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Baja Adventurers Often Led Astray by Ill Winds

October 20, 2000|PETE THOMAS

The saga is over . . . for now.

One Southland fisherman is dead but another survived, as did his Mexican guide. They lived on a deserted island in Mexico's Sea of Cortez for nearly two weeks as a massive search effort somehow missed them.

It remains unclear how Lorenzo Madrid, Joe Rangel and skiff captain Jose Luis Ramos Garcia went undetected for so long during the search, by boat and aircraft. Madrid died Sunday, less than two days before the others were finally rescued.

It also remains to be seen whether criminal charges will be brought against the captain of the mother ship that brought the trio there, the guide whose experience has come into question or the San Felipe port captain, whose job it is to issue and verify licenses of those embarking from the northern Baja California city.

An investigation is expected to be complete in about a month.

Meanwhile, Isla Angel de la Guarda is probably a very lonely place today. Unless you're a crab. . . .

Small rock crabs lining the shores of the island were a staple for the three stranded fishermen, just as they undoubtedly were for others stranded there before them.

Commercial fishermen from local villages have been forced ashore before and will be again. And at least two other tourists have fought for survival on a 42-mile-long island called Guardian Angel because of its looming presence beyond the shores of the small Baja town of Bahia de los Angeles, commonly referred to as L.A. Bay.

In 1995, Southland residents Mark Sorensen and Robert Rusnak were trying to make the 80-mile crossing from L.A. Bay to Kino Bay on the mainland, when a westerly wind, with gusts to 60 mph, caught them by surprise and left them shipwrecked for nearly four days. Guardian Angel offered little in the way of protection but gave them plenty of crabs, as well as the juice of cardon cactus, which they write, "tasted like half-baked bile."

In a six-page account of their ordeal in a Discover Baja newsletter, published monthly by the San Diego travel club, they wrote:

"These crabs were very alert and it was clear that stealth alone would not get us close enough to catch them. To our advantage, we found out that the crabs were not as perceptive of thrown stones and would stay put until stunned by a well placed toss.

" . . . With miles of crab infested coast at our disposal, our concern for food was fulfilled for the time being."

They were rescued by five Mexican fishermen who refused to take them to L.A. Bay, saying they lacked the proper papers to enter the bay. Instead they dropped the pair off in another small bay a mile or so south of town. They were re-rescued by three U.S. citizens aboard another skiff, or panga, which transported them to L.A. Bay and ultimately to their car, which had to be hot-wired because the keys had been lost at sea.

They acknowledged being very fortunate, considering the wind in the region can be a real killer.


Late last March, sleepy little L.A. Bay received far more mainstream media attention than the town and the "big island" did this week. Again, the wind was the culprit.

A team of scientists from the U.S. and Japan, including noted U.C. Davis professor Gary A. Polis, were overcome by a fierce westerly that blasted unexpectedly out of the Baja desert and raked the sea, flipping their skiff as they were trying to return from one of the islands on the fringe of the sprawling bay.

Five of the nine, including Polis, perished. The four others were able to swim to another small island and await rescuers.

When reporters came calling, Abraham Vasquez, the town's physician who has one of only two phones in a village of about 1,000 permanent residents, told a Times reporter, "We don't want to be blamed for what happened. Nor do we want to be known for this type of thing."

There isn't much to the town, reachable by car about 350 miles south of Tijuana. But in and beyond the bay is a natural wonderland frequented not only by huge schools of yellowtail, seabass and other highly prized game fish, but by porpoises, whales and even large and docile whale sharks.

The pristine nature of an unspoiled desert and the watery wilderness offshore make L.A. Bay attractive to adventurous tourists, the more experienced of whom never take the area for granted.

"It can be so beautiful one minute, but then the next you have these dangerous winds," said San Diego's Lynn Mitchell, who has owned a home in L.A. Bay for 21 years.

Mitchell, editor of the Discover Baja newsletter, once was stranded with a small group 40 miles south of town at Punta San Francisquito, forced ashore there by a wild storm complete with thunder and lightning.

They found a small abandoned fish shack, where they remained until they discovered a small family-owned restaurant and bar that opened for business just for them.

"So it was not the worst place to be stranded," Mitchell said.


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