It took a series of trips and hundreds of tips and leads, but danger came into play on the deep-water dive in September that recovered the remains of three men on the Erik, which sank July 3, 2011 and will likely not be visited again at the request of the victim’s spouses; one man’s remains are likely still with the ship that lies in water 2.9 miles off Punta Bufeo in the Sea of Cortez
THE SONAR IMAGE, exclusive to WON, of the Erik in its resting place 2.9 miles from shore in 170 feet of water. It is on its bottom and listing to its side at a 5 to 8 degree angle, likely from the shrimp trawl nets being draped on it. SONAR IMAGE COURTESY OF CAPT. WINGS STOCKS
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Second in a two-part series on the search and recovery operation of the Erik
BY PAT McDONELL
WON Staff Writer
PUNTA BUFEO, Baja California Norte — On July 3 of 2011 when the 115-foot mothership Erik with 17 crew members and 27 American anglers aboard sank in rough seas 75 miles south of San Felipe, it set off a 14-month chain of events the sportfishing industry will never forget.
Eight men perished when a series of massive waves brought on by heavy winds dislodged the stacked pangas on the stern, opening a hatch to the fish storage area in the stern, and water poured in. The converted and now top-heavy former shrimp trawler-turned mothership sportfisher took a series of hits as water poured in, the engines failed and the ship rolled to its port side, then sank, all within 5 minutes.
All 17 crewmen, all wearing lifejackets, survived, including the Erik’s captain, Crispin Montes. Americans, only a few wearing personal flotation devices they brought on the trip, suffered eight casualties.
CAPTAIN “WINGS” STOCKS and son KC Stocks prep for the dive with a mixed gas for deep dives. Wings took the most risks and was the only one to enter the staterooms. Not all were opened, though. The ship remains upright in 170 feet of water 2.9 miles from shore but is shrouded in nets, cables, rods, fishing line and other obstacles. Currents, low visibility and other factors make it a dangerous, difficult dive. Shown is an underwater shot during the recovery of the three men’s remains in September.
One man, Leslie Yee, drowned later and his body was found that day on a nearby island, and seven other men were listed as missing by authorities in an extended search demanded by the families in the glare of national media. They likely perished at the site, either trapped on the boat, or were sucked under by the abrupt stern-first sinking. The seven fishermen were Al Mein of Twain Harte, Calif., Don Lee of San Ramon, Calif., Gene Leong of Dublin, Calif., Brian Wong of Berkeley, Calif., Russell Bautista of Penngrove, Calif., Shawn Chaddock of Petaluma, Calif., and Mark Dorland of Twain Harte, Calif.
For 11 months the ship remained lost, but in June of last year it was found, resting upright, slightly tilted, in 170 feet of water 2.9 miles off the coast near Punta Bufeo, a popular Sea of Cortez fishing area 75 miles south of San Felipe.
Over the 11 months the ship could not be found, one of the missing men’s stepsons, Al Mein’s stepson Joe Jacinto, 47, of Clarksburg, Calif., mounted six expeditions into Baja, the first immediately after the sinking to look for the unaccounted men, then organized three more trips using sonar equipment to search for the ship. Another search last June confirmed it had been found, and a final trip in early September recovered the remains of three men, one of them Albert Mein, Jacinto’s stepfather.
JOE JACINTO, STEPSON of Al Mein, at a family meeting in NorCal, speaks to family members. Jacinto made five trips to Baja to locate the wreck and a sixth trip in September to bring back remains.
No more dives or recovery efforts are planned at this time. The majority of the eight spouses, WON has learned, feel the ship should remain untouched.
According to May Lee of San Ramon, wife of Don Lee whose remains were likely among the three sets brought up by Jacinto in September, each of the eight spouses has her own feelings on the tragedy. “Two are still very, very angry,” she told WON. She can only speak for herself when she told WON that she does not seek revenge against the captain, the owner or the crew.
“My husband loved the boat, loved the crew, and he knew the owner [Mr. (Gus) Velez] who lost his livelihood and has to live with this the rest of his life, as we all do. My husband would not want me to seek some sort of money for this. It was an act of God, an accident, a horrible storm.”
The Mexican government recently informed victims’ families their official investigation into the sinking is now complete, that the ship had been found and remains had been recovered. This is despite the ship’s redesign flaws that made it top heavy, the lack of available lifejackets, no GPS or Epirb was aboard, no mayday was sent out, and the captain was warned at the dock that there was a storm impending. The dispute between the captain and port officials in San Felipe at the dock, WON has since learned from Jacinto who spoke to the captain last February, ironically also concerned improper or missing crew insurance papers.
“There have been no arrests that I’ve heard of,” said Jacinto, and added that no families “have been reimbursed for the trip, and there has not even been an apology from the boat’s owner (Gus Velez).”
Last week’s feature detailed many aspects of the recovery that had not been reported until WON’s story, as Jacinto informed only the survivors and victim’s families in conference calls and e-mails. At the family’s request, and Jacinto’s, the third man’s identity will not be made public in WON, nor will the identity of the man whose remains are suspected of being in the lower stateroom.
But overshadowed in the drama of the event itself, and the fact that there is likely only one more set of remains in the ship, was the difficulty of finding the ship in three sonar search expeditions by Jacinto, and the danger of diving on it in one of the most inhospitable ocean environments possible.
As Jacinto told WON last week, while Mexico and the U.S. Consulate declined to physically assist in any way in finding the Erik, they “did provide the most important thing for us, which was access.”
GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS IN San Felipe often met with Joe Jacinto, far right, before trips. He told WON they offered the best kind of cooperation: Complete access.
The most compelling episode for all anglers is that Jacinto, a clinical consultant and advanced boater, was relentless in his quest on behalf of his mother, Sharren Mein, to find the ship and bring back the remains of his stepfather, Al Mein. That doggedness resulted in a coup. He tracked down the Erik captain, Crispin Montes, just before the February, 2012 sonar search expedition.
“I had knocked on his door in San Felipe several times on the way down and on the way home and I always left my phone number on the door,” said Jacinto. “I finally tracked him down in Mexicali and he agreed to talk with me.” He and Montes sat down for three hours and, as Jacinto said, the conversation was extremely difficult. The subject matter, emotions and the language barrier all worked against a smooth meeting.
“He wanted to tell what happened. He said the situation with the storm was out of his control,” said Jacinto. “I was walking on eggshells, and I thought he was going to leave the table a hundred times and he broke down several times. Then he looked up and asked me, ‘What do you want me to do?’”
Help find the ship, he was told.
“He said he had a few days off from his current job and he actually agreed to meet me in San Felipe the next morning at 7 a.m.,” said Jacinto who admitted he never expected Montes to show up because the captain would have had to leave just after midnight to get from Mexicali to San Felipe five hours away in time for the boat to leave the dock due to the extreme tides. “But he made it.”
Jacinto was asked if, after days on the water sonar mapping the area, did Capt. Montes have a good feel for where the boat might lay? “You know, I took other crew members from the Erik on the boat to help look, but like the captain who was sure he knew where it was, in the end they all had no idea.”
Jacinto said Montes and other crew members did provide some revealing bits of important information: One, there were enough life vests for everyone on the boat, but when water started pouring into the boat, there was no way to reach them deep in the bowels of the boat. Two, the boat was not equipped with a GPS. Montes told Jacinto he relied on radar for navigation, thus he did not have access to lat/lon coordinates. Also, the boat was delayed due to tides, and the men could not load their gear when they arrived, and when they did, port officials again held up the boat. While trying to sort through insurance papers, Montes was warned about the weather. Jacinto also learned that as the boat headed south, crewmen reportedly argued with Montes about being so far from land, nearly 24 miles, as he ignored the storm warning and pushed toward the fishing grounds of the Midriff Islands area. He did say he was heading in for protection when the storm hit, but it was too late as 60 mph winds and huge waves hammered the ship in following season three miles from the coast.
THE BEACH ENCAMPMENTS varied, but most trips were small, but organized. Some of the trucks were borrowed from friends, the trailers rented and double insured. While Jacinto encountered no major mishaps, early sonar trips were made difficult with borrowed boats that saw systems fail constantly in the harsh conditions. The final two dives were done using Capt. “Wings” Stocks’ 27-foot Shamrock he practically donated to the cause, said Jacinto.
THE SONAR SEARCHES
The searches with sophisticated commercial sonar equipment were brutal work in harsh conditions. The one constant in all searches and recovery efforts was the help of Capt. T. “Wings” Stocks of Santa Cruz-based Adventure, Depth and Technology, whom Jacinto calls a “living legend in the technical and recreational dive community.”
With funds from the spouses and website www.findourfathers.org uncertain and financing coming out of Jacinto’s pocket, Stocks essentially volunteered the use of his 27-foot fully-rigged Shamrock sonar search and recovery dive vessel when it became obvious local boats donated (and gladly accepted by Jacinto to cut costs) had multiple systems failures in the harsh conditions while dragging a 130-pound torpedo-shape magnetometer unit while sonar searching. The goal was to search — and eliminate vast areas, narrowing the target areas.
THE MAGNETOMETER IS prepared for the trolling to arrive at the grid patterns. The magnetometer is a towed 130-pound keeled torpedo-shaped sonar unit that had to be lifted in and out of the water, often by hand. The sonar searches, tedious day after day in the heat, resulted in a specific grid that eliminated areas in the search.
“In every trip down to Mexico we had at least two and as many as four new targets, like the fisherman’s tip from Penasco, to check once on the water. Looking at these targets was done outside of a typical day of running well-planned grid searching, which is the most efficient and complete way to find something underwater.
“I hope you can give credit to “Wings” Stocks,” said Jacinto. “He was there on every trip. He’s humble and incredibly capable, above and below water,” he said of Stocks.
Jacinto said donations of food and equipment and help onsite by people who heard of the sinking were constant. The biggest battle was procuring information from locals. In Baja, money loosens tight lips. Jacinto offered local fishermen $100 for tips and $400 for any that led to the wreckage. He got more than 30 tips, including one in March about a shrimp trawler that caught its net on something near Gonzaga Bay in a likely area not yet sonar-checked.
As Jacinto says, a lot of little things led to the ship’s location. One of Jacinto’s best breaks and local contacts in Baja was Sergius Hanson, a 61-year-old amateur shipwreck hunter from Littleton, Colo. It was in April that Jacinto asked Hanson to check out that specific Gonzaga Bay trawl tip. Using his fishing sonar, Hanson charted the area and sent back the images, but Jacinto wasn’t convinced it was the wreck and asked a nearby villager to help. He dragged a 5-pound piece of metal from the end of a rope off his boat, marking each time it clanked against the underwater object and charting the dimensions. The object roughly matched the Erik‘s size. A June sonar and dive expedition confirmed it was the Erik.
Jacinto often e-mailed reports and updates to Erik survivors and the eight widows, even though he was, after the first two sonar trips, financing them himself. He reported the Baja region he often camped at and ran trips from in beach camps after trailering down from Northern California were “remote and inhospitable to say the least.” He added he “felt an obligation on searches to be frugal in cost management when dealing with all logistics: food, fuel, lodging, boats or equipment.”
THE SEARCH MAP showing the grid marks, a larger version from last week’s story, shows the specific sonar/GPS lines needed that ended up being tedious and difficult day after day. Although the sonar searches never turned up the ship, it did eliminate vast expanses of area, which led to tips from shrimp trawlers.
In the reports, he described the tedious and lengthy hours of planning and preparation minimized the difficulty in transporting equipment and personnel to Mexico. Renting trailers and double-insuring them, packing dive equipment for 10 hours, then driving over 1,000 miles from northern California to reach the search area, arranging affordable lodging in primitive working conditions, dining on days of frozen and reheated meals, enduring the hot 115-degree days and 90-degree nights, working 12- to 14-hour days, preventing dehydration and personal hygiene describes just a few of the difficulties associated with a search in an area like this, he said.
Security for personnel and equipment in a remote beach area was also a major issue at that time in Mexico, and there were no emergency services and little or no general services within hours. While these were not insurmountable, he said, “We just knew we were on our own.”
The initial sonar search expeditions began in August 2011 and continued with November 2011, February 2012, June 2012 and September 2012 time frames.
“When an accident of this magnitude occurs, the more accurate the eyewitness accounts, the smaller the search area,” Jacinto said. “Unfortunately, the early morning darkness, unfamiliarity with location, currents and conflicting accounts (by survivors and crew) resulted in a very large search area. Sonar and magnetometer (metal detecting) searches are a process of area elimination. GPS and computers kept track of the areas we searched. During typical searches, weather and ocean conditions dictated when, where, how long and what type of equipment we could utilize daily.”
Jacinto said the major difficulties with operating in this area of northern Baja on the Sea of Cortez were massive tidal changes and the sudden shifts of winds that occur. Tidal changes were predictable but intense winds shifts were not, so constant guard was required, he said.
“Twenty-foot tidal changes are common and create three- knot currents that interfere or disrupt scanning and diving protocols. Combined with contrary wind patterns, these currents make confused seas that can wreak havoc with equipment and personnel.
“As there is no local weather reporting station or modern boat launch ramps, all trips were planned around minimal tidal changes to reduce the effect on equipment and personnel,” Jacinto explained. “Regardless of planning, nature continues on its course, so throughout the searches we encountered extremely large schools of bait fish, erratic currents and excessive winds that interfered with the August and November 2011 trips, while rain storms in February 2012 kept boats on their trailers and actually physically moved the roads with flooding and washouts. With each consecutive trip however, more and more knowledge was gained about local weather and tidal concerns, potential boat launching sites and additional resources. Slowly, more and more search area grids were completed and we obtained “mystery” GPS coordinates from well-meaning locals. All this, we hoped, would contribute to locating the Erik.”
When Hanson’s sidescan and then the pangero’s metal-banging confirmation of the location of the Erik came in, the dive team conducted survey dives to assess the Erik‘s condition and diver access to the Erik. They found a shrimp net covered the wreck, the forward port doors were closed, underwater visibility was less than two feet and currents were confused throughout the water column. The team decided to return in either August or September of 2012 to verify where any bodies might be, and attempt to recover any remains.
Reality hit. It became obvious that commercial contractors would charge $50,000 a day for what would be a three-day dive, and they changed plans. With the blessing of the Mexican Navy, the Mexican Tourist Board and the U.S. State Department, a small technical diving team was assembled to conduct recovery operations.
THE RECOVERY DIVES
In early September Joe Jacinto, his wife Dena Jacinto, Stocks and his son, K.C Stocks, drove two Ford F350 pickups — one group towing a 26-foot survey/dive boat while the other towed a 20-foot camping trailer. All were loaded with a mountain of sophisticated equipment for diving, gas blending, and emergency equipment. Dale Pearson, a San Diego-based diver with good knowledge and connections in this area of Baja, drove down once they had the base of operations set up.
“Dale has always offered to help,” said Jacinto. “He was fairly aggressive and in this situation, you need to find out right away if people are capable. He was.”
THE THREE DIVERS who recovered the remains in September. “Wings” Stocks at lower right and his son KC standing over him. Joe Jacinto, who did not dive, standing at left and Dale Pearson. The elder Stocks was the only diver who entered the ship’s staterooms.
“The dive operation was one of the most dangerous I have ever done,” said Pearson. “The dive site is located to the south of the Enchanted Islands. That area is where the tides that sweep around the islands come together and create a rip current that is approximately half-mile wide and dumps like a river to the south with the outgoing tide. It does the same as it fills heading to the north.”
Pearson said the dives and searches were set up using tide and weather windows that only occur twice per month. With the seasons and the tides to take into account, there were only a few open weather/tide windows.
“The leader of the dive operation was Stocks. He is a master tech diver and wreck specialist. Without him on the project, I would not have attempted it. His son, KC Stocks, was our safety diver. He was the one responsible for filling our tanks with the mixed gas, and also for monitoring us during decompression. He would meet us at around 70 feet to check on us and he would also transport any remains we had to the surface from there so we didn’t have to hold on to them during deco (decompression, the long slow rise to the surface).”
He told WON the mixes used were different on each phase of the dive. They operated twin 80cu tanks with TRIMIX for the descent and actual work at depth. TRIMIX is a mix of helium, nitrogen, and oxygen.
“KC would mix the tanks before and test them with a computer gas reader to confirm the percentages of each gas to make sure they were safe,” said Pearson. “Pretty much the guy had our lives in his hands on every dive.” Pearson’s job was to assist “Wings” during the dive to help in the removal of the remains and to be there in case we were entangled.
Said Pearson, “The wreck was a mess of snag hazards. If you can imagine an entire ship covered with trawl nets. Not one or two but layers of them. We had to cut them back and work under and next to them in order to reach the target areas on the ship. I was tangled in them a couple times, but we had gear to cut free.”
JOE JACINTO, HIS wife Dena, Capt. Stocks and son K.C. Stocks on the final trip. “It might have been cause for celebration, Jacinto said, “But it might sound odd,” he said, “but we didn’t celebrate, perhaps due to the type of work we did (with the remains of the men).”
Stocks took the most risks. He was the one who entered the staterooms as Pearson waited outside with a light and body bags. The rooms were full of all kinds of hazards from cast nets to wires and fishing lines.
“I remember during one dive seeing a fishing pole there rigged up with a big treble hook trolling lure on it. It was a floating lure so it just kind of hung in the current waiting for someone to snag it. You had to make a choice of doing your job or trying to make the dive area safer, and after the first dive we just worked around the hazards instead of trying to mitigate them.”
Pearson said stateroom entrances were small and it was hard for “Wings” to get in there to work.
“At one point on a dive, his first stage got smacked just right by the steel lip of a door causing his 0 ring to fail,” said Pearson. “He was leaking air fast at depth on the wreck. I let him know he had a leak and that was all he needed. A guy with his experience is always ready for something to go wrong. He handled it no problem, as we had other safety gear and tanks staged on top of the wreck just in case. The guy’s a pro.”
The depth was manageable but the current on the wreck site was “crazy.” Even during the lull in the slack tide, they still had to hang onto the drop/decompression rope with both hands and kick.
“You basically pulled your way down to the wreck, and if you let go of the rope you’re screwed because there would have been no way to properly decompress,” said Pearson. “We did have a plan that if one of us broke loose the other would go with him; we would then pop a locator buoy and drift and hope the dive boat would see us, then give us a chance to deco. With no deco chamber near, it was always on your mind.”
“Never let go of the freaking rope,” said Pearson.
For divers, this next information is interesting, but for anglers it should indicate how difficult setting up a beach camp with technical mixing equipment was in remote Baja. “On the way up during deco we used the Nitrox 50/50 mix, and at 20 feet we would switch again to pure oxygen. Using pure o2 at 20 feet will clean all of the nitrogen from your blood by replacing it with the o2. We call this scrubbing your blood.”
THE MEXICAN MILITARY was
present on the first trip, and during the last one in September, plus
occasional land inspections. But their presence was just for monitoring.
“The Mexicans were hugely cooperative,” Jacinto said, “in that they
allowed us to do our work in their country and on their water, and that
was all we needed.”
Pearson said the Mexican military monitored them, but essentially they kept people and pangeros away from the dive site.
“Some of the pangeros from Gonzaga Bay would try to shadow us so they could get the numbers for the wreck. It was kind of sick I thought, that they were more interested in getting the location of the wreck than allowing us to operate and dive safe. The military teams with us made short work of that and we had a clear area to work for the rest of the time.” Also, conditions on land were brutal. Hot, windy, humid. “At night I slept on the roof of my Expedition. It was hot, too hot to sleep inside and too windy to sleep on the ground for me.”
The most dangerous and difficult of the dives, was the removal of remains,” said Pearson.
“Wings would slowly enter a room. He would have to move things around to get to the remains but when he did that it would turn visibility to zero. Normal vis at the site was four feet but as soon as you touched something or hit the nets, the muck would explode and you were down to just one foot and leave you with only your touch to navigate and work. The fact that Wings was able to locate the remains of three people was amazing.”
Pearson said there is one, maybe two more men aboard but were unable to reach them because they ran out of tide and weather. “The site became undiveable again and we were forced to stop the operation and return home.” Pearson said he is proud of the job they did, and “even though it looks like the job will go unfinished at least we put the rubber to the road and did what we said we would do.”
* * *
The final chapter will be identifying the remains of the two men. The remains of Mein, Lee and the third man recovered from portside staterooms were handed to the Mexican authorities. Mein’s remains were DNA-confirmed and the family will drive to San Felipe to get them. Lee told WON that she is planning on submitting DNA samples as soon as possible. Jacinto is hoping funds from donations through findourfathers.org will reimburse the more than $40,000 he and Dena spent on the final three expeditions.
* * *
For more information on the men, and media coverage of the event, see www.findourfathers.org. For the original WON story, see Pat McDonell’s blog (see blog archives) at wonews.com. There are some basic YouTube videos by diver Dale Pearson of the sonar searches and contact with the Mexican Navy at:
RECAP OF TRIP DATES OVER 14 MONTHS
July 2011: Searched presumed area of sinking in hope of finding survivors. None found,
August 2011: Search trip utilizing sonars and magnetometer on used, borrowed boat to search pre-planned grids based on assumptions from knowledge gained. 8 days on water with several possible sites to recheck.
November 2011: 4 days on the water utilizing sonar and magnetometer to search pre-planned grids on borrowed boat. Shortened due to high winds.
February 2012: 3½ days on water. With Capt. Montes, covered 6 square mile area and doubled the presumed area to 12 square miles. More tips of possible sites due to snags and hunches from locals. Wind and unseaworthy boat cut short trip. Nothing found.
June 2012: 6 days on the water with dive crew. Confirmed site utilizing sonar and dive crew.
September 2012: 4 days on site with dive crew. Remains recovery trip. Re-confirmed site and commenced dive operation.