Dozens of Recreational Boats Use Alternate Channel to Pass Collapsed Key Bridge for First Time

Chuck and JoAnn Anderika onboard their sailboat pass the Key Bridge wreckage through a temporary channel just opened to recreational boaters to enter or leave Baltimore’s harbor, Tuesday. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

BALTIMORE (The Baltimore Sun/TNS) — Chuck and JoAnn Anderika were up before dawn Tuesday to bring their sailboat back home.

The Anderikas set out around 6 a.m. from Solomons Island, headed for Baltimore. The couple wanted to ensure they made it in time to take advantage of a one-hour window for recreational boats to pass by the wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge and into the harbor, where they have a slip.

“We were afraid to miss it,” Chuck Anderika said.

The Anderikas’ boat was among nearly two dozen to pass the Key Bridge Tuesday evening using an alternate channel that had previously been accessible only to commercially essential vessels and those helping to clear the wreckage around the bridge. Recreational boats had been unable to enter or exit the harbor since the container ship Dali struck the bridge on March 26, sending it into the Patapsco River. Six construction workers died in the collapse, which has also hampered traffic in and out of the Port of Baltimore.

Tuesday’s opening for recreational boats was a one-time trial run, for now. Sailboats, yachts and other vessels were allowed to travel out of the harbor between 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m., and into it between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. Seventeen recreational boats passed through the Sollers Point Alternate Channel in the morning, and 23 used the channel in the evening, according to the Key Bridge Response Unified Command.

Though the Coast Guard has not announced another opportunity for recreational boats to come and go, local marinas are hoping they will. Tuesday’s passage came after a meeting between Unified Command and marina leaders, who explained the impact of a closed harbor on their business.

“There’s a whole ecosystem built around the marinas,” said Paul Sanett, the chief commercial officer for Oasis Marinas, which manages nearly half of Baltimore’s boat slips. “There’s restaurants, there’s bars, there’s shops.”

For Wayne Easton, a marina is home. Easton is the dockmaster at Anchorage Marina in Canton, where he also lives aboard a boat.

Tuesday evening, he headed toward the Key Bridge site, a 5-mile trip by water from Canton, to greet the Anderikas and other returning Anchorage Marina slip-holders. The day was clear and bright, but windy. Occasionally choppy water grew choppier as boats streamed past the bridge shortly after 6 p.m., leaving waves in their wake.

There were power boats, yachts and a catamaran. There were at least three sailboats, including the Nanny Kay, which the Anderikas brought back to Baltimore after spending the winter in Florida. The couple was in Hampton, Virginia, making their way back up the Atlantic coast, when they heard the channel would be open on Tuesday. They decided to high-tail back to Baltimore, powering through three 10-hour days of travel in a row.

“Usually we would have taken four or five easy days,” said Chuck, “but all of a sudden it was, Tuesday you need to be here at 6.”

The Anderikas, who live in Pennsylvania but spend many of their summer weekends boating around Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, made it to the bridge by 1 p.m. on Tuesday, hours before the channel was slated to open to recreational traffic.

They weren’t the only ones to get there early. George Robertson, another Anchorage Marina customer, arrived around 3 p.m. on his Marine Trader trawler, Graceful. Robertson’s boat had been docked at Herrington Harbour in southern Anne Arundel County. He had been planning to bring it back to Baltimore the day of the collapse.

Passing through the channel, so close to the ruins of the bridge, was a surreal experience.

“I followed it everyday online,” Robertson said of the collapse, “but to see it at that point, it was worse than I thought. I can’t believe it came down so easy.”

“It was devastating,” said JoAnn Anderika. The trip to the bridge from Solomons Island was an unnervingly quiet one, absent the ship traffic that would normally be traveling to and from the port.

At the bridge the Anderikas found a busier scene. Boaters lined up their vessels as they waited to enter the channel. Once on the other side, the line became a hodgepodge, with boats racing toward a long-awaited homecoming.

Easton watched for boats he recognized as they passed through. He waved as Robertson’s trawler approached: “Hey George! Welcome home.”

Marinas in Baltimore have banded together to advocate for more frequent openings of the channel. Many boaters store their vehicles on land during the winter, often in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, and bring them back to the harbor in April.

The Army Corps of Engineers hopes to restore access to the port by the end of May. Sanett, the chief commercial officer at Oasis Marinas, said the Coast Guard has been sympathetic to the strain on marinas in the meantime. He estimated the local marina industry would lose $1 million a month under the current conditions, a figure that doesn’t include the ancillary effects of reduced traffic at waterfront bars, restaurants and shops.

“This is not just a bunch of wealthy people wanting to play with their yachts in Baltimore harbor,” Sanett said. “When the bridge came down, there was a huge impact.”

Baltimore marinas plan to reach out to city, state and federal elected officials to see what opportunities exist for financial relief.

“This is a COVID-like event for marinas, unfortunately,” Sanett said. “The big focus has been on the Port of Baltimore to date, and rightly so. There’s nothing yet for marina owners and other businesses.”

Sanett said Key Bridge salvage workers want to avoid rubberneckers and joy riders going to peer at the wreckage, but they recognized the implications of a closed harbor. Representatives for the Unified Command did not respond Wednesday to questions about future channel openings.

“They listened,” Sanett said. “We’re hopeful it will happen again.”

In the meantime, Robertson said he and his boat will be staying put, for now, after the trip back to Baltimore.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

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