BODEGA BAY, Calif. — The Coast Guard gave up searching Sunday for four people missing from a charter fishing boat hit by a freak wave that pitched 17 passengers into the sea. The bodies of five other passengers had been recovered when the search was stopped.
A Coast Guard helicopter, two patrol boats, the 82-foot cutter Point Chino and a shore crew searched for the missing people from the 65-foot Merry Jane, which pitched to the side when it was struck by a huge wave late Saturday afternoon.
The search was called off late Sunday and the four missing people were declared "lost" in the numbing 55-degree water that rapidly produces hypothermia, Coast Guard spokesman John Hollis said.
Rich Tiesso, the boat owner and operator, said the boat left Bodega Bay on Saturday morning with three crewmen and 48 passengers and was returning to port when it was struck from behind by a sudden wave between 10 and 16 feet high about a quarter of a mile from shore.
"The boat pitched to the side, tossing 17 people overboard," Tiesso said. "We had a flat, calm ocean with a fairly large swell--nothing unusual. It could have been a sneaker wave."
"The Sonoma County sheriff's office reported that five of the people recovered died," a Coast Guard statement said. "Identities have not been established."
Hospital officials in Santa Rosa and Petaluma said five of 22 people taken to four area hospitals remained hospitalized Sunday in stable condition. They said the men are suffering from hypothermia and head, neck and back injuries.
"I was talking to the captain . . . and then went back out on deck when three, maybe four, sneaker waves at least 15 feet high broke on the stern of the boat," Hamilton Heff, 61, a University of San Francisco theology professor, said.
"I was certain the boat had gone over as I was catapulted into the water. The force of the buffeting of the boat was utterly immense," Heff said. "One wave forced me to the bottom. I would not have made it if I had not been in good physical shape and a strong swimmer."