OCEAN CITY — A rented pontoon boat capsized near the Route 50 bridge last Thursday sending all 15 passengers into the swirling water.
Around 1 p.m. on Aug. 1, Maryland Natural Resources Police (NRP) received a call for a capsized pontoon boat near the Route 50 Bridge. Connor Tressler, 19, of Dauphin, Pa., was one of 15 occupants on the rented pontoon along with three family members, including his mother, two brothers and friends.
Tressler said the group had rented the pontoon boat and enjoyed an afternoon on the water before running aground just north of the Route 50 Bridge on their way back to the rental operation on Talbot Street. The boat was reportedly rated for 16 passengers and was carrying 15, all of whom ended up in the water.
“We had 15 people on board, which was probably way too many,” he said. “There was also a weight limitation and we were probably over that by 400 or 500 pounds. My younger brother and his three friends were with us and the lightest one of them is 220 pounds. The rental company didn’t weigh us or caution us we were too heavy. They just sent us on our way.”
Tressler said pontoon ran aground on a sandbar near the bridge, and per the rental company’s instructions, some got into the water and pushed it off before getting back in. By then, the rented pontoon was drifting parallel to the bridge and caught in the swirling current in that area. Tressler said the pontoon boat was sluggish and difficult to operate in the strong current with 15 people on board and just a 90-horsepower motor and drifted into the bridge pilings east of the channel.
“We were two minutes from returning the boat to the rental company,” he said. “Once we got parallel to the bridge, there was no righting it. It was like an old car with no power steering.”
Complicating the situation was another boat in the area attempting to get around the distressed pontoon boat which did not help, but rather likely contributed to the incident.
“The operator of the other boat was bearing down on us while we were adrift and just laid on his horn the whole time,” he said. “My understanding is there is an unwritten rule on the water to help other vessels in distress, but that didn’t happen in this case.”
When the pontoon boat hit the bridge, it immediately began to take on water on one side, causing the opposite side to essentially lift out of the water. It eventually capsized sending all 15 occupants into the water. Tressler said all 15 occupants were trapped beneath the pontoon boat for a short time briefly after it capsized.
Tressler said there were life jackets on board, but most weren’t wearing them, which could have been a blessing in this case.
“I think if any or all of us were wearing life jackets, we might not have been able to dive down to get out from under the capsized boat,” he said. “It’s just like seat belts. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they save lives, but there are certain situations in which they don’t.”
Tressler said in the confusion, he and others attempted to take a head count to make sure all were accounted for a safely out from beneath the capsized boat. He also said a construction worker on the bridge witnessed the incident, called down to find out how many were on board and attempted to take a head count from his lofty position.
By now, the 15 victims were scattered in the water and drifting south of the Route 50 bridge, with the exception of his mother, who stayed with the capsized vessel. The Coast Guard and NRP responded and began plucking victims from the water. However, must were rescued by other private boats in the area, according to Tressler. Although all were clearly shaken up and distraught, no major injuries were reported. One victim was transported to Atlantic General Hospital for treatment of minor injuries and was released. None of the other passengers required medical attention.
Tressler said he and the others on the boat rented the pontoon with some basic knowledge of the water and the operation of a pontoon boat, mostly from experiences on a calm lake at home in Pennsylvania, but were unprepared for the conditions that resulted in the incident last Thursday. He said the rental company did tell them how to get off a sandbar, but essentially just handed them the keys and let them go out with little or no other instruction. He said the situation could have had a disastrous ending.
“The truth is somebody should have died,” he said. “The fact that somebody didn’t is a blessing.”