Annapolis girl, 14, dies after boat capsizes during sailing camp
Girl trapped underwater in Severn for several minutes
Olivia Constants, 14, died Thursday while sailing on the Severn River.
Investigators said Olivia Constants was trapped underwater for several minutes after her boat capsized around 3:15 p.m. Thursday. Based on a preliminary investigation, they believe a harness she was wearing "got entangled in the rigging of the sailboat," said state Department of Natural Resources Police spokesman Sgt. Art Windemuth. The accident, which took place near the Naval Academy, remains under investigation.
"She always said she didn't like it at all, but she did — she would talk about being on the water and seeing the sun on the water," said Grace Carey, who, like Constants, just completed her freshman year at Broadneck High School, outside Annapolis.
Constants tweeted hours before the accident that she didn't want to go sailing. But Carey said she often spoke happily of sailing with her family. "She was always like, 'I love it, it's always so beautiful.'"
She and other friends from Broadneck High described Constants as a teenager with a ready smile whose inviting manner made it easy to warm up to her.
Constants was taking lessons with the Severn Sailing Association Junior Sailing Program based in the Eastport section of Annapolis. The club was established in 1954.
The sailing program was closed Friday, but lessons will resume Monday, said Hal Whitacre, the SSA's commodore.
He was visibly shaken as he spoke about Constants' family. "Words fail me to say how sad I am and how much I feel for them — that's all I have to say," he said.
Family gathered Friday at the Constants' family home near the Annapolis Mall. An uncle, Al Constants, said that family members, extended family as well as her parents, Dorothy and Stephen, and older sister, Chloe, were devastated and could not speak Friday. Funeral arrangements were not complete.
The well-known sailing club has Olympic sailors among its ranks. Club members race against each other, although the sailing school is open to the public. The junior program has a couple hundred students this summer, Whitacre said, calling them a "tight-knit group of kids."
Windemuth said Constants, who was wearing a life jacket, and another sailing student were the only people aboard a 420 — a boat that's 4.2 meters long, or a little under 14 feet, with two sails — when the boat capsized.
Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the accident, and the boat has been seized, standard practice during the investigation of a fatal accident.
There have been three sailboat fatalities this year in the state, Windemuth said. In the 25 years that he has been with the Natural Resources Police, this is the first time to his knowledge that a harness has caused a fatal accident.
A trapeze harness, which Constants was wearing, allows a sailor to place his or her feet on the rail of the boat and hang the whole body out over the water, said Steve Voorhis, an expert sailor who is a member of Eastport Yacht Club, which neighbors Severn Sailing Association. Hanging parallel to the water creates a counterweight to wind in the sails and allows the boat to stay level, he said.
Voorhis said that although the 420 is a common training boat, it is not typical for harnesses to be used unless the student is fairly advanced. Although the release mechanism on trapeze harness hooks varies among brands and models, in certain situations the pressure on the harness clasp can make it difficult to unfasten, he said.
Over the past 10 years, quick-release mechanisms have become more common on sailing harnesses, said Steve Mazur, a customer service representative at Annapolis Performance Sailing, which sells many types of harnesses.
In his 45 years of competitive sailboat racing, Voorhis said, he has not seen anything like the accident that killed Constants. "It's a freak accident," he said. "It's probably less likely than being struck by lightning."
Constants was also a member of the high school's junior varsity soccer team, where other team members, including the older ones on the varsity team, were drawn to her upbeat attitude and easy manner.
Morgan Fowler, who graduated this spring and was a member of the varsity soccer team, was Constants' big sister in the big sister-little sister progam in soccer. They grew close.