CAPE MAY - The key to figuring out what sank the Lady Mary scallop boat may be its damaged rudder.

That's the view of a seven-member volunteer dive team that has been exploring the wreck 65 miles off the coast. They believe damage to the Lady Mary shows it was hit by a large container ship whose unique construction would cause such damage under the waterline.

"If there is a smoking gun in this case, it's the rudder," said Harold Moyers, a member of the dive team. "We saw the port side of the rudder. We have not seen the starboard side. We feel the rudder has to come up."

The divers have been negotiating with the U.S. Coast Guard for permission to retrieve the blue rudder that appears to have red paint on it. Moyers said the Coast Guard may hire a private contractor to retrieve it.

Coast Guard investigators exploring the March 24 sinking that took the lives of six Cape May County fishermen declined comment for this story, pending the active investigation. Coast Guard investigators did look at the Cap Beatrice, a Liberian-flagged container ship that was close to the Lady Mary at the time of the sinking, but not until two months later. They said they found no evidence of a collision.

The divers point to red marks on the damaged rudder that they say matches the protruding bow, called a "bulbous bow," on the 728-foot Cap Beatrice.

"It looks like red paint to me," said Moyers, examining an underwater photograph.

The dive team even checked with the boatyard that put the blue bottom paint on the Lady Mary and found out the primer coat was beige, not red.

It isn't just the rudder that interests the divers. In two dives on the vessel, which lies 210 feet down, they have taken several pictures and video showing damage they argue must have come from a collision. Moyers said the damage could not have occurred when the vessel hit the ocean floor and nothing on the vessel itself, such as a swinging dredge or the winches used to haul gear and lift outriggers, could have caused it.

"The damage is unreal. We've done a lot of sinkings and never seen damage this bad. The stern rudder and 5-inch stainless steel prop shaft are bent straight down. A bearing and skeg are cracked straight down. There's not one thing on that boat that can bend a 5-inch stainless steel shaft like that," Moyers said.

If hitting the ocean floor damaged the propeller shaft, it would have been bent upward, not downward. The stern ramp suffered major damages, as part of it ripped right through the transom, or back of the boat, and the strongest winch on the boat could not have pulled the dredge through it, Moyers said.

The divers also found a broken port stay wire, which ran from the gallows, or support structure, to the bottom corner of the ramp, tied off. This suggests the ramp was damaged while the boat was still on the surface and it was tied by the crew to prevent it from swinging while they tried to save the sinking boat.

"We know nobody tied up that stay wire on the bottom. The stay wire broke on the surface. The damage was done pre-sinking. This really paints a scene of men trying to save a boat," said Steve Gatto, the leader of the dive team.

The team found the scallop dredge on deck and full of scallops.

Scallops are normally emptied right when the dredge comes out of the water. The hook used to open the scallop bag was still stowed where it was normally kept. This suggests the dredge was brought up in an emergency with no thought of removing the shellfish.

The team removed sand around the rudder to find the rudder shoe, but its missing. If damage was caused hitting the ocean floor the shoe would still be there.

The clincher

The clincher for the divers was when they studied pictures of damage to the Maine fishing vessel Dictator after it was hit by the 965-foot British-flagged container ship Florida about 47 miles off Cape May, 22 days after the Lady Mary sinking. The damage looked eerily similar.

The bulbous bow of the Florida hit the Dictator under the waterline. Like the Cap Beatrice, the Florida never responded to a mayday call and continued on its way. It was identified by another fishing vessel and after multiple requests it finally stopped.

Dictator owner Tim Harper has traded pictures with the divers and said damages to the rudder areas mirror each other.

"That bulbous bow sticks out so far and it's down in the water. We couldn't see any damage above the water line," Harper said.

He said the Florida was going 18 knots, compared with almost 20 knots for the Cap Beatrice, in an area limited to 10 knots due to endangered whale activity. Harper is lobbying Congress to move the large ships away from fishing areas where boats, under government regulations, are concentrated at certain times of the year. About 50 boats were fishing the scallop grounds off Cape May that day.

In maritime accidents percentages of fault are found, and Harper said the Florida is trying to blame the Dictator, which is still undergoing repairs, for 15 percent of the fault.

"I don't accept 15 percent. He was going too fast and mowed me over," Harper said.

Harper also argues fishing boats that mysteriously sink often are hit by foreign-flagged ships, and he intends to bring this to the public's attention. He cites cases where they have been caught repairing damage and even changing ship logs.

Horatio Beck, one of two captains who heard the garbled Lady Mary mayday, agrees. Beck concurs with the divers that the Cap Beatrice hit the Lady Mary. Beck said a fishing vessel could not have caused such damage under the water line and such a vessel would have stopped.

"A ship does not care. They'll run over you and keep on going. Ships don't stop," Beck said.

The Cap Beatrice was 0.71 miles from the Lady Mary at 5:10 a.m. when the ill-fated scallop boat last gave its position. The divers argue electronic tracking systems can be inaccurate enough where they could have collided.

"The deck log of the Cap Beatrice brings it a lot closer to the Lady Mary than the AIS (automated information system) tracking," Moyers said.

The scenario

The divers have produced what they believe is the scenario of what happened. Gatto pointed out they are not working for anybody. The Lady Mary owners are paying their fuel bill to go offshore, but nothing else.

"We're bringing this information to everybody. The purpose is to find out why the boat sank so it doesn't happen again," Gatto said.

The scenario begins at about 5 a.m., when the Cap Beatrice strikes the aft port corner of the Lady Mary. The bulbous bow drives the rudder against the propeller shaft, leaving blue rudder paint on the shaft hub and bending the 5-inch shaft downward. This knocks off the shoe protruding from the skeg.

The blow is somewhat softened by the wake pushed ahead of the bulbous bow, but as Lady Mary is driven down by the stern a second contact smashes the stern ramp.

There is instant panic.

It is about 5 a.m. when Horatio Beck sits down in the wheelhouse of his vessel Good News with his morning coffee and hears what he describes as a "distorted and hysterical" Mayday.

"The words were 'Mayday, Mayday, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard,'" Beck said.

The Mayday is right after impact. The Lady Mary will sink in as little as 15 minutes, half an hour at most.

Another captain responds to the Mayday asking for more information. There is no response, leading Beck to believe it was a prank.

A hole punched in the lazerette at the stern of the vessel allows water into the fish hold, though most of the water flooding the boat is coming in with waves. There is no steering or propulsion system due to rudder and propeller damage.

The crew feels relief as the freighter clears the area since the Lady Mary is still above the water, though listing to port. The crew works on bringing up the scallop dredge. Tim Smith wakes up lone survivor, Jose Luis Arias, who is sleeping.

A broken stay wire that ran through a 20-foot pipe is swinging wildly. A crewmember ties this off and they get the dredge up. It doesn't correct the list to port and waves continue flooding into the boat.

Rolling of the boat to port likely brings the starboard outrigger upright. Outriggers are kept out horizontally while fishing. The starboard outrigger was found to be vertically upright but aft, or toward the stern, of the cradle it sits in when upright. An upright outrigger greatly alters a boat's center of gravity. The crew would not have put it up.

At 5:17 a.m. Capt. Royal "Bobo" Smith makes a satellite phone call to his girlfriend. The crew grabs survival suits, seeing boat lights nearby and believing help is on the way. Water is up to the bridge deck on the port side as they abandon ship.

Arias is saved by a Coast Guard helicopter crew several hours later, and they recover the bodies of brothers Tim and Bobo Smith. In the weeks that follow the divers recover the body Tarzon Smith, the uncle of Tim and Bobo, and a scallop boat nets the body of Frankie Credle. The bodies of Frank Reyes and Jorge Ramos have never been recovered.