The Coast Guard search for Marcella Wendell and George F. (Geof) Hammett III was called off Friday, ending what hope existed that the two Annapolis sailors survived the sinking of the yacht Freebooter in Delaware Bay.
Hammett, 38, editor of the sailing magazine PHRF Journal, and Wendell, 29, who held a Coast Guard captain's license for vessels up to 75 tons, were delivering the 38-foot sloop here from Rowayton, Conn., when it struck a submerged rock jetty near the Salem (N.J.) Nuclear Power Plant about 6:30 p.m., Dec. 6.
The collision put a foot-long gash at the waterline of the lightweight, wooden racing boat and seas rushed in. It was a terrible time and place to be sinking -- dark, the air temperature at 32, the water in the 40s, the wind from the northwest at 15 to 20 knots, seas running four to five feet and shore 1 1/2 miles away.
Hammett and Wendell sent an urgent Mayday call over emergency VHF channel 16, which was picked up by a volunteer fireman in Quinton Township, N.J., and they fired flares that were seen by a man on shore. For reasons unknown they did not inflate their life raft, which was found a week later, 25 miles down the bay in its packing bag.
The Mayday and the flare-sighting were reported immediately to the Salem County Fire and Disaster Control Center, which dispatched a rescue boat from the Lower Alloway Township Fire and Rescue Squad.
But seas were too steep and conditions too treacherous for the 20-foot outboard skiff, whose skipper said she feared her crew would fall prey to exposure if she kept on. The skiff turned back before reaching the site, and that was the last anyone looked for Hammett and Wendell that night.
The sinking of Freebooter and the loss of two lives raises questions about search and rescue efforts in the busy and treacherous waters of Delaware Bay, and brings into sharp focus the perils of winter boating.
No one seems to know whom to blame for the rescue effort that wasn't made. The Salem County Fire and Disaster Control Board immediately notified the Coast Guard station at Gloucester City, N.J., 40 miles away, of the flares and Mayday call, according to Control Board director Donald May. But Coast Guard spokesman Marc Wolfson said the call did not make clear a Mayday had been received, and the Coast Guard was unconvinced the flare-sighting was legitimate.
As a result, when it learned the local search had been abandoned after a half-hour, the Coast Guard did not step in with rescue boats from Gloucester City, two hours away, or a helicopter.
"We determined it wasn't a flare," said Wolfson. " . . . The search and rescue effort did not begin for us until Saturday afternoon, when we were notified that the mast and sail of the boat had been sighted by a merchant vessel."
By then the boat had been sunk in 16 feet of water for nearly 20 hours. The Coast Guard estimates survival time in water 40 to 50 degrees at four hours at best, considerably less in rough seas.
Both the Coast Guard and Salem County Fire and Disaster Control Board blame failed communications for the collapse of rescue efforts and have scheduled meetings to address the problem.
What the sinking says about boating in winter is that no one is immune to the risks, no matter how experienced and familiar with the waters.
Hammett and Wendell, who were delivering Freebooter for Omega Yacht Sales and Charters in Annapolis, were seasoned boaters who had made numerous paid deliveries between Annapolis and the New York area.
"He knew that run cold," said Hammett's wife, Nancy Noyes. "He knew what he was doing and the potential for risk, and he went out of here prepared."
According to the ship's log, Freebooter had unexpected engine trouble off Cape May at the entrance to Delaware Bay, apparently because of contaminated fuel.
With the engine out, Hammett and Wendell evidently sailed about 25 miles up the bay and anchored at 2:18 a.m. off Ship John Shoal, where they made their last log entry.
"I guess they went to sleep for a while," said Sgt. Richard Keller of the New Jersey Marine Police. They evidently resumed sailing in the morning, heading into the northwester and aiming for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, 20 miles up the waterway.
When the boat struck the jetty five miles short of the canal entrance it was under full sail.
What happened to Hammett and Wendell, according to sailors here, could happen to anyone.
Said Coast Guardsman Wolfson, "The underlying message here is that the sea is a cruel master, and Delaware Bay can be cruel. Our feeling is that even without the missed communication, it was very unlikely they could have survived."
A memorial service for Hammett and Wendell is planned Saturday afternoon at St. Anne's Church in Annapolis, at a time yet to be set. Friends are establishing a Hammett-Wendell Memorial Trust Fund through the Eastport Yacht Club, P.O. Box 3205, Annapolis, Md. 21403.