Hatteras sinks suddenly off N.C.

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A hull breach is one theory in the accident, which claimed one life

Capt. Zach Schafer and his mate Joe Harris — best friends — clung desperately to each other for 3-1/2 hours in numbing Atlantic waters, but rescue didn’t come quickly enough for one of them.

Schafer, 32, of Charleston, S.C., captain of the 53-foot Hatteras sportfishing yacht Physical Therapy, succumbed to the cold just a half-hour before the Coast Guard arrived in a 47-foot rescue boat and pulled a hypothermic Harris from rough seas off Beaufort, N.C.

Physical Therapy sank suddenly around 3 a.m. Jan. 25, just 25 miles from Beaufort, its destination after a 200-mile offshore passage from Charleston. Wearing life jackets, Schafer and Harris, 28, also of Charleston, huddled together in the 47-degree water to conserve heat and buoy each other up while waiting to be rescued.

“Joe said they were just so cold,” says Joe Harris’ mother, Marjorie.

They were about ready to give up when a Coast Guard C-130 aircraft responding to Physical Therapy’s EPIRB signal began circling overhead, she says. Schafer, who had been a high school swimmer, suddenly slipped out of his life jacket and began swimming toward the aircraft, she says. Both were severely hypothermic — Schafer so much so that he may have confused the C-130 for a seaplane, she says.

“He thought he could swim over to it and save the both of them,” she says. Harris yelled to his friend to come back, but moments later he disappeared into the dark water. About a half-hour later the rescue boat arrived, and its crew pulled Harris from the sea.

“If they’d been there just 20 minutes earlier, they’d have gotten Zach,” she says. “They could have gotten both of them.”

Schafer was on the bridge and Harris below trying to sleep when he heard the engines sputter, according to Marjorie Harris. Lt. Quinton Ellis, a marine safety investigator, says Joe Harris told him the engines revved way up, then way down. “All of a sudden they were going down,” Harris’ mother says. The engine died, and the stern began to go under. “The next thing they knew it was at a 45-degree angle,” she says. “Then they were in the water.”

She says before the boat sank, they grabbed life jackets and an EPIRB, and made their way to the bow to deploy the life raft, but it wouldn’t inflate in its canister. She thought they even had the raft in the water and worked on it. “It just wouldn’t open up,” she says.

Harris broke a foot on a cleat sliding down the foredeck as Physical Therapy’s bow raised up, and the boat listed and capsized. He went into the rough seas wearing just a long-sleeve T-shirt, an undershirt, parachute pants, and boxer shorts. His mom says he kicked the parachute pants off because they kept ballooning and weighing him down.

“Joe said he looked up at the stars [at one point] and said, ‘This is it,’ ” Marjorie Harris says. “He just got so tired of kicking.”

Family and the Coast Guard investigator still are at a loss to explain why Physical Therapy sank so quickly. Though a coastal storm had been forecast, Harris says her son told her the stars were still out, and seas — though sloppy — were just 4 to 6 feet when Physical Therapy went down.

Winds were 15 to 20 knots, and seas had built to 6 to 8 feet by the time rescuers arrived, investigator Ellis says. He suspects some kind of “breach of the hull” caused the sinking. He says the 1979 Hatteras was in “top condition” and had been repowered with new twin 60 series 825-hp Detroit Diesels the previous March. Without a boat to inspect or the captain to question, Ellis can only speculate. “We just don’t know,” he says. He ticked off the possibilities: collision with an object, ruptured seacock, a break in the water-cooled exhaust system.

One veteran seaman and yard manager, who didn’t want to be named, thought it must have been “something catastrophic.” He says the steady ingress of water from a loose strut or through-hull would have triggered bilge alarms. “Hitting an object — a breach of the hull — that would [sink it] the fastest,” he says.

If Physical Therapy had struck debris and damaged its running gear or rudder post, that could have ruptured the hull and let a flood of water in, he says. Or a rogue wave could have broken over the cockpit. He says the boat had swung out and around treacherous Frying Pan Shoals off Cape Fear and would have been slogging toward the Beaufort sea buoy into head seas and a north-northwest wind when it sank. In steep 8- to 10-foot seas, its cockpit could have been swamped by the back of a wave while climbing the next one, but that’s conjecture.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” Ellis says.

Schafer is survived by his wife, Mary Susan, and 5- and 10-year-old daughters. Charleston’s close-knit sportfishing community has set up a college trust fund for the girls at Wachovia Bank, which will take donations at any of its branches, and has organized other fund-raisers to help them, says Lee Strickland, a Charleston marine insurance agent. “This has caused a lot of grief,” he says. “Everybody has been putting themselves in [Schafer’s] place. … Lots of people in Charleston go offshore fishing. They might go 80 miles out in the ocean.”

Schafer and Harris had left the boat’s slip at Ripley Light Marina in Charleston the previous evening. They had planned to put in at Jarrett Bay Boatworks in Beaufort, N.C., for minor paint work and go fishing with Schafer’s brother and dad, both named Denny, waiting in Beaufort.

Harris and Schafer both had captain’s licenses and had worked together as towboat captains at Stevens Towing Co. in Charleston. Now they were working on Physical Therapy together. Marjorie Harris says the two had planned to go to the Bahamas in February, chartering there for the vessel’s owner, Dan Schmidt, who owns a physical therapy business.

“This is like a nightmare,” Marjorie Harris says. “Zach was one of the best friends Joe ever had.”