By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy search and rescue vessel was to leave port in Virginia for the Bahamas on Monday afternoon to search for an American cargo ship that sank in a hurricane earlier this month, a Navy spokesman said.
The El Faro and its 33 crew members disappeared Oct. 1 after sailing into the path of Hurricane Joaquin while en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico in the worst cargo shipping disaster involving a U.S.-flagged vessel since 1983.
The Navy is sending an ocean tug vessel, the Apache, equipped with a "hydrophone" underwater listening device that can detect pulses emitted by the El Faro's voyage data recorder, similar to the black box on airplanes.
The search area is 100 square miles in water up to about 15,000 feet (4,572 meters) deep just off Crooked Island in the southern Bahamas, said Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman Chris Johnson.
"Our equipment is designed for up to 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) so we are well within our range," he said.
"We are pretty confident of the last known position of the ship," he added, although the search is likely to take several weeks.
The Apache will be in the search area until mid-November, he said.
The 226-foot (69 meters) Apache is carrying diving and salvage experts, as well as a team from the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency leading an investigation of the sinking, and the American Bureau of Shipping, responsible for marine inspections, Johnson said.
The voyage data recorder, which is attached to the ship's bridge, has a battery life of 30 days, giving the search team less than two weeks before it runs out. Assuming it was not damaged when the ship went down, the VDR can preserve data without the battery, according to maritime experts.
The El Faro, a 790-foot (241 meters) container ship, was last heard from on the morning of Oct. 1 when the captain communicated that the ship had taken on water, was listing at 15 degrees and had lost propulsion.
The U.S. Coast Guard called off a search and rescue mission after finding only one body amid debris from the ship.
(Reporting by David Adams; Editing by Dan Grebler)