Great Egg Harbor Inlet, where missing ship captain David C. McAuliffe’s emergency beacon signaled his distress Tuesday morning, was already a shifting and dangerous waterway in storms, a situation that local captains said Hurricane Sandy only worsened.
“(The channel has) changed dramatically since the hurricane,” said John Bodin, operations manager for the nautical rescue company TowBoat U.S.’s Somers Point branch. “It’s shoaled in quite a bit. Where we could get out before, it’s breaking surf now.”
“Most of the winter I’ve stayed away from it because of the shoaling,” Bodin said Thursday, a day when an Ocean City resident found clothing on the beach that may have belonged to McAuliffe.
Bodin’s coworker and fellow captain John Ryan echoed the assessment of the channel, saying the waters appear shallower than last year, and the channel seems to be shifting to the northeast.
“That channel can change dramatically from one year to the next,” added James “Sonny” McCullough, the mayor of nearby Egg Harbor Township, who once held a 75-ton captain’s license.
Investigators on Thursday still searched for the reason why McAuliffe’s 45-foot Sea Tow rescue boat suddenly submerged off of the Great Egg Harbor Inlet, disappearing so quickly that he never radioed mayday, responded to Coast Guard radio or cellphone calls, or was even visible when a Coast Guard helicopter passed overhead seven minutes after the inital distress call.
McAuliffe, 34, had left Atlantic City at 7:45 a.m. in high winds, apparently arriving at the inlet at 10:45 a.m. as the tide was going out.
The Coast Guard was summoned by the Egg Harbor Township resident’s emergency radio beacon, which gave off an automatic digital signal linked to McAuliffe. These beacons can be triggered manually or upon contact with the water, depending on the model, and using GPS tracking can provide a fairly exact location.
But without an analysis of the boat, little can conclusively be said about what happened.
While the Coast Guard formally called off its search Wednesday night, Sea Tow spokeswoman Kristen Frohnhoefer said four crews of Sea Tow boats and other local captains unsuccessfully combed the ocean waters off of Ocean City throughout Thursday, methodically working through a grid pattern with sonar scanners.
“We plan to be out there until we recover the boat,” Frohnhoefer said. She would not say if McAuliffe’s emergency beacon had been found.
McAuliffe would be the first on-duty fatality in Sea Tow’s 29-year history, Frohnhoefer said.
The private company is based on the North Fork of Long Island in Southold, N.Y., and was founded after federal law privatized the response to nonemergency calls and the Coast Guard stopped taking them. Sea Tow said it now has about 100 franchises in the United States, Caribbean and Europe.
While crews looked for McAuliffe, his family spent Thursday in his home on Shady Oak Drive in the Bargaintown section of Egg Harbor Township. They anxiously awaited news that never came, his mother-in-law Marilyn Paul said.
She said she and other family members had hoped Thursday’s calmer seas would settle and clear the water, making it possible for one of the numerous boats on the water to spot his ship, the Cape Hatteras.
“We’re still sitting here,” Paul said Thursday evening. “How do you lose a 45-foot boat?”
Earlier in the day, Ocean City resident Beverley Denney, 59, went out for a run along the beach between 33rd and Eighth streets. She sometimes encounters trash, typically deflated helium balloons or broken buckets.
On Thursday she found clothes.
She found a large dark green, rubberized rain jacket covered with sand around 18th Street, near a single waterlogged black shoe.
Near 26th Street she found a 3-foot piece of driftwood with a single rubberized dark-orange glove and a yellow tie-down strap.
She contacted a reporter at The Press of Atlantic City, who directed her to the Coast Guard, which picked up the items Thursday morning. Coast Guard Petty Officer Cynthia S. Oldham, spokeswoman for U.S. Coast Guard Station Atlantic City, and Ocean City Police Capt. Steven Ang both said nothing else similar was turned in on Thursday.
It was unclear whether the clothing belonged to McAuliffe, Denney said the account of the McAuliffe’s grief in The Press of Atlantic City on Thursday touched her. Hurricane Sandy damaged her family’s bayfront home, and she and husband worked on their property saw Sea Tow crews in the bay, helping the recovery.
Denney said she reported the items she found because “I have a son 33 years old, and I was thinking of the family. If something similar happened, I would want anything I could get my hands on.”
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