Investigators looking into the sinking of a Port Norris-based commercial fishing boat Thursday morning off Cape May Point believe the dredge got caught on an underwater snag that caused the boat to roll over.
State Police interviewed two survivors of the sinking, with one man still missing at sea, before coming to a preliminary finding.
“All indications, based on interviews and the evidence at hand, is the boat was dredging and got caught on something and then it capsized,” State Police Lt. Stephen Jones said.
The 40-foot Linda Claire was at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, six miles west of Cape May Point, dredging for conchs and blue crabs Thursday morning when the boat rolled over and sent the three-man crew into 43-degree waters. Captain Chris Serra, 27, of Vineland, and Dave Wood, 25, of Commercial Township, were both saved by crewmen from other boats working in the area.
Josh Catlett, 24, of the Port Norris section of Commercial Township, was seen in the water but disappeared before he could be rescued. Reports indicate he was not wearing a survival suit.
The Coast Guard called off its search Thursday night, but Jones said State Police searched all day Friday and plan to continue today.
“We’re not just searching where the boat is on the bottom. The surface search has been greatly expanded,” Jones said.
The Catlett family did not want to talk to the news media Friday.
Commercial fishing ranks as the most dangerous occupation in America in annual reports put out by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Fellow fishermen said that despite his young age, Catlett had plenty of experience on the water. Dexter Grant, owner of the Flag Crab Co. in the Heislerville section of Maurice River Township, said Catlett had previously worked as a deckhand on one of his boats and his company was buying seafood from the Linda Claire. Grant said that like most Delaware Bay fishermen — known as “watermen” — Catlett did a little of everything on the water.
“He’s been on the water for a while, and his dad (Larry Catlett) has been a waterman,” Grant said.
Grant said fishing is “a brotherhood,” and some were so shaken up they did not go fishing Friday.
George Kumor, a commercial fisherman from Heislerville who also knew Catlett, said Hurricane Sandy last year and Tropical Storm Irene in 2011 left a lot of debris in the water and moved some underwater obstructions so they are no longer where they are listed on nautical charts. He said the storms have actually shifted the high-water marks on the bayshore.
“People don’t realize when they eat seafood how dangerous fishing is,” Kumor said.
There are no indications of equipment failure or misjudgment by the captain. Kumor said it was a routine fishing trip.
“These are people you’d want to be out in a storm with. It’s very unfortunate. Nature gave them a bad blow. The storm moved stuff on the bottom and made a snag where there shouldn’t be one. The bay is more challenging than the ocean in a lot of ways. It’s the roughest bay in the world because it’s so shallow,” Kumor said.
Jones said the owner of the Linda Claire, Tim Smith, who also owns the local party boat Bodacious, plans to try to salvage the boat today. Smith did not answer his phone Friday, and the message system was full.
The boat is in 40 or 50 feet of water, and the bow is still visible. The boat may even still be attached to the dredge, although that is unclear. The Coast Guard is broadcasting a warning to mariners to be careful in that area of the bay.
Marty Buzas, a commercial fisherman and diver from Wildwood, said he was asked about diving on the wreck but had to decline due to recent medical issues. Buzas said he has dredged in the bay and getting the dredge caught, especially while turning and with a strong tide, is very dangerous.
“There was a lot of tide yesterday,” Buzas said Friday.
The crab dredging season in the Delaware Bay runs from Nov. 15 to April 15. While crabs are the primary goal of the fishery, the boats working this area were reportedly catching more bushels of conch than crabs. Delaware Bay watermen tend to pursue multiple fisheries, including trapping, gill-netting and dredging, during different times of year.
“They do a little bit of everything,” Grant said.
Kumor, who is 60, said he has lost close friends over the years who were fishing in the bay. He recalls about one dozen boats sinking in the bay over the past 15 years.
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