As Sport Fishing Captain Markus Medak stood in the wheelhouse of New Lo-An on a moonless morning and choked with clouds that painted the Pacific Ocean sky inky black, he thought he saw a low light.
But it couldn’t be, right?
It was 1 a.m. Friday, over 95 miles off the coast of San Diego, as the boat chasing bluefin tuna east of an area known as the Tanner Bank skirted the edge of an aquatic wilderness.
Only three other ships operated in a remote grid that covered 100 square miles, two of which were over 10 miles. There was no radio contact or electronic signature indicating other traffic.
The captain narrowed his eyes for answers.
“I saw that the lights were starting to move erratically, which was odd,” Medak said Monday, via satellite radio, while guiding another long-distance fishing trip. “We got closer and I saw a white stripe and thought maybe it was a kayak that blew up.
“When we turned on the spotlight, it was a panga (style boat), sitting very low in the water with a lot of people waving frantically. He looked at the lights on a cell phone.
Adrift for three days, 23 Mexican nationals and two Guatemalans were running out of food, water and, most importantly, options. Shooting down a boat in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere with the help of energy efficient phone flashlights, is somewhere between the infinitesimal and the impossible.
Lt. Cmdr. Scott Verhage of the US Coast Guard’s San Diego area, the pilot who flew an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter to the scene after Medak made the distress call, has been on dozens of rescue missions.
It was lucky at the level of lottery winners.
The value of Medak’s keen eyes? Almost certainly 25 lives.
“It’s a miracle,” Verhage said. “The captain and his crew are the real heroes in all of this.”
Medak shuddered at the thought of how tragically the situation could have turned out.
A boat of this size would normally carry two to four people, the captain said. The weight of this number of passengers caused the rising waves to lapping at the top of the gunwale – the only protector against catastrophic flooding.
There was no sign of life jackets. Most huddled under a hand tarp to escape erosion conditions.
“They were taking a lot of the spray,” Medak said. “It looked pretty miserable.”
Weighing the safety of those on the two ships in sketchy conditions at night, Medak decided to launch the panga a line and basic provisions. They contacted the coast guard and stayed close, rather than attempting a risky boarding.
Spanish-speaking crew members Matt Oberhaus, Raul Garabito, Josh Anguiano, Aaron Simmons-Francisco and Ben Armstrong explained the plan from the bow of the New Lo-An.
Then came a critical series of transfers.
The sport fishing boat remained with the panga until the Coast Guard helicopter arrived. As the helicopter approached critical fuel levels, a C-27 fixed-wing aircraft dispatched from Sacramento seized the witness. This plane stayed until Coast Guard Tern arrived to complete the rescue.
“The next morning the weather really stood up,” Medak said. “I don’t think they would have made it. Most likely, these people would have gone into the water. It would have been a different result.
“It was someone’s last chance to find them.”
Verhage echoed the grim prognosis.
“I wouldn’t want to know how it would have been without them,” he said.
An equally dangerous scenario involved the Pacific Queen, which was fishing within a quarter of a mile of the panga with no idea of its presence. When Medak communicated the situation to those on that boat, there was a pause.
What if the ships had collided?
“(The captain) was pretty shaken up,” Medak said. “In the middle of the night with a dark gray panga, he could easily have run over them. “
When the Tern reached the mainland, those rescued were turned over to United States Customs and Border Protection.
Arrests of migrants and suspected smugglers at sea along the southern California coast nearly doubled between fiscal 2019 and 2020 and continued to increase in fiscal 2021, as patrols and arrests increased as a result of a sharp increase in maritime migration.
Everyone involved in this case heaved a collective sigh of relief at the unlikely outcome. Lives that were likely lost became lives that were surely saved. The right time, the right place is not quite as right as this one.
“We were so lucky we got to see these tiny little lights,” Medak said.
A miracle indeed.
Editor-in-chief Kristina Davis contributed to this report.
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