Ralston, of Kensington, awoke to a bright light shining through his window at 2:40 a.m. Wednesday. After jumping out of bed, he peered toward the horizon with his binoculars and saw flames.
“I just remember thinking, ‘I just gotta get there,’ ” said Ralston, 48.
In fact, a 25-foot sailboat was ablaze in the middle of the South River. Ralston called 911 to report the fire, then spotted what he thought was a person on the bow of the boat.
“I almost missed him,” said Ralston, who boarded his fishing boat and drove to the burning sailboat. “I could feel the heat on my face from pretty far away.”
He pulled out his phone to take a picture as he approached the vessel. In an untimely twist, Ralston accidentally hit the record button before throwing his phone and managed to video the ordeal.
As he neared the boat, Ralston heard a splash.
When he drove around to the side of the sailboat, Ralston spotted a man in the water. He said he threw a ring buoy to the man, then searched for a rope to throw to him.
Ralston said the man was disoriented and groaning for help as he was searching his boat. Ralston pulled the man aboard his boat and took him to nearby Liberty Marina where they were met by paramedics.
Anne Arundel County fire officials said the department sent five boats to extinguish the fire. The heavily damaged sailboat was towed to the marina and sank overnight.
Scott Anderson, the marina’s manager, said the boat owner was not a member of his marina nor was the boat kept at the marina.
The man — believed to have been a liveaboard — could not be reached for comment.
Maryland Natural Resources Police spokeswoman Candy Thomson said the department is “very appreciative” of Ralston’s efforts. Thomson said the fire was declared an accident.
She said the boat owner apparently knocked over a space heater on deck that lit a cushion seat on fire, which spread over the entire deck. Thomson said the boat owner is responsible for cleaning up the wreckage from the river.
As for Ralston, it was a serendipitous — and humble — night of being in the right place at the right time.
“You don’t feel like a hero,” he said.