Shaft Seal Let Water In
But Why Is Not Yet Clear
February 22, 2006

Coast Guard investigators say they found evidence of a rupture in the propeller shaft seal that most likely caused a Carolina Classic 35 sport fishing boat to sink off of Oriental two weeks ago.

The problem with the shaft seal was found on Saturday after the boat was pulled from the water at SailCraft Services boat yard in Oriental. Two Florida men who were delivering the brand-new boat from the factory in Edenton, NC to Florida, were found dead in the Neuse River almost two weeks ago.

Knowing What, But Not Why

Coast Guard Lieutenant Charles Fluke, one of the investigators in the case, said Tuesday that he was "confident" that the shaft seal rupture caused the sinking. He added that they were "not so sure why" the rupture itself happened.

The shaft seal, under normal circumstances, is supposed to keep water from getting in to the boat via the propeller shaft opening. In some boats, the packing around the shaft allows some water in -- a drip -- in order to cool the shaft. Other boats, such as this sport fishing boat, had a "dripless" system installed. It relies on injected cooling water to keep the bearings cooled.

In the case of the sunken boat, Lt. Fluke says, "we know the hose was melted down.. and ripped." That let water in to the boat.

How fast the water got into the engine compartment is unclear. Lt. Fluke told on Tuesday that the boat had three bilge pumps, each rated at 2,000 gallons an hour.

Lt. Fluke says he is forwarding details of the case to the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Office in Washington, DC. “They’ll do the math,” Lt. Fluke says, to determine the rate at which water entered the boat.

Another issue before the investigators is what caused the rupture to happen in the first place. The investigators say they have to remove the shaft to get a better idea. Among the possibilities: overheating, a seizure, a mechanical failure, a failure of the water pump that provides cooling water.

Those factors could help determine how much time the crew had to deal with the problem. The boat-width engine "hatch", which covered a significant part of the boat’s floor, was found in the open position when divers first got to the boat last week. That might indicate that the crew detected a problem and was investigating the engine.

Question: Could They Have Called For Help?

Another question that looms in the case is whether the two men, said to be experienced at delivering boats, called for help. The Coast Guard says it has no record of any incoming distress calls around the time they think the boat got in to trouble.

The boat, brand new from the factory, did not have a fixed VHF radio with external antenna installed. The crew did have handheld VHF radios. At least two were reported to have been found on the boat. But at 5-watts, the signal from the handhelds from the middle of the Neuse, may not have not strong enough.

The Coast Guard Commander for NC, Captain Dean Lee says that when the Coast Guard itself was at the site of the sunken boat in the middle of the Neuse River last week, their own handhelds “weren’t working”. That is, they weren’t reaching the Coast Guard stations.

The two men delivering the boat were also said to be carrying cell phones. Lt. Fluke says that when he was out at the site of the sunken boat last week he found that some cell phone services -- Nextel and Alltell -- did work.

But that may have been moot if the cell phones were not nearby when trouble broke out on the boat.

Lt. Fluke says that when the boat was brought to land, two cell phones were found in a duffel bag near the front of the boat. However, he added that with the floor hatch raised, the crew would have had to climb four steps on a ladder to get over the raised hatch in order to get forward.

Lt. Fluke says the final report on the case will consider the communications question.

Weather Factor?

Another practical consideration may have been the conditions on that Sunday February 5th, when the men set out to deliver the boat from the Carolina Classic factory in Edenton to Florida.

In an earlier interview, Coast Guard Commander for NC, Captain Dean Lee described the weather as “rough” on the river and the lower Pamlico Sound, with winds of 30 knots.

“It's Never Just One Thing”

Among the Oriental residents following the case has been George Wisnesky. During a 20-year career with the Coast Guard he worked on boating safety issues and in the office that reviewed investigations such as this.

Wisnesky says that "it’s never just one thing" in a boat sinking or accident.

Sometimes, he says, "radios don’t work and next thing there’s a squall line. And a heart attack .. "

When a problem arises, “it’s natural,” Wisnesky says, for experienced sailors to think “’I can fix this. I can do it all.’” instead of contacting the Coast Guard to say, “I’ve got a problem. Please stand by.’ and then put on PFD’s”

The case has captured the attention of many in Oriental, each with a suggestion of whether it was weather, communications, mechanical failure or a crew with little time in which to deal with an emergency.

Amid the questions of why this boat sank and two men died, there may also be lessons to help others avoid the same. In any event, there are still more questions than answers.

How much did the weather contribute to the sinking and deaths?

Could the crew have made a cell phone call if their phones were within easy reach?

Would they have survived if both men were wearing PFD’s? (Only one man was found wearing a PFD. There were more PFD's onboard.)

Could the boat have be run into shallow water for safety - allowing them to simply walk to shore?

Could the crew have stood on the very top of the boat after it sank and waited for help from a passing boat -- the Coast Guard says the upper structure was 4 feet under the water surface when a helicopter spotted it 5 days later -- or would the chop that day on the river have kept them from staying with the sunken boat?

Is a handheld VHF enough to have onboard? Or is a fixed VHF (with its much great range) a must?

Related Links:

Boat Delivery Turns Disaster, Feb 11

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