Oct. 11, 2000, by Gene Kira:
What should have been a happy homecoming last week became instead a time of troubled thoughts, when we learned there was a panga missing on the Sea of Cortez with three people in it.
Our mothership, the Jose Andres, had been fishing the Midriff Islands and was working its way back to its home port of San Felipe when the news came to us by radio: a panga was missing from another mothership, Bob Castellon's Celia Angelina.
The first indication that something was very wrong came when our captain, Tony Reyes Jr., suddenly swung the Jose Andres' bow toward the eastern shore of 40-mile-long Isla Angel de la Guarda. I knew at that moment that the panga in question was seriously overdue, and that our boat was joining the search.
As this column is written, it has now been nearly a full week since the missing panga belonging to the mothership Celia Angelina failed to return from an afternoon of fishing, and the extensive plane and boat search continues. Not a trace has been found, not a life jacket, a gas tank, nor any other bit of debris. The coasts and island shores have been searched again and again for a hull on the rocks. The wind and currents have been plotted carefully to determine in which direction a drifting boat might have gone.
The Celia Angelina had begun its search when its panga was first missed early on the previous evening, Oct. 4, 2000.
Time is growing short for the missing panga, lost somewhere on the ocean desert, and with each passing hour, our hopes for its occupants grow more tenuous, and we must ask for a larger and larger miracle to provide for a happy resolution to this potential tragedy.
This has not been a good year for tourists in Baja California. There have been several well-publicized fatalities involving kayaks, pangas, and motor vehicles. The chain of events leading up to these tragedies almost always involves the remoteness and wildness of the setting. In the more remote parts of Baja, there is typically no lifeguard on duty. No Coast Guard or ship assist to call on the radio. No posted warning signs. No guard rail on the cliff. No ambulance service nor hospital. No way to get any help at all, if an emergency suddenly occurs.
Yet, it is this very element of risk that is the essence of the adventure we seek. Without a measure of risk--bona fide risk--there is, in fact, no adventure and none of the satisfaction that comes from having done something extraordinary.
Modern white water river rafting is a good example of a "soft adventure" experience that has been so softened, pasteurized, and stripped of risk that the element of adventure has been completely eliminated. I once "shot" the rapids of the Snake River in a massive inflatable boat with 20 other tourists. During our entire "adventure" we were surrounded by at least a dozen identical boats filled with identical tourists. Each of us held a small paddle and we were exhorted to "paddle for your lives!!!" by our teenage guide. I felt like a complete idiot, as people screamed and paddled all around me.
Baja is not like that, and that's one reason why we love it. In Baja, we suffer genuine heat and cold, and bugs, and wind, and truly awesome isolation on a truly magnificent sea. We respect ourselves enough to accept true risks in our quest for the beauty and adventure that make us feel so intensely alive. Despite the well-meaning efforts of those who would protect us from any risk, we insist on the right to make our own judgements and to abide by our own decisions.
Each time we launch a boat across a beach, or paddle a kayak downwind around a point, or pull a 4x4 into compound low on a narrow cliff road, we face a small and calculated--but certain--risk that misfortune, and even tragedy may strike. It is a risk that the adventurous among us must accept, in order to see what many have never seen, to feel what many have never felt, and to possess those memories that help us know we have truly lived.
In this time of grave concern for the three men aboard the missing panga, all their fellow Baja adventurers join in an expression of hope for their safe return.
Oct. 18, 2000: Tony Reyes Sr. was on the phone--long distance from San Felipe--and his dignified, gentleman's voice was filled with consternation about the unfair remarks that he had heard quoted from a U.S. newspaper.
"Tell them, Gene," he said, "tell them the San Diego boats have problems too! We're just as good as them. I have 35 years with no problems, 35 years!"
The issue was safety--specifically, safety aboard San Felipe's fleet of four panga motherships--and Tony had called to let me know that a panga missing for nearly two weeks from Bob Castellon's boat, the Celia Angelina, had just been found, with two survivors and one fatality.
Remarkably, this tragedy was the first of its kind in half a century of panga mothership tradition at San Felipe. Going all the way back to Charlie Rucker, who was the inventor of this business in the early 1950s, there had never before been an accidental fatality on a San Felipe mothership (there have been some fatal heart attacks).
Yet, the U.S. newspaper article in question had used this incident to imply that San Felipe's boats are somehow, in some general and unspecified way, less safe than San Diego's.
Now...wait a minute.
Details of the Celia Angelina tragedy are still very sketchy as this is written, and only time will tell if the accident was the result of human error, equipment problems, unavoidable natural forces, or some combination. But whatever the cause is ultimately determined to be, it would be grossly unfair to use a single accident to conclude that San Felipe's motherships--as a group--are less safe than San Diego's famous long range fleet. In my mind, the record of the past 50 years simply does not support that conclusion. In all that time, the San Felipe boats have taken thousands of long range trips, carrying tens of thousands of clients to the Midriff Islands, without serious incident until now. The San Diego fleet, which also has an excellent safety record, cannot lay claim to such a long period without accidents involving fatalities.
For an inexperienced observer, including the great majority of U.S. reporters, most of whom have very little experience in operating their own boats in Baja and little knowledge of Mexican fishermen, it is an easy mistake to conclude that boat size, luxury accommodations, and specific pieces of shiny new equipment, are the absolute determining factors of safety.
That is far, far from the truth. The most important factor in safety is the experience, knowledge and competence of the boat operator. This is exactly the same situation as when flying an airplane. As a combat reporter, I flew in all kinds of aircraft, and I staffed for an aircraft magazine, and flew myself as a young man. I can tell you categorically: I'd rather fly with a really good bush pilot ANY DAY, than with some businessman who has 150 hours on his fancy pressurized twin.
For those ignorant of Baja, except for sanitized tourist operations, expensive equipment can give a false sense of confidence. And the relative lack of expensive equipment in a typical panga may give a false sense of unease because many important behind-the-scenes safety procedures used by pangueros may go unnoticed (actually, most tourist pangas today carry at least boat cushions and a radio). There is the knowing eye, always watching the horizon for subtle signs of change. There is the practiced knowledge of the currents and the intricate, overlapping patterns of swells and wind waves. There is the almost imperceptible nod of the head or raising of a finger, telling a far-off boat of your observations and intentions. And most important of all, there is the cooperative, interlocking support of one panguero looking out for another, sensing when everything is okay and when something might be wrong.
There is always more that can be done for safety's sake. In my many travels throughout Baja, I've been in some pretty shaky situations, and in addition to U.S. Coast Guard recommendations, I'm an advocate of top quality VHF radios for every boat (even kayaks), GPS, flare guns, EPRIBs, signal mirrors, Type I PFDs, and so forth. I always take my own life jacket, even if I'm going on a deluxe 40-foot cruiser, and I ignore the sniggering and snide remarks. I always take not one, but two, complete, head-to-toe waterproof rainsuits, to postpone hypothermia if I have to go for an extremely long swim.
But, it is the experience and knowledge of the boat operator that makes you really safe. Safety equipment only comes into play after that experience and knowledge have failed, for one reason or another. On San Felipe's motherships, I have always been impressed, even awed, by the experience and knowledge of the pangueros and captains.
Nevertheless, in the present case of the panga lost from the Celia Angelina it may eventually be found that human error was a contributing factor. It may turn out that specific pieces of safety equipment that were lacking could have prevented a life from being lost. We will just have to wait and see. But in any case, it would be a long leap from those findings to any conclusion that the San Felipe fleet as a whole is inherently less safe than San Diego's, and to say so at this time without knowledgeable substantiation is premature.
(Related Baja California, Mexico, articles and reports may be found at Mexfish.com's main Baja California information page. See weekly fishing news, photos, and reports from the major sportfishing vacation areas of Mexico including the Baja California area in "Mexico Fishing News.")