They had been looking forward to the weeklong journey for a year. The retired Los Angeles firefighters, their wives and friends would welcome the New Year aboard a luxury yacht, swimming, snorkeling and fishing under the Baja California sun.
But the trip from La Paz to Loreto in Mexico was a bigger adventure than the 16 Americans had bargained for. Not only was the sunshine scarce, but much of the swimming they did was in 20-foot swells and against 40-knot winds--as the chartered yacht sunk.
Reached by telephone at the La Paz hotel where they were recovering Friday, some of the vacationers recounted their adventure.
The 160-foot, La Paz-based Canta Mar was anchored for two days in the Sea of Cortez, where the skipper hoped to ride out the stormy weather. Instead, the waves slammed the ship harder and harder, dousing the decks with water and inching the $7-million yacht toward the jagged rocks where it finally broke up.
"It became very tense and very frightening," said Marie Shutz, 63, of Los Osos near Morro Bay. "We felt everything would work out, but every once in a while we'd say, 'I can't believe this is happening.' The difficult part went on for so long."
The last time the Americans and the 10 Mexican crew members saw the pleasure boat, it was lying on its side, bashing against the boulders. They left the site of the wreckage aboard a Mexican Coast Guard cutter, shivering with cold and fear, but suffering only from scratches and sore muscles.
Retired firefighter Alex Shutz said that his buddies had reserved the charter a year ago through a travel agency and tour company. The group of 16--about half of whom still live in Los Angeles--boarded the Mexican yacht two days after Christmas in La Paz, on the gulf coast of Baja California Sur.
From the beginning, Shutz said, they had little nice weather. They made it to Loreto, about 220 miles north of La Paz, and were headed back to La Paz when one of the two engines gave out.
"Then, after we traveled a long way on the second engine, that one gave out," Shutz said.
The boat drifted, and late on New Year's Day the captain dropped anchor near an island about 65 miles north of La Paz where he hoped to wait out the storm.
The yacht took on water that night and the next day as the high seas continued. The water killed the generator, cutting all power to the boat.
The lifeboats on the yacht were too small to put in the waves, so the passengers and crew readied themselves to abandon ship if the captain could reach a sandy area to run it aground.
The Mexican Coast Guard boat arrived late Wednesday, but could do nothing before daylight.
"We didn't sleep much. We tried to sleep and cuddled up to each other and thought about positive possibilities," Marie Shutz said.
On Thursday, the Coast Guard took the 12 women off the yacht by lifeboat. They were trying to get the women onto the cutter so they could return for the men, when suddenly the yacht jutted toward the rocks and the men jumped into the sea.
"We bailed out," Shutz said. "We had to get off before it hit the cliffs. We would have been wrecked."
"Oh boy, we came within seconds of being goners," said J. Slade De Laney, 62, of Bridgeport, Calif. "We were anchored for 50 hours, getting beat up by the waves."
In the shelter of the nearby island, the men and women were able to board the Coast Guard cutter for a six-hour ride back to La Paz.
"We lost everything except for what we had on us . . . all of our clothes, cameras, papers. One fellow lost his pants and shoes when he jumped ship," Shutz said. "We were shivering like crazy."
Despite the frightening episode, the Shutzes said they would take a similar trip again.
"This can happen any time. You can run into trouble driving a car. This doesn't frighten us any," Shutz said. "My wife, she's probably more game than I am."
He said the group expected to return to Los Angeles today.