CAPE MAY — One man is missing and presumed dead and a second is in critical condition after the aging wooden party boat they were transporting south sank in the Delaware Bay early Thursday morning.
The U.S. Coast Guard, alerted by the New Jersey State Police and by an emergency satellite beacon that sounded at 1:35 a.m., was able to save one man.
Petty Officer 3rd Class John Opsal, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer from Air Station Atlantic City, could not get the second man out of heavy sea, with waves of almost eight feet and steady 29-knot winds, seven miles from this resort.
“It was rough. He made a couple attempts to grab him but couldn’t get a hold of him. He sank with some of the debris,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonathan Lindberg.
Sgt. Steve Jones of the New Jersey State Police identified the missing man as Gregory Arlotta, 62, of Fort Myers, Fla. and the survivor is Steve Hopkins, 42, of Washington, D.C. He said Arlotta had just purchased the vessel Sea Wolf in New York.
The Coast Guard and the State Police are still trying to figure out why the boat sank. All they know is the vessel started taking on water and the men got into a life raft, but the sea was rough and Arlotta was unable to stay in the raft.
“We don’t know how it happened yet. We just know what was there when we got there,” Lindberg said.
Arlotta had purchased the 65-foot vessel several days earlier and was taking it to New Orleans.
The Sea Wolf had operated for decades with other party boats from the Sheepshead Bay Piers, and according to one observer, the vessel was in no shape for such a trip this time of year.
“The month of December has a lot of wind. I’m not surprised she broke up like that. She had a bad problem in her port quarter. She always listed that way,” said Steve Cannizzo, who operates a website for fishermen in the area, www.fishingunited.com
Cannizzo said the men purchased the boat for less than $20,000. It was appraised for $40,000 but listed for sale on Craigslist for $29,000. Cannizzo said long-time owner Eddie Moraski, who is in his 70s and recently broke his hip, had decided to get out of the business after a half-century of taking people fishing.
Moraski could not be reached for comment. Phones at the pier where Sea Wolf docked went right to an answering machine Thursday.
Cannizzo said the men were last seen leaving Sheepshead Bay, which connects to the Raritan Bay, on Wednesday morning. He said they were pushing the boat hard and smoke was coming out its stacks before they geared it back, maybe indicating a problem.
“This boat was not in the best of condition. They were running that boat hard and then they yanked it back like they overheated the engines,” Cannizzo said.
“If only somebody could have taken them aside and said: ‘This is not the right boat to bring on a long trip.’“
Cannizzo said the men asked a local captain navigational advice before leaving.
“They packed very light and got on that vessel cold. They really didn’t shake it down too much. A 45- to 50-year-old wood boat starts loosening up. The pumps ran all the time. It’s a sad set of circumstances,” Cannizzo said.
The boat was recently listed for sale as a 1963 Gilligan, an inshore fishing vessel that fished for porgies and sea bass mostly within 10 miles of the dock. The Sea Wolf had twin diesels, one of which Cannizzo said was recently rebuilt. The boat was known for its woodwork and one time was considered one of the best Gilligans in the region. Cannizzo said it just aged, as wooden boats do.
The Sea Wolf had an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, or EPIRB, which sends off a satellite signal upon hitting the water. It initially came to the Coast Guard district headquarters in Portsmouth, Va. and was relayed to Sector Delaware Bay. The sinking was at the mouth of the bay but on the bay side of the line that separates the ocean from the bay, the Coast Guard said. The EPIRB gave the Coast Guard and New Jersey State Police, which is also involved in the investigation, the last known position.
Lindberg said the Coast Guard received no mayday call on the radio but the State Police may have. The State Police first notified the Coast Guard of the sinking and Lindberg said they had a report of a boat taking on water.
Air Station Atlantic City sent a MH-65 rescue helicopter. Coast Guard stations in Cape May and Indian River Inlet, Del. dispatched 47-foot motor life boats.
Lindberg said they arrived to find a debris field with most of the boat already had gone down. Arlotta and Hopkins were not wearing survival suits, and the water temperature was about 36 degrees. Lindberg said cold water charts indicate maximum survival time without suits is four hours.
“You lose function in two hours. You’re talking four hours tops for survivability,” Lindberg said.
Petty Officer 1st Class Mike Lutz said Hopkins was pulled aboard one of the 47-footers before being hoisted to the helicopter.
“He was taken to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City in critical condition,” said Lutz.
Lindbergh said Arlotta was “floating face down and unresponsive” before he sank with some debris.
Lindberg said the Coast Guard has no plans to retrieve the body or salvage what is left of the vessel. He said the “majority of it” had sunk before the Coast Guard arrived. Since the Sea Wolf could pose a threat to navigation, the Coast Guard will put out a warning message to mariners to avoid the location. Lindberg said the debris could sink or wash up on shore.
It remains unclear what Arlotta intended to do with the Sea Wolf but he told captains on Sheepshead Bay he was not going to use it for fishing.
Contact Richard Degener: