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Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Luck, via preparation

Near tragedy at MB. Sanford's account

Tragedy averted off Mission Bay during tournament

See You Tube video clip of the account by Rob Sanford and another member of his team (see below) and Sanford also offers his account at the bottom of this blog, sent to WON and others Sunday night. An incredible story.

Rob Sanford of Defiance Boats and five others were rescued off Mission Bay by lifeguards during a tournament held Saturday in rough conditions that saw 10 to 15-foot waves at the harbor entrance, which was closed soon thereafter.

It was a near tragedy. While an estimated 90 percent of the post-Thanksgiving halibut tourney's 41 boats fished in the bay due to to the high surf and winds, the other boats ventured out of the bay. The bay's entrance is notorious for its danger to boaters at low tide and particularly during periods of high waves and a fast outgoing, low tide when huge waves are spurred by shallow water conditions at the bay's entrance. MASSIVE WAVES and a surging low-tide outflow combined for horrific conditions on Saturday.

MASSIVE WAVES and a surging low-tide outflow combined for horrific conditions on Saturday. PHOTO COURTESY OF ROB SANFORD, DEFIANCE BOATS

This may seem like quarterbacking from a lounge chair, in this case a desk at home after reading the harrowing account at the website SignOn San Diego and my local paper the San Diego Union-Tribune, and looking at the You Tube video of Rob Sanford after the rescue discussing the ordeal at the tournament awards, but the bay is no place to go in and out of during those conditions. The tourney should have been relegated to the bay. There will always be people who will push the envelope to compete and even the most experienced boaters, like Sanford, can get a curve thrown at them by the ocean. A friend, a huter, once told me, "Bad things happen in the field, fast." How true.

I get a chill every time I have to navigate that entrance in any kind of surf. I always pray that my engine will run strong. And I have, when scared to death at the entrance, time the sets in the waves.

The bay entrance is like a bay entrance in the northwest... shallow, and dangerous. The boat, a 29-foot Defiance owned by Sanford who owns the dealership in Mission Bay, apparently had one of its engines props wrapped in braided and mono fishing line and while it did run and felt normal at 10 knots, it did not have full power when he needed it. Sanford said he was not aware of the wrapped prop on one of the engines, and the one working engine at full throttle was not able to generate the boat speed to outrun a huge wave at the entrance. The boat capsized, and all passengers were in the 60 degree water for 15 to 20 minutes to a half hour, with some of them clinging to the jetty rocks and others hanging onto the engine of the floating boat as waves pounded them.

Quick thinking by Sanford saved his own life. After the boat capsied, he cut away his self-inflating life preserver with a knife he had because his buoyancy was trapping him against the deck under the boat, and heroic measures by lifeguards saved the entire group and especially Sanford's son Steven who was rescued by lifeguards in the water in the midst of huge breaking waves as he was taking his last breaths. He only regained conciousness in the ambulance. Sanford has some great advice concerning clothing and PFD's in his account below.

It was reported Sanford's son was kept overnight at the hospital. The others were treated and released. My thoughts and thanks go out to Sanford and his fellow passengers, and especially the lifeguards who risked their lives.

Check out the You Tube video clip of Sanford's and his fellow teammate's account, taken by Maggie (who was, presumably, at the  tournament  awards) by going to the end of this blog.

Here is Rob Sanford's report, submitted Sunday night.

The first line in this report: We’re all alive.
The bottom line in this story: We’re all alive.
This being said, it is time to put the dozens of rumors, second-guessing, and Monday-morning-quarterbacking aside and LEARN a few things from this terrifying day.

Mike is a great guy, runs a great event and should in NO WAY be blamed for any of this. It is the captain’s (me) decision to factor in all of the conditions, vessel, crew, tide, experience, etc….to determine what is safe and when it is safe. I take sole and full responsibility for the accident…I blame no-one or have no excuses….but there ARE several reasons this happened the way it did, and learning from it may save a life. If it only saves ONE LIFE, then it will be worth the time spent pecking away at this keyboard.

The weather reports were substantial…though, none of was even the slightest bit nervous or scared as we left the bay around 6:30. Sure, the stuff was big…but spaced out enough to make it manageable.

We were in a 12,000 pound, 29 foot (about 36 feet length-overall) Defiance pilot house, with twin Yamaha 250 four strokes. We had a full tuna-tower with second station, 115 gallon split bait tank. The floor and bow were all filled with closed-cell floatation foam. Diamond Sea Glaze storm windows. Radar, GPS, Two VHF radios, Two antennas, two hand held VHFs, two Handheld GPS units, a personal EPIRB, two flare guns, extra flares, strobe lights, standard PFDs, six cell phones, etc…etc…The reason I describe this, is the gear was USELESS in this situation! You can prepare, prepare, prepare, and then in a flash, you are upside down in the water. There is NO TIME….NO TIME when it goes bad. NO TIME….YOU MUST BE READY.

After turning up toward the crystal pier area, I pointed the boat into the weather. While I tried to control our direction at the helm, three of us tried to fish. It was un-fishable. After an hour, I made the call to go back in and fish the bay. THIS IS WHERE MISTAKE ONE OCCURRED. I should have thought about the stacked up conditions that would be present at the entrance with a falling tide, and a huge swell heading directly into the tide, two hours after the slack-high point. Didn’t cross my mind. Didn’t think the boat or crew was in danger. Not in the slightest. I have driven into that bay down-swell in dozens of different boats, dozens, if not hundreds of times….why would this be any different? IT WAS!

While we were swinging around trying to fish, we had managed to wrap about two hundred yards of mono AND spectra around the port prop…..It didn’t effect the performance of our ride at ten knots heading back to the bay, BUT IT DID AT FULL THROTTLE WHEN WE NEEDED IT….conditions were too rough to attempt clearing the prop, and it wasn’t effecting our performance….so I made the call to get inside before putting someone out on the swim platform to clear it…..Mistake Number TWO…..
The better call would have been to sit outside all day at idle until low-slack-tide, or limp around to the big bay. Stupid – but I didn’t realize it at the time….DO NOT MAKE THE SAME MISTAKE – Stay alive.

He we go….I made a big, slow, gradual turn from Pacific Beach to dead-center channel. As we timed the swells, we head in….tabs up….bow up….throttles adjusting for swell-speed….the way the brain says to do it….the way we have all done it….by the book….with the feel….calling on all the experience…..anxious, but confident.

All six of us were in the pilothouse…door closed….I was on the back of a gnarly big one…timing it….it started gaining on us….leaving us behind, …I throttled all the way up to catch it, and had no thrust from my port motor…it was the spectra….we were doomed. The bow fell behind the swell and the next set picked up the stern and rolled us over……..so fast it was unbelievable. The power of those big, ebbing-stacked, twenty-footers is incredible.

A few minutes earlier I asked one of the crew to get all of the life jackets out of the bags and out of storage. How many of us have stowed-away PFD’s?....In a 36 foot-LOA, fully-enclosed pilot house….would you be wearing them in these conditions? ….I thought so too. READ THIS CAREFULLY OR YOU WILL DROWN!!!!!! We had all the PFDs next to each of us as we went in. I had a self-inflating C02 PFD snapped on as I stood at the helm.

When the boat rolled over, the cabin door slammed shut. The water pressure from outside held it shut. Bo Palmer wedged his arm in the closing-door first, but as we all tumbled, he lost his footing and it slammed. He thought this sealed it for us….we were dead…… Somehow with the help of adrenalin, courage, help from GOD, and the assistance of Jared at the other end, he pried the door open till it clicked into the auto-latch…… OPEN!

The water rushed in filling the dark, upside-down pilothouse in five seconds……the five crew who were NOT WEARING PFD’s were ABLE to swim down through the doorway, out into the cockpit, and out from under the boat…….those crew NOT WEARING PFDS!!!!!!.....Crazy huh?....Had they put the jackets on, instead of holding them, THEY WOULD HAVE BEEN PINNED AGAINST THE UPSIDE-DOWN HULL AND DROWNED!!!!!.... AGAIN, read this part carefully OR YOU MAY DROWN!!!......CARRY A KNIFE….OR TWO….CLIPPED ON YOUR PFD OR BELT OR BOTH….My auto-inflator, did its job, and floated me to the underside of the cabin floor……I watched all five crew members swim out the door, and I was pinned to the cabin floor by my inflated PFD, with about eight inches of water above my neck. There was so much pressure around my fat head and under my arms, that it was impossible to un-buckle the vest…….My mind raced, and I realized my Spiderco stainless knife was clipped to my pocket….I grabbed it, popped both cells of my PFD, took one last breath from the air-pocket, and swam down out the door, around the bait tank, and up the side of the over-turned gunnel.

I remember screaming for a head count was first. Two were on the hull bottom…two more were holding onto the anchor pulpit. One was swimming toward the end of the jetty, and I held onto the prop and skeg…..THEN….the next monster-breaker blew us away from the boat like we were feathers. I was able to make it back between sets…Bo made it to the other inverted motor. My son Steven was twenty yards down swell, in water-proof pants and tight extra-tuff boots….ANOTHER LESSON……Get your boots off FAST! Do NOT wear any WATER TIGHT CLOTHING!!!!.....You will DROWN!....He is young, athletic, and in shape…but…He was barely able to keep himself afloat for the 15-20 minutes it took for the rescue boat to arrive. He was barely conscious, and on his last couple of breaths when the rescue swimmer got to him…..He did not regain consciousness until he was in the ambulance on the way to the hospital----he coughed out tons of saltwater….GET YOUR BOOTS OFF AND BUY THEM ONE-SIZE TOO BIG!!!!

Jared made it out with a PFD…He was ok. Feller made it to the Jetty. Kerry was aware enough to get out of her boots and sweatshirt, and swim to the rocks….she was exhausted, but alive.
Bo and I were dragged into the little whaler after Steven as the best trained, most heroic SD Lifeguard rescue swimmers I have ever witnessed saved our lives. THESE GUYS ARE HEROS!!!

The lessons here are many. It is my hope that you will read, and re-read these scenarios and play it out in your mind to stay alive when something like this runs up on you.

The boat did what it was supposed to. It floated. We crippled it, then asked it to do what it couldn’t, but it floated like it was built-to until help arrived. We lost the tower to the bottom, the rest of the boat is totaled……who cares…..We’re alive.

Rob Sanford - GM


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