Officials said they hadn’t been able to re-establish communication with the vessel, which was traveling from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and carrying vehicles.
Two additional life rings have been found, the Coast Guard said, but it’s unclear if they belonged to the ship.
A total of 28 Americans and five Poles were on board, the Coast Guard said. The company described them as experienced and “more than equipped to handle situations such as changing weather”.
Florida-based TOTE Services, the ship’s owner, said in a brief statement that it was working with the Coast Guard and trying to establish communication with the craft. She said the search would be called off at sundown on Saturday: “We have to take safety into account”.
It is regaining strength and has been reclassified as a category 4 storm.
Nassau’s Lynden Pindling worldwide Airport was also closed through early Saturday, local media reported.
The search area is vast and the effort is hampered by the fact that there are few vessels out there because of the rough weather, said Chris Lloyd, the operations manager of the Bahamas Air Sea and Rescue Association, which was not helping look for the ship because the area is beyond its reach.
“It’s going to be a slow-motion disaster”, said meteorologist Ryan Maue of Weather Bell Analytics.
“We have had 20-foot seas reported so it’s going to take a while to get into the area”, Doss said.
There were three C-130 planes, one helicopter and a Navy P-8 airplane involved in the search.
The Hurricane Center had the storm tracking farther away from the U.S. East Coast than originally predicted.
The storm also has been linked to a drowning in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Meanwhile, vast swaths of U.S. Southeast and mid-Atlantic states braced for more heavy rains and flooding from a separate weather system which has already caused two deaths, washed out roads and prompted evacuations and flash flood warnings. Joaquin destroyed houses, uprooted trees and unleashed heavy flooding as it hurled torrents of rain. There have been no reports of fatalities or injuries, Capt. Stephen Russell, the director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency told the Associated Press.
At 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT), Joaquin, which strengthened significantly early Saturday, had maximum sustained winds of 155 miles (250 km) per hour, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Forecasters warned that even as Joaquin peels away from the coast, its effects will be felt, because it will continue supplying tropical moisture to the gusty rainstorm stretching from Georgia to New England.
GENERAL FORECAST FOR JOAQUIN: Warm water and light wind shear has allowed Joaquin to maintain its intensity… but it has slowly churned over the same waters, upwelling the cooler water at the bottom of the ocean to the top, allowing for the storm to slowly weaken as it begins its turn toward the northeast.
Rick Knabb, director of the Center, said Joaquin is expected to pass well offshore from the eastern seaboard.
The storm’s movement was expected to gradually pick up speed in the next 48 hours. By the weekend, an upper-level trough of low pressure and a breezy cool front will team-up to steer and accelerate Joaquin northward – well east of the US coast.