In January 1999, four clam boats were lost in separate incidents in the span of less than three weeks. First, on January 6, the Beth Dee Bob sank in rough weather with all hands. Two days later, the
Cape Fear sank under similar circumstances. On January 18, the
Adriatic went down with all hands, one day after the Ellie B ran up on the rocks at Manasquan Inlet. In total, 10 lives were lost, sparking a major Coast Guard investigation into safety practices on commercial fishing vessels. The sinkings are detailed in Lost At Sea.
- shipwreck, trawler, clam dredge, USA
- 1990, Beaufort NC USA
- ( 84 ft ) 96 tons, 4 crew
- Wednesday January 6, 1999
foundered in rough seas - no survivors
- 120 ft, but intact masts rise much higher
The Beth Dee Bob sits upright on a hard sandy bottom with a slight list to starboard. She is completely intact. although in 2004 the outriggers fell down into the sand. The vessel is much like a bigger, cleaner version of the Lana Carol. The wheelhouse is easily penetrated, although the rest of the interior is more difficult. The aft hold is still full of clam cages, while the hold covers are torn off and lie in the sand off the stern.
The exact cause and details of the sinking are not known, but it must have occurred very quickly, and only one of the four man crew managed to escape. In 2000, divers from the Dina Dee cut off the six foot propeller to donate it to the Fishermen's Memorial. Instead, it was confiscated by the insurance company.
In the time she has been down, the Beth Dee Bob has turned into a very productive dive site. Mussels are abundant and so clean that they hardly need to be dragged. Sea Bass and ling swarm around in the sand, and lobsters are common, if not very large.
The fluted port outrigger, still extended, shortly after sinking. ( Now fallen. )
the thin line off the top is the dive boat's anchor.
Looking up through the rigging, two years later.
The plaque on the bow, changed from the original in the photo at top.
Now completely overgrown with mussels.
Looking down at clam cages in the cargo hold.
An up-ended clam cage
From the Coast Guard Report:
(2) F/V Beth Dee Bob. Sinking, 6 January 1999, loss of four lives, no survivors.
The F/V Beth Dee Bob left Point Pleasant, NJ for a 24 hour trip to dredge for ocean quahogs. After an uneventful trip, the vessel was returning home when the seas grew rough and the 84-foot vessel foundered and sank approximately 13 miles off Manasquan, NJ. The Coast Guard received a distress call at around 0540 local time, saying the vessel was taking on water. The sister ship Danielle Maria, two Coast Guard vessels, and a USCG helicopter raced to the location pinpointed by satellite receivers. An hour later, a crewmember was found by the helicopter floating in a life preserver, holding a strobe light and bobbing in a 39 degree heaving sea. He was airlifted to Jersey Medical where he died. Two empty rafts were found. The Beth Dee Bob sank before help could arrive.
- A former Captain of the Beth Dee Bob stated he believed the vessel's stability letter did not serve its purpose. He knew the vessel had a stability letter, but never bothered to read it because he "knows better how the vessel should be loaded." He further stated "the more water in the hold, the better she rode - as long as you kept her on an even keel" and "the hatch covers were only to protect the clams from the sun and heat; after all, many boats have no hatches at all!" While the Beth Dee Bob's stability letter seems to be very clearly written, there are indications that the only information of concern to the crew was the maximum number of full cages of clams.
If the water was much clearer or much shallower, the Beth Dee Bob might look
a lot like this - the Michelle K sunk in the Manasquan River, 2004.
"This picture was taken several years ago by my wife, Debbie. We were
searching for the Adriatic's lost clam dredge that day. Later, after the
sinking, my group of divers was the first to dive on and identify her.
I used this picture at the dive site to set the dive plan and objectives."
- Capt. Duane Clause, Porthole II
- clam dredge, USA
- ( 74 ft ) 134 tons, 4 crew
- Monday January 18, 1999
foundered in rough seas - no survivors
- 65 ft
The Adriatic foundered in rough seas just a few miles off the beach. The hull now lies completely upside-down on a very silty mud bottom, with dredge, clam cages, outriggers, and the top of the pilot house scattered off to the west. Holes were cut in the hull during the investigation of the sinking.
Sea Bass and Blackfish swarm over the wreck, but no lobsters.
From the Coast Guard Report:
(4) F/V Adriatic. Sinking, 18 January 1999, loss of four lives, no survivors.
On 18 January 1999, Coast Guard Station Atlantic City, NJ received a call from a worker at Barney's Dock in Atlantic City reporting F/V Adriatic was overdue from a fishing trip. Two Coast Guard HH-65A Dolphin helicopters from Air Station Atlantic City and a 47-foot motor lifeboat from Station Barnegat, NJ, searched the area. The Coast Guard recovered a life ring with the name F/V Adriatic stenciled on it, and an unmarked survival suit six miles off shore. F/V Adriatic was located sunk about nine miles due east of Barnegat Light, NJ. No survivors were found; two bodies were later recovered in the vessel and two crewmembers are missing.
F/V Adriatic sent out a distress call but it was too garbled to understand, delaying a search that might have saved all four crewmembers.
- Vessel sank quickly in heavy weather with a full load of clams.
- Unintelligible "Mayday" call was picked up by rescue units, but units were unable to ascertain vessel's position or name.
- The video of vessel's exterior shows no evidence of hull fractures or failure. Video from the engine room reveals evidence of maintenance problems with the main sea suction valve and clam pump piping. The valve stem of the main sea suction valve was broken off, and a flange of 10" sea suction line was missing two bolts with two additional bolts loose. The sea suction valve was held in a fully open position with a pulling device called a come-along. There was no ability to close the main sea suction valve, and there was an approximately 1 inch gap in the flange.
- The EPIRB transmitted a signal, but did not deploy and float to the surface. A pin in the hydro release had not been replaced in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendation.
- The liferaft was initially caught in the railing of the vessel and was still attached to the sea painter and in the casing. Approximately six days after the casualty, the raft was found fully inflated after it washed ashore and was recovered by Station Barnegat.
- A sister vessel's stability analysis puts the maximum load at 30 cages of clams which was the amount being carried at time of casualty.
- There is no record of any members of crew having participated in safety training given by various entities in Mid Atlantic Marine Safety Association.
- Marijuana was found in a pocket of a deceased crewmember and a bong found in personal articles, but autopsies revealed no evidence of drug or alcohol influence.
Divers explore the new wreck
The stern of the wreck, from the side,
with prop and rudder at upper-right
Clam cages lie scattered
A Blackfish patrols new territory
Fish school around the letters on the bow
Photo courtesy of Capt. Duane Clause
Location courtesy of Capt. Lou Wary
- shipwreck, clam dredge, USA
- ( 68 ft ) 3 crew
- January 17, 1999; ran up on jetty
- 15 ft
The Ellie B was returning home when she struck the north
Manasquan inlet jetty. The winter sea quickly pounded the wooden hull to matchsticks. A few weeks later, nothing remained visible from the surface. The engines and heavy equipment were later salvaged, leaving no trace of the wreck behind.
Sunk photo by Capt. Thomas Hurst courtesy of Capt. Duane Clause
By Douglas A. Campbell
Philadelphia Inquirer, 1999
POINT PLEASANT, N.J. - Michael Hager had already lost his chance for a big payday when, in the long, cold shadows of a clear dawn on Jan. 5, 1999, he arrived at the clam dock. It was 7:30, about the time the 84-foot clam dredger Beth Dee Bob gunned its diesel engine like a bus leaving a curb, dug its propeller into the gray-green water, and pointed toward Manasquan Inlet and the fickle Atlantic Ocean. Instead of including Hager, the crew on that red and white boat was made up of four other men.
Hager, 31, a veteran of 13 years at sea, knew the dangers aboard a clam boat in treacherous winter seas. Yet he would have traded places with any of those four men that Tuesday morning, for they were to return to this dock in 36 hours, earning pocketfuls of money. Edward McLaughlin, the burly, easygoing captain of the Beth Dee Bob, had offered Hager work on three trips. Hager made the first trip. But he decided to spend New Year's Eve with his son, Mikey, 5, and left McLaughlin scrambling to complete his Dec. 30 crew. Hager was not invited back.
Now, Hager faced the consequence: Another cold day in the bilges of the Adriatic, making repairs to the aging clam dredger tied to pilings along Wills Hole Thoroughfare. Hager's work in the Adriatic would be $350 for the week. His wages aboard the Beth Dee Bob would have been more than $500 for 1 1/2 days' work. Mike Hager turned the key to unlock the Adriatic for the welders and to start his own labors, even as the Beth Dee Bob steamed east.
What none could have imagined as their routines got under way that morning were the events that were about to unfold. For the next 13 days would be among the deadliest ever at the clam docks along the New Jersey coast, where most clamming vessels in the North Atlantic fleet bring their catch one time or another, year round. In stunning succession, four clam boats would sink and 10 men would die, five of them never to be found.
The four vessels were part of a fleet of 48 that set out one year ago this week with their 1999 quotas to take 4 million bushels of quahogs and 2.565 million bushels of surf clams, worth a total of about $44 million at the dock. The four lost boats represented a cross-section of that little flotilla: the Beth Dee Bob, one other state-of-the-art stern ramp dredger, a 20-year-old steel vessel with no modern clamming equipment, and a wooden boat of similar vintage that had once survived a catastrophic fire.
The men lost with these floating factories were also a fair example of their breed, ranging from a 51-year-old sea captain, who three weeks earlier had fallen wildly in love, to a 21-year-old college student out to make some money during winter break. Among the survivors were those who vowed never to set foot aboard another boat, and others who quickly returned to the waters where their shipmates found graves. There were dozens of grieving relatives and hundreds of friends at five funerals and as many memorial services. And there were questions, among them whether commercial fishing, the most dangerous industry in America, could be made a bit less deadly.
For three sailors who survived one of the sinkings, there was no doubt why their boat sank. Only the timing of it, in the midst of those 13 days, seemed peculiar. But after the coffins were closed and the inquiries completed, uncertainties remained concerning why the other three vessels went down. The answers lie in the men, the machines, the industry and nature - the as yet unchanged world of commercial clamming.
No one on the docks that January would have called Ed McLaughlin, 36, anything less than a prudent skipper. Prudent and loyal. When his boat owner, PMD Enterprises, called with a last-minute assignment, McLaughlin canceled his New Year's Eve plans with his wife, Lisa, called off the baby sitter for their 2-year-old son, Liam, and went to sea Dec. 30 to catch one last load of 1998 quahogs. Lisa got a consolation dinner on Saturday night, Jan. 2, when Ed returned. They ate at the candlelight and linen Ebbitt Room in Cape May - steak for her, fish for the sea captain - and then strolled the empty winter streets of the town where they met in the summer of 1987, talking of a new home, a planned Florida trip.
Three days later, Lisa got a phone call about 9 a.m. Ed was calling from his boat. He was already 15 miles out, crossing the "Mud Hole, " a notorious stretch of the Atlantic where storm-blown seas pile up against a seabed cliff, creating waves twice the normal size. On this morning, the Mud Hole's treachery was in check. Ed and Lisa talked about moving into a townhouse. Sitting in the wheelhouse with a newspaper in his lap, Ed gave his wife some real estate phone numbers. Then they said their good-byes, and McLaughlin continued to steam toward his destination 70 miles to the northeast, not far from the Long Island shoreline.
Down below, sleeping in a bunk room under the wheelhouse, lay Jay Bjornestad, the first mate, 38 and string-bean skinny, and Roman Tkaczyk, 48, a deck hand from Gdansk, Poland. The other deck hand was Grady Gene Coltrain, 39, who was making his first trip on the Beth Dee Bob. Coltrain, who stood 6-foot-4, was a lanky, rugged man who liked to write love poems. He spent his free time reading horror novels at the galley table. At 3:30 a.m., he had phoned his common-law wife, Anna Puglisi, a night nurse at a South Jersey hospital. "Have a safe trip, " she told him. She would rather he work as a carpenter, his other trade.
Under the galley table on the Beth Dee Bob were four survival suits, red neoprene coveralls that could save a man's life if he had to jump into the freezing Atlantic. On the wheelhouse roof were the life raft and emergency position indicating radio beacon - or EPIRB. Up in the wheelhouse, McLaughlin, a confident, likable man with the 18-inch neck of a power-lifter and a scholar's fondness for reading, watched the radar screen. The autopilot steered the boat, and the helm remained motionless and untouched.
Above the helm was a snapshot of Liam on a hobby horse, with Lisa. From time to time, McLaughlin glanced up at two television monitors that showed images from the engine room under the afterdeck. He could watch a video on the VCR. In boring times like these, he often practiced tying knots in a drinking straw with one hand. McLaughlin, a commercial fisherman for 17 years, had been captain of the Beth Dee Bob for four of its nine years. The boat was 84 feet and 3 inches long and 26 feet wide. Its afterdeck was about 18 inches above the water, and the windows of its low wheelhouse were just even with the tip of the high bow.
Behind the wheelhouse was the clam hold, a huge steel box welded below the deck and covered, when the boat was steaming, with huge steel lids called hatch covers. Outriggers - 30-foot-long poles - were lowered on either side from a superstructure of welded steel. When the boat reached the clam beds, 2-foot-long objects shaped like space shuttles and called divers or birds would be lowered from the outriggers on cables, 20 feet below the surface, to keep the boat from rolling. A steel ramp towering above the deck as high as a two-story roof slanted up from the vessel's stern toward its bow, and a huge steel cage - the dredge - rode atop it. Mike Hager, who was dazzled by the boat's high-tech equipment, had found one feature of the Beth Dee Bob peculiar. The bunks were all below the water line, under the low wheelhouse.
It was McLaughlin's practice to rouse Bjornestad from his bunk when he reached the fishing grounds and to nap during the first half of the 22-hour-long dredge while the first mate operated the boat. Bjornestad, who had joined McLaughlin when the Beth Dee Bob was working out of Shinnecock, Long Island, in 1996, now lived a half-mile from his captain in Absecon and carpooled with him to the dock.
It was 2 p.m. when the Beth Dee Bob, in 200 feet of water, arrived at the clam beds 20 miles off Long Island. Coltrain and Tkaczyk were on the afterdeck, preparing the machinery. The air was slightly warmer than the 28-degrees high predicted on shore, and the heavy work quickly built a sweat. Bjornestad worked the controls, and the dredge, released from its ramp, slid with a machine-gun rattle into the water. The dredge, a 20-foot-long scoop made of welded steel rods and steel bars, pulled with it the steel cable from the boat's massive winch, along with a towing rope as thick as a strong man's wrist.
The dredge also drew down the end of a black rubber hose 10 inches in diameter and as long as the towing rope. A pump inside the Beth Dee Bob sucked up seawater and forced it through this hose to nozzles across the front of the dredge, churning the ocean floor, roiling clams from their hiding places in the mud or sand.
Bjornestad towed for 10 or 12 minutes at a little over two knots - just above two miles an hour - then started the winch. The dredge rose on the ramp, an elevator in an open-air shaft. Water cascaded from the dredge, which emptied its load into a hopper below the ramp. Seagulls began hovering over the boat's wake like shoppers waiting for the doors to open on sale day. As mechanized equipment shook the small debris and fish from the catch and shot them overboard, the screeching gulls dived.
The sorted quahogs, black and the size of hockey pucks, rode forward on conveyor belts. Coltrain and Tkaczyk, the taste of salt air on their lips, the sweet smell of raw seafood in their noses, diverted the quahogs down stainless steel chute. The shells clattered like falling rocks into the holds, loaded with steel cages three by four feet wide and five feet high. No one could talk above the racket. As each dredge surfaced, more cages were filled with 32 bushels of quahogs each, and the Beth Dee Bob grew heavier.
At midnight, the boat's deck lamps lit the black horizon. Coltrain and Tkaczyk were halfway through their long hours on deck, and McLaughlin was about to relieve Bjornestad at the helm. By 3:45 a.m. Wednesday, McLaughlin had used one of his radios to listen to a weather forecast. He didn't like what he heard. He raised the Danielle Maria, another PMD clam boat, and spoke to the captain, Joel Stevenson.
"Man, did you hear that weather?" McLaughlin asked. "No, don't tell me they got weather, " Stevenson replied. "I'm looking for a nice day today." "No, they got bad weather up tonight. I wouldn't go where you're headed." Stevenson turned to the weather channel on his radio and then called back. "Man, you're not kidding. They got that wind coming up tonight." McLaughlin persuaded Stevenson to work 38 miles from the dock rather than pushing for a spot near Long Island. At this point, McLaughlin was catching steadily and had only 19 of 67 cages left to fill before he turned for home. The last dredge came up at 11 a.m., just when the wind started blowing from the southwest. Bjornestad took over the helm, and it was McLaughlin's time to rest.
Heading back to Point Pleasant, the Beth Dee Bob, which had been approved by a naval architect to carry 70 full cages, had 48 cages in its hold and 11 more resting on the deck. Each full cage weighed 3,400 pounds. The top third of eight more full cages poked up from the forward hold, with the hatch cover drawn like bedclothes to hold them in place, a practice the architect had forbidden because of the risk of water filling the hold. With the boat driving directly into the increasing wind and waves, no one worried that water would get in where the cages protruded from the forward clam hold. Clammers knew that seas breaking over the bow would part and thus would never reach that opening.
As the afternoon of Jan. 6 progressed, Bjornestad kept in radio contact with the Danielle Maria. "Man, I'm taking a lot of water over the bow, " he told Stevenson. In their berths below the water line, McLaughlin, Coltrain and Tkaczyk were getting a rough ride. There wasn't a man aboard who had not been in similar seas, but that didn't make them any more comfortable as they headed home.
Coltrain would be going to Cherry Hill, where he lived with Puglisi and their two children - Sarah, 12, and Justin, 8. He was divorced from his first wife, and his 14-year-old son, Grady Gene Jr., lived in Virginia. February would be a big month in his life. He would turn 40 on the 16th, and he and Puglisi would get married after 13 years together.
Tkaczyk had a wife, Aolanta, and a son, Damian, 14, in Poland. He worked the fishing boats on the Atlantic coast, stayed in Philadelphia when ashore, and sent money home to his family. He was known for quitting boats without explanation, a quirk that was tolerated because he was capable.
Bjornestad and his wife, Charlene, lived with their daughter, Theresa, in Absecon, but their real home was on Long Island. Bjornestad had fished for 18 years, sometimes as captain of a fishing boat in Florida. He joined the Beth Dee Bob as a deck hand and in three years worked up to first mate. Bjornestad's longevity was uncommon on McLaughlin's boat, where 47 deck hands - an unusually high number - had worked since 1994. The captain used to tell PMD's boat manager, Ernest Riccio: "I'm just looking for a warm body to go."
The birth of Liam had transformed McLaughlin from party animal to proper parent. He wanted nothing more than to be home with his son. When the two were together, playing with cars on the floor or with the computer, Lisa sometimes seemed invisible. She loved her husband for that.
By 4 p.m., after 32 hours at sea, McLaughlin could sleep no longer and was up in the wheelhouse with Bjornestad. The evening closed in from the east, and by 5:30, with snow blowing in flurries, the Beth Dee Bob was steaming toward the fleeting tinges of day, approaching the Mud Hole.
On the Danielle Maria, first mate Larry Kirk was steaming in, as well, having relieved Stevenson. He had quit clamming at 3:30 p.m. with only half a load. In what Kirk estimated was one of the nastiest seas he had sailed in 30 years, he had been unable to keep the dredge on the ramp. The wind reached 40 knots, blowing foam in long streaks off the 10-foot waves. Kirk radioed the Beth Dee Bob and talked with McLaughlin. "Ed, is it getting any better in there?" he asked. "Yeah. Once you get inside eighteen miles, it's good, " McLaughlin replied. "Oh, great, 'cause I'm getting my a- kicked out here, " Kirk said. He was 90 minutes behind the Beth Dee Bob.
It was 10 minutes later when Kirk next heard McLaughlin's voice on the radio. " Danielle Maria, are you there?" He sounded distressed. "Yes, Ed, I'm there, " Kirk answered. "What's going on?" "I'm taking on water, big time!"
Intense Rescue Effort Begins
There was no Mayday call. There was only the tense voice of Capt. Edward McLaughlin coming through the VHF radio in the wheelhouse of the clam boat Danielle Maria, telling first mate Larry Kirk that McLaughlin's vessel was taking on water "big time." Kirk squeezed the microphone knob and asked McLaughlin for the position of his boat, the 84-foot steel quahog dredger Beth Dee Bob.
McLaughlin responded with coordinates from his Loran, an electronic plotting device. The figures placed Kirk and the Danielle Maria 15 miles to the southeast of McLaughlin. It was 5:40 p.m. on Jan. 6, 1999, off the New Jersey coast. The sun had set. The temperature was dropping. And snow flurries blew in steady 30-knot winds that took the foam off the tops of a heaving sea.
Kirk entered McLaughlin's coordinates into his autopilot on the Danielle Maria. Then his boat, which had been traveling west and taking hard shots against the port bow from 10-foot waves and occasional 15-footers, turned to the north. With the same big waves rolling the 110-foot dredger from side to side, Kirk steamed toward his stricken friend.
It had been five minutes since McLaughlin's call, so Kirk hailed him on the VHF. He tried Channel 66, one of the frequencies mariners use for non-emergency conversation, and got no answer. He turned to Channel 70, where clammers who worked for PMD Enterprises of Cape May sometimes carried on their idle chatter. Again, there was no reply. Concerned, Kirk switched to Channel 16, a frequency restricted to hailing other vessels and emergency communications. After 10 minutes with no luck, he radioed the U.S. Coast Guard station at Manasquan Inlet, in Point Pleasant, and provided the Beth Dee Bob's coordinates.
Things happen fast on the water. Storms that the National Weather Service hasn't predicted and can't track build up in minutes. And fishing boats - little floating factories laden with their catch - can, once they are in trouble, sink in minutes, sometimes in seconds.
Anyone who knew McLaughlin, 36, knew he would try first to save his boat and then to survive. He had a lot to live for. Until his son, Liam, was born two years before, McLaughlin was like many commercial fishermen: "they party hearty; work hard, come into the dock and drink hard, " said John Graziosetta, 49, a mechanic who maintained the Beth Dee Bob. With a boy at home, McLaughlin now "had focus."
If the worst had happened - if the Beth Dee Bob's crew had to abandon ship - the best possible outcome would be that the four men had time to get into their survival suits, that their life raft had automatically deployed from its canister atop the boat's wheelhouse, and that they were tossing in that violent sea, the orange penlight-sized strobe lights attached to their chests flashing their positions.
With such a sudden loss of radio contact, this outcome had to be on everyone's mind as, from out at sea and from the clam dock in Point Pleasant, every available fishing boat joined in the rescue effort. That effort began at 5:55 p.m., when Fireman Keevan Walker, standing watch in the Manasquan Inlet Coast Guard Station, received Kirk's radio message. Walker started a chronological record with the Beth Dee Bob's last known coordinates and then called the officer of the day, Petty Officer Colin Redy.
Redy ordered a 41-foot Coast Guard vessel - identified by its number, 41300 - to divert to the scene from a training run. Then the calls started coming in from other fishing boats that were changing course to converge on the Beth Dee Bob. The Jamaica, the Christian & Alexa, the Flicka all called, even as a Coast Guard helicopter, on a training run over the ocean from Atlantic City, was ordered back to base to get a pump to bail out the stricken clam boat.
It had been less than 10 minutes from the time McLaughlin first realized something was wrong until he called the Danielle Maria to say he was taking on water. McLaughlin and his first mate, Jay Bjornestad, 38, were in the wheelhouse. The Beth Dee Bob's automatic pilot steered them through pounding seas toward the clam dock in Point Pleasant, where they intended to unload the product of their last day's labor - 2,240 bushels of ocean quahogs worth $8,960.
Deck hand Roman Tkaczyk, 48, was asleep in a berth in the crew's quarters at the foot of the stairs leading down from the rear of the wheelhouse. Crew member Grady Gene Coltrain, 39, had left his berth below the boat's waterline. The 675-horsepower diesel was now throttled down to an idle as McLaughlin tried to understand the problem. The boat was still moving forward, but at nowhere near the nine or ten knots it normally made. Instead of beating against the oncoming waves, the Beth Dee Bob rose and fell almost docilely in 10- and 12-foot seas.
Taking on water, the boat may have seemed more stable. With two television cameras in the engine room at the rear of the boat, McLaughlin would have been able to see whether that space was flooding. What he could not see was whether the clam hold, carrying 56 steel cages filled with ocean quahogs, had taken on water, or whether the large void spaces around the welded steel box of the hold had opened up to the sea. Checking the voids would require climbing down into the boat. To determine whether there was water in the clam tanks, a skipper would watch the stern of the boat to see whether water was washing over the clam tank hatches and whether the boat was listing. If it was, he would start up the pumps in the hold. On the Beth Dee Bob, the valves controlling the pumps were at this moment all closed.
The first indication that there was a problem may have been the way the stern of the boat settled. The Beth Dee Bob normally rode very close to the water, and it was not uncommon for seas to break across its aft deck and then slide off through the scuppers along the rails. Whatever was happening now, it came suddenly. There was no time to rouse Tkaczyk from his bunk nor to run down to the galley, next to the bunk room below the wheelhouse, where the red survival suits were stored. As later evidence would suggest, the Beth Dee Bob was about to simply sink, without listing or capsizing.
The huge lamps that lit the deck machinery of the Beth Dee Bob were still burning white-hot when the water began rushing down the stairs, the only escape route from the galley and the bunk rooms. Tkaczyk, whose labors fed and housed a wife and 14-year-old son in Gdansk, Poland, was about to drown. Then the ocean poured into the wheelhouse. The men in the wheelhouse had no choice. Those who were not now caught in the recesses of the clam boat stepped out into the Atlantic. The water temperature was in the low 40s. The men wore only their work clothes and boots.
As he stepped out the door, Jay Bjornestad, wearing coveralls and knee-high rubber boots, grabbed from its hanger on the outside wall an orange life ring to which was attached a strobe light. Then he was in the numbing, icy waters. If they were in the wheelhouse with Bjornestad, McLaughlin and Coltrain may have joined him clinging to the life ring. But even as the Beth Dee Bob slipped under the waves, its bright lights finally extinguished, any man left in the heaving blackness of the frigid water had, at best, less than an hour to live.
In 45-degree water, hypothermia - the loss of body heat - progresses in rapid stages. First, there is profound shivering as the body tries to warm itself. If the body's temperature continues to fall, the shivering stops. There may also be a brief period of aching, but then the victim falls into a stupor, a rather pleasant and painless condition followed by coma. At a body temperature of about 90 degrees, a revived victim will suffer amnesia. If the victim is not revived, the body stiffens as the muscles contract. The heart, in time, ceases to function.
By 6 p.m., 20 minutes after McLaughlin's distressing call on the radio, a dozen or more boats were converging on 40 degrees, 8 minutes north, 73 degrees, 40 minutes west. And in the sky, an orange HH65 Dolphin Coast Guard helicopter was on its way. In the front of its minivan-sized cabin were the pilot, Lt. Scott McFarland, and his copilot, Lt. Edward Beale. Behind them in a jump seat rode Petty Officer Richard Gladish, 35, who had spent 14 years saving lives as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer. He wore a dry suit, a harness with all of his life-saving gear, fins, and a mask. When they got to the Beth Dee Bob or its crew, Gladish would be the one to hit the water and bring the men back alive. Until 6 p.m., this had been a training run for the helicopter crew. Now, flying at 140 knots to the northeast along the New Jersey coast, it was the real thing.
Chopper Arrives at the Scene
Lt. Scott McFarland lowered the nose of the orange Coast Guard Dolphin helicopter and aimed at a flashing light on the black ocean below. The pilot and his crew had reached the last known location of the clam boat Beth Dee Bob, and the light held the promise of finding the boat's four crew members. It was 6:52 p.m. on Jan. 6, 1999, more than an hour since the first indication that the Beth Dee Bob was in trouble. McFarland knew there was little chance now of seeing the vessel. For several minutes, he had been following a signal from the boat's emergency position indicating radio beacon - or EPIRB - a device that under normal circumstances operates only after it has floated free from a sinking vessel.
Rescue swimmer Richard Gladish, 35, was perched in a jump seat on the right side of the chopper. He wore the dry suit, fins, mask and harness of his trade and was ready to work. The sliding door beside him was open, and the floodlights on the belly of the chopper were shining down on the churning sea from which the Beth Dee Bob had radioed at 5:40 that it was taking on water "big time."
The EPIRB signal, relayed by satellite, had been received by the Coast Guard in Norfolk, Va., around 6 p.m. In minutes, McFarland and his crew, flying over the Atlantic on a training mission, were involved. The clam boat Danielle Maria had told the Coast Guard station in Point Pleasant that the Beth Dee Bob was taking on water. Commanders in Atlantic City, with scant information on the situation, ordered the Dolphin back to that base for a bailing pump before heading for the Beth Dee Bob. That decision cost precious minutes. It is about 60 miles from Atlantic City to the Mud Hole, the seamen's name for the notoriously turbulent section of water where the Beth Dee Bob had been stricken. Flying at 140 knots, the Dolphin would cover the distance in, at best, 25 minutes. But it flew several miles to its base, landed, and loaded a pump before it even began the trip.
If the clam boat was down, and if the crew members had managed to climb into their red neoprene survival suits, the four men could survive in these frigid winter waters without a life raft for up to 36 hours. If they had not been able to put on their suits, their lives could slip away in an hour or less.
McFarland passed by the flashing light and swung the chopper around to face into the nearly gale-force southwest wind. Hovering 100 feet above the 10-foot waves, the pilot and his crew could clearly see a man in the water. He was face down, his body tucked through the center of a life ring from which a strobe light flashed. "Rick!" McFarland called to Gladish. "Get ready!" Gladish reached up for the hook at the end of a cable descending from a small derrick mounted on the chopper's roof. He pulled the cable through the open door to attach its hook to the harness that crossed his chest. He signaled to McFarland. Ready!
The Dolphin was the second vessel committed by the Coast Guard to save the Beth Dee Bob's crew. A 41-foot boat that had left Manasquan Inlet in Point Pleasant just after 6 p.m. was also on its way. With the Dolphin reporting only one survivor in view, a broader search, perhaps for the rest of the crew in a life raft, was needed.
As the evening progressed and Wednesday became Thursday, more aircraft and boats would join in the rescue mission. At 7:05 p.m. Wednesday, a second aircraft would be dispatched from Atlantic City. A 47-foot boat would be sent from Barnegat Light, 30 miles to the south, at 7:38, and a 44-foot boat would leave Manasquan Inlet three minutes later. At 4:14 the next morning, the 82-foot cutter Point Highland would arrive from Cape May, and a C-130 aircraft would arrive from Elizabeth City, N.C., at 6:26 a.m.
The sea would grow so rough as the night wore on that the smaller Coast Guard boats would eventually return to their docks, some of their crew members violently seasick. The aircraft would fly through the night, one crew relieving another. On shore, other Coast Guard personnel would put into a computer information on winds and currents and create a plan for the search - a grid blanketing 2,200 square miles over which aircraft would fly in tight patterns for the next two days and across which Coast Guard and other vessels would prowl.
The clam dock in Point Pleasant - normally an overlooked collection of sheds and cranes where the seafood smells of the catch are often lost in the stink of idling marine diesels - was bustling within a couple of hours of the distress call from Edward McLaughlin, the Beth Dee Bob's captain. Television crews and newspaper reporters descended. Fishermen lingered, hoping for good news, and when that didn't come, they began to grieve.
John Babbitt, 43, of Little Compton, R.I., earlier that day had been nine miles offshore on the 65-foot Ellie B, a wooden boat painted white and red and equipped with a side dredge. As captain, Babbitt had looked at the weather and decided to quit dredging surf clams. Steaming to the clam dock, he was about an hour and a half in front of the Beth Dee Bob, and he was already unloading his catch when the first word came about his friend, Ed McLaughlin, and his crew. Babbitt sat at the dock and cried a little. "With my buddy, Ed, you damn well know he died trying to fix that thing, " he would say later. "It's just sad. But it's just part of the gig."
Richard Hager, 66, was sitting on the couch in his second-floor garden apartment five miles to the west in Brick, tethered to an oxygen bottle to keep his diseased heart pumping, when, on the 10 p.m. news, he learned that the Beth Dee Bob had gone down. He had spent 30 years on fishing and clam boats. He knew the gig, knew what a sinking in January meant. Michael Hager, his 31-year-old son, the youngest of his six children, was supposed to be on the Beth Dee Bob.
Frightened, he phoned Michael's home a couple of miles away and got the answering machine. He called another son, Jeffrey, and asked him to drive to the docks to search for Michael's car. Jeffrey agreed, but instead, he drove to Michael's home and found his brother there. Michael had merely been at the 7-Eleven. About 10:30, Michael called his father, relieving Richard Hager's anxiety.
Michael had not shown up for an earlier trip aboard the Beth Dee Bob and was not invited back. Michael's own distress was to occur later, when, lying in bed thinking that he, too, could be lost at sea, he began shaking. At 12:45 a.m., he called his father once more. "I'm just so shook up, " he told his father. "Every time I think about it, I get chills down my spine."
The next day, he hugged his parents, and in the days that followed, he was torn by emotions. One moment, he was shouting with joy that his life had been spared and that his days with his son, Mikey, 5, were not over. The next, he wore the gaunt mask of the haunted, chain-smoked, and spoke in amazement of his good fortune. "Somebody must be up there, watching over me, " he told his mother, Judy, 64.
The news had traveled fast along the docks and across the airwaves. When Richard Hager saw the television report the night of Jan. 6, it had been only three hours since rescue swimmer Richard Gladish had crouched in the open helicopter door 100 feet above a frothing sea that was lit by the chopper's powerful flood lights.
As McFarland held the aircraft in a hover downwind from the floating man clinging to the life ring, Gladish, with the winch cable clipped to his harness, stepped out the door and began his descent. Once in the water, his way lit from above, he swam up the slopes of towering waves toward fisherman Jay Bjornestad. Kicking with his flippers, Gladish reached Bjornestad in a minute or two. The man's hands were wrapped around the life ring ropes, holding him into the ring.
Gladish lifted Bjornestad's head out of the water and talked to him. There was no response. The swimmer took off his neoprene gloves and checked Bjornestad's pulse. There was none. Nor could Gladish detect any breathing. Bjornestad's mouth was wide open, his jaw extended. His eyes were open and glazed over. His arms and legs were half frozen. Gladish waved in the helicopter.
McFarland held the chopper overhead as a metal mesh basket with cylindrical orange floats at either end was lowered on the cable. Gladish, with difficulty, managed to bend the stiffened man into the basket, which was then hoisted 100 feet into the chopper. The aircraft, low on fuel, banked west and sped toward a hospital on shore.
Gladish found himself bobbing in the dark, 12-foot seas. In the troughs, he could see nothing but blackness. In the instant when he rose to a crest, he could see oncoming lights, which disappeared as he fell to the next trough. He knew that the 41-foot Coast Guard boat was on its way, and he waited.
Cape Fear Sets Out as a Gale Looms
NEW BEDFORD, Mass. - Steven Craig Novack steered his 112-foot clam dredger, Cape Fear, through the drawbridge in this gritty New England seaport at 3:15 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 7, 1999, and steamed toward the open ocean beyond Buzzards Bay, having learned on the docks that the Beth Dee Bob was down.
That news struck close to home. Novack, 36, knew the skipper of the 84-foot Beth Dee Bob. Although Edward McLaughlin, also 36, sailed from Point Pleasant, N.J., 200 miles southwest of New Bedford, he and Novack were members of the tiny fraternity of clam-boat captains.
On the entire East Coast, there were only 48 clam boats on the water on Jan. 6, 1999. Now, a day later, there were 47 boats and as many skippers, for McLaughlin was lost at sea. One of his crewmen, plucked from the frigid Atlantic the night before, was pronounced dead. The two others were missing with McLaughlin.
Unfazed, Novack headed toward the same waters in the dwindling winter afternoon. A day before, he had retreated to port without dredging any quahogs when he saw the nastiness of the ocean that would claim the Beth Dee Bob. Now, on Thursday, the forecast was for moderate winds and seas for the next 24 hours, followed by a gale at midnight Friday.
Novack, like McLaughlin, had 17 years at sea, and he had skippered eight fishing boats. Experience taught him that he could dredge his full load of 4,160 bushels of quahogs and be home before the gale struck. He couldn't go far offshore, so he settled for a patch of ocean 26 miles from the dock. At 7 p.m., within sight of the glow from Newport, R.I., to the north, Novack lowered his dredge for the first time. Beneath him was one of the finest clam boats in the fleet. And, in the mind of the boat's owner, Warren Alexander, Novack had enough on-the-job training to qualify him to run that million-dollar vessel. The skipper had little to fear.
Only 25 hours earlier, the Beth Dee Bob, also a state-of-the-art clam dredger, had gone down in minutes about 14 miles off Point Pleasant with 114 tons of quahogs - 67 cages weighing 3,400 pounds each - that it was bringing to port after what was supposed to be a 36-hour trip 70 miles out. The Coast Guard had received an emergency signal from the boat just before 6 p.m. Wednesday. About 7 p.m., Coast Guard rescue swimmer Richard Gladish loaded the nearly frozen body of McLaughlin's crewman into the basket of a helicopter and then waited in the dark ocean for 10 minutes before being picked up by a Coast Guard boat. On Thursday morning, helicopters and C-130 aircraft continued searching the ocean, accompanied by several Coast Guard boats and commercial fishing boats.
The first debris - an oil slick - was spotted then. About the same time, a helicopter flying over the Atlantic located one empty life raft, and the scallop boat Christian & Alexa found another. The search went on into Friday. It would be Sunday before Anna Puglisi conducted her own search, rummaging through a Point Pleasant motel room across Channel Drive from the clam dock, gathering the belongings of her mate of 13 years, Grady Gene Coltrain, presumed to be lost at sea on the Beth Dee Bob.
She discovered in that simple room a composition book with new poems from his hand, a big, rugged hand that worked summers on clam boats and most winters in carpentry. Their life together had its ups and downs. In one poem written earlier, Coltrain expressed his sadness over one of their low points. "Long ago you gave your love to me. Like a fool I could not see ... How much that meant until all that love I spent ... wasted it like a fool with his gold ... Now I'm left lonely and cold ..." Coltrain, 39, a native of Virginia, had worked all his adult life on boats. Puglisi never grew accustomed to his vocation. "You've got hands of gold. You can build anything. Why put your life at risk?" she would ask.
There were many good times for Puglisi to remember as she sorted through Coltrain's stuff in the motel room, where he would flop between trips. During the holidays, they did last-minute Christmas shopping and spent New Year's Eve together. It was, as well, a time filled with the little things that made her love Coltrain - the way he'd play soccer with their son, Justin, or walk the family dog, Remington. For these things, Puglisi accepted Coltrain's insistence on fishing. She knew he loved the sea and could not tolerate confined spaces. When he died, he always said, he wanted to be buried at sea.
The clam dock, a white-and-turquoise concrete block structure, was about 100 yards from the motel. Cranes snatched loaded clam cages from boats and put empty cages back in their holds and on their decks. The captains bought diesel fuel here. They made arrangements through the dock manager and his wife for trucks to haul their clams to processing plants in Cape May and Delaware, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. And when the weather was "snotty, " the clam boats with their towering superstructures and outriggers and dredge ramps remained tied to the pilings along the dock.
The Adriatic, the boat on which Michael Hager was the first mate, had been tied to nearby pilings since Dec. 15. It listed sharply to port as welders worked in its belly, installing a new clam pump. Hager, 31, his once shoulder-length sandy curls now hacked off, a baseball cap pulled low to his ears in the January cold, worked for his skipper, George Evans, 51, doing maintenance on the boat. The weekly pay was much less than his share from one day of clamming, but Hager was getting to spend more time with Mikey, his 5-year-old son, who was his life. When someone mentioned his lost trip on the Beth Dee Bob, the one when the boat sank, Hager got a faraway, somber look and spoke in amazement of still having that life.
By Friday, the Coast Guard had found no survivors from the Beth Dee Bob, and at 6 p.m. announced that it had suspended its search.
A half-hour later, off the coast of Massachusetts, the Cape Fear's dredge came up the final time. The boat turned toward New Bedford, 26 miles to the northeast, with winds blowing 20 to 30 knots from the southeast, a precursor of the gale that had been forecast. Novack had filled his hold with 90 cages of quahogs, put 24 more cages on the deck and 16 final cages on the hatch lids, for a total of 130 cages. A naval architect who had conducted stability tests on the Cape Fear had said the boat would remain safe with a maximum of 120 cages on board.
Novack believed loading quahogs was just a matter of common sense. So in 1996, when the Cape Fear was cut in two and extended by 20 feet, he went back to sea and ignored the architect's instructions. He started with smaller loads than allowed and increased his haul by increments until he reached a point where the boat felt right. That happened to be 10 cages above the limit imposed in the architect's stability letter, a document at which, in truth, he had only glanced. Moreover, as an inquiry would later reveal, the captain never followed regulations that required his crew to practice getting into survival suits. Instead, they would merely talk about safety procedures.
As the Cape Fear steamed toward port, Novack, who had an athletic build, shoulder length-blond hair and a bristly moustache, was in the wheelhouse. First mate James Haley, 35, slept in a bunk below. The other crewmen - Steven Reeves, 29, who had been with Novack 18 months, and Paul Martin, 35, and Joseph Lemieux, 28, who both had been aboard six months - were with Novack.
The wheelhouse was filled with lighthearted joking as the autopilot steered the Cape Fear flawlessly toward the calmer waters of Buzzards Bay. Waves running six to eight feet washed from the boat's starboard side across the low deck and the clam hold covers. The water then drained off the deck through scupper holes along the boat's side. The last clam-hold cover was open half a foot. Novack, who could watch his lighted deck through the rear wheelhouse windows, was unconcerned. Pumps were running to siphon seas that fell into the hold, he believed. By watching the video monitors in the wheelhouse, he knew that the engine room was dry, as well.
About 7:45 p.m., an alarm sounded, indicating water in the hydraulic room at the rear of the boat. Novack investigated and found nothing. He knew that as little as five gallons of water sloshing on the floor there could trigger the alarm. He returned to the wheelhouse after also checking the engine room and seeing no problems. About 15 minutes later, at 8 p.m., Novack and his crew saw one wave wash across the Cape Fear's 24-foot-wide stern. The seawater stayed there. The captain was puzzled and concerned.
Slowly, the water began to edge forward along the deck, the rear of the boat settling evenly into the sea. Novack, who had pulled the throttle back to idle so that the Cape Fear rode quietly, told Martin to go below and rouse Haley. The first mate was often grumpy when his sleep was disturbed, but Novack, uncertain what was happening, wanted all hands on deck. When Haley got to the wheelhouse, he saw Novack already stepping into his red neoprene survival suit, and Joe Lemieux, who could not swim, fully dressed. Haley dashed back down the ladder but found Martin climbing into a suit, taking up most of the room. Haley grabbed a suit and stepped out onto the deck to dress.
In a minute, about the time it takes to fully don a survival suit, everyone was in the wheelhouse, and the boat had begun to list to the port side, with the water advancing from the rear toward the wheelhouse. Novack, his suit up around his waist, had a million things running through his mind when he realized he should call for help. He grabbed a radio microphone and hailed the Misty Dawn, another clam boat in Warren Alexander's fleet that was about a mile ahead.
"Hey, Jack, I think we have got a problem here, " he told John Mathis Jr., the Misty Dawn skipper. "If you get a chance, can you turn around and come check on us?" Moments later, Novack asked Mathis to sound a Mayday. Then Novack ordered his crew out of the wheelhouse. The boat was rolling to port as they stepped out and ran up the tilted starboard deck. It lurched, and they were thrown back against the wheelhouse. "We've got to get off the boat now!" Novack yelled. Then he climbed over the bulwark, as did Reeves, and they slid down the hull. Haley and Lemieux tried to follow, but the boat's roll threw them back, and they landed in the 37-degree nighttime sea on the far side from Novack.
The waves were chaotic. The noise was confusing. The Cape Fear's engine still rumbled, but at the same time, geysers of air and foam shot from the sinking hull, and the once-brilliant deck lights, which glowed for a moment under water, went out. Then there was quiet, except for the desperate screams of five men lost in the heaving, freezing darkness.
Now they also face death
Steven Novack didn't know where his four crewmen were in the icy sea water. He only knew that, moments before, when he had ordered them to abandon the sinking clam dredger Cape Fear to save their lives, they had all been with him. Now, in the blackness of the wind-tossed ocean, one six-foot wave after another washed over him. He was becoming disoriented. And the 37-degree water gave him splitting "ice cream" headaches. It was about 8:05 p.m. on Jan. 8, 1999, and the crewmen of the Cape Fear were fighting for their lives.
Novack screamed and crewman Steven Reeves, 29, yelled back. They couldn't see each other, couldn't see anything. It was as if they were locked in separate dark closets. They were not alone, but for now, they might as well have been. Before he jumped into the ocean, Novack, 36, had struggled with the zipper on his survival suit, and he had not managed to get the hood over his head. He went over the side anyway, sliding down the steel hull. When he hit the water, his bare head was dunked.
The headaches began then. And while the unzipped suit kept Novack floating, cold water poured inside. He was growing desperately cold. He needed help. Reeves needed it more. He had failed to get into his survival suit completely, and now, fully exposed to the frigid water, his body was becoming hypothermic. If he didn't get out of the freezing water quickly, he would have less than an hour to live.
Reeves told Novack he did not have a suit on. "Remember, man, try to be calm, " Novack called back. He kept thinking of his crewman with no suit. But he was preoccupied with his own situation, worrying that if he failed to get his hood on, he would die. He fumbled with the strobe light attached to his suit but was unable to make it work.
As he emerged from each dousing wave to ride the top of the next one, Novack saw a light on the horizon, maybe the lighthouse at Cuttyhunk Island off Cape Cod. He kept hollering to Reeves, but after some time - he couldn't guess how long - there was no reply. Then, after more time had passed, he saw what he thought were the strobe lights of other crewmen. With one hand holding his survival suit collar tight, he swam toward the strobes.
By that time, first mate James Haley, 35, had reached crew member Joseph Lemieux, 28, a non-swimmer. Both were wearing their survival suits. Haley got Lemieux to calm down, and both of them clung to a long plank that had been on the deck of the Cape Fear and that had bumped into Haley's arm in the dark. When Novack reached Haley and Lemieux, Haley tried unsuccessfully to get Novack's strobe working. He did manage to pull the skipper's hood over his head, cockeyed so that Novack could not see.
Someone asked if anyone had heard from Paul Martin, 35, the fifth crewman. No one had. They assumed the worst. Then the three heard Reeves call out. He sounded as though he were just five feet away. His voice was a faint cry. "Oh, God!" they thought they heard him plead. The three men began swimming blindly toward the voice.
It had taken less than five minutes from the first indication of trouble until the Cape Fear rolled and the men jumped in the ocean. The boat went down just two days after the clam dredger Beth Dee Bob had sunk off the New Jersey coast, also in a matter of minutes, with all four men aboard feared dead. Steel sinks quickly. The 112-foot Cape Fear was 188 tons of steel and fuel carrying 195 tons of ocean quahogs in 26 tons of cages.
Steel ships float because air pockets are built into their hulls, making the vessels buoyant. The Cape Fear had enough air below its deck that, even with a full load of quahogs, its deck rose a foot above the water at the stern. Air filled the engine room, the spaces around the quahogs in the hold, and voids - empty spaces around the hold used for storage. But there was a lot of heavy steel above the water line. The ramp at the stern upon which the clam dredge was raised towered 30 feet above the deck. A heavy superstructure, from which the stabilizer arms were lowered once the boat was at sea, rose equally high behind the wheelhouse.
To assure that the Cape Fear would remain seaworthy, naval architect John F. Koopman had conducted stability tests and concluded that the boat could carry 120 cages of quahogs and still recover from a serious tilt to one side. Novack knew that Koopman's report was aboard his boat, but he had other ideas on how to test the Cape Fear's seaworthiness. There was no math involved. Rather, he relied on his 17 years of experience at sea to conclude that 130 cages made a safe load. In this, and in his lack of any formal license to operate a boat (commercial fishermen require no operating license), Novack was like many, if not most, other clam boat operators.
For example, William Parlette, a 25-year veteran clammer and captain of the clam boat Richard M, also ignored stability letters and espoused a simple philosophy. "If I felt she was unsafe, " Parlette testified at a Coast Guard hearing in February, "I'd get off it." Parlette also believed that it would be perfectly safe to have the hold of a clam boat filled with water because it would make it more stable.
Koopman, in analyzing the Cape Fear, deduced that while some water could be carried in the holds of that boat, at a certain point well below the full mark, the vessel would be at risk of swamping or capsizing. In the months that followed the sinkings of the Cape Fear and the Beth Dee Bob, regulators criticized the fishermen's seat-of-the-pants approach to seamanship. A Coast Guard task force called for the licensing of captains as a means of limiting the deadliness of the business.
The clammers were adamant that their ways were proven. "they [regulators] have no experience, " said Edward N. Platter, 42, captain of the clam boat Debbie & Jeanette. "they have no idea how fast trouble can come. There's no book that can teach you what's going to happen in the ocean. I personally have 27 years on the ocean. The Coast Guard retires in 20 years. Most of the fishermen around [Point Pleasant, N.J.] have been on the ocean for 30 to 40 years."
In the last 30 or 40 years, there had been other commercial fishing disasters. One waterfront veteran in Point Pleasant had been keeping a grim record. Thomas A. Gallagher, whose welding shop was working on the surf clam dredger Adriatic when both the Beth Dee Bob and the Cape Fear sank, tallied the sinkings on several writing tablet backboards and on crumbling old legal paper. Until January 1999, Gallagher had noted more than 125 fishing vessels that sank off the East coast. The list only went back to about 1962, when, according to his hand printing on lined paper, the dragger Soynia went down in a storm, taking four men with it.
At least four men were still alive from the Cape Fear's crew. Three of them could hear the distinct voice of Steven Reeves, and they swam frantically toward him, only five feet away. Then his voice went quiet, and in the dark valleys between the waves, they lost Reeves. Now Novack, the captain, Haley, the first mate, and Lemieux, a deck hand, clung to the plank, waiting for the sister ship Misty Dawn, which Novack had radioed. The life raft that was mounted atop the Cape Fear's wheelhouse, which should have deployed when the boat sank, was nowhere in sight. Only one strobe light, attached to Haley's survival suit, was working. If they glanced at it, they were temporarily blinded.
They had been in the water a half-hour when the lights of the Misty Dawn appeared in the distance. Novack became concerned that the boat would run over them, for it shone its spotlight toward them and then away. The three began yelling. The Misty Dawn circled to the south, putting the three men in its lee, out of the wind. Capt. John Mathis Jr. idled his engine, and Haley was able to climb aboard. Novack and Lemieux both grabbed a life ring that was tossed to them, and the Misty Dawn's crew dragged them up over the rail.
Then Mathis began searching for Martin and Reeves. Suddenly, what appeared to be a whale was directly before the Misty Dawn. It was the belly of the overturned Cape Fear. There was a screech of metal on metal. The men from the Cape Fear, who had climbed out of their survival suits, now began desperately pulling them back on. But the Misty Dawn backed off the stricken hull without serious damage, and, with Coast Guard vessels on the way, continued its search for Reeves and Martin.
A Rough Journey for the Ellie B
POINT PLEASANT, N.J. -- As Capt. John Babbitt would say later, "weather-wise, it was a pretty nasty night, " with the wind "blowing a freaking gale, and everyone being blown around all night." the surf clam dredger Ellie B (at 65 feet, the smallest boat among a dozen remaining in this port's tragedy-struck clamming fleet) was being tossed as it dredged in 70 feet of water a half-dozen miles off the New Jersey coast. It was Saturday night, Jan. 16, 1999, a night much better spent ashore.
On two such nights during the previous 11 days, the clam boats Beth Dee Bob and Cape Fear had sunk, taking the lives of six men. But Babbitt, 43, wasn't worried. He had been captain of the Ellie B for 11 years. "Me and that boat's been a lot of places together, " he would say. It was a seaworthy vessel, even at 21 years old, and he wasn't worrying about its wooden hull holding together. So time and again, he eased the dredge over the side and lowered it to the bottom while his crew on deck, Jason Wilson, 24, and Gary Sylvia, 45, moved the clams into the cages. It was grinding work, and the men would keep at it until about 5 a.m., when they would have a full load of 25 cages in the hold.
Back on shore, four other men faced Sunday morning and an even more grueling day. The Adriatic, an 85-foot steel surf clam dredger, was ready to put to sea for the first time in a month. In her bowels was a new pump, welded to the hull, ready to shoot water to the ocean floor to stir up the clams that the dredge would then capture and bring to the surface.
Unlike most other boats, the Adriatic had very little machinery. There was no hopper to collect and sort the clams and no conveyor system to move them. The Adriatic's dredge dumped its load directly on the steel deck, and the crew, using coal shovels, scraped the clams up and tossed them through circular holes in the deck to fall into the cages below.
The work was backbreaking. But the money was good, and the setting was loved by all but one of the crew. That one was Frank Jannicelli, 27, who hoped the Sunday trip would be his last. Deeply shaken by the two clam boat sinkings, he had applied for work as a cable television lineman.
Clamming had served Jannicelli's needs. He had dropped out of college and worked in a fast-food restaurant, a gas station and a tavern until his friend, Michael Hager, first mate on the Adriatic, persuaded him to try clamming. He liked the pay -- $340 for one 30-hour shift. But for Jannicelli, a wiry 5-foot-10 man with brown hair, brown eyes and a little goatee, the work was hard, there was little sleep, and now he was scared.
He and his housemate, Amy Cavanaugh, had spent a low-key Saturday night in an Amoco gas station in Toms River where their friend, Dominic Ascoli, worked. They took the television and VCR from their home in Brick to the station and brought a couple of videos -- Lethal Weapon 4 and another flick. They stayed until 5 a.m. and then headed home to flop until it was time for Jannicelli to sail.
George Evans, 51, the Adriatic's skipper, was, for that evening, without his new girlfriend, Joan Nowicky, 44, who was in California on a business trip. Evans, divorced for a number of years with two adopted children and one of his own (all grown), had met Nowicky in a Point Pleasant bar Dec. 30. Something clicked between them. The next night, New Year's Eve, they had dinner at a restaurant and rang in the new year talking through the night at Nowicky's townhome in Brick. Later, Evans would call his sister on Long Island and tell her that he might have finally found the one. On this Saturday night, Nowicky would take the red eye home from California and arrive in the morning. So Evans stayed late at the Adriatic, insisting that Hager and Jannicelli complete some final maintenance.
It was about 7:30 p.m. when Hager arrived at the Brick home of his parents, Richard and Judy Hager, to pick up his son, Mikey, 5. He was covered with the yellowish-orange primer he had been painting on the new steelwork around the pump. He told his father that there were problems with the pump. They had not been able to develop enough pressure while tied to the dock.
Richard Hager, 66, who had been a clammer for 25 years but who now, with a diseased heart, was tethered to an oxygen bottle, suggested that mussels had built up on the pump's intake under the boat during its month at the dock. Michael told him they had been unable earlier in the day to get a diver to check under the boat.
Now Hager had another chore. The Adriatic needed a fourth crew member for Sunday's trip, and before he could take Mikey home, Hager had to find a fill-in. He called the top name on a folded scrap of paper that he laid on the kitchen counter: Douglas Oland, a 21-year-old college student. Oland was available. After showering, Hager took his son home.
Later, Hager's friend since the fourth grade, Sean Domingo, visited with his wife and two children. While the children played, Hager rummaged in the attic and came down with an old survival suit, the neoprene hooded coverall that fishing vessels are required to carry for their crews. This was a suit owned by his brother, Timothy, who had quit commercial fishing to become a milkman. The suit, when properly worn, could keep a man alive in the frigid ocean for a day or more.
Hager explained that you had to be able to get into the suit in one minute to be safe. "Get your watches ready, " he jokingly told his friends. "Now go!" He took the suit out of its orange bag and shoved his feet into the legs, pulling the body up to his waist. But then he began struggling with the zipper. The minute was up, but the zipper wasn't, and Hager laughed. "I'd be dead now, " he told the Domingos.
Of those who would board the Adriatic in the morning, Oland was the least experienced. He was a student at Keene State College in New Hampshire, where he majored in environmental studies. He had worked on party boats and was a certified scuba diver and a surfer. But he had made only one trip aboard a clam boat. Now he was home on semester break and was hoping to make some extra money for school. To do so on the ocean was, for Oland, a bonus. "Every time he looks at the ocean, he feels, he gets this magnetic feeling, " said his father, Robert Oland, of Bayville. "If he looked at the ocean, it would give him a sense of peace that would last for the rest of the day."
While the crew of the Adriatic prepared to ship out the next morning, the Ellie B was making five-minute drags across the ocean floor at 2 to 3 knots that night. The deckhands were sprayed with salt water, whipped by winds, and tossed by waves as Babbitt searched for surf clams. The hunting was a whole lot better here, off the New Jersey coast, than in the boat's home waters off New England.
"In Jersey, there's clams everywhere, it seems, " said the Ellie B's owner, Louis Lagace, 47, of Tiverton, R.I. "But in Nantucket, you could look for hours and hours and catch nothing." Lagace had been skipper of the Ellie B before he bought it. Then, he hired John Babbitt as captain. "He's loyal. He's extremely hardworking. He's conscientious. He's smart, " Lagace said. Babbitt, a high school dropout, fit Lagace's definition of the typical fisherman.
"Fishermen are like one of the last truly American type pursuits, " the owner said. "Whereas a man without even an education could start working on a fishing boat, he's learning mechanics, the ocean, the weather. He can work himself up. If he's a good deck hand, somebody will take him. If he works hard, he can become the mate. Then captain. "then, if he saves his money and doesn't drink it or use it on drugs, he can get his own boat. This is the American dream."
John Babbitt, living that dream, finished fishing for surf clams with two hours to go before sunrise on Sunday. His crew stowed the dredge in its ramp on the Ellie B's deck, and, exhausted, the captain collapsed on a bench in the wheelhouse and was soon in a deep sleep. The autopilot steered toward Manasquan Inlet, and the crew stood watch. After a rugged night, the sea was settling and the ride promised to be smooth.
As was the practice, Sylvia roused Babbitt when the breakwaters of the inlet were a mile ahead so that the captain could steer the boat into port. It was 6:31 a.m. Sunday, and the sneaking gray light of dawn had brought the eastern horizon into view behind the Ellie B. To the west, the street lights glowed along the coast, New Jersey's beaded necklace.
Babbitt got up and sat in the chair before the wheel, the autopilot still doing its work. Then Sylvia and Wilson, confident in their captain, lay down on the wheelhouse benches and fell asleep. The boat was making about eight knots. It would be at the inlet in seven minutes. But the exhausted Babbitt was not awake. He had sleepwalked to the helm.
It was the awful sound of shattering timbers that brought the captain to his senses. He looked down. The floor was buckling and water squirted around the edges of a trap door to the engine room. The Ellie B had rammed head-on into huge concrete structures -- similar in shape to a child's jacks -- that protected the end of the inlet jetty. The rear of the boat was sinking quickly.
Babbitt yelled for Wilson and Sylvia to get into their survival suits as he jammed the throttle forward so that the engine would keep driving the boat against the jetty. He had time to grab the radio microphone and yell: "Mayday, we hit the wall. We're going down." By that time, the water had risen to the knees of Babbitt's survival suit, which was halfway on. He finished the job, and he and his crew stepped out into the calm, cold ocean.
Ellie B's Mayday drew a quick response
The Mayday came clearly over the radio in the Manasquan Inlet Coast Guard station. The 65-foot clam boat Ellie B had just rammed the jetty on the north side of the inlet, and three men were in the water. It was 6:38 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 17, 1999, and half a mile away, at the other end of the inlet, Coast Guard Petty Officer Colin Redy was just coming on duty. He immediately dispatched a 41-foot patrol boat. At 6:42, the boat hauled aboard one man wearing a red survival suit.
About the same time, two fishing boats responding to the Mayday rescued the other two Ellie B crewmen. The wooden clam boat - its bow splintered against huge concrete objects dumped, like giant jacks, at the end of the jetty to diffuse the power of the sea - settled into the ocean. Over the next day, rising waves would demolish the boat, leaving its planks floating in the surf and its machinery settling into the sandy bottom.
But for the first time since the Beth Dee Bob sank 11 days earlier with the loss of its four crewmen, the Atlantic failed to exact a price measured in human lives. John Babbitt, 43, the captain of the Ellie B, and his two crewmen, Jason Wilson, 24, and Gary Sylvia, 45, suffered no physical injuries. There were, however, psychic wounds. A year later, though Sylvia makes four-day trips on lobster boats, Wilson is a housepainter. And Babbitt, who had begun his fishing career at 16, has not yet returned to clamming. There have been offers to skipper other boats, but Babbitt has deflected them, sticking to work as a commercial diver. "I'm not even sure what I'm going to do, to tell you the truth, " he said recently. "Risking your a- for what? A lot of dead guys out there ... Every time you step on a boat now it crosses your mind. I'm not comfortable yet."
At 9 a.m., two hours after Babbitt's rude awakening on the jetty that Sunday morning, Michael Hager, 31, rose in his home in Brick, about five miles inland. The kitchen smelled of coffee, eggs, bacon and toast. He sat down with his son, Mikey, 5, and at about 11, Hager went to his parents' garden apartment to drop off the boy. Mikey was dragging that morning, and Hager was concerned he might be ill. "Oh, Daddy, don't go, " the boy whimpered. Telling his parents he had to buy grub, Hager gave them hugs. "Have a safe trip, " his father said. And then Hager headed for the Food Town supermarket in Point Pleasant Beach. It was his job to buy provisions for the crew - typically Delmonico steaks, bacon and eggs, soda, milk, bread - a lethal dose of cholesterol that would come to $50 or $60. He would get the money back from his skipper, George Evans, in his next pay.
Hager needed the cash. He had forfeited a big payday working on the Beth Dee Bob to stay home with Mikey on New Year's Eve. Fortunately, as it turned out, he was not invited on the next trip. The Beth Dee Bob was lost with all hands on Jan. 6. That calamity had shaken Hager, but not enough to keep him off the ocean when the Adriatic returned to clamming.
Although he shared custody of Mikey, Hager paid $135 a week in child support to Mikey's mother, from whom he had been separated for several months, according to his parents. Despite wanting nothing more than a wife and family to come home to, Hager had little luck in that direction. Indeed, he was getting a new tattoo added to the sailing ship on one arm and the anchor on the other. The new artwork was a pattern of blood drops splattered across his back - "for all the women who stabbed me in the back, " he told his family. Hager's one constant love, second only to Mikey, was the sea. He started fishing as a child and first worked at a fish coop at the Point Pleasant dock when he was 16. He stayed there until he was 18, old enough for the boats. Then he became a commercial fisherman.
Work and Mikey were all he talked about. It was a joke in the Hager family, among his siblings and Richard and Judy Hager, their parents. George Evans, 51, who was in the process of buying the Adriatic, thought a lot of Hager's dedication, and he had begun training him to eventually take over as captain. Hager rewarded him with hard work.
Evans had told his new girlfriend, Joan Nowicky, about Hager. He had told her as well about the dangers of his business. She doubted that clamming could be more dangerous than being a police officer or a firefighter. He didn't push the issue, but he told her that a loaded clam boat in bad seas could sink in 15 seconds.
Nowicky, a registered nurse, got home Sunday morning and called Evans. He drove over from his apartment on Point Pleasant Beach, and they spent some time together. It wasn't as long as she might have hoped, because Evans knew a storm was predicted for Monday night. He had moved up departure for the Adriatic from midnight Sunday to 1 p.m. A short distance away that morning in Brick, Frank Jannicelli, 27, was nervous as he anticipated heading to sea. He told his housemate and best friend, Amy Cavanaugh, that Hager was nervous, as well.
Just before Jannicelli left their place, about 11:45 Sunday morning, Cavanaugh gave him a hug. "God, Frank, if anything happens, make sure you get that suit on and get into that boat, " meaning the life raft. "No s-, Aim, " Jannicelli replied.
Douglas Oland, 21, a tall, broad-shouldered young man the girls referred to as a teddy bear, had been home with his parents in Bayville for about a month during his semester break from Keene State College in New Hampshire and already had a part-time job when he got Hager's call offering him work on the Adriatic. He had made one trip on a clam boat in the summer of 1998 and knew what to expect when he prepared to go to the dock.
The crew gathered at the clam dock about noon, and by 1 p.m., Evans was steering for the inlet. He let down the outriggers as the Adriatic passed the wreckage of the Ellie B. And then it was Hager's job to drive the boat to the place where they would harvest surf clams for the next 20 hours or more. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the water was almost dead calm. There were five clam cages on the deck and 25 cages in the hold under the four big steel hatch covers. The clam hose, looping down the high sides and stern of the boat, dragged through the water. The rusted dredge sat just overlapping the starboard edge, and the boom that would lower and retrieve the dredge was hauled out over it, ready to work.
Before the Adriatic reached the clam beds off Seaside Heights, Hager had lowered the stabilizing "divers" on their cables. The space-shuttle-like objects were deployed from the outriggers on either side and rode about 20 feet below the surface. Evans took the controls when it was time to work, and Hager went to the deck with Jannicelli and Oland, happy to be back at sea on a beautiful January afternoon.
When Evans hoisted the dredge, one of those on deck knocked out a brass wedge, loosening the rope that fastened the chain bag at the rear of the dredge. A load of surf clams, gray and saucer-size, clattered like gravel on the deck, forming a pyramid. The dredge swung back over the side and fell into the water, its cable paying out until the towline - a rope between the boat and the dredge - was taut.
The men on the deck, inside their rubber overalls, boots and gloves, bent from the hips to cull by hand the debris, the starfish, skates, dogfish and other sea life from the clams. Then, with large, scoop-like shovels, they began pitching clams through the first of 18 circular holes in the deck, starting at the rear and working forward. The hold was flooded with seawater to prevent breakage. Each shovelful was followed by a small splash. The men leaned into the slow, exhausting work of loading 30 cages with 51 tons of surf calms. They had a very long, sweaty night ahead of them.
The wheelhouse was quiet, and George Evans had time to dial Joan Nowicky's townhouse. He asked her to call him back to make certain his phone was working, a transparent contrivance. He wanted to hear her voice. "It's just beautiful out here, " Evans said. "What a gorgeous night." the moon was out, and the sea was calm at 8 p.m. Everything was working well, he told her. "Be careful, and call me when you get in, " she told him.
The next morning, Evans spoke briefly at 9:30 with Everett "Bub" Giverson Jr., dockmaster at Barney's dock in Atlantic City, about 60 miles south. Giverson wanted to make sure the Adriatic would be in that night with a load. The captain told Giverson he'd be done working at noon and would arrive at the dock around 7 p.m. It was noon when Jannicelli phoned Amy Cavanaugh and got her answering machine. His voice sounded tired. "We're going to be in Atlantic City probably around five, five thirty. Please make sure somebody's there to pick me up because I don't want to get stuck for a ride."
Giverson was eating lunch and watching the noontime news when he next heard from Evans, who asked that a diver be available Tuesday morning. The new clam pump wasn't working much better than the old one, he complained. He thought there might be a growth of mussels around the pump intake, as Richard Hager, the first mate's father, also had suspected. Giverson arranged to hire diver Jack Keith. He called Evans back. The dive was set up for 7 a.m.
It was now 1:30 p.m. The seas had begun to pick up. By Evans' reckoning, he was on schedule, with a little more than five hours of steaming time to reach the dock before the weather worsened. But the forecast had changed. When the Adriatic set sail, the weather was predicted to take a nasty turn Monday night. Then at 3 a.m. Monday, a small-craft advisory was issued by the National Weather Service office in Mount Holly, predicting rising winds and seas for midafternoon. The report could be heard over Evans' VHF radio. Because clam boats can work during the conditions predicted that day - winds up to 30 knots, with higher gusts - a seasoned clammer would not be alarmed.
The actual conditions at sea, however, were deteriorating quickly as a cold front from the south raced across the Atlantic. Joan Nowicky saw it coming at 3 p.m. She had taken the day off to have carpet installed in her home when she noticed the sky. She was sick to her stomach and considered dialing the Adriatic. She left the phone in the cradle. If it was rough out there, he didn't need her calling.
Richard Hager was sitting on his living room couch at 3 p.m., watching the clouds fly overhead. He suspected the Adriatic was already in port, because it was Evans' habit to head in early when the weather turned sour. The old fisherman jokingly called his son a "fair weather fisherman." He would wait until 7 p.m. to phone Michael, leaving a message that asked him to call back when he got in.
Christina Jannicelli, Frank's mother, had bad feelings all day, and at 3 p.m., her boss in Union sent her home. She found herself finishing every piece of laundry in the house, driven by some impulse.
At 3 p.m., James T. Charlesworth, first mate on the 110-foot clam dredger Timberline One, was at the helm about 28 miles east of Atlantic City. The wind had picked up from the moderate 15 to 20 knots he had found at 1:30 when he went on watch. There was a 20- to 30-knot wind, with gusts to 50 during squalls. And the seas had risen sharply. At times, green water was coming over the Timberline One's bow as the boat ran into 8- to 15-foot waves.
The Adriatic was heading southwest, plowing into these same seas about 28 miles from both the Timberline One and Atlantic City. Hager and Jannicelli were in their bunks under the wheelhouse. Evans was at the helm, with the autopilot keeping the boat on course better than a man's hand could in these conditions.
The Adriatic was a model of nautical equilibrium. The outriggers were spread to the sides like spindly wings, although the divers had been retracted. Five cages holding nearly eight tons of surf clams were stacked on the port side. As a counterbalance, the big dredge was sideways on the deck on the starboard side, with only its front edge resting on the high bulwark. In the belly of the Adriatic, unseen by Evans and Oland, his inexperienced crewman, another factor was about to alter this equation. At one moment, George Evans knew nothing of his problems, and the next, his boat was sinking. He pulled the throttle back to idle, and he grabbed the microphone of the VHF radio at 2:58 p.m. "Mayday! Mayday! Adriatic!" he called, and his words went out on Channel 16.
The call, badly garbled, was heard at the Barnegat Light and Atlantic City Coast Guard stations. The word Adriatic could not be deciphered, so the Coast Guard called the unknown vessel issuing the Mayday. There was no response to several attempts. Then the agency put out an urgent marine information broadcast, asking other vessels for information on the Mayday. Again there was no response.
There are theories about what, at this point, was happening below the Adriatic's deck. A Coast Guard engineer, when he saw a video made later by divers, concluded at first that the welds that had recently been made to hold down the new clam pump had failed. As a result, a flexible coupling between two sections of 12-inch-diameter pipe leading to the clam hose ruptured. Water pouring into the boat through that rupture could have capsized the Adriatic within four to nine minutes. In the same pump line, at a point where two steel flanges are held together by several bolts, some of those bolts were missing and others appeared to have either been stripped or backed out, resulting in a gap a fraction of an inch wide between the flanges.
The engineer, Lt. Jerry Dewayne Ray 2d, at first concluded that all of these breaks occurred because the pump came loose, perhaps from the thrashing of the sea. He later talked with one of the welders and decided that the damage may have occurred when the boat hit the ocean floor. If that was true, one theory contends that someone had been working on the flange bolts and left them loose, causing the gap to appear and the flooding to begin. No one could come up with a valid reason for anyone to do that.
Another theory is that the dredge fell overboard and became an anchor, dragging down the starboard side of the Adriatic, allowing water to pour in. Finally, at some point that will never be known, the clam hose looped over one of the blades of the boat's propeller. It is conceivable that this stopped the engine, leaving the Adriatic vulnerable in the crashing green seas.
Aboard the Adriatic, George Evans had had no time. The boat rolled violently, and this time it did not come back up. One outrigger dipped under the waves, and the boat was on its side in the water, the side windows of the wheelhouse smacking the ocean surface. If the huge dredge was still on deck, it now tumbled into the heaving sea, and the five clam cages that had been stacked on the port side fell as well.
Below the wheelhouse, Hager and Jannicelli, dressed in blue jeans and sweatshirts, were out of their bunks. They made their way forward, into a storage area under the deck in front of the wheelhouse. There were two ways to escape from this forepeak, where the boat's spare cables, ropes and other supplies were kept. Doors on both the port and starboard sides led aft and out. But everything was happening so quickly. Now the Adriatic was upside down, and water was pouring into even its smallest openings.
It may have been now, in the thrashing at the surface, when the port side windows in the wheelhouse were blown in. Whether Evans and Oland were inside is uncertain. They may have escaped from the wheelhouse, hoping to catch the life raft, mounted on the roof, when it automatically deployed. They had no time to get the survival suits from the spare bunkroom below. As the Adriatic tumbled down in the ocean, its outriggers flailing like helpless arms, the life raft deployed, only to get caught in a railing outside the boat's wheelhouse. The EPIRB - the emergency position indicating radio beacon - would never be deployed because it had a faulty trigger mechanism. Completely upside down, spinning and sinking, the Adriatic now lost all but three of its clam cages.
Oland and Evans were somewhere in the 45-degree water with no safety gear. They were about 10 miles from the nearest Coast Guard station, but no rescuers would be coming because their Mayday had been incomplete and their EPIRB failed to broadcast their identification code and position. Hager and Jannicelli were still in the forepeak. The water had burst in, and it was filling every void in the tumbling boat. In its rapid descent to the ocean floor, the Adriatic had become a dark tomb, and Jannicelli and Hager drew their last breaths of air. In 60 feet of water - less than twice the Adriatic's height from keel to superstructure - the boat rolled at least 180 degrees and a bit more. It did not take long to reach the bottom, where it hit the ocean mud with enough force to crush its port side.
The bodies of Michael Hager and Frank Jannicelli would be found by divers nine days later under the jumbled supplies in the forepeak. Their families would grieve at separate funerals. Those who loved George Evans and Douglas Oland would wait for three weeks for divers to further penetrate the Adriatic. Only then would they know their men were forever lost at sea.
In thirteen days, four boats were on the bottom and 10 men were dead. They were all brave men. The captains were well-respected by other fishermen. None saw themselves in a contest of courage. Still, each of them knew the risks, and they accepted them. The lifestyle was appealing. The pay was great. But the sea, in time, collects wages of its own.
In April, a Coast Guard task force on commercial fishing boat safety recommended the licensing of captains and more rigorous inspections of their vessels for safety and stability. The task force was formed in response to the four sinkings in January 1999, and the December 1998 sinking of a conch dredger off Hampton Roads, Va. The task force report concluded: "the solutions are basic and straightforward: seaworthy boats, competent crews, adequate survival equipment and safety-conscious resource and industry management regimes." Some of the task force recommendations require congressional legislation.
In December, the Coast Guard inaugurated Operation Safe Catch, a stepped-up level of boat inspections aimed at removing the most dangerous boats from the water through boardings at sea and at the dock.
Tuesday will mark the first anniversary of the sinking of the clam dredger Adriatic at the close of the tragic 13 days when 10 men were lost. Over the past 12 months a dozen children, some only toddlers and some young adults, have learned about life without a father.
And out on the Atlantic, the remaining clam vessels and their crews face the same fundamental risks that led to the disasters a year ago. Louis Lagace, owner of the surf clam boat Ellie B, whose crew survived its Jan. 17 sinking, explained why clam boats can be dangerous.
"Take a factory, remove the roof, remove the walls, maybe dim the light. Get a hose and hose down the floor, and then maybe rig up these huge hydraulic pistons to make it move, and that is your fishing boat. A factory that is wet, open to the elements and is moving back and forth. "And that's ... not counting the biggie, a big storm that will do in the whole boat and anybody on it. "I've heard of guys who fell overboard on boats and were never found ....What overcomes me is the overwhelming loneliness ... Imagine the feeling of watching the boat's lights getting smaller and smaller and knowing you're not going to see your families again."
There were many heroes who responded when the four boats sank last year. One of them was Petty Officer Richard Gladish, the Coast Guard rescue swimmer who dropped into the black ocean from a helicopter in an attempt to save a Beth Dee Bob crewman. Instead, he found the half-frozen body of Jay Bjornestad, the first mate. "the reward I'll have from this is seeing this guy's face the rest of my life, " Gladish said three weeks later. "It bothers me." A month later, still disturbed by his experience, Gladish ended his 14-year career as a rescue swimmer. He has been reassigned to Cape May as a drill instructor.
The first of three Coast Guard hearings into the sinkings - of the Beth Dee Bob, the Cape Fear and the Adriatic - began Jan. 22. ( The sinking of the Ellie B was not investigated because no lives were lost. ) Through last week, none had resulted in published findings.
The Cape Fear was raised from the ocean floor in August and has undergone extensive metallurgical testing. The Beth Dee Bob and the Adriatic have been visited by divers, who have filmed the wrecks to document their conditions and search for clues. And on the sand near the Manasquan Inlet, the last land eight of the doomed men ever saw, a spot has been set aside for a monument - a bronze sailor raising a lantern in honor of the men who will never return to that port.
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Copyright © 1996-2015 Rich Galiano
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May 05, 2015