Destroyed Hatteras a mystery with few clues

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The catastrophic breakup of a 50-foot Hatteras off the Florida-Georgia coast and the presumed loss of its four crewmembers has left investigators puzzling over what happened to the yacht, the identity of its captain — known only as “Larry” — and why the EPIRB activated three days after the discovery of the wreckage.

The large pieces of debris were all that remained of a 50-foot Hatteras discovered off the Florida-Georgia coast.

Florida wildlife researchers patrolling in an aircraft for right whale calves spotted debris — 10 life jackets, flares, an oil sheen, most of the foredeck and a large section of the deck house — from On the Weigh, a 1981 Hatteras convertible, 22 miles east of the entrance to the St. Johns River about 6 p.m. Feb. 24. Later that evening, a Coast Guard helicopter crew found the body of Guillermo Gonzalez Losada, 49, a Venezuelan horse breeder, amid the wreckage. Three others remained missing: boat owner Chong K. Lum Valles, in his mid-30s, of Punto Figo, Venezuela; Victor Caridad, also Venezuelan, a sport angler and friend of Lum Valles’; and the American captain. Lum Valles was the owner of SV International, a company with offices in Punto Figo and Coral Gables, Fla., that imports industrial equipment to Venezuela.

When Losada was found, he wasn’t wearing a life jacket, even though there were at least 10 on board, and photos show red stains — bottom paint, perhaps — on the piece of foredeck. That, along with the boat’s shattered condition, suggest at first glance a collision with a ship in the busy lanes off Brunswick and St. Marys, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla.

“There are several possibilities,” says Petty Officer Lauren Jorgensen, a Coast Guard spokeswoman. One is a collision with a ship. Another is an on-board explosion. Jorgensen says investigators were checking ship traffic transiting the area about the time On the Weigh’s wreckage was discovered.

The Coast Guard searched for survivors for 56 hours — about 2,875 square nautical miles — in the vicinity of the debris field Feb. 24, 25 and 26. They searched again Feb. 27, 85 miles east of Brunswick, when the boat’s EPIRB activated. That, too, is a matter investigators will have to address, Jorgensen says.

The EPIRB, an ACR 406 MHz beacon, was on the Hatteras when broker Jeff Boger, of Berry-Boger Yacht Sales in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., sold it to Lum Valles the week before. Boger says the beacon was not fitted with a hydrostatic release that would have automatically set it afloat as soon as the boat sank; it was attached to the flybridge with Velcro. Boger believes the Hatteras collided with a ship 85 miles off Brunswick and that the solid fiberglass flybridge sank, activating the EPIRB but not giving the beacon a clear line of sight to a satellite until the Velcro came loose and let the beacon float to the surface. Boger theorizes that the deck pieces, which float because they are of composite construction, were caught in a current that circles south and inshore of the Gulf Stream at Brunswick, accounting for their first sighting off Jacksonville.

The timeline, according to Boger:

• Feb. 13: Lum Valles and Caridad drive up from Miami to see On the Weigh, which is for sale for $50,000.

• Feb. 14: The boat is surveyed, and the two drive back to Miami. They were believed to have attended the boat show.

• Feb. 19: Lum Valles closes on the boat.

• Feb. 21: Four people — three Venezuelans and the American captain — set off from North Myrtle Beach about 10:30 a.m., arriving at 10 p.m. at the Charleston City Marina, where security cameras take blurry images of “Larry” on the docks that subsequently circulate in newspapers and on television news around Charleston and Miami to try to ascertain his identity.

• Feb. 22: On the Weigh leaves Charleston about 10 a.m.

• Feb. 24: Wildlife officers spot the debris from the air about 6 p.m.

“They took on fuel and stayed a little bit of the night and kept on moving,” says David Rogers, harbormaster at the Charleston City Marina. A security video camera caught the footage of “Larry” — identified as the skipper by the folks at the brokerage back in North Myrtle Beach — as he was getting off the Hatteras and starting to walk down the dock, Rogers says.

The Venezuelans were experienced boaters and avid sport anglers. “They seemed very knowledgeable,” Boger says. “They knew what they were talking about. They seemed to be very well-versed in boats and engines.”

Lum Valles bought the Hatteras to fish, but he also planned to put it into charter in Caridad’s charter fleet in Venezuela, Boger says. Caridad was “very involved in the sportfishing business,” may have bought another boat earlier in South Florida, and was looking for a commercial fishing boat to buy in the United States, he says.

Boger says the Venezuelans, accustomed to cheap fuel back home, had decided on a strategy of running slowly — 10 knots all day and all night — from Charleston to Miami, except for fuel stops, and eventually on to the Caribbean. The boat was carrying no extra fuel on deck or propane, so a massive explosion is unlikely, Boger says, and it would have been going too slow to slam into a wave or whale and break apart to the extent that it did.

Boger thinks On the Weigh collided with a ship at night. “I just think you take a risk when you run 24 hours, when you run at night,” he says. The ship traffic lanes off south Georgia and north Florida are busy. Watchstanders can get fatigued. “You need a couple of people on watch all the time. Ships don’t look like they’re moving very fast, but they are. You’ve got to pay attention.”

May 2013 issue