On Sunday, July 3rd, 2011, the 115ft long – fishing vessel that was charted by 27 Americans for a week long trip, capsized at night after encountering a storm and sank immediately, approximately 75 miles south of San Felipe. Let me begin by expressing my sympathies to the families of the 7 people who died in the sinking of the fishing boat "Erik" in early July out of San Felipe, in Baja California, six of whom are still missing. It was a harrowing experience for those that survived as well, waiting for hours to be rescued from the savage waters. This article is not to affix responsibility for the accident, although we will quote some of the press reports for purpose of example.
I contacted a long time friend of mine, who has served a career in the US. Coast Guard and recently retired as a Lt Commander. One of his assignments over the years was accident investigation, so we discussed the generalities of maritime accidents.
He said the leading cause of marine accidents is a failure of the captain/crew. The second leading reason is mechanical failure resulting from or leading to failure of the captain/crew to prevent or handle the failure properly. Thus it really all comes back to the failure of the captain and crew.
According to him, most modern vessels are designed to handle all but the most savage sea conditions, regardless of vessel size. It is often additions to a boat such as another deck, or overloading that detract from a vessel’s seaworthiness.
How do you protect yourself and your family on a Mexican Charter Trip?
I have been boating for more than 4 decades and a sailor for more than 30 years. I hold a US Coast Guard license and I have sailed the waters half way around the world. Making a decision on evaluating the safety of a nautical adventure might be easier for me, but with a few tips you can be an enlightened and safe charter passenger as well.
Don’t be Afraid to Say No…
Publisher James Glover said it so well, “Boating is one of the safest sports when everything is going right, it is one of the deadliest when things go wrong” To protect your very life your boarding of a charter vessel should be based on sound decisions not the emotion to “hurry up and have some fun.” If things don’t look ‘quite right’ to you, it is probably because they are not. Don’t be afraid to say "no thanks" to the charter. Remember too, that you can make all the right choices and it is still no guarantee thatthe Sea won't take you.
Select your charter wisely. You usually get what you pay for in life and in adventures on the open sea a bad decision can cost you your life. Operation and maintenance costs change with the size and age of the boat but larger, more reputable charters have more to lose if something goes wrong. They are more likely to properly maintain a vessel.
Is the Vessel Seaworthy?
Look at the boat. Is the vessel well maintained and does everything work? Travel businesses have taken it hard world wide during this economic downturn. The natural tendencies of operators are to reduce costs and cut maintenance. When things break underway it is a distraction to the crew. When equipment fails at a critical moment, it can lead to injury and death.
Is the boat organized and clean? The state of the vessel reflects on the skills of the captain and crew. An experienced and skilled skipper will not sail in a boat in disarray, but we’ll get into the skills of the crew more in a moment.
Does the vessel look ‘right’? You don’t have to be a marine engineer to look at a boat and think, “That looks top heavy” or “overloaded.” In the US a commercial vessel is required to have a physical inspection before beginning service, but that is not the case in all of Mexico.
The Competence of the Captain and Crew…
The captain and crew are the most important element should something go wrong. Unfortunately, as any combat veteran can tell you, it is hard to predict how someone will react in a life and death situation until the bullets actually start to fly.
The first clue as to their competence is the state of the vessel mentioned above. The lives of the passengers and crew are the responsibility of a good captain. A good captain will only pilot a sound vessel, however much an owner may choose to trim the maintenance budget.
A good captain and crew will be involved earnest ‘preflight’ activities when the passengers are boarding. A well maintained or ‘tight ship’ is a good indication of a captain and crew that take their job seriously. Horsing around or not attending to the needs of boarding passengers is a danger sign.
Here is a simple one… if the captain or crew are drinking alcohol or appear to be under the influence of anything – get off the boat.
I spoke to several charter operators, all wishing to remain anonymous. Their opinions on safety and inspections varied. They all agreed that becoming a commercial “boat driver” (not willing to call all of them ‘captains’) is far easier in Mexico. The Mexican exam is a joke compared to the US Coast Guard 300 ton license test. To make matters worse, many credentials are photocopied and passed around.
Most Baja “boat drivers” are elevated Pangueros (fishermen) – with many years of experience this makes them great at finding the fish for you. But in my years of sailing the Sea of Cortez, only the East Coast of Africa displayed boat pilots with greater ignorance of the basic ‘rules of the road’ and seamanship. A great many can’t even swim.
Conversely, I give the boat jockeys credit for just surviving. On any given busy morning stand at the entrance to the Cabo Marina and watch the fishing charters dash for the fishing grounds. In minutes the San Diego Aqua Fuzz could right dozens of infractions. Yet a collision or incident rarely occurs.
Marine inspections usually do occur when a vessel enters service in a major markets with a Port Captain like Ensenada, Loreto, La Paz or Cabo San Lucas. One charter owner in Los Cabos seemed to think that inspections and the resulting infractions increased in advance of the holidays. The larger operations did think they received more inspections than independent operators. They were unanimous in saying that oversight is getting better and in warning tourists off the glass bottom boats, independent panga fishing trips and water taxi operators in Cabo; on the basis of both safety and seamanship.
What You Can Do…
In the US a safety briefing is required of all passengers as the boat leaves the dock. This includes explaining the location of life vests, fire equipment and what to do in the case of any emergency. If your charter crew fails to brief you, ask as to the location of the life vests and identify the lifeboats and compare it to the number of people on board.
In the event of a problem don’t be afraid to speak up, point out your observations to a crew member of bad weather or another approaching vessel that may be on a collision course. The passengers of the Erik felt that the crew’s failure to close hatches compounded problems. I hope someone had pointed that out to the crew. Do not interfere or distract a crew member busy with an assigned task.
Keep an eye on the weather. Some charters will take you out because the don’t want to refund your money because of the weather. If the Port Captain has closed the port you should not go. A blue flag flies when the port is open, somewhere in the harbor area in a conspicuous location. Yellow is a small craft warning and red means the port is closed. (red with black squares is a gale or two of them a hurricane)
Baja climate can be very dramatic when hot land meets relatively cool water. The thunder-squal that sank the Erik is common in the Sea of Cortez during summer, they are known as ‘Elefantes’ or Elephants. Strong cells of thunderstorms can generate winds ahead of the rain near hurricane strength. Any good captain keeps a weather eye for changes in the waters windward of his vessel, but it never hurts to point out to a crew member something he might have missed.
It is important to remember that aboard the captain’s word is law. You should promptly follow his instructions until you believe he has succumbed to the same panic as the rest of the passengers and crew. (Then your should panic independently) Never interfere with a crew member performing his assigned tasks. The captain has tasked him for the benefit of the vessel and all persons on board.
Many people book their charters on the internet, or via a magazine ad without ever physically seeing the vessel and crew. No matter where in the world you board a vessel, the important moment is when your foot leaves solid land to the boat. You should feel confident in the crew and be aware of the weather. Lacking that gut feeling of confidence for good reason, you should request a refund or forego the trip. It is only your life at stake.
The vast majority of marine charters in Baja will end with happy passengers enjoying a marvelous time. If you assume some of the responsibility for your safety it is likely your trip will end happily too.