Irascible Phil Merrill's final spin

Lost at sea — three words with a somber, final ring, and a benediction for Philip Merrill, the irascible, charming publisher whose Washingtonian magazine became an example of how successful a city magazine could be.

Merrill gave me sound (and unwelcome) career advice more than once (“You’re nuts” is not untypical), but the “mystery” of his death is mainly incomplete reporting of his last solo sail.

Sailing is an avocation to many, many Hill residents and not a few Hill staffers; many have been questioning how Merrill, a healthy, strong and experienced sailor, sailing a well-equipped, modern, 41-foot sloop (the Bristol 41) could have come to grief on a part of the Chesapeake Bay he knew like the back of his hand — on a short spin.

But talking to local experts, like America’s Cup navigator and tactician Gary Jobson of Annapolis, SpinSheet magazine founder and editor Dave Gendell of Annapolis and professional boat captain Dave Dunigan of Gibson Island, Md., the facts lead to inevitable conclusions:

• Sailing alone with modern devices — like self-steering or autopilot — creates new dangers. Merrill’s sloop, designed by sail maker and yachting pioneer Ted Hood, was equipped with electric autopilot, a device he doubtless used — especially if he ventured out of the boat’s center cockpit to take down sail, reef or make an on-deck adjustment.

• If Merrill fell overboard, the autopilot would have kept the boat sailing on, contrary to the natural tendency of modern sailboats to head up into the wind and stall there. If the boat had stopped, Merrill may have had a chance to get back onboard.

• That alone explains how the boat would have continued to sail itself far down the Bay to Plum Point, where it was eventually found, in good order, with sails up. Merrill found himself in the water without a life jacket or other aid as the boat sped on, the sailor’s worst nightmare.

Jobson, a legend for his career with Ted Turner on America’s Cup racer Courageous and ocean racer Tenacious, told The Hill, “It was blowing pretty hard — the wind was northwest, which meant it was shifting. The center cockpit on that boat is pretty high; he could have been hit by the boom. He could have gone on deck to adjust a sail.”

Gendell, whose employee retrieved the boat, said he was not sure whether the automatic pilot was on, “but that makes sense.” 

And Dunigan, who has often delivered large yachts with small crews, said, “He was probably taking a leak.” That simple act, Coast Guard rescue workers confirm, is the cause of many drownings.

The sobering lesson is that the well-loved and romanced Chesapeake, a magnet for thousands of sailors and would-bes from Washington, is a remorseless trap for the unwary, for the self-confident — for exactly the kind of man who is likely find his challenge and his meaning there.

Lesson in promises

The two acknowledged leaders in the city’s mayoral race, City Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp and Ward 4 Councilman Adrian Fenty, both Democrats, have chosen education as a rhetorical battlefield.

It’s a safe and nearly fact-free arena. The executive, under the D.C. charter, has little say over the schools, which are run by a school board and a professional superintendent so that politicians are free to promise with no danger. Someone else will always be to blame.

Yet both are determined to win the votes of middle-class parents, black and white. These parents are in a state near despair over the schools, and the proof is that a quarter of D.C.’s 62,000 students have fled the system to take their chances with publicly funded but autonomous charter schools.

So what is the difference between the two?

Beneath all the hot air about “vision,” Fenty believes that massive amounts of money can solve many of the schools’ problems. He and council chairman candidate Kathy Patterson (D) evolved a plan to spend $100 million a year on bricks-and-mortar-type repairs and upgrades to the schools’ physical plants. In addition, he wants to install a new layer of school management, a deputy mayor for education.

The third leg of his plan is to reduce dropout rates by offering more “career and technical” programs (read vocational). And another costly promise: free (“universal” is the word) early childhood education for 3- and 4-year-olds, a program sure to be popular with young parents now struggling with two jobs and daycare.

Cropp’s plan is more complicated — call it persuasion rather than cash. She shares with Fenty the free-pre-K plan. She plans to create a “principals academy” to train teachers in best practices gleaned nationwide.

She also wants to strengthen vocational and “alternate” (whatever that means) education aimed at those not bound for college. She wants to “strengthen” libraries, allow the mayor to take over failing schools and guarantee a four-year term for the superintendent, who would be elevated to a Cabinet post. “Incentives for teachers” clearly means recruitment and bigger paychecks.

Lastly, Cropp claims she will “help parents hold schools accountable,” a purely rhetorical statement.

Both politicians face big hurdles, not the least the fact that the charter school system is at war with DCPS for resources — and is winning. Then, too, both Cropp and Fenty have no power to implement their big plans without legal changes to the city code, plus council and voter approval — and much much time.

Let there be cameras

Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6B member Neil Glick has a reaction to the much-publicized June 3 jailbreak, in which two violent felons, both murder suspects, jumped out of a window in the warden’s office. Glick says the Department of Corrections should spend more time protecting the jail’s neighbors.

“I was surprised to learn that the D.C. jail lacks several basic features,” Glick said, noting that the jail has no perimeter cameras and no system of notifying the nearby community that inmates may be loose.

But an interview with Department of Corrections Director Devon Brown brought more surprises, like the facts that only one of the 699 employees at the jail is under 40 (average age is 51) and that many of them are overweight and out of shape.

“Could these men and women corral a fleeing escapee?” Glick asks. He’s demanding that the jail set up an early-alert system to warn the neighbors of trouble at the facility. Glick, who lives four blocks from the jail, says cameras on 19th Street S.E. and at Congressional Cemetery “are an absolute security must.”


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