Cause of fatal sinking remains a mystery

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Report says there’s not enough information to determine why Physical Therapy went down

The cause of the yacht Physical Therapy’s sinking in January off North Carolina remains undetermined following a Coast Guard investigation of the boat’s loss and the death of its skipper, Zachary Schafer.

Schafer, 32, of Charleston, S.C., captain of the 53-foot Hatteras sportfisherman, was at the helm when Physical Therapy suddenly foundered in rough seas in the cold predawn hours of Jan. 25, 20 miles off Atlantic Beach, N.C. Mate Joe Harris, 28, a close friend of Schafer’s, was asleep below when the twin diesel engines “made a noise” and then just stopped, according to the investigator’s report.

As Harris rolled out of bed to find out what was wrong, Schafer threw open the saloon doors and said to abandon ship, grab a life vest and meet him on the bow to launch the life raft, according to the report. The boat was taking on water.

Coast Guard investigator Lt. Quinon Ellis said the pair tried to manually deploy and inflate the raft at the bow and then later in the water, but “wave action, darkness and other unknown factors” prevented its deployment.

Within minutes, Physical Therapy was listing to starboard with its stern underwater, its bow in the air at a 45-degree angle. The wind was blowing 35 knots and seas were running 7 to 9 feet and breaking over the boat as the two grappled with the raft. Harris slipped down the steeply inclined bow and broke his foot.

Ellis said the waves and angle of the bow forced the men off the boat and into the 61-degree water, where they kept trying to manually deploy the raft until waves separated them from it. The two huddled together in the water to conserve heat as they waited for rescue. Harris was carrying Physical Therapy’s 406 MHz EPIRB, which alerted the Coast Guard to their distress and location.

A Coast Guard C-140 passed overhead between two and 2-1/2 hours later, and Schafer — “frustrated and angry” and suffering from hypothermia, according to the report — slipped out of his life vest, broke free from Harris’ buddy grip, and started swimming after the plane. Harris swam after him — yelling for him to come back and that they would be saved — but he lost sight of him in the dark waters. Fifteen minutes to a half-hour later, the crew of a Coast Guard 47-foot Motor Lifeboat plucked Harris from the sea. Schafer never was found.

Physical Therapy sank near the end of a 200-mile offshore passage from Charleston to Beaufort, N.C., where Schafer had planned to put in at Jarrett Bay Boatworks for minor paint work, and to go fishing with his brother and dad on another boat.

The investigative report says the 1979 Hatteras had recently undergone a $500,000 upgrade, including installation of new twin 60 series 825-hp Detroit Diesels, new generators and electrical system, and refinishing of the topsides and deckhouse. Five days before it sank, Physical Therapy’s engines had been serviced, and the alternator drive belt, coolant level sensor and alternator fan had been changed. The life raft had been serviced just three months earlier.

Early that afternoon, after the Coast Guard rescued Harris, one of its aircraft reported that Physical Therapy was still afloat and the eight-person, orange-and-black life raft had deployed and was attached to the vessel. The report offers no insight into why the raft finally inflated. By midafternoon, the $900,000 yacht was breaking apart.

“The root cause of this casualty could not be determined due to the inability to obtain information from the operator and the mate’s lack of knowledge concerning critical events leading up to the casualty,” the report says.

Investigator Ellis’ report ticks off possible causes of the flooding: a break in the water-cooled exhaust system; rupture of the raw water intake valve or pipe; failure of a through-hull; waves breaking over the cockpit and pouring through unsecured hatches into the lazarette or engine compartment; or a severe breach of the hull after a collision with debris.