CAPE MAY - The doomed scallop boat Lady Mary came as close as five boat lengths to another vessel hours before it sank March 24, according to testimony Thursday at a U.S. Coast Guard hearing.
William Semrau, manager of the vessel-monitoring system of the National Marine Fisheries Service, examined the global-positioning satellite tracks of the Lady Mary and another commercial fishing boat, identified at the hearing only as "Vessel Y."
Correcting for the margin of error in the beacons, Semrau estimated the two boats came as close as 120 yards of one another at about 9:30 p.m. the night before the fatal sinking.
"Vessel Y and the Lady Mary would have been operating very close to each other," he said.
Six people died aboard the Lady Mary, including brothers Royal Smith Jr. and Tim Smith. Their father, dockside manager, Royal "Fuzzy" Smith, has insisted a boat collision was to blame.
Smith's lawyer, Steve Weeks, said the close encounter March 23 was not the one that sank the Lady Mary. He suspects a collision with a cargo ship or other large vessel March 24 was to blame.
The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation suspended its probe Thursday until it gets lab results back on the Lady Mary's rudder and a computer model examining the boat's stability.
Semrau said it was odd the Lady Mary reported catching no scallops for 48 hours during its weeklong trip. The boat reported hauling 4,400 pounds of its 18,000-pound quota of shucked scallops but reported none prior to the sinking.
"It seems unusual they didn't harvest a single scallop in a two-day period. Maybe there were weather issues or maybe there were equipment issues," Semrau said.
Weeks said the agency's catch totals were not accurate. Earlier testimony suggested the Lady Mary had nearly made its quota and was preparing to return to port the day of the sinking. Divers found a dredge loaded with scallops on the deck of the stricken boat at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
The U.S. Coast Guard also considered Thursday how stormy seas might have contributed to the accident.
The closest weather buoy to the Lady Mary was in the mouth of the Delaware Bay 48 miles away.
A weather expert testified the 71-foot Lady Mary would have been subjected to 30-knot northwest winds and seas with at least 9-foot waves the morning of the sinking.
This corroborates testimony from boat captains who were fishing in the vicinity of the Lady Mary when it sank 60 miles off Cape May in a scalloping canyon known by local fishermen as the Elephant Trunk because of its shape on topographic maps.
Lt. Matthew Glazewski with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration said the developing storm had been forecast for days.
Meanwhile, the panel examined how collision-avoidance systems might have prevented the accident.
The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea - enacted after the Titanic sank in 1912 and subsequently amended - requires container ships and large cargo ships to use Automatic Identification Systems. These devices continuously transmit the ship's position, heading and speed to other nearby boats, which do likewise.
But fishing boats such as the Lady Mary are exempt from this requirement. The Lady Mary did not have this collision-avoidance system.
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