaker and a duck hunter.

If those accidents had occurred in July, Witter reflected, the boaters might have been able to swim to shore. Now, with the Bay averaging low 40s and the shallower areas even colder, chance of survival is cut drastically. At 39 degrees or so, loss of consciousness may occur in as little as five to 10 minutes.

Time has not dimmed Howard Shenton's memory of "getting a telephone call at 2 or 3am in a stormy time and somebody hadn't returned to home port."

Some of those calls had happy endings. One pitch black night he searched for a party missing at the mouth of South River. Throwing the search light around, the engine idling, he heard somebody yell, "help," interspersing the words with "God bless you."

Shenton said to himself, "I know Louis Goldstein isn't out there," and set about rescuing the two couples who much earlier had set out in a 16-foot outboard motor boat from Riva for dinner at Chesapeake Beach, then ran into trouble on the return trip.

"They had been in the water a long time, and all they had was seat cushions," said Shenton, who recalls being "blessed" many times that night. As were the rescued men and women.

After all, Witter reminds us, "no one sets out in a boat anticipating to capsize."

| Issue 2 |

VolumeVII Number 2
January 14-20, 1999
New Bay Times
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