With the vessel now located, State Police and the Coast Guard plan to jointly investigate what caused a boat commanded by David C. McAuliffe, a locally experienced captain, to sink near the Great Egg Harbor Inlet.
State Police Lt. Stephen Jones said police would focus on the 34-year-old Egg Harbor Township man, while the Coast Guard would concentrate on his vessel, the 49-foot-long, 27-ton, aluminum Cape Hatteras that McAuliffe was operating for the local Sea Tow franchise.
Searchers from Sea Tow found the vessel Thursday evening using side-scan sonar equipment. It sank Tuesday morning in about 20 feet of water. McAuliffe’s father, 66-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident David R. McAuliffe, said the boat was found south of the Great Egg Harbor channel marker, partially buried by sand, upside down and facing east.
What caused the wreck was not immediately clear.
The boat is in the general vicinity of pipes and other equipment being used in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ ongoing $15.6 million Ocean City beach-replenishment project, and some are asking whether McAuliffe may have run into some of that gear.
“That’s a very good possibility, but it’s all just speculation at this point,” said Jack Moran, who owns a Sea Tow franchise in Cape May County.
Reached on Friday, Army Corps spokesman Ed Voigt said he had just heard about the possibility and that the Army Corps would await details from the Coast Guard investigation. Voigt said a company under contract to the Army Corps, the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Co., is in the midst of a beach-replenishment project for Ocean City and Brigantine and is pumping sand into the north end of Ocean City this week. The dredging operation uses metal pipes, which can be submerged or partially submerged, to move sand in from offshore burrow areas to the beaches.
“The Coast Guard has already contacted our folks because they want to investigate and find out what went wrong. At this point, we’re going to defer to the Coast Guard,” Voigt said.
Until the boat is raised and studied, the Coast Guard said it is just speculation to blame the accident on dredging equipment.
Moran said a diver reached the vessel Thursday, but visibility was poor. He said a salvage plan is being worked out.
Petty Officer Nicholas Ameen, a Coast Guard spokesman, said investigators would be on scene during the recovery operation.
The vessel was found outside an inlet that local captains have described as shifting and dangerous, especially since Hurricane Sandy. It is unclear when the Coast Guard last moved the channel markers to reflect current conditions, but it is usually done in the spring before the summer boating season. Ameen said the vessel was found near the first signal the Coast Guard received from the emergency radio satellite beacon that was activiated when the Cape Hatteras sank. The Coast Guard left the beacon in the water, drifting south, over the past several days to gauge the currents in their search for McAuliffe.
McAuliffe, a master captain with 10 years of experience who is licensed to pilot boats up to 50 tons, has not been found. He was the lead captain for the Atlantic City franchise of Sea Tow Services, and his would be the 29-year-old company’s first on-duty fatality.
McAuliffe was aboard the Sea Tow marine rescue boat Tuesday when he left Farley State Marina in Atlantic City at 7:45 a.m. He was headed to Somers Point in conditions State Police said included 10-foot seas and 30 to 45 mph winds.
He never arrived.
Instead, his on-board emergency radio beacon activated at 10:45 a.m., sending a distress signal to authorities. His boat was not visible when a Coast Guard helicopter arrived about seven minutes later.
The Coast Guard, police, fellow Sea Tow captains and other boaters searched 400 square miles for two days, but the Coast Guard called off the search Wednesday night.
Sea Tow captains and other local boaters persisted through Thursday. David R. McAuliffe said a diver from Northstar Marine Inc., of the Clermont section of Dennis Township, identified the wreckage about 6 p.m. Thursday. Northstar operates Cape May County’s Sea Tow franchise.
The Coast Guard is not directly involved in salvaging the vessel, but Ameen said it would set up a secure perimeter around the area so Sea Tow can safely retrieve the boat.
Sea Tow did not indicate how long recovery would take. In a statement, company spokeswoman Kristen Frohnhoefer wrote, “Tide, weather and underwater visibility are all factors in determining the length of the recovery process.”
McAuliffe’s family initially planned to go to Ocean City on Friday morning to watch the recovery, but David R. McAuliffe said crews did not expect to be able to raise the boat until today or Sunday at the earliest. He said crews could only work during slack tide, the several hours surrounding high and low tides, when tidal flow is the least.
On Saturday, McAuliffe's father said he had been told the vessel could not be raised before Sunday.
For now, David R. McAuliffe said, the family of his son can only wait for events to unfold. McAuliffe has an extensive family, stretching from New Jersey to Florida and other parts of the country, his father said. Since Tuesday’s tragedy family members have sought to comfort them as much as they could.
“We’re doing the best we can in the circumstances,” he said Friday afternoon. “The thing we have to do is recover his body, and then do right by him.”
Staff Writers Anjalee Khemlani and Richard Degener contributed to this report.
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