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FAIR GAME PETE THOMAS

Worry amid the wahoo

November 04, 2003|PETE THOMAS

The captain of the Polaris Supreme, on a 10-day trip out of San Diego, had led his 23 passengers to one of the best bites of the season. The sea was greasy-flat, courtesy of Santa Ana wind conditions, off Alijos Rocks, a remote spot west of Baja, disguising a torrent of action below the surface. Enormous tuna plowed deep and swam stubbornly in circles. Slender wahoo streaked through the water like errant missiles, while colorful dorado launched themselves time and again.

But, as his customers pumped and reeled from morning to night, the winds on the mainland were fanning flames that were consuming frighteningly large chunks of the Southland. One of the fires, Tommy Rothery learned, while sitting in his wheelhouse 600 miles away, was bearing down on his home in the Lakeside area of east San Diego County, where he lived with his wife and two daughters.

Only then did the veteran skipper realize how far from home he was. The exasperation was overwhelming, but solace came in the fact that he was not quite as far away as he might have been at a time in the not-too-distant past. These days, instant communications technology links the farthest-flung adventurers to home bases.

"The sat phone has been my savior," Rothery said Thursday, during a brief interview via the indispensable satellite phone. "I've been able to talk to my wife every few hours." And to his daughters Jessica, 13, and Kristina, 11.

"It's been a really big help to both of us," his wife, Susan, added. "Before, we used to have to talk on the [marine] radio, but we had to set the time in and arrange a channel to talk on in advance."

Rothery got a call from his wife before dawn on Oct. 26, four days into his trip, telling him that she had been ordered to prepare for a possible evacuation. She gathered up family documents, and her daughters packed their stuffed animals and favorite books.

Some friends in the neighborhood would eventually lose their homes. One ended up in the hospital with burns to her arms. Javier Quintanaro, the vessel's chef, learned that his wife was "literally pulled away from the house" in the Ramona area, Rothery said, as a large propane tank in their yard exploded because of heat from the approaching fire. Like the skipper, he wasn't there to help. Fortunately, his home was saved.

On that same morning, Rothery used his public address system to relay fire news to the passengers, but none had homes threatened by the flames. Since they had paid nearly $2,500 apiece to fish on one of the most popular long-rangers in the San Diego fleet, the show would go on -- and in a big way.

Many of the tuna topped 100 pounds. Wahoo, one of the fastest fish in existence, were taking baits and ripping lines from the reels. Dorado, many of them large males, or bulls, put on a wild acrobatic display that the fishermen seemed to be choreographing with the quivering tips of their doubled-over rods.

The sheer remoteness of Alijos Rocks, more than 100 miles west of southern Baja, makes for a great escape under normal circumstances. It's 147 miles from the closest land, a remote part of the Baja California peninsula. Three large rocks rise from a depth of 12,000 feet. To those on an approaching boat, they appear, collectively, as a ship on an otherwise featureless ocean.

"They're basically a storehouse for every species of pelagic fish you can imagine," Rothery said.

But with all that was happening back home and all that happened during the course of the trip, everyone seemed happy to be winding things up. No one aboard, though, even with the sat phone, had been able to fully grasp the magnitude of the situation on shore.

"It won't be till we get back and see the ash everywhere and read the papers that we'll really know what's been happening," Rothery said.

Later that afternoon, he learned that his family was among the fortunate ones. The evacuation order never came. The home didn't burn, and nobody was hurt.

Susan Rothery was taking her daughters shopping and out to dinner "as a little diversion for them," she said Thursday afternoon. And they would soon be an even better diversion for their father.

To e-mail Pete Thomas or read his previous Fair Game columns, go to www.latimes.com/petethomas.

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