A powerboat circling at high speed with no one aboard is one of the eeriest sights you can see on the water. Thankfully, when it happened on the Bay over the weekend, everyone escaped from the situation unharmed.
The tense moments unfolded just outside the Magothy River on Saturday afternoon, an unseasonably warm day with highs reaching 72 degrees. The Coast Guard tells us that the operator of a 23-foot NauticStar powerboat fell overboard and was rescued by a good Samaritan in the area. Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) took the rescued boater safely aboard a police boat.
The 41-year-old man told police he was coming out of the Magothy when he swerved to avoid a crab pot marker, then lost his balance and fell overboard.
The Nautilus was unmanned and was still circling near Sandy Point at the mouth of the Magothy. Fire department crews arrived by boat and Coast Guard Sector Maryland responded with a 45-foot Response Boat-Medium.
Woodland Beach Fire Department’s Fireboat 19 made two attempts to intentionally foul the propeller but it didn’t work. Then Fireboat 2 tried once. After the three unsuccessful attempts to foul the prop, the Coast Guard stepped in to maneuver alongside the circling boat. A Coast Guard spokesperson tells us, “Station Annapolis shouldered the vessel and safely put over a Coast Guard member who throttled down and removed the key.”
Woodland Beach VFD captured this video of the Coast Guard vessel chasing down the unmanned boat:
The USCG crewmember who boarded the moving boat wasn’t injured. The Coast Guard was able to contact the good Samaritan who picked up the boat’s operator to confirm they suffered no injuries either, and no other boaters were unaccounted for.
Boarding a circling boat to stop it takes specialized training, as we learned when we reported an even more harrowing incident near Bethany and Rehoboth beaches in 2019. The powerboat in that case was towing a tube with two children in it when the operator was thrown overboard.
Officers with the Delaware Fish & Wildlife Natural Resources Police receive extensive boat-operating training, which includes a Tactical Boat Operators Course that focuses on maneuvering in close quarters at high speeds. That training was critical in getting the boat under control and rescuing the boat operator and children.
Wearing your boat’s engine kill switch lanyard is the chief way to prevent runaway boat accidents. According to the Coast Guard’s Safety Division, dozens of Americans are injured or killed every year in accidents that an engine cut-off switch could have prevented, including 172 propeller strike accidents nationwide in 2019 alone. Those accidents resulted in 35 deaths and 155 injuries. Many more people were injured in other runaway boat accidents such as boats striking people in the water and boat-on-boat collisions.
NRP says this incident is still under investigation.
-Meg Walburn Viviano