Eighteen members of the George Washington University crew team were pulled from the frigid Potomac yesterday morning after angry waves swamped one racing shell and cracked the other in half.
"I was frightened -- everyone was. But there was no real panic," said water-logged crew captain, Randy Deschenes, 21, whose 65-foot shell, Valley Forge, split in two just off Hains Point. "We were in trying to get past the 14th Street Bridge as quickly as we could, but we didn't make it."
After the boats filled with water and capsized, coach Joe Carcello, a medical student, began shuttling bobbing crew members to shore in the team's Boston Whaler, along with the D.C. Harbor Patrol. All eighteen were taken to George Washington University Hospital, wrapped in sheets and blankets and treated for exposure. All were subsequently released.
The incident occured about 7 a.m. when, the two shells were stroking at half paddle across from National Airport.Coach Carcello spotted whitecaps and long swells and shouted through the bullhorn: "Turn it around!"
But it was too late.
"The swells started breaking over the boats and they filled up with water," said Deschenes. "We were waist deep in water, just sitting in the boat when it turned broadside and waves broke it in half. When a boat fills with just a little water, you loose control. There's not much you can do."
Several minutes later, the second 65-foot racing shell, the Mary Cullen, also filled with water when waves sloshed over the riggers.
"It kicked up out of nowhere," said senior Stephen Weiss, 22, an accounting major rowing six aboard the Mary Cullen. "The coach wanted us to turn and get along the shore near Hains Point. We started to [turn], and after about 20 strokes, the waves broke over the bow and the stern and that was it."
Air pockets in the bow and stern of the Valley Forge kept it afloat as crewmembers clung to their 12-foot spruce oars and bits of wreckage. There is no room aboard racing shells for the life jackets, through the team had rehearsed for such an accident, said Deschenes, who called the water so cold "it took your breath away."
But the air was colder, and those plucked from the churning Potomac shivered on shore as Carcello and the Harbor Patrol ferried the others to land in four trips. "Everyone had faith the coach would get us in," said Deschenes, who credits the coach with the smooth rescue.
Several frightened crew members wanted to swim for shore, but Carcello talked them out of it, according to Deschenes.
Weiss said he was more angry than frightened. Racing shells cost $6,000 to $8,000 apiece and the sinking of the Valley Forge -- which is expected to be salvaged for practice runs but never raced again -- puts a severe crimp in crew team budget. Two $400 oars were also lost down the river.
Nonetheless, lightweight crew which includes two women as coxswains, plans to assemble this morning outside Thompson's Boathouse for an 8:30 a.m. race against Georgetown University. "We've got to get there early to see what equipment we can use," said Deschenes. "Friday morning was supposed to be a warm-up."