EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — David C. McAuliffe was an experienced mariner who was just 35 when he died after his 47-foot boat, the Cape Hatteras, sank off the Great Egg Harbor Inlet last April 23.
Almost a year has passed, and the raw pain left by his death remains for the people he loved and left behind.
The Coast Guard investigation remains open. And, with no official word from that agency, McAuliffe’s friends and family question how a man who held a 100-ton captain’s license and made his living working for the Sea Tow rescue service could have died.
“Every day brings a new emotion or a new fear, a new memory,” Lynsey McAuliffe, his wife, said in a recent interview.“You have to learn to live your life all over again.”
She said she and her teenage daughter now suffer panic attacks, and her daughter’s anxiety makes school difficult.
“We learn to accept the death of our parents as they age, because it’s part of living. And it hurts, no question about it, it hurts, but you accept it quicker,” his father, David R. McAuliffe, said in a separate interview. “To lose a young man at the prime of his life, or a young girl, it’s crazy.”
Christmas was quiet, he said. He and his wife didn’t decorate the house, and they spent the holiday in North Jersey with one of his daughters.
“Dave loved Christmas,” he said.
Two months later, David R. McAuliffe and some family took a portion of his son’s cremated remains to Lacey Township for his Feb. 22 birthday. They interred them in a quiet ceremony with the remains of his birth mother, who died when he was a child.
“There’s nothing else you can do,” McAuliffe said. “What can you do?”
“I don’t really still believe it. We were saying how you just go about every day doing what you’re supposed to do, and then it just hits you like a big wave,” said his stepmother, Deborah A. McAuliffe. “It just crashes down on us every once in a while.”
Lacking an official explanation, McAuliffe’s life and death have moved from the region’s waterways to the courts.
Lynsey McAuliffe filed a $10 million wrongful death claim last year against her husband’s employer, Tide Runner Marine of Brigantine, which operates Sea Tow Atlantic City. She also filed a separate claim against the Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineering for last year’s $15.6 million beach replenishment project.
Tide Runner was negligent, she claimed in court papers. She said the firm’s vessel, Cape Hatteras, was unseaworthy, undermanned and lacking in protective equipment when it sank.
“It infuriates me,” she said. “It infuriates me for many reasons. Number one, he had no help. He had to do everything on his own. They were not here — they were in Florida. So they’re on the phone saying ‘You’ve gotta do this, this and this.’”
The Coast Guard has said McAuliffe left Farley State Marina in Atlantic City at about 7:45 a.m. April 23 en route to a scheduled Coast Guard inspection at C-Jam Marina in Somers Point. A passing storm had boosted waves to around 10 feet, with water temperatures around 50 degrees.
An emergency distress beacon signal was received by the Coast Guard at about 10:45 a.m., but McAuliffe did not respond to radio or cell phone calls, and a rescue helicopter on scene seven minute later found no trace of the vessel.
She said her husband was under time pressure, she said, because he had to get to Seaside Heights and aid a crew that was pulling the iconic Jet Star roller coaster out of the ocean. Hurricane Sandy had washed the roller coaster from the Casino Pier into the water.
The owner of Tide Runner Marine, John McLaughlin, declined comment. He also operates the Sea Tow franchise in Marco Island, Fla., about an hour south of Ft. Myers. With McAuliffe’s death, Sea Tow Atlantic City now lists McLaughlin as senior captain.
Navigation buoys moved
Lynsey McAuliffe believes her husband was in danger the moment his vessel arrived at the Great Egg Harbor Inlet Channel. There, her filings claim, Great Lakes had moved a red channel buoy about 500 feet out of position. She also claims that Great Lakes took a green one out of the water altogether.
The dredging company moved the buoys while taking in sand to bolster Ocean City’s beaches, she claimed, but she claims it did so without properly informing the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard listed no missing Great Egg Harbor Inlet buoys in any of its April 2013 weekly Notice to Mariners.
This, she believes, left her husband without guidance in chilly, rough seas, where he ran aground and sank.
“If you’re navigating in those conditions, and there’s no Notice to Mariners, and your navigational buoys have been moved, then we have a dead captain,” Lynsey McAuliffe’s attorney Michael D. Allweiss said. “It’s pretty tragic.”
Great Lakes acknowledged in court papers this month that it moved the buoys, but denied this played a role in the death.
It is a violation of federal law for anyone outside of the armed forces to move Coast Guard-maintained aids to navigation, such as buoys. Violations, however, are misdemeanors; fines are capped at $500 per day.
Great Lakes, a publicly traded company, is one of the world’s largest beach-replenishment firms. Based in Oak Brook, Ill., it reported $100.3 million in gross profit in 2013 on $731.4 million in dredging contract revenues.
In a prepared statement, Katie Mackie LaVoy, vice president and general counsel for Great Lakes, said the company “extends its sympathies to the family of Captain McAuliffe but denies any responsibility for the casualty.”
Importance of channel markers
Current charts show the Great Egg Harbor Inlet varies between one and 30 feet in depth, with drastic changes over relatively short distances. Breakers and cross-currents are common in all conditions. Boaters have also said Hurricane Sandy, five months earlier, reshaped the bottom of this and other South Jersey inlets.
Federal navigation charts identify just one buoy in that inlet. Formally named the Great Egg Harbor Inlet Outer Lighted Whistle Buoy GE, it marks the ocean edge of the channel. The red-and-white marker local boaters call the “whistle buoy” floats in around 27 feet of water, about two miles off Ocean City. It blinks a short-long signal at night, Morse Code for “A,” an international code indicating safe water.
Other red and green buoys are in the area, but they are uncharted. Nautical charts warn that natural inlets such as Great Egg Harbor shift frequently, and the buoys’ positions are therefore moved.
The Coast Guard set the inlet buoys in their current positions on May 13, 2013, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Cynthia S. Oldham, a public affairs officer at Coast Guard Station Atlantic City. It is unclear how long they had been in their previous positions the day of the sinking.
A Coast Guard Notice to Mariners on Jan. 15, 2013 warned that the larger whistle buoy was out of position. It was reset the following week, minus a red ball at top that remains missing.
Oldham said questions about the whistle buoy’s position may be part of the reason the Coast Guard’s report on the sinking remains open.
Great Lakes and Tide Runner both pointed fingers at each other in their legal filings, while denying their own culpability. Both also cited an 1851 federal maritime law that limits liability in a death at sea to $420 times the vessel’s tonnage, or in this instance, $11,340.
In its filings, Great Lakes claimed that Tide Runner did not maintain a safety management system to prevent similar incidents, and said the Cape Hatteras was neither seaworthy nor properly crewed. It also questioned McAuliffe’s competence.
Great Lakes also faulted Tide Runner with allowing McAuliffe to travel in the ocean, rather than via the Intracoastal Waterway, and in unsuitable weather, rather than at a later date.
In Tide Runner’s filings, the private company denied Great Lakes’s assertions.
Instead, it echoed Lynsey McAuliffe’s claims that Great Lakes moved the buoys and was therefore solely responsible for the sinking. Tide Runner wants Great Lakes to reimburse it for the Cape Hatteras, the costs of recovering the boat and the cost of subsequent litigation.
Tide Runner also filed a separate claim against its insurance brokerage. The marina claimed the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., firm Marshall & Sterling sold them $5 million in insurance coverage in October 2012. When Tide Runner reported the sinking six months later, however, it learned its $4 million excess liability policy was never actually placed.
Marshall & Sterling, in its filings, said it followed the policy as written.
Picking up the pieces
Lynsey McAuliffe effusively thanked the friends, boaters and total strangers who donated thousands of dollars to a memorial fund after her husband died. This money, she said, enabled her and her daughter to stay in the house purchased 8½ months before her husband’s death.
More than $32,000 was raised through the website GiveForward.com. The Capt. David C. McAuliffe Memorial Fund also remains active at TD Bank.
Family members said they did not know how truly well regarded David C. McAuliffe was until after he died. He was the first captain in Sea Tow’s nearly three-decade history to die while working.
“I got to learn a lot about him after the fact,” Lynsey McAuliffe said.
“People from all walks of life, from up and down the coast, got in touch with us,” David R. McAuliffe said, telling them stories of their son’s actions at sea.
For family members and friends now, the memories of David and the ocean are forever intertwined. The sea is where he lived, and the sea is where he died.
“I trusted him implicitly, behind the wheel of that boat,” Lynsey McAuliffe said. “I’d never hesitate to get on a boat with him. Ever. Because he was so good at what he did.”
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