Coast Guard suspends search for two lost fishermen off Assateague

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."

It was one of 10 vessels in a fleet owned by Lee Bland Williams or his company, Hobo Seafood Inc. of Scranton, N.C., according to federal fishing records. No one answered the phone at Hobo Seafood on Thursday.

After receiving the Seafarer's distress call, the Coast Guard dispatched an MH-60 Jayhawk from its air station in Elizabeth City, N.C., and a 47-foot Coast Guard motor boat from Chincoteague. The helicopter picked up Small at 1:42 p.m. The search for the Tates continued until about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

An early-morning search of the area that resumed the next day uncovered some pieces of debris believed to be from the Seafarer, as well as a 35-foot section of the ship's bow, Botzenhart said. But there was no sign of the men in the water or in the life raft that Small left behind. The search was called off at 1 p.m. Thursday.

"We have searched over 560 square nautical miles of the Atlantic Ocean off the eastern shore of Virginia," Botzenhart said. "It is with a great deal of sorrow that we have been unable to locate them at this point of time."

Small was taken to Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury for treatment of hypothermia and a head wound, the Coast Guard said. He was released Thursday.

Helicopter rescue crews off Maryland's shores typically come from Coast Guard air stations in either Elizabeth City, N.C., or Atlantic City, N.J. The New Jersey station is closer, but the North Carolina station's helicopter is better equipped for potentially icy precipitation and carries more fuel, allowing it to travel farther and remain on the scene longer, said Lt. Jenny Fields of the North Carolina station.

The helicopters are virtually the same as U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters, at 65 feet long and 11 feet wide, Fields said.

Southward and Schoenberger said that after the Coast Guard delivered them safely to shore in Elizabeth City, Red Cross workers took over, offering medical treatment, dry clothes and lodging at a hotel.


"The support for us all around has been amazing," Schoenberger said.


The two were ordering steaks at a local restaurant as they recounted what Southward, a lifelong sailor, called a bruising ordeal and the first near-death experience of his life.

Late Wednesday afternoon, once they decided they couldn't save the ship, they made a mayday call, Southward said, then had to wait for the Coast Guard team to get to them.

"I can't put those two hours into words. There were a lot of prayers and 'I love you, mans,'" he said.

Schoenberger said they'd spent most of Thursday recounting the details of their journey, questioning every decision they made. "We're experienced, competent seamen, and we're satisfied we did the best we could with the information we had," he said. "The weather came on so fast."

As conditions worsened early Wednesday morning, he said, the pair decided their best bet was to try to make it to port at Cape Hatteras. The Coast Guard later told them that would be too hazardous, and at that point their only choice was to head for Morehead City, N.C., via Cape Lookout, a route they knew would take 12 hours through rapidly worsening conditions.

As they pressed on, the vessel heeled as much as 45 degrees, an angle that jeopardized the diesel engine. But trying to right the boat took them off course.

Amid 25-foot swells, they opted to call the Coast Guard to be rescued as the boat took on water, Southward said, and from that point on the Adante "became a lifeboat for us."

"If she weren't such a sturdy vessel, you wouldn't be talking to either of us right now," he said.

Once you're in the water in such conditions, Schoenberger said, "you immediately realize how infinitesimal you are."

"They were eventually just overwhelmed with the waves and the wind," said Fields.

In another rescue, a Coast Guard Medevac took a 47-year-old man from a 780-foot cargo ship 200 miles east of the Chesapeake Bay to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Virginia after crew on the ship reported he'd sustained serious chest injuries during a fall.

A Coast Guard helicopter crew arrived at the Horizon Trader ship about 4:30 p.m., hoisted the man into the helicopter and took him to the hospital, the Coast Guard said. It was not clear whether the man's injuries were caused by rough weather conditions.

Sun reporters Candy Thomson, Kevin Rector and Carrie Wells contributed to this article.