Sonora fishermen recall fight to survive after shipwreck in Mexico

'You'd better start swimming,' man tossed into gulf tells himself

July 11, 2011 

JBL Boat Survivors 1

(JOAN BARNETT LEE / jlee@modbee.com) - Bob Higgins (left) and Steve Sloneker talk about their experiences when a fishing boat they were on in Mexico sank on July 3rd. They are pictured at Steve's home in Sonora on Monday afternoon (07-11-11). Seven men currently are still missing.

— From the moment Bob Higgins and Steven Sloneker were swept off their fishing boat in the dead of the night July 3 into Mexico's Gulf of California, it became a fight for survival against a punishing sea.

The Sonora residents were among 27 U.S. tourists who had come together for a Fourth of July weekend of fun and fishing off Baja. But on their first night on the 105-foot vessel, they hit a sudden storm that sank the ship and sent all its passengers and 16 crew members into the sea.

"I went into the water and I thought, 'This may be it.' Then something in me clicked and I said, 'Swim to something,' " said 64-year-old Higgins, a retired telephone company worker.

Higgins and his 65-year-old friend Sloneker, a retired electrician, were separated in the water. Each man clung to what he could to stay afloat. Higgins found ice chests from the ship. Sloneker swam to a large floatation ring along with crew members.

Then both men, who are fathers and grandfathers, found their own ways to survive, first in the dark and then in the scorching sun.

"When I was in the water, I thought, 'Am I going to come to my father's house justified?' " Higgins said. "There are a couple of things I promised to do I haven't done yet. Marry my fiancée. My son was getting his guide dog graduation and I wanted to go to that. So I said to myself, 'You'd better start swimming, Higgins.' "

Higgins was among the first group rescued, after 11 hours at sea. Sloneker was among the last, after 18 hours. Ripon resident Joseph Beeler was also among the survivors.

Nineteen Americans were saved. All 16 crew members were rescued as well.

Seven men, including Twain Harte residents Albert Mein and Mark Dorland, are still missing. Leslie Yee, 63, of Ceres is the only confirmed death.

A beautiful beginning

The trip that ended in tragedy began under a beautiful blue sky. The large group of friends and family, mostly from the Bay Area, had been going on Fourth of July weekend outings together for almost two decades. It was the third year the men had chartered the Erik, a 105-foot fishing vessel, and its Mexican crew.

Higgins had been going on the trips for the past 15 years, but it was the first time he had brought his friend Sloneker along.

The day they left, they said, there were no signs a storm was brewing.

"It was gorgeous," Sloneker said. "The seas were calm."

They had expected a six-day trip spent hauling in yellowtail and cabrilla from the water.

But before they could cast the first line, things went wrong. About sunset, Higgins said, he thought he saw a storm front on the southeastern horizon. But he didn't give it another thought.

Most of the men had retired to one of the ship's nine passenger bunks by 10 p.m. An hour later, the seas started to get choppy.

After midnight, the storm was raging and Higgins went on deck to check their gear. Waves were crashing broadside into the ship, and he smelled what he thought was an electrical fire.

After that, everything deteriorated quickly.

He saw the crew leaving their cabins, and one of them was handing out life jackets. Sloneker was the last of the passengers to receive one. The rough seas had awakened most of the tourists, but some were below deck when a 15- to 20-foot wave hit the ship, heeling it over.

"I had a flash of anger when I saw my friends trapped down below," Higgins said. "I said, 'I may not make it off this boat, but I'll be damned if my friends get trapped down there.' "

The fishermen worked together to get the others out. But on deck, they were still not safe. One wave swept several men off the boat, then another took even more.

"I probably had about 45 seconds to get out of our stateroom, up the ladder, barely got my life vest on," Sloneker said. "(T)hat wave … shot me out like a cannon. It was surreal, to say the least."

Higgins, who didn't have a life vest, was also tossed off. He swam to a floating ice chest that had two other men around it.

"I spun around and I looked up and that's when I saw the Erik go down, stern first," he said. "Just kind of like you picture that Titanic movie, that's what it looked like."

The men floated on the ice chest for hours. Six hours into the ordeal, they found two life vests to help keep them buoyant.

"We just started paddling to keep moving," Higgins said. "If we stopped moving, the cramps were horrible and the jellyfish just were miserable. They got all up in my shorts, and they were just stinging constantly."

Higgins said 10 minutes after the boat sank, the storm passed and the water calmed.

When Sloneker got swept off, he said he panicked. But he soon found a large life ring that had five crew members hanging onto it. The men straddled the floatation device for 18 hours.

Floating food and drink

Higgins and Sloneker said they were helped by supplies that floated off the sunken ship. Sloneker's group found two six-packs of Coca-Cola, which they rationed and shared. Higgins' group came upon jugs of water and cookies.

Eleven hours after the sinking, a fishing boat came across Higgins' group. They brought the men to shore and were the first to alert authorities to the accident. The ship's crew didn't send a distress signal before the boat sank.

After that, Mexican authorities were marshalled and a large-scale search started. Seven hours later, Sloneker's group was the last out of the water.

Both men had sunburns as well as bumps and bruises. Sloneker, who has a second-degree sunburn, tore his Achilles tendon upon returning to shore when he overestimated his ability to walk after all those hours in the water and jumped off the rescue boat.

"I'm banged up, but at least I have a chance to heal," he said. "Some of my friends don't have that chance."

Once on shore, both men said Mexican officials and villagers were extremely generous, helping them in every way. One woman gave Higgins the sandals off her son's feet once he landed on shore.

"The kindness of the people started right away," he said. "Two important events happened there. One was a tragedy. The other was kindness like I've never known."

Incredibly, both men said they would consider going back for a trip to Mexico and even out on the water. Though not right away.

But the questions about the tragedy remain. Both men said they did not think the boat should have sunk. They said not all of the hatches were secured before the storm, so the ship took on too much water.

The boat wasn't turned into the oncoming waves, either. They also noted that the crew members were the first off the boat and that passengers never had received safety orientation before the trip started.

"I'm miffed at the captain a little. But they were just human beings doing what human beings have to do to survive," Higgins said.

Higgins said he saw his friend Dorland, the still-missing Twain Harte resident, go off the side of the boat before it sank. But that's the last time he saw him.

"I don't have time to be angry," he said. "My heart is breaking because of my friends who are still lost."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284.

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