The Drowning Lady in Annapolis Harbor

Gusto, our Rhodes 41 sloop

It was a dark and stormy night in Annapolis Harbor in 1975. Gene and I had returned to our Pearson Rhodes 41 sloop, Gusto, after a day at the U.S. Sailboat Show. The foul October weather drove us back to our boat to change into dry clothes and warm up for the night. Gene lit our little charcoal fireplace and we sipped bourbon looking at a stack of shiny brochures from the show. We had no idea there was a woman in a capsized dinghy in Annapolis Harbor.

We listened to the howling wind and were grateful to be down below and snug and warm. All of a sudden we thought we heard what sounded like a woman calling for help. We opened the hatch and were stunned to see a frantic woman in the water, clinging to an overturned dinghy calling “Help, anyone, help”. She had capsized in Annapolis Harbor.

Gene quickly launched our small dinghy/sailing pram and went after her. I called the U.S. Coast Guard for help on the VHF radio. I frantically explained there was a drowning lady in Annapolis Harbor and my husband had gone out to rescue her. I told them we were one of many sailboats anchored off the football field and the Coastie said they were on their way. “Look for our bright blue flashing lights,” he said.

Waiting for the Coast Guard

I turned on every light we had and waited in the cockpit against the cabin house entombed in my foul weather gear for protection from the rain. Soon I lost sight of Gene in the dinghy and there wasn’t another soul out on the water. I worried about him knowing he was in a small dinghy with only two oars. Peering through the pelting rain I looked for those bright blue lights.

I left part of the hatch open so I could hear the VHF. It was quiet until cracking over the radio I heard a woman talking to the Coast Guard. She explained she was worried and reported that her husband was long overdue from returning to their boat in the harbor from the boat show. She was afraid he might have capsized.

The Coastie told her not to worry because her husband was helping a woman in the water clinging to an overturned dinghy.

I couldn’t believe what I heard. So I scrambled below and got back on the radio to the Coast Guard. “It’s my husband, not hers, who is saving the drowning lady in Annapolis Harbor” I sputtered.

Meanwhile, poor Gene was soaking wet and struggling to find a woman and overturned dinghy. When he got close to her she didn’t want to let go of her dinghy. “I had to convince her I couldn’t maneuver our dinghy with the weight of her dinghy dragging behind. She reluctantly let it drift away, handed me her oars, and hung onto the stern of our dinghy” he said.

Amazingly, Stieg, a friend of ours from Charleston, SC (also attending the sailboat show) was out on the bow of Cumshaw, his Pearson Countess, a 44-foot moto sailor. He was checking his anchor when Gene shouted and got his attention. When he saw his predicament Stig rushed to drop a boarding ladder so the woman in the water could climb safely aboard his boat. He then called the Coast Guard describing where he was anchored so they could pick up the drowning lady, which we refer to her as, and return her to her boat in the harbor.

We learned later that night the other woman’s husband who was missing was safe and sound.

Still waiting in the cockpit I saw the bright blue lights pass me by, and then Gene appeared in the distance. He struggled rowing against the wind and current and I was there to catch his line and set up our hoisting line for the dinghy. We stow it in chocks on top of the cabin house. Unfortunately as we worked to muscle the hard dinghy up the wind caught the halyard and it slipped off; and the dinghy went sailing overboard. 

It all happened so fast we were stunned.

I got back on the radio imploring “Any boat in Annapolis Harbor, please look for a white dinghy we just lost overboard.”

Within minutes the captain of the Harvey Gamage, a 131-foot gaff-rigged schooner, responded, “I just launched our tender and we’ll look for it.”  And sure enough, 10 minutes we saw the tender with our little dinghy trailing behind. A crewman handed us the painter and we very carefully hoisted it back aboard.  What a night! 

Months later we were in the Bahamas snugly at anchor at Royal Island. Another cruising sailor rowed by and we visited a while.  When he saw Gusto on our stern he said, “Were you at the Annapolis Sailboat Show making frantic calls to the Coast Guard about a drowning lady in Annapolis Harbor? I remember hearing you.”  

“Yes, indeed, that was me.”

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