Survivors Tell Agony of Fatal Canoe Accident

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the swells towered over them, six men clinging to a wooden strut bobbing like a toothpick in the Santa Barbara Channel faced a horrific choice.

Three hours earlier, rough seas had swamped their outrigger canoe. The 50-degree waters had already claimed their first casualty, 50-year-old John Devlin. Gripped by hypothermia, he drowned as his friends tried to hold him.

Devlin's friends hung onto to the 40-foot outrigger they had unlashed from their stricken canoe and considered their course of action: Stay and risk death a mile offshore, or summon help by swimming through the wind-whipped seas that had wrecked their Polynesian craft.

"Don't go!" shouted Ben Taitai, the owner of the doomed canoe and the crew's senior member. "We're a team. Stay here!"

But Justin Heard felt compelled to leave, and half an hour later, so did Scott Sullenger.

"I've got to go," he said, according to accounts from several people who knew the accident victims. "It looks like we're all going to die. At least I'm going in to get help."

Taitai could do nothing but watch as his friend set out for shore and disappeared into the 6-foot swells. He gave the account Monday to Sullenger's mother by phone, she said in an interview.

Heard was rescued by a sailboat, but Sullenger is presumed dead. The Coast Guard called off its search for him at 12:40 p.m. Monday, about 24 hours after it began.

"Due to the amount of time he was in the water and the type of clothing he was wearing, his survivability was only so many hours," said Capt. George Wright of the Coast Guard's Long Beach station. "The Coast Guard does not search for people who we believe may be deceased."

Shrimp fishermen passing by later picked up Taitai, Mike Davis, 29, and Faustino Rico, along with Devlin's body.

Taitai and Davis were treated and released at local hospitals. On Monday, Heard and Rico were still at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard.

Friends and family members sketched a picture of a tightknit fraternity that delighted in challenging the sea. Setting themselves apart from the more conventional, organized paddling groups, they created the invitation-only Channel Islands Outrigger Canoe Club.

"These are not wussy guys," said Frank Ramirez, a friend of the men. "They have a reputation."

Sullenger's sister, Lori Partridge of Oxnard, said the men loved the water.

"They went out all the time," she said. "And if you ever saw them talking about it, you knew it was in their blood."

Rico and Sullenger both were fixtures at Channel Islands Vineyard Church in Oxnard, a nondenominational Christian church that features rock bands rather than a choir. Dozens of their fellow congregants walked the beaches of Oxnard on Monday afternoon, their eyes fixed on the sea.

"We are still praying," said pastor Bill Coulter. "You hear stories about people who live out on the ocean for weeks. We're not giving up yet. We are still praying."

"We've lost a gem," Coulter said. "We've lost a real gem."

Sullenger, 35, was a 1982 graduate of Oxnard High School. He was vice president of Gard Containers Inc., which manufactures agricultural containers and supplies.

Devlin, who was known as "Big John," was on the verge of retirement from the construction business. He and his wife planned to move to Kauai, Hawaii, where their son, Brett, is also an avid paddler, according to Ramirez.

Although state law requires life vests on every vessel as well as a life ring on those over 16 feet, none were found at the scene, according to Sgt. Tom Bazemore of the Channel Islands Harbor Patrol.

Those who knew them say the men did not ordinarily use protective gear.

"They didn't have any life jackets on," said Lori Partridge, Sullenger's sister. "They were well aware of the issue. It was like motorcycle people who don't want to wear helmets."

Times staff writers Daryl Kelley and Hilary MacGregor and Times Community News reporter Anna Gorman contributed to this story.

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