Capt. David C. McAuliffe could have potentially survived the sinking of his Sea Tow rescue vessel last week if he had been wearing protective equipment, marine safety experts said.
"Their value is tremendous," said William Dobson, the cofounder and president of Applied Marine Technology, a Mandeveille, La., firm that specializes in marine accident investigations. Even if a boater is knocked unconscious, Dobson said, a personal flotation device, or PFD, can keep a person face-up in the water.
"Without that, you don't have much of a chance in that kind of weather." Dobson said. "With it, you at least have a chance of survival. And I think that's very important."
The 34-year-old Egg Harbor Township resident was found on the beach Wednesday morning in Ocean City, nearly eight days after his boat sank in 10-foot seas east of the Great Egg Harbor Inlet in water that was just 48 degrees. A Coast Guard investigation into the cause of the sinking is ongoing.
The Coast Guard has said a helicopter responded within seven minutes of receiving his boat's automatic distress signal, but found nothing.
McAuliffe was found wearing a jacket and pants, State Police said, but without cold-water survival equipment or a PFD. The Cape May Medical Examiner ruled he drowned accidentally.
David R. McAuliffe, his father, said his family was making funeral arrangements for next week and did not want to speculate about what his son should have worn.
Peter Fuhrman, a boating safety instructor with the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Atlantic City, suggested McAuliffe should have been wearing an all-weather suit in addition to a PFD. He also said McAuliffe should not have been alone.
"(I would not) say he would have lived had he had on a life jacket, but it would have highly increased his chances," said James W. Allen, Jupiter, Fla.-based retired Coast Guard officer and marine safety consultant.
Sea Tow requires its captains to wear personal flotation devices, confirmed Capt. Greg Prontnicki, who worked with McAuliffe at Sea Tow's Atlantic City franchise at Tide Runner Marine Inc. in Brigantine. He referred other questions to the franchise, which has deferred to company executives.
Sea Tow executives Cindy M. McCaffery and Kristen Frohnhoefer at the company's headquarters in Southold, N.Y., would not comment on what the company requires captains wear.
The company describes itself as the nation's leading water assistance provider, with more than 100 franchises internationally. McAuliffe is the company's first captain to die in the line of duty in its nearly 30-year history.
The company and its websites extol the value of PFDs and boating safety. Company founder Joe Frohnhoefer created the Sea Tow Foundation in 2007 to promote safe recreational boating practices, in order to reduce accidents, fatalities and damage.
"Life jackets save lives, but only if you wear them," Gail R. Kulp, the nonprofit's executive director, said in a release about this month's National Safe Boating Week.
Life jackets are the first thing listed on Sea Tow's "Boater's Safety Equipment Check List."
Experts said if McAuliffe was wearing survival equipment, it was unlikely any of it fell off of him while he was in the water. "I don't think I've ever seen that happen," Allen said.
It is also unclear what survival equipment the vessel carried. The Coast Guard requires PFDs for every person onboard, and would have required a boat of Cape Hatteras's size to have at least one throwable device as well.
So far three Mustang suits, which are a kind of full-body PFD, have been found in the boat's debris field, Coast Guard Petty Officer Nick Ameen said. He did not know how many suits, if any, have been found on the vessel. The bright-orange suits are designed to be visible for miles, although they do not protect a person from cold water.
State law only requires children 12 and younger wear PFDs while boating, but safety experts recommend everyone wear one on the water.
Boaters are particularly encouraged to wear PFDs in rough weather, because conditions can cause circumstances to violently change on a boat. In a sudden crash, "if you're not wearing a PFD, you don't have a chance to put it on, even if you're sitting on it," Dobson said.
Experts said they were surprised that McAuliffe, of all people, violated such a cardinal rule of boating, and in such poor conditions. Friends, family and coworkers alike described him as an experienced and dedicated master captain, with a license to pilot boats of up to 100 tons and a hard-to-get towing endorsement.
"You would think if a Sea Tow guy, if he felt he was in harm's way in any way, shape or form, he would have donned a Mustang," Allen said.
Added Fuhrman, "I hate to say this because everybody is praising this guy, but I think he was a little negligent. I really do. Or maybe not negligent, maybe a little careless, maybe a little overconfident. I don't know."
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