A field trip on Chesapeake Bay came to a sudden stop after an excursion boat carrying 23 people struck a charted object and sank near Bloodsworth Island off Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The 40-foot Karen N was carrying 14 fourth-grade students along with teachers and parent chaperones when it went down at 1744 on June 1. Local crabbers who heard the vessel’s mayday rescued the group from the vessel’s canopy less than an hour after their distress call. The captain and several passengers were injured.
The Coast Guard said Karen N was traveling in a prohibited area off Bloodsworth Island’s western shore when the incident occurred. The uninhabited island is a former naval gunnery range, and nearby Naval Air Station Patuxent River bars people from visiting.
“It’s prohibited because of all the obstructions in the area as marked on the navigation charts,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer David Marin, who is stationed in Baltimore. “It was used for testing ammunition and they have some tanks, barges and possibly some unexploded ordnance.”
The weather was sunny at the time of the incident, which remains under investigation. Marin declined to comment on a possible cause.
The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation owns the 20-year-old, single-chine deadrise workboat and uses it for ecological excursions around the bay. A spokesman said the foundation was cooperating with the Coast Guard.
Karen N was preparing to head back to land for dinner when the vessel struck the sunken object amidships toward the stern, said Candy Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Natural Resources Police. The boat sank stern-first in a matter of minutes and came to rest in about 8 feet of water.
The students, teachers and crew on board — all wearing life jackets — climbed onto Karen N’s canopy near the surface of the water. The captain, who suffered head and chest injuries after the boat struck the submerged object, issued an urgent call over VHF radio just before the vessel went down.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” the captain said. “This is the motor vessel Karen N. We have sunk off of Bloodsworth Island.”
Communications ceased after the initial message. However, the vessel’s digital selective calling radio was linked to its GPS and registered with the marine mobile service identity. As a result, the captain’s one-touch distress signal alerted authorities to the boat’s location.
“When he keyed the mayday, we knew exactly where he was,” Thompson said. “When you’re out there in the Lower Bay and there isn’t much around, knowing exactly where they were was worth its weight in gold.”
Local crabbers Jeremy and Daniel Shockley heard the mayday call and sped toward the sunken vessel’s location in their 36-foot fishing vessel Lady Ka-Kee. The Coast Guard, the Natural Resources Police and local authorities also responded.
Lady Ka-Kee arrived first at 1839 and took everyone on board. After navigating around the obstructions, the vessel returned to shore near Wingate, Md., where ambulance crews were waiting. At least five people were transported to local hospitals. The captain was airlifted to a trauma center, Thompson said.
Smith Brothers of Galesville, Md., performed the salvage on Karen N. With its crane barge J. Edward, Smith Brothers crews hooked slings around the sunken boat, lifted it out of the water and onto the barge deck, Jeff Smith, company president and owner, said in an email. Afterward, Smith Brothers transported the boat to shore for repairs.