Many factors that can mean life or death at sea were working in Capt. David C. McAuliffe’s favor Tuesday morning as he left Atlantic City’s Farley State Marina.
They weren’t enough.
The 48-foot aluminum boat McAuliffe, 34, was taking from Atlantic City to Somers Point sank near the Great Egg Harbor Inlet. The Cape Hatteras was found Thursday. McAuliffe, of Egg Harbor Township, is missing and presumed dead.
McAuliffe had all the required safety equipment, a radio to communicate with land and radar equipment to see through the rainy weather on a day of strong northeast winds with gusts to 45 knots. The National Weather Service had a gale warning up that morning.
The shifting sands of the Great Egg Harbor Inlet, made worse by Hurricane Sandy, were dangerous. But McAuliffe had a decade of experience on the water with a license to captain 50-ton vessels, twice as large as the Cape Hatteras. The boat he was on was built for rough offshore weather.
His emergency radio satellite beacon, a lifeline to the shore, activated as designed when his boat sank. Some mariners fail to register their emergency beacon with the federal government, which results in the Coast Guard wasting valuable time tracing the boat. But Cape Hatteras’ beacon was registered.
“When the Coast Guard got the alert, we knew the boat, who owned it and contact information,” Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Cindy Oldham said.
Also working in McAuliffe’s favor was the close proximity of so many Coast Guard assets. Air Station Atlantic City in Egg Harbor Township sent helicopters, and small boat stations in Atlantic City and Cape May sent vessels. The New Jersey Marine Police and Good Samaritans also joined the search.
What’s more, McAuliffe was a captain for the local Sea Tow franchise for the Atlantic City area. These are the people who help rescue mariners in distress and salvage sunken vessels along the New Jersey shore. He had help from his own people.
Also in McAuliffe’s favor is that Sea Tow captains wear a personal flotation device, or PFD, when they are in transit on the water. One Sea Tow captain said that is standard operating procedure. The orange suit provides a great chance to be spotted, though it would not protect him from the 48-degree water, as does a survival suit.
The first Coast Guard helicopter arrived on the scene just seven minutes after the satellite beacon signaled, so the PFD could have been a life-saver if McAuliffe had been spotted. He wasn’t.
“He would have been found if he was wearing a Mustang (PFD) and he got away from the boat. They can be seen for miles away,” said Capt. Peter Fuhrman of U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 84 of Atlantic City.
McAuliffe has yet to be found, and nobody knows whether he actually was wearing a PFD because his body has not been recovered. The Coast Guard said two were on the Cape Hatteras, but only one was found in the debris field that extended south to Stone Harbor and up to 11 miles offshore.
About the only thing Fuhrman said McAuliffe did not have in his favor was traveling alone.
“As far as the Coast Guard Auxiliary is concerned, he broke the cardinal rule, which is going out in rough weather by himself. If he gets in trouble, there’s no one to help or call a Mayday. Sometimes, it’s too much for one person,” Fuhrman said.
Advice for recreational boaters sometimes isn’t practical for those making a living on the water. Sea Tow is not answering questions about the case, so it’s hard to know why McAuliffe was by himself. It may have been unavoidable on that day.
It also may not have mattered. The speed with which the vessel disappeared has convinced some that whatever happened occurred very quickly.
“We didn’t receive any Mayday calls, and that indicates something happened fast. He had a mariner’s license, was a captain, had experience and had all the safety equipment. It really is a mystery,” Oldham said.
Sea Tow hopes to raise the Cape Hatteras this weekend from 20 feet of water just outside the inlet. However, crews were not expected to raise the vessel Saturday, McAuliffe’s father said.
David R. McAuliffe said crews worked Saturday morning to secure a hoist line to the vessel’s stern. That task is complicated by how the ship is positioned in the sand on the sea floor.
Crews already have secured hoists to the 27-ton vessel’s bow, he said, but they probably won’t be able to lift the vessel until today at the earliest.
“They’re getting in position to give it a lift tomorrow when water conditions in the inlet are appropriate,” he said, adding, “It’s been a very long and tiring situation.”
The debris recovered from the water so far is equipment that would be on deck, but it did not include pieces of the boat that might indicate an explosion or a collision with something large enough to break it up. There was no oil slick.
The hull of the Cape Hatteras could indicate whether the vessel struck an object large enough to sink it. There is an increased amount of floating debris in the ocean and Delaware Bay since Hurricane Sandy last fall, and there is dredging equipment in the water from a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project replenishing beaches in Ocean City and Brigantine.
If there is no hull damage, then other possibilities must be discussed.
“He could have been thrown against something and knocked himself out,” said Fuhrman, a Margate resident who is closely following the case. “That was a pretty good-sized boat. This guy is a very experienced seaman. The Coast Guard helo is there within seven minutes of the EPIRB signal, and then not to find anything is really strange. Anything is possible. When it comes to boating, one of the principal laws in effect is Murphy’s Law. Almost nothing is unbelievable when it comes to a boat.”
If there is no damage to the hull, then a large wave could be to blame. An outgoing tide near an inlet meeting 7-to-10-foot seas can create dangerous conditions. Greg Heavener, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Mount Holly, Burlington County, said with the marine conditions that day, waves could merge and create “one big wave.”
Until the boat is salvaged and McAuliffe is found, the case is likely to remain a mystery.
In the meantime, David R. McAuliffe said he was grateful for the help of Dennis Township-based Northstar Marine Inc., which has kept the family updated on its work.
Now, he said, his concern is with his son’s wife, Lynsey, who faces financial, as well as emotional challenges.
“The underlying part here is the ongoing issues left behind by my son’s passing,” he said. “He has a young bride who needs to be protected.”
Staff Writer Wallace McKelvey contributed to this report.
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