Ice slicked the decks. Winds whipped the snow into a horizontal blur. And the sea lifted a drifting tugboat into the air, then crashed it down so hard and so close to a rescue boat that the Coast Guard crew members decided they had no choice but to back off.
The tugboat Bay King, out of Norfolk, was 110 feet long. The motor still revved, but there was no propulsion, leaving the craft adrift at midday yesterday, miles offshore and not far from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel at the mouth of the roiling bay.
A 260-foot barge carrying containers of corrosive petroleum products was adrift, too, after breaking away from the tug in the powerful snowstorm. But the immediate problem was the four crew members standing on the deck of the tugboat, waiting for help.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Thomas M. Palmer, part of a five-member rescue crew from the Cape Charles, Va., Coast Guard station, was navigating the 41-foot rescue boat. He sized up the mismatch.
The seas were running at 12 feet but once topped 17, crashing with a boom on the top of the fiber glass pilot house. One of the would-be rescuers had already hit his head on the pilot house ceiling. If that had been the tugboat instead of water, it would have crushed the rescue boat.
"There was no way," he recalled later. "It would have ripped the whole bow off our boat."
The Coast Guard crew backed away about 40 feet and tried to give instructions with the bullhorn mounted on the rescue boat, but the speaker had iced over. They gestured for the tugboat crewmen to get back inside their cabin and, using two-way radios, gave the instructions the rescuers hoped would keep both boats afloat: Jump in the water, one by one, and we'll fish you out.
The water was 38 degrees, but the tugboat crewmen were wearing survival suits to protect them from the elements. As one of the rescuers piloted the boat, the other four slid across the rolling deck. They tossed a line with a flotation marker into the sea and began pulling the crew members aboard.
The first two were relatively easy to bring aboard. The third crew member, who Palmer estimated weighed in excess of 300 pounds, was weak from the cold. He had trouble pulling himself up, and it took all four Coast Guard rescuers working together to pull him onto the boat.
He was in the water for 3 1/2 minutes.
By 12:40 p.m., an hour and a half after the emergency call from the tugboat and half an hour after the two ships nearly collided, all four crew members were aboard the rescue boat and close by a heater, trying to get warm and dry.
The rescue boat, lacking the power to tow either the tugboat or the barge, returned to the Coast Guard station, leaving the two other craft adrift.
Officials fearing a collision with the bridge-tunnel closed it to traffic for an hour, until about 6 p.m. when the barge beached itself less than five miles from Cape Charles. The tug was thought to be beached nearby.
Ray Robbins, who works for Norfolk-based Bay Towing Corp., the company that owns the tugboat, chalked up the incident to nature's fury.
"All we know is it was a bad, bad storm," Robbins said.
Palmer, who later found himself at a loss for words as he described the rescue, wished he'd had a video camera so he could watch it again: the wind, the ice, the heaving seas. An image stuck in his mind from when the 17-foot swell crashed over the boat.
"I looked out the window," he recalled, "and all I saw was whitewater."