Sonar detects object on ocean floor about the same size as Cullen's sailboat

dgoodhue@keysreporter.comAugust 11, 2014 

A sonar scan may have detected the sunken boat belonging to Noah Cullen, the young Key Largo man who went missing early last week while on a freediving trip off the Upper Keys. 

A civilian boat crew using sonar equipment scanned the bottom of Dixie Shoal Saturday and detected a 25- to 30-foot object that they said could be Cullen’s 28-foot sailboat, Jubilee

The problem, Cullen’s mother Tanya Cleary said, is that the object lies at the bottom of more than 280 feet of water. That is far beyond recreational diving limits, and reaching it would require divers to use specialized equipment.

Jon Strydom, a family friend and experienced sailor who was among the crew that detected the object, is appealing for help from any area technical divers and to anyone with access to a camera capable of operating in water up to 300 feet deep. 

Strydon stressed on his Facebook page, however, that the sonar "hit" could be anything, and it does not confirm Cullen's vessel has been found. That said, Strydon, who has circumnavigated the globe by boat and took part in numerous salvage operations, thinks Cullen went down with his boat.

The search took place on Gordon Cottrell’s boat. He owns Cottrell’s Welding in Key Largo. Also on board were Matt Cottrell and Chad Azevedo. 

The object they detected was located about 80 yards from the last coordinates where Cullen’s boat was spotted — and photographed — sinking by a passing fishing boat at Dixie Shoal at about 2:30 p.m. Aug. 4. The sonar scan showed a mostly barren ocean bottom, with the exception of the object. 

“There has been no confirmation that this is Noah’s vessel, but based on the size and location, it looks promising,” Cleary said Monday.    

Cullen was last seen on Aug. 4 boarding the Jubilee at French Reef by a dive boat captain in another vessel around noon. 

His boat was last spotted sinking at Dixie Shoal (GPS coordinates 2503.81208015.054w) about two hours later.  

A photo of the sinking Jubilee taken by the passing boater appears to show it battened down from the outside. 

Strydon theorizes that Cullen went inside the Jubilee during a heavy thunderstorm that passed off Key Largo that day. Whether because of a lightning strike or for some other reason, Cullen may not have been able to get off of the sinking vessel. 

“The theory now is that Noah did everything by the book for his vessel in the face of a very violent and fast-moving storm," Strydon said in a Facebook post. "Main is double-reefed, jib is stowed, tiller lashed over to hove-to. Having no bimini, just a small dodger, he would have gone below and battened down to shelter from very heavy wind-blown rain and a high concentration of lightning strikes. A direct hit thru the mast would have instantly ended his young life and also holed the hull.”

The Coast Guard ended its search for Cullen and his boat on Thursday. Cleary thanked all involved in the search. 

“Our family is so very grateful for the outpouring of support from the community, and all the volunteers who have searched, offered equipment and expertise in the effort to locate Noah,” Cleary said. “We’re also very thankful to the Coast Guard, who performed an aggressive 90 hour search for him last week.”

@DavidGoodhue on Twitter

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