The sun was high, the wind was relatively calm, and my brand-new wife Cecelia (Cee) and I were putter-ing smartly along in High Falutin' Floozie after topping off at James Creek Marina on the Anacostia River near Washington, D.C. It was a beautiful summer Saturday, so we decided to take a short cruise, sip a few cool ones and catch a few rays. What we had forgotten was that on just such a summer Saturday the upper Potomac around Hains Point was likely to be an absolute madhouse.
As we left the marina, Cee and I settled in for an enjoyable ride. As I recall, we watched the grand old Wilson Line tour boat George Washington lumber down the Washington Channel and then struggled to make her turn into the Potomac. Turning the enormously beamy tour boat in such a narrow channel was no mean feat. As most Potomac River rats know (and especially this one, due to an earlier prop-shattering experience), there is serious shoal water just outside the channel markers between Hains Point and the northern end of runway 19 at the Reagan National Airport on the Virginia side of the river. At low tide, there is less than two feet of water within 30 yards of the big center-channel buoy.
We watched as George Washington's captain cranked the wheel furiously to port as he powered up to near full ahead on the starboard shaft to make the turn. (No bow thrusters here.) This process kicked up a gigantic wake, which fanned out across the entire channel and sent beautiful foaming white curls of water spreading out from the ship's fantail up the Washington Channel and across the river at the tip of Hains Point. In salute, and to prevent any spillage of good beer, Cee and I raised our cool ones high as we crossed the wake to continue our journey northward, in the opposite direction of the George Washington.
But then the calmness of the afternoon was shattered with the throaty baritone growl of a pair of fully throttled open headers of a big-block Chevy engine. Headed southbound from out of the Potomac River channel came the glistening blur of a beautiful, blue and gold metal-flaked Donzi, running full-tilt toward the stern of the laboring George Washington. At its helm was a widely grinning young man, the very picture of a modern maritime daredevil, with the backwards baseball cap, open Hawaiian shirt (chest hairs a-showin') and NASCAR shades. His equipage consisted of a beer-drinking buddy and a pretty bikini-clad young lady, whose long blond hair pointed straight behind her as it blew in the wind, flowing almost over the boat's transom.
Now, having only recently left behind this stage of meatheadedness myself (the new wife made me get rid of the go-fast), I knew immediately what he intended to do: He was going to jump the wake of the George Washington. But I also knew at once from my previous youthful and extremely stupid experiences that this was a formula for disaster, since his intended angle-of-attack was nowhere near perpendicular to the wake. In fact, at that speed, this angle would cause the boat to "ramp up" the wake and rotate to one side as it crossed over. This was going to be bad.
Cee heard and saw the Donzi, too. "That nut is not going to try to jump that wake, is he?" she asked.
"Yup," I said, as I goosed the throttle to get out of the way. "Hope he makes it!"
He didn't. And it was the damnedest and dumbest thing I ever saw. The Donzi hit the wake and arced up, rising more than 15 feet out of the water. As it did so, it rotated a full 360 degrees along its
longitudinal axis. Terrified, Cee and I watched as the three occupants fell out of the inverted cockpit like so many eggs out of an upside-down carton--plink, plunk, splosh--and landed within 10 yards of our boat.
"Oh -----!" I said. "Cee, grab the cushions and some life vests to throw!" I spun the wheel to port to begin a rescue attempt. "We gotta get to them fast . . . if they make it!"
Meanwhile, the driverless Donzi had taken on a life of its own. It made a perfect three-point landing on the other side of the wake and then, still running with the throttle wide open, began spinning in a full-speed counter-clockwise circle in the middle of the channel between Hains Point, the northern tip of Bolling Air Force Base and Fort McNair. This was not good--the channel was full of sailboats, powerboats, puttering dinghies and everything else that could float. I called the D.C. Harbor Patrol on the VHF and reported the incident as I steered Floozie slowly toward the three former occupants of the Donzi--who were all, miraculously, treading water. We hauled them onboard and began to give them first aid. They were full of scratches and cuts, but none of them was seriously hurt.
We all watched as three D.C. Harbor Patrol boats struggled to get the Donzi corralled and under control. After what seemed like an hour's worth of dangerous attempts, one of the officers--with great courage, fortitude and boat-handling skill--managed to get his Boston Whaler beside the Donzi, hook the throttle with a boat hook and shut it down.
Exhausted and wringing wet with sweat, the officer proceeded straight to my boat and growled: "Which one of you was the driver of that boat?" Young Captain Evel Knievel meekly raised his hand. "You come with me!" the officer said.
And so ended another beautiful summer Saturday on the Potomac.
Chuck Royster lives in Gaithersburg, Md., and has been boating on the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay for more than 20 years. He is the CEO of Systems Integration Group, Inc., a computer services firm in Lanham, Md., and keeps his Doral 360 at Columbia Island Marina in