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The Water’s Tempting, But Be Careful

Charlie Frend (left) and Brad Stemcosky talk about their ordeal in the Potomac
Joel McCord
Charlie Frend (left) and Brad Stemcosky talk about their ordeal in the Potomac
Charlie Frend (left) and Brad Stemcosky talk about their ordeal in the Potomac
Credit Joel McCord
Charlie Frend (left) and Brad Stemcosky talk about their ordeal in the Potomac

Just because the recent unseasonably warm temperatures might lure you to the water, the Maryland Natural Resources Police and the Coast Guard warn you better be careful. 

They point to the case of Brad Stemcosky and Charlie Frend, two buddies who went fishing on a beautiful December day and wound up in the emergency room at St. Mary’s Medstar Hospital, suffering from hypothermia.

And they only reason they survived, says Coast Guard Commander Michael Keane, was they were prepared.

The story goes like this.

Stemcosky and Frend set out December 20 from Piney Point Marina on the Potomac in St. Mary’s County for the last day of Maryland’s "catch and keep" rockfish season. Winds and seas were calm, the sun was shining and temperatures reached into the 60s, maybe even 70. But after four hours or so they hadn’t caught anything, the sun was going down and they headed for home.

Soon, the wind picked up and the seas got choppy, two foot waves with white caps. Stemcosky put the bow of the 15-foot boat into the wind, into the waves and moved slowly, taking some splash over the bow. Then the wind shifted, pushing more water over the starboard rail of the boat and the motor quit. And that was one too many things going wrong at the same time, he said.

"We got swamped from the rear and it went down quick."

Fortunately, they both were wearing life vests that inflated automatically when they hit the water. And Stemcosky had a water proof handheld radio to call for help.

He and Frend were at a Coast Guard and Maryland Natural Resources Police news conference Wednesday to underscore the need for boating safety.

"Just as you cannot put on a seatbelt during a car accident; you cannot put on a life jacket during a boating accident," Keane said.

The two were in 50-degree water for more than an hour. Stemcosky said he began losing some dexterity in his hands, his legs hurt and when he tried to swim for shore he made very little progress. There were times when he started thinking the worst.

"As the time goes on in the dark, you find yourself, your mind wants to wander," he said. "It wants to think the worst, but you gotta stay calm and you gotta have the drive to survive."

Frend, on the other hand, said he "really didn’t have any doubt" they would be rescued. 

Finally, a Maryland State Police helicopter appeared overhead. Suzanne Peake-Marsh, one of the pilots, said they saw a flash through their night vision goggles, but they "didn’t really know for sure" if it was Semcosky and Frend because they "weren’t sure we had the right coordinates."

Then they heard Stemcosky on the radio shouting for them to come back.

They circled around "and got the tracker beam out and put it on them," Peake-Marsh said. They were preparing to hoist the two into the chopper when they heard a St. Mary’s County Volunteer fire and rescue boat was on the way.

Aaron Canter, a captain on that boat, said they "pretty much were just looking for that spotlight."

They had heard on the radio the men were in the river, near Ragged Point on the Virginia side, so they "just shot across right almost to them and we were able to find them from there."

The firefighters hauled Stemcosky and Frend aboard, covered them with coats to warm them up and hustled them to shore and the hospital.

Col. Ken Ziegler, of Maryland’s Natural Resources Police, said other boaters should take a lesson from those two and wear life vests.

Copyright 2015 WYPR - 88.1 FM Baltimore

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Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.