3 Swim to Safety on Beach 9 Hours After Boat Sinks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric Jones and two friends were not in a good mood Sunday night as they prepared to end a weekend fishing trip off the coast of Mexico. Their quarry, Mako sharks, had eluded them all day.

But nine hours later--after their fishing boat had capsized and the three men were forced to swim 8 to 10 miles through dark, frigid waters--they were counting their blessings.

Jones, 47, of Fallbrook, suffered hypothermia and shock. His friends, Dave James, 27, of Oceanside and Paul Hay, 25, of Carlsbad, used shoestrings to tow him.

"There was some real heroism there," Jones, a store manager for a medical supply company, said as he relaxed at home Monday night. "The Lord was definitely looking down on us."

The ordeal began as the men were preparing to leave their fishing spot off Ensenada at sunset Sunday. Because a bilge pump in Jones' 21-foot boat had malfunctioned earlier, the stern of the vessel had taken on water. With the combined weight of all three men standing in the stern, a large wave suddenly flooded the listing boat, Jones said.

"I thought, 'My God, we're sinking,' " Jones said. "I just could not believe it. It was a good, strong boat."

Despite his frantic efforts, Jones could not open the compartment where the life jackets were stored. Then the boat overturned.

"It happened within 20 to 30 seconds," said Jones, a longtime recreational fisherman.

James and Hay took turns diving under a tangle of rope, fishing lines, and hooks in an attempt to reach the life-jacket compartment, Hay said. They succeeded, but just barely.

"Right after we got the life jackets, the boat went under," said Hay, a plasterer. "All we could see were some faint lights on the shore. It was scary."

The men also managed to salvage and fire off several signal flares, but they apparently went unnoticed by people on shore, where some locals were staging a fireworks show, Jones said.

As they swam toward the lights, the cold water began to take its toll on Jones. When he started shivering and could no longer swim, his friends took off their shoelaces and tied themselves to his ankles, Hay said.

"We stayed like that until we heard the surf," Jones said.

But as they approached the rocky shore, the men became separated by the pounding breakers. Hay said he yelled Jones' name into the darkness.

"We had towed him all that way," Hay said. "It would have been a shame to lose him that close to shore."

But the group finally made it to the rocks. Hay and James ran to the vacation home of Tony Cover of Upland at about 3:30 a.m. Monday. Cover and members of his family warmed Jones with hot showers and hot water bottles until he could be taken to an Ensenada hospital.

"They were the best people," Hay said of the Covers. "They were super."

At least two of three men had plans to go fishing again.

"Certainly," Hay said. "I like to fish. This was just one of those freak things."

"I love the ocean," Jones said. "I love fishing."

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