Tragedy Prompts Warning

Avoid Danger While Swimming off the Boat

By Cheryl Costello

It’s a blissful summer pastime for many on the Chesapeake Bay: take the boat out for a cruise, drop anchor in a river or cove and go for a swim off the stern.

But swimming off the boat is far riskier than many people realize—and some key safety precautions could make the difference between a fun afternoon and an awful outcome. A tragic case on the Potomac River earlier this month underscores how quickly a simple swim can become dangerous.

Bay Bulletin spoke to the two boating instructors that saved a life in the Potomac incident, who say the experience has changed the way they boat. 

Captains Jen Fritz and Kelli Gutierrez teach courses at the Annapolis School of Seamanship, and this week they’re back with a renewed interest in teaching about safety.

They are best friends who now share a common heartache. They live on Swan Creek on the Potomac River in Charles County, where Maryland Natural Resources Police say two swimmers, a 43-year-old father and 10-year-old son, drowned the evening of Aug. 1.

Gutierrez was able to pull a 12-year-old girl to safety but they arrived after the father and son were already missing.

“It would have been awesome to have gotten all three. But that’s where I’m kind of stuck,” Gutierrez says. 

Fritz agrees. “We both are. We struggle with what we didn’t do.”

In the Potomac River, conditions can be unpredictable.

“I think the current probably caused their exhaustion,” Gutierrez says.

That’s why the captains teach boaters to keep a throwable flotation device handy.

“We have a line attached here that is a floatable, polypropylene line so that you can see it in the water. If they don’t actually catch the throwable they can grab onto the line and pull it close to them,” Fritz says, as she instructs a group of young people learning boat operation basics at Annapolis School of Seamanship. 

On the evening of the Potomac tragedy, Fritz and Gutierrez first noticed the 23-foot Sea Ray bowrider with a mom and toddler on it, drifting away from the shoreline, while the woman’s husband and two older kids struggled in the water.

“She was helplessly drifting away with a small child on board,” Gutierrez says. She then called her husband to help the woman anchor while the captains scanned the water for the missing swimmers.

They say the family was using a small mushroom anchor not suited for larger vessels.

“This is typically used for jet skis. A lot of times boats, when they go to beaches and whatnot, they can use this as a stern anchor when they have a front anchor out to keep the boat from spinning on its front anchor. It’s not very heavy; it doesn’t dig into the seabed,” Gutierrez explains. A boat the size of the family’s Sea Ray should be held down with something like a Danforth anchor, she says. “You’ll see the reason there’s a chain is it helps it weigh down as you’re dragging away, and then as it lifts up it’s able to dig into the ground. At that point, you can set your anchor there.”

As the two captains neared the boat, the panicked mother aboard was making gestures that seemed like anger rather than a call for help. Fritz says if you’re in distress, the best way to communicate is to make a clear overhead signal.

“First and foremost, simple, it doesn’t require anything on your vessel. Wave your hands over your head, crossing them at the top.”

And use flares, a horn, or a whistle. Announce Mayday on Channel 16 on your radio.

Fritz says the father and two kids went swimming without their life jackets, which is often the case for many of us jumping in. 

“It’s very common for people to take their life jackets off to swim. And I will be forever changed. I don’t have an age limit anymore. If anyone is going to get off my boat and swim, they’re going to wear a life jacket,” says Fritz.

Fritz and Gutierrez will continue running their boating school, Nauti Boat Academy, and teaching at Annapolis School of Seamanship, our sister company, so more people understand how to react when faced with quick-thinking scenarios.

“At least one other person [besides the boat operator] should be able to assist in an emergency,” Gutierrez says.

Fritz echoes, “I think you can reduce your panic because you can say to yourself, ‘I know how to do this.’”

For the two captains, teaching safety steps to others helps with the emotion of witnessing and acting as rescuers in a real-life boating tragedy.