NEWBURYPORT — After two days of intensive efforts, the search for a German man who presumably drowned in the Merrimack River on Thursday night has been called off, according to rescue officials.
It is believed 51-year-old Richard Decker, who has been living on a 37-foot Endeavor sailboat moored in the Merrimack on the Salisbury side off Cashman Park, fell into the roughly 40-degree water sometime around 9 p.m. on Thursday night.
Local and state police dive teams entered the water Friday and were aided by a sonarlike device that can pick up objects at the bottom of the river. But after two days of diving, authorities decided to give up the search.
Newburyport police City Marshal Thomas Howard said yesterday that his department and the Coast Guard would continue to search on land for clues related to Decker’s disappearance but acknowledged there would be no more underwater searches.
“We searched extensively for two days and came up with nothing,” Howard said.
Both Howard and Newburyport Harbormaster Paul Hogg said the current at the point of the river where Decker disappeared is strong, but Hogg added it was the very chilly water that played more of a factor in Decker’s presumed drowning.
“Once you hit that cold water, that cold, cold water, it is almost impossible,” Hogg said, referring to climbing back on board a swamped boat. “To keep on putting the divers in the water, it’s more of a risk to the rescue team.”
A similar drowning occurred in the same general area of the river in the late fall of 2002, when a 44-year-old man was attempting to step from his sailboat into his dinghy. The man fell in and drowned; although the search ranged far up and down the river, his body was recovered on the river bottom, within a few yards of the boat.
Decker is a German national who grew up on the Rhine River and has been living in the North Shore area for several months, according to a friend of Decker. He had purchased the sailboat earlier this fall and had been working on it at a Haverhill marina, before putting it in the water about a month ago.
Police are still trying to piece together what happened to Decker, but it appears while in the dinghy, he had tried to cut a rope that had become entangled around the sailboat’s propeller when it flipped over. It’s believed that Decker left his dog tied to the pole at the shoreline because the dog was afraid of the tipsy dinghy. Authorities think Decker planned to bring the sailboat to Cashman Park to pick up his dog.
A search of the sailboat showed that Decker wasn’t wearing a life preserver. But with such cold water, it might not have made a difference.
The search began for him on Friday morning, after police gathered two important pieces of evidence. On Thursday night, police received a call about a dog tied to a pole at Cashman Park. They identified the dog, a Siberian husky named Toleman, as belonging to Decker. The following morning, the Coast Guard discovered his overturned dinghy tied to his sailboat and found no one onboard the sailboat. Local and state police, along with the Coast Guard, began an extensive search of the area.
Much of Friday, a Coast Guard helicopter patrolled around the immediate area, as well as up the river as far as Merrimac and down to the ocean. Rescue efforts were hampered by what is called “flood tide,” a twice-yearly event in which abnormally high tides occur, sending a strong surge of water up the river. Visibility in the water was limited to about 3 to 4 feet, according to rescue officials.