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After the Key Bridge collapse, life goes on at the harbor

The day before the harbor closed to the world, Bobby LaPin took customers across the Patapsco River in an aluminum skiff.

Members of the family who owned Fort Carroll wanted to see their overgrown, tumbledown possession and hired LaPin, a local charter captain, to ferry them over from Fort Armistead to the artificial island. The weather window to safely visit was relatively short, so Monday, March 25, had to be the day.

The weather was clear, with light winds. They watched a sailboat glide under the Key Bridge with its spinnaker flying. On their way back, the group took photos.

“Some of the last pictures of that bridge are the pictures we took that day,” LaPin said.

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In early middle age, LaPin has become many things: a soldier, high school teacher, sailor, husband, businessman, counterintelligence agent, social media maven, and ordained minister. But above all, he is a Baltimore guy. So, when he got a call the day the bridge fell asking for help, he dropped everything to do his part.

“What really got to me was seeing streetlights sticking out of the water,” LaPin said. “When you see the streetlights, you can see yourself in a car. That leads you to seeing the fellas in the work trucks, who were taking a break. Were they eating a sandwich? What were they talking about while they were getting warm?”

For a week, he coordinated all the donations of food from restaurants to feed the sudden gush of workers who assembled around a fallen bridge, until a global logistics firm specializing in disaster relief received a contract to feed the hundreds who practically lived at the harbor.

Then, on April 4, he got back to his life and his business as a sailboat charter captain. As all eyes remained fixed on the bridge and the port.

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Anyone with a stake, big or small, in the harbor and the port had to at least reconsider their plans and fortunes. Some felt the impact of the disaster like a tsunami, others a breaking wave. The fortunate ones felt just a ripple.

LaPin, 45, and his wife Alicia Jones, 34, own a fledgling charter company called Boat Baltimore, running out of the Port Covington Marina that is part of the new Baltimore Peninsula development. They have been sharing the marina the last month with vessels from the Coast Guard, salvage contractors, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built Fort Carroll before the Civil War.

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Boat Baltimore makes money by taking people out on the harbor in the couple’s 1986 Hunter Legend 45 sailboat, Saeda, which had another life as a racing boat. The company’s slogan is “sail local,” but it became so much a part of the brand, many think it’s the name of the company.

They opened for business in July 2022, and booked 20 excursions. In 2023, they started in May and did 300 trips, making enough to finally pay their bills. Sunset sails are a staple, but weddings are plum. “Elope on a boat,” they call it. LaPin will write the vows and act as the officiant on Saeda’s foredeck.

“If I could do nothing but marry people on the boat, I’d be happy,” said LaPin, who has a booming voice, a wide toothy smile, and an endearing habit of addressing everyone as “buddy.” His dance moves are decent, helpful when your business’ lifeblood flows on Instagram.

Married couple and Boat Baltimore owners, Alicia Jones and Bobby LaPin, prepare to depart for their first wedding gig of the year at Port Covington Marina on Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

The couple planned to open for business May 3. Last year, the entire month of May was booked by late April. So far, they have only a handful, although inquiries are picking up.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen this year for our business,” LaPin said. “If you had asked me before Tuesday [March 26], I’d have said everything looks good. Now, I don’t know.”

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Last year, LaPin dipped into his retirement fund. Overhead for the company can easily exceed $30,000 a year. When Gov. Wes Moore announced that loans would be available for any small businesses affected by the collapse of the bridge, LaPin applied for one to ensure they wouldn’t lose the boat, which is not paid off.

Over the winter, as luck would have it, Boat Baltimore secured a booking for a wedding on April 25. Plenty of time to get the boat ready, they thought. Feeding the troops set back the timeline. The early spring weather didn’t help, giving him bluster and rain when he wanted to paint the deck or raise the sails. He had also fallen behind on his side work as a federal contractor.

On April 10, he turned to the same legion who helped him gather up the food and asked for help.

“I’m kinda running out of time,” he pleaded in an Instagram reel. “So, I’m hoping you might volunteer to help me get the boat ready.”

A few days later, the winter tarp came off Saeda and the work began, with less than two weeks before Ellen Burke and Paul Bozzo, a military couple, would exchange vows while anchored in front of the Domino Sugar plant — because its sign was Ellen’s first memory of Baltimore as a child.

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For two days, strong winds and rain thwarted progress. A duck had built a nest in the Saeda’s anchor locker over the winter, causing rainwater to back up and leak into the bilge. The first volunteers came over from Federal Hill to help remove stanchions from the deck. The next day, another volunteer drove from Frederick to help paint the deck. One of the company’s first customers drove from Harford County to join.

The momentum of goodwill continued for Boat Baltimore. TotalBoat, a Rhode Island company, donated painting supplies. On another very windy day, more volunteers, helped scrape the deck. Meanwhile, LaPin discovered some engine hoses had gone bad. A pump started leaking coolant. The volunteers kept coming.

LaPin enlisted in the Army after graduating from Woodlawn High with aspirations to be an Army Ranger. But his recruiter guided him to intelligence. After he left the Army as a corporal, he taught at Walbrook High School, where he was named teacher of the year in 2006, the year the school closed. Deep in debt, barely able to keep up on rent, he put his Army training to use and, after taking a course, was recruited to work in Iraq as a civilian counterintelligence agent.

While in Basra, he happened upon an issue of Cruising World magazine and opened it to see a full-page photo of a sailboat floating in clear, turquoise water — something he imagined was never within his means.

Soon after, he had a very close call when a mortar shell exploded next to him. Shaken but unhurt, he calmed himself by smoking a cigarette and ordering a frozen coffee drink from the Green Beans Coffee Company, which along with Pizza Hut, are the comforts of home offered at U.S. military deployments. He pulled out his Cruising World magazine and showed it to the barista.

“See that boat?” he said. “If I make it out of here, I’m going to get me a boat just like that.”

He returned home in 2011 and paid off all his credit card debt with the money he made working in Iraq. He lived with his mother in Bel Air and commuted to his job in Washington, D.C., to save money, which he used to buy a fixer near Camden Yards. In 2015, while renovating the house, he bought Saeda without ever having stepped on a sailboat before.

With the house barely habitable, he lived on the boat. He liked it so much, he decided to stay and rent his finished house. He and Alicia met on a dating app just as the first COVID vaccines became available. Six weeks later, they got married in Patterson Park, by the Observatory building.

“I was desperate for a deckhand,” LaPin said.

Captain Bobby LaPin prepares to depart for Boat Baltimore’s first wedding gig of the year at Port Covington Marina on Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

With the wedding three days away, LaPin finally got Saeda hauled out at a boatyard on Clinton Street not far from where , two of the seven cargo vessels unable to leave port after the bridge collapsed. In two days, Saeda’s bottom was painted and her hull polished.

With one day to go, Saeda was back at Port Covington. LaPin, Jones, and their dozen or so helpers had moved mountains, but the boat was still in disarray. Half the stanchions were still missing. The cabin was filled with boat parts and equipment and cleaning supplies. The sails had yet to be raised.

Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers were nearly ready to open part of the federal channel, a section 35 feet deep and 300 feet wide.

Sail Baltimore’s program of visiting ships is a fixture in the Inner Harbor, which for many who visit the city is all they ever see of Baltimore. Two ships scheduled to visit in April never made it in, but visits will resume next month, said its executive director, Nan Nawrocki. Two tall ships, the Cisne Branco from Brazil and Guayas from Ecuador will tie up on consecutive weeks in May. Maryland Fleet Week in June is also expected to go on as planned.

“Everything we’re hearing from Unified Command is that the event can go forward,” Nawrocki said.

The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore is expected to announce details in the coming weeks for two of its big warm-weather events: a mass gathering of hundreds of paddlers called the Baltimore Floatilla and a festive plunge into the harbor called Harbor Splash, which serves as a referendum on its vastly improved water quality.

The bridge collapse, however, has halted. In May, volunteers typically charter a boat with the Living Classrooms Foundation to transplant about 300,000 baby oysters from the Inner Harbor to a protected reef at Fort Carroll. Unified Command has put all oyster-planting trips on indefinite hold, said Adam Lindquist, vice president at the Partnership.

“The oysters do well in the Inner Harbor during the cooler months but begin to die off as the water warms up in the summer,” Lindquist said. “We are working with Unified Command to determine when trips can resume.”

The evening before the wedding, the weather gave LaPin and Jones a break as the winds eased just long enough for them to hoist both the mainsail and the huge foresail. A friend of Burke’s helped clean the cabin, while LaPin finished attaching all the stanchions around the deck. They put up the dodger and bimini that shelter the cockpit and washed the boat. All total, more than a dozen people, mostly strangers, had helped LaPin and Jones over the weeks.

Captain Bobby LaPin prepares to depart for Boat Baltimore’s first wedding gig of the year at Port Covington Marina on Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Baltimore. (Wesley Lapointe/for the Baltimore Banner)

By the time Burke and Bozzo arrived at the marina to get married, the boat and its crew of two were ready. Bozzo wore blue slacks, a striped button-down shirt, and a pair of docksiders. She wore a white lace dress and yellow pumps. They joked that whenever they are together, the wind picks up. And so, it did. A brisk easterly ushered them off the docks.

When the couple and crew arrived at the Inner Harbor, the Downtown Sailing Center’s fleet of J-22s was holding its weekly Thursday race in front of the sugar plant, so LaPin had to carefully weave between the darting keelboats.

The DSC’s program of classes and races, which began in April, were mostly unaffected by the collapse of the bridge as members almost never venture past it. Merely reaching it is considered an accomplishment for new sailors, proof they’ve mastered basic skills.

“I remember the first time I sailed to the bridge, and the first time I went under the bridge,” said Laura Landenheim, the adult education manager at DSC. “It’s this thing we use as a marker, so there’s a lot of sadness that it’s gone.”

Burke, 39, and Bozzo, 36, also met online in January 2022. He serves in the Space Force and is assigned to the National Reconnaissance Office, which operates the nation’s spy satellites; she is a social worker for the Wounded Warrior Project, which aids injured vets and their families. Because of their jobs, they live in Alexandria, Virginia, but for their first big date, they hired a water taxi for a private tour of the Inner Harbor.

Baltimore is the place that feels like home to Bozzo, who was born here and has lived here on and off as an adult. She said she has made every big life decision — divorce, jobs, homes, marriage — in Baltimore, often standing on the waterfront promenade in front of the Bayside Cantina in Canton.

The two always knew they wanted to get married near the water: “We are water people,” Burke said. Having both been married before and having had traditional ceremonies, they also wanted to keep this one small and intimate.

Bride and groom joined LaPin on the bow, all of them barefoot, as has become tradition with weddings on Saeda. When they became husband and wife, LaPin rang the ship’s bell. Members of DSC blew air horns from the dock.

On Saturday morning, denizens of the harbor will gather again at the same spot for the blessing of the fleet, a harbor tradition that lost traction after the pandemic. LaPin would like to revive it, turn it into a spring ritual on par with the burning of socks in Annapolis to mark the opening of boating season.

LaPin and Jones will arrive on Saeda. DSC members will gather in their boats. Baltimore Community Rowing will attend in their racing shells. The Coast Guard and the Department of Natural Resources will each send a boat. The Rev. Josh Messick, who for the last month saw to the comfort of all the shipmates stranded in Baltimore while the channel was closed, will preside over the modest fleet. He will bless all the vessels on the water, and the souls who sail them.

Hugo Kugiya is a reporter for the Express Desk and has formerly reported for the Associated Press, Newsday, and the Seattle Times.