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Tragic End to Baja California Fishing Trip

Outdoors: One man drowns, three others are rescued after spending 14 hours in sea after skiff capsizes off La Paz.

February 29, 1996|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A fishing trip in the Sea of Cortez turned into tragedy last weekend when a small boat carrying three passengers overturned in heavy seas off La Paz near the tip of the Baja California peninsula.

Two of the fishermen--Gene Lee, 48, of Saugus and Bruce Baker, 39, of Granada Hills--and the skipper, Raul Martinez Castro, after spending 14 hours in the water, made it safely to shore at Espiritu Santo Island outside La Paz early Saturday and were rescued at dawn.

But Patrick Slagle, 36, of La Verne, died, reportedly as a result of hypothermia, about 200 yards from the island.

Details are somewhat sketchy. Lee and Baker said they were too distraught to be interviewed, efforts to reach Martinez were unsuccessful, and the port captain in La Paz is still investigating the incident.

But John Beaudion of Camarillo, who along with Lee, Baker and Slagle, was among 12 friends making the trip, said they broke into small groups early Friday and boarded 20-foot skiffs, or pangas, and headed for El Bajo Seamount, a popular fishing spot eight miles northeast of Espiritu Santo and 30 miles out of La Paz.

El Bajo is not always accessible because of strong northerly winds common in winter months, but there was no wind Friday morning, and a dozen or so boats made it there.

Beaudion, who has discussed the incident in detail with Lee and Baker, and newspaper reports out of La Paz revealed the following:

Just before noon, the wind picked up and the swells were building. One by one the pangas began heading back.

But Slagle had hooked into a large yellowfin tuna about 12:30 p.m. and became engaged in a long and exhausting battle, which eventually left his group alone in the heavy seas.

An hour or so passed before he landed the 80-pound fish. Martinez, 42, quickly started back, but made it only a few miles before the boat was swamped.

"The boat crested one swell, and dove bow first into the other," Beaudion said. "And it swept everything clean, and the next one capsized the boat."

The three managed to get life vests and Martinez grabbed a safety bumper. The four stayed with the boat four hours before it appeared it was going to sink. They then decided to swim for the island.

Soon they became separated in pairs, Lee with Baker and Martinez with Slagle. Lee and Baker were the first to reach the island, well after midnight.

Baker helped pull an exhausted Lee to shore, and Martinez made it soon afterward.

Martinez later told authorities that Slagle appeared to be suffering from a heart attack just before he died. He said he then realized there was nothing more he could do to help Slagle, and continued alone.

A fishing boat found the three survivors just after dawn Saturday and eventually located Slagle floating in his life vest about a quarter-mile offshore.

Beaudion said nobody in his group faulted the captain, who did everything he could under the circumstances. Mario Coppola, owner of Los Arcos, the hotel where the group stayed, said it is not uncommon for pangas to return several hours late, because of the weather or the fishing.

"It's a touchy situation," he said. "Sometimes a guy will hang a big fish late and fight it all day, and the boat comes back at 6 or 7 o'clock." Or, said David Jones, owner of the Fishermen's Fleet in La Paz, the captain will sometimes wait out the wind in a protected cove.

Coppola stressed that the panga was not his, that Jack Velez, who arranged for the skiff rentals, had contracted the services of Martinez to make sure there were enough boats for the group. He also stressed that Martinez is a respected pangero with a lifetime of experience in Baja waters.

When darkness fell and there was still no sign of the panga, Velez told the group he had initiated--with the help of local authorities--a search, which was promptly canceled because of heavy seas.

Efforts to reach the group via radio failed and the search was resumed at dawn Saturday.

Slagle, who was divorced, is survived by his 8-year-old son, Cameron. Services will be held Friday at 1 p.m. at Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills.

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