LONGPORT, N.J. -- The Coast Guard suspended its search Monday evening for a champion powerboat racer who disappeared late Sunday when his pontoon boat apparently hit a buoy and then slammed into a jetty at the southern tip of Longport.
Officials identified the missing boater as Andrew Biddle, 44, of Egg Harbor Township, who was returning from dinner at a waterfront restaurant across the bay in Somers Point. A passenger was able to swim to shore.
Biddle is a two-time national powerboat champion. According to a 2012 Atlantic City Press article, Biddle and Andrew Tracy Blumenstein set a record and rose to the top of the season standings that year in the P1 SuperStock U.S. championship series. In 2013, he and Blumenstein won on both sides of the Atlantic, winning a United Kingdom championship as well.
Coast Guard and state police boats focused their search Monday around bay-side buoys, and police said they were interviewing the survivor of the crash, Justin Belz, 23, of Marmora, to determine how the trip ended so disastrously. Boat crews searched for 18 hours over 60 square miles, according to the Coast Guard.
Dan Cronin, who has a house facing the bay in Longport, said he was on his deck Sunday night around 11:30 when he saw the pontoon boat and heard a boom.
"The boat was moving along. I could see they were going full throttle," he said. "A boat of that type would go about 20, 22 m.p.h. at maximum speed."
"All of a sudden we heard 'boom' and then heard someone in the water yelling, 'Help, help save me!' "
Cronin called 911 and ran out with towels as the survivor came out of the water near the jetty at the Point, the tip of Longport. "He was shaking, not hurt at all," Cronin said.
He said the survivor was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and had no life jacket.
The boat, meanwhile, continued moving. "I saw the boat still going, making like a wide circle, headed straight for the rocks," Cronin said.
The survivor said the boat's operator knocked into him after they struck a buoy and may have been knocked out, Cronin said. The survivor told those who came to his aid they were coming from the Baia Restaurant on the waterfront in Somers Point.
"At first he was calm," Cronin said. "Then he turned around and said, 'Where's my friend Andy?' "
The buoys are not lit, but experienced boaters should be aware of that, Cronin said.
Mayor Nick Russo of Longport said he believed that the boat sustained damage and that speed may have been a factor. The waters around the tip of Longport are known to be dangerous. Veteran Sea Tow captain David McAuliffe was killed in a boating accident in May 2012 not far from this area.
"The dangers of the water command respect," Russo said, appearing briefly at the scene of the search Monday morning.
At Sea Village Marina on the Margate Bridge Causeway, where Biddle operated Professional Boat Sales, employees said the owner, a close friend, was out aiding in the search. They declined to talk about Biddle or the accident. "We're still trying to put it together," one said.
According to a biography on the P1 Superstock website, Biddle raced in motocross and SuperCross before getting into powerboats and in 1999 became the SBI Factory 1 World Champion. Online, one friend called him a "boating legend."
State police said investigators were interviewing Belz on Monday afternoon.
Petty Officer David Marin said Coast Guard and local crews began the search after receiving a call from Longport police about 11:30 p.m. Sunday.
"We've had multiple boat crews from the Coast Guard station in Atlantic City as well as helicopter crews," Marin said.