By Ray Rivera and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 12, 2006
Philip Merrill, the firebrand newspaper publisher and diplomat known for his devotion to journalism and the environment, remained missing yesterday after his sailboat was found drifting alone Saturday in strong winds in the Chesapeake Bay.
Family members, friends and longtime employees of Merrill's Annapolis-based publishing empire, which includes Washingtonian magazine and the Capital newspaper, held on to dwindling hopes yesterday as searchers looked for him late into the night in the waters about 20 miles south of Annapolis, where his 41-foot sailboat, Merrilly, was found unmanned Saturday evening by a pair of passing Jet Skiers.
Well after dark, Maryland authorities announced that the search would be suspended at midnight and would resume this morning.
Throughout the day, crews from the Coast Guard and the Maryland Natural Resources Police used small boats, helicopters and a C-130 aircraft to search an area roughly 25 miles by 8 miles, said Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Adam Mach.
Merrill, 72, has been an avid sailor since age 7, when he began swabbing boats in exchange for sailing lessons. ESPN sailing analyst Gary Jobson frequently sailed with Merrill and said it wasn't unusual for him to go out alone.
Jobson said Merrill has owned the craft for about two decades and could manage it alone well from its aft cockpit. But as winds surpassed 20 knots Saturday, the boat might have become a "handful," Jobson said. The U.S. Coast Guard issued a small craft advisory for the bay Saturday with 20- to 25-knot winds and 3-foot waves.
"That's pretty strong," Jobson said. "You'd want to err on the side of caution." According to the Coast Guard, Merrill left his waterfront home in Arnold, across the Severn River from Annapolis, about 2:20 p.m. Saturday. Merrill's wife, Ellie, contacted authorities shortly after 6 p.m. because her husband said he would be home by that time, Mach said. The boat was spotted roughly an hour later. Merrill's wallet was inside the craft.
Investigators believe he wasn't wearing a life vest, Mach said, because his wife told them he generally didn't use one.
Mach said yesterday that the length of the search would rest on such factors as estimated survivability based on water temperature. A small craft advisory remained in effect yesterday, and water temperatures hovered around 62 degrees.
The boat was found with no apparent damage, Mach said. "The sails were up, and the motor was on," he said. Investigators said they have found no evidence of foul play.
An account on the Capital's Web site said one of those who apparently boarded the boat found blood "in the back" of the craft. The account said he described the amount of blood as small, but he did not elaborate. In addition, the account in the Capital said the engine was off when the boat was found.
Family members said in a statement yesterday that Merrill "had sailed the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Adriatic Sea and often in adverse conditions without incident. . . . He just couldn't resist a sunny day with the wind at his back."
Merrill, a self-made millionaire, is known as a passionate newsman, most recently with his editorial stands against soaring electricity rates expected to hit Maryland residents this summer. Reese Cleghorn, a longtime friend, said Merrill conducts himself like an old-school newspaper publisher in an era in which grand, boisterous personalities have largely disappeared from the corporate suites of newsrooms.
Cleghorn, former dean of the University of Maryland's College of Journalism, described Merrill as "feisty, blunt, no-nonsense" and "very much a presence."
"In a room you'd know he was a presence. He'd be holding court."
Chuck Conconi, a former Washington Post columnist who later spent 15 years as editor-at-large at Washingtonian, recalled hearing Merrill occasionally screaming over the telephone at his editors in Annapolis and elsewhere.
"He had a temper, no question," Conconi said, "but I don't think anyone who worked for him feared him, and he was never abusive."
Tom Marquardt, executive editor of Merrill's flagship paper, the Capital, described Merrill as fiercely loyal to his employees.
"If he could be blamed for becoming excited about things, it's because he was passionate," Marquardt said, "passionate about journalism, passionate about the Chesapeake Bay, passionate about putting out one of the best newspapers he could."
At home, friends said they know Merrill as a soft touch, devoted to his wife and their children, Douglas, Cathy and Nancy. "I remember one of his daughters telling a story about how their father never went to the grocery store and the one time he does, the checkout clerk asks 'paper or plastic,' and he handed her a credit card," Conconi said. Merrill and his wife throw large parties twice a year at their home. Vice President Cheney and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell were at the most recent one, June 4, said Cleghorn, who also attended. Friends said Merrill relishes belonging to Washington's social and political elites.
In 2000, he gave the Chesapeake Bay Foundation $7.5 million for its new headquarters in Annapolis. The next year, he gave $10 million to U-Md.'s College of Journalism. Both now bear his name.
He explained to the Baltimore Sun in 2001 that his children were grown and educated and, "We've got a place to live. I've got a 41-foot boat, and I don't need an 81-foot boat. It's payback time."
An immigrant's son, Merrill was born in Baltimore, grew up in New York and Connecticut and was managing editor of Cornell University's student newspaper, where he marked up the morning paper with a red pencil and dreamed of working at the New York Times.
After receiving a degree in government, Merrill worked at smaller papers in New Jersey until joining the State Department in 1961, in his first foray into public service.
In 1968, he returned to journalism when he bought a majority share of what was then the Annapolis Evening Capital and began expanding his publishing enterprise. By 1988 he made the list of Washington's 100 richest, developed by the now-defunct Regardie's magazine.
Merrill is chairman of the board of Capital-Gazette Communications Inc., which publishes Washingtonian, the Capital and five other Maryland newspapers.
President Bush appointed him president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States in 2002. His term ended last summer.
Merrill also served as assistant secretary-general of NATO in Brussels and has served on the Department of Defense Policy Board and as counselor to the undersecretary of defense for policy. In 1988, the secretary of defense awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal, the department's highest civilian honor.
Staff writers Adam Bernstein and Martin Weil contributed to this report.