Joaquin, the third hurricane of the 2015 Atlantic season, was expected to move away from the Bahamas on Friday night. At 5 p.m., it was about 825 miles southwest of Bermuda with top sustained winds of 125 miles per hour, the NHC said.
The U.S. Coast Guard said search and rescue crews were hunting for the 735-foot El Faro and its 33 crew members after it was overcome by heavy weather from Joaquin off Crooked Island in the Bahamas on Thursday morning.
The ship, with 28 U.S. citizens and five Polish nationals aboard, was headed to San Juan, Puerto Rico, from Jacksonville, Florida when it reported it had lost propulsion and was listing and taking on water, the Coast Guard said.
The Coast Guard said there had been no further communications after the vessel issued the emergency call at about 7:30 a.m. Thursday.
El Faro was in the eye of Joaquin about 35 miles north of Crooked Island when it issued the distress call, according to Chief Ryan Doss with the Coast Guard in Miami.
"We have had 20-foot seas reported so it's going to take a while to get into the area," Doss said.
A Coast Guard cutter headed to help after taking part in a separate rescue mission off Haiti, while two Air Force Hurricane Hunter planes searched in vain for the U.S.-owned El Faro.
"The low cloud cover makes satellite communications difficult," Doss said, while the winds and high seas made it hard to get close enough by sea or air.
"The storm is so bad and slow moving it's hard for our planes to get low enough to inspect the surface of the water."
Mike Hanson, a spokesman for the owner of the ship, Tote Maritime Puerto Rico, told Reuters all contact with the vessel had been lost since Thursday morning, which he said was "very unusual," especially as the ship was equipped with a marine transponder, a satellite phone and GPS locators on the containers. "We checked them all," he said.
El Faro, built in 1975, recently underwent a complete updating, Hanson said, adding it had been carrying its standard cargo of groceries, cars and retail products for Puerto Rico.
Captain Stephen Russell, director of the Bahamas National Emergency Management Agency, said earlier there were no reports of deaths or injuries in the Bahamas from Joaquin.
He cited reports of extensive flooding and structural damage on at least two smaller islands in the archipelago, but apart from some roofs ripped off houses, damage seemed to be limited.