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Boat show delivery turns into a tragedy

Two men die when the Carolina Classic they were taking to Florida goes down off Oriental, N.C.

Two men die when the Carolina Classic they were taking to Florida goes down off Oriental, N.C.

The sinking of a new 2006 35-foot Carolina Classic sportfishing boat in February off Oriental, N.C., might have been caused by a leak in the port shaft packing seal, according to the Coast Guard. As of mid-March the agency still was investigating the sinking, which claimed the lives of the two Florida men operating the boat.

Sam Puleo, 78, of Fort Lauderdale, and James Surface, 55, of Englewood, were delivering the boat from the builder in Edenton, N.C., to Cozy Cove Marina, a Carolina Classic dealer in Dania Beach, Fla. The boat sank in the Neuse River about 70 miles from Edenton.

“We’ve been doing deliveries like this for decades without any problems,” says Von Skinner, co-owner of Cozy Cove Marina. “To have something like this happen and to lose two guys like Sam and Jim, is a real tragedy.”

Puleo and Surface set off from Edenton Sunday, Feb. 5 at about 8:30 a.m., Skinner says. They were last seen passing the Alligator River Swing Bridge at about 9:40 a.m., according to the Coast Guard.

The men were traveling down the Intracoastal Waterway in hopes of making it to Cozy Cove in time for the boat to be displayed at the Miami International Boat Show (Feb. 16 to 20). Puleo had done “hundreds” of deliveries for Cozy Cove Marina over the last 30 years, Skinner says.

“Weather depending, the delivery should have taken between four and five days,” he says. “Ideally you’d head down the ICW to Charleston [S.C.] and then head straight down the coast to either Jacksonville or St. Augustine [Fla.].”

But the men never made it out of the Neuse River. It was unclear exactly what conditions were like on the river when the accident occurred. Water temperature was about 45 degrees.

The National Weather Service had issued a small-craft advisory that included the waters of Pamlico Sound at 3:19 a.m. Feb. 5, according to NWS forecaster Robert Frederick. The forecast called for west winds of 20 to 25 knots, increasing to 25 to 30 knots in the afternoon, and 3- to 4-foot seas.

It wasn’t until Thursday, Feb. 9, at about 4:30 p.m. that police found Puleo’s body near the mouth of the South River, says detective Chris Cozart, an investigator with the Carteret County Sheriff’s office. He was wearing a PFD. Not long after, investigators learned that Puleo was part of a two-man delivery crew that was taking a boat to Florida. The Coast Guard was informed of the situation and launched its own investigation.

The following day, at about 12:30 p.m., Coast Guard officials located Surface’s body about 1,000 yards from where Puleo’s was found, Hartsfield says. Unlike Puleo, though, Surface was not wearing a PFD. The Carolina Classic was found hours later by the crew of a Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter, about five miles up the Neuse from where the bodies were found. It was on the bottom in about 18 feet of water near Garbacon Shoal and north of the mouth of Adam’s Creek, Hartsfield says. A PFD was caught on an outrigger sticking out of the water.

On Feb. 17 the boat was raised and towed to Sailcraft Marina in Oriental, according to Hartsfield, where the Coast Guard inspected it. A preliminary investigation revealed a leak in the port shaft packing material, which would have let water flood the engine compartment, according to the Coast Guard. The engine room hatches were found open, the throttles were in neutral, and the port engine key was in the off position.

The Coast Guard also says the boat has three bilge pumps, all rated at 2,000 gallons per hour. The boat does not, however, have an audible bilge alarm. Instead, lighted high-water indicators are located near the switches at the helm. The boat is powered by twin 540-hp Cummins diesels, Skinner says, with straight shafts. Besides PFDs, other safety equipment on board included fire extinguishers and flares.

Investigators also found two cell phones on board, stashed in a duffel bag, and two 5-watt hand-held VHF radios, according to the Coast Guard. Although there were communications towers nearby, Hartsfield says Puleo and Surface wouldn’t have been able to contact the nearest Coast Guard station, in Hobucken, N.C., without more transmitting power than they had in their handhelds. Since the boat was new, it was not yet outfitted with electronics. Skinner did not know to what extent the boat had been sea-trialed prior to the start of the delivery. Mac Privott, president of Carolina Classic Inc., did not return calls for comment.

Skinner says Puleo, a longtime boater, was known to carry an EPIRB and a hand-held GPS on deliveries, although he wasn’t sure what Puleo had brought aboard this time. Sheriff’s departments in Pamlico County and Carteret County confirmed that no mayday calls were received Feb. 5, news reports say. The Coast Guard says it also did not receive a distress call.

“[Puleo’s] experience might have been a detriment in this case,” says Skinner. “He was a very experienced and capable boater. He probably thought he could take care of the problem himself when he really couldn’t.”

Skinner describes Puleo as someone who was always willing to help a fellow boater. “Sam was a unique character and a passionate boater,” he says. “He always had a smile on his face.”

Dale Goodman, a broker at Cozy Cove, agrees. “Sam was the biggest personality at the marina, and that’s saying something,” he says. “Sam’s going to be missed.”

Skinner did not know Surface as well as he knew Puleo, but says the retired police lieutenant was a “loyal, good person.”

Once the Coast Guard investigation is complete the report will be sent to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington for review, Hartsfield says.