Coast Guard suspends search for two lost fishermen off Assateague

Service also rescued two Annapolis men from a sailboat off N.C.

March 07, 2013|By Jonathan Pitts and Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun

The Coast Guard suspended its search Thursday for two men missing in waters about 15 miles off the coast of Assateague Island after their fishing boat sank a day earlier.

The broken-down fishing vessel was battling 20-foot waves and 50 mph wind gusts in the Atlantic Ocean when a wave knocked North Carolina fisherman Patrick Small off the deck. From the water, Small saw another wave strike the boat, shearing off the pilot house with two other men inside, he told rescuers.

The men, Walter Tate, 80, and his nephew, Stephen Tate, 60, of New Bern, N.C., were deemed lost at sea after a search at first light Thursday found nothing but debris, including the floating front half of the vessel, Coast Guard officials said.

The treacherous conditions, said to be on par with those of a powerful nor'easter, prompted multiple rescues off the Eastern Seaboard. In another, two Marylanders who were ferrying a sailboat from Severn, Va., to Pensacola, Fla., called rescuers after running out of gas and tiring from battling the stormy conditions.

A Coast Guard helicopter rescued Jim Southward, 40, and Pat Schoenberger, 38, about 25 miles east of Cape Lookout, N.C., at 5:34 p.m. Wednesday.

Reached by phone in Elizabeth City, N.C., Southward and Schoenberger, professional sea captains who live in Annapolis, said that as their vessel, the 41-foot power sailboat Andante, foundered in 25-foot waves, a Coast Guard rescue diver came aboard.

The diver helped each into a harness and watched as they were hauled 100 yards toward a spot where the helicopter could scoop them from the water. The chopper could get no closer for fear of the boat's thrashing mast.

The two were fortunate because the Gulf Stream warms the water off Cape Lookout, unlike the waters off the Eastern Shore where the Tates were lost.

Coast Guard rescuers told him the air temperature was in the 30s at the time, but in the water it was more than 60 degrees, Schoenberger said.

"It's crazy. You can't actually believe it's happening," he said, adding that the rescuers' calm confidence helped him and Southward, a close friend, through the ordeal.

The winter storm conditions, though relatively mild over Central Maryland, made chances for rescuing the Tates slim, said Thomas Botzenhart, search and rescue controller at the 5th Coast Guard District command center in Norfolk, Va.

Still, rescuers spent hours searching for the Tates, estimating that they could have survived in the water for 10 hours at most. The estimate was based on the 42-degree water temperature and general assumptions based on their genders and size.

"We did recover one person from the vessel who was in the water for a pretty good amount of time, and there's no model that can predict the will to live," Botzenhart said.

Julia Respass, the sister of Walter Tate, said her brother was one of 12 children and worked on fishing and shrimping boats up and down the East Coast for most of his life, as did other members of the family.

"He started going out with my dad when he was a little boy," said Respass. "He just grew up with that in his blood. We always hoped that they would come back home safe."

Walter was "jolly" and full of life, said Respass, while Stephen was a sweet, lifelong bachelor fond of writing poetry. Walter Tate could have retired, Respass said, but "that was his life, he wanted to keep on working."

Respass said the U.S. Coast Guard told her they found three survival suits on the boat, still in their packaging.

"We've been really devastated," Respass said, adding that some of her other brothers have died. "I had seven brothers, and now I just have one. I'm going to miss both of them very, very much."

The 67-foot fishing vessel they were aboard, named Seafarer, had been disabled and was being towed by a sister ship, the Captain Alex. The Coast Guard reported that the Captain Alex lost the tow and sight of the Seafarer when weather conditions worsened.

The Coast Guard picked up an electronic distress call from Seafarer at 10:39 a.m. Wednesday, officials said. That area of the Atlantic Ocean was under a storm warning, a meteorology designation that means winds gusted at 55 mph or greater, said Larry Brown, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Wakefield, Va.

The area was just north of the center of a low-pressure system that dumped up to 2 feet of snow on Virginia's Blue Ridge mountains, though it brought only light accumulations and rain in the Baltimore area.

The storm kept most mariners from venturing out and tore away chunks of the Maryland coastline.

"It sounded like a freight train and acted just like a nor'easter," said Mike Riley, Assateague State Park manager.

Coast Guard officials believe that the distress signal was sent automatically when a system detected sea water inside the Seafarer, which at 67 feet long and 88 tons was 5 feet shorter and four tons lighter than the Andrea Gail, the doomed fishing boat made famous in the book and movie "The Perfect Storm."

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