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Baja Adventurers Often Led Astray by Ill Winds

The saga is over . . . for now.

One Southland fisherman is dead but another survived, as did his Mexican guide. They lived on a deserted island in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez for nearly two weeks as a massive search effort somehow missed them.

It remains unclear how Lorenzo Madrid, Joe Rangel and skiff captain Jose Luis Ramos Garcia went undetected for so long during the search, by boat and aircraft. Madrid died Sunday, less than two days before the others were finally rescued.

It also remains to be seen whether criminal charges will be brought against the captain of the mother ship that brought the trio there, the guide whose experience has come into question or the San Felipe port captain, whose job it is to issue and verify licenses of those embarking from the northern Baja California city.

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An investigation is expected to be complete in about a month.

Meanwhile, Isla Angel de la Guarda is probably a very lonely place today. Unless you’re a crab. . . .

Small rock crabs lining the shores of the island were a staple for the three stranded fishermen, just as they undoubtedly were for others stranded there before them.

Commercial fishermen from local villages have been forced ashore before and will be again. And at least two other tourists have fought for survival on a 42-mile-long island called Guardian Angel because of its looming presence beyond the shores of the small Baja town of Bahia de los Angeles, commonly referred to as L.A. Bay.

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In 1995, Southland residents Mark Sorensen and Robert Rusnak were trying to make the 80-mile crossing from L.A. Bay to Kino Bay on the mainland, when a westerly wind, with gusts to 60 mph, caught them by surprise and left them shipwrecked for nearly four days. Guardian Angel offered little in the way of protection but gave them plenty of crabs, as well as the juice of cardon cactus, which they write, “tasted like half-baked bile.”

In a six-page account of their ordeal in a Discover Baja newsletter, published monthly by the San Diego travel club, they wrote:

“These crabs were very alert and it was clear that stealth alone would not get us close enough to catch them. To our advantage, we found out that the crabs were not as perceptive of thrown stones and would stay put until stunned by a well placed toss.

” . . . With miles of crab infested coast at our disposal, our concern for food was fulfilled for the time being.”

They were rescued by five Mexican fishermen who refused to take them to L.A. Bay, saying they lacked the proper papers to enter the bay. Instead they dropped the pair off in another small bay a mile or so south of town. They were re-rescued by three U.S. citizens aboard another skiff, or panga, which transported them to L.A. Bay and ultimately to their car, which had to be hot-wired because the keys had been lost at sea.

They acknowledged being very fortunate, considering the wind in the region can be a real killer.

*

Late last March, sleepy little L.A. Bay received far more mainstream media attention than the town and the “big island” did this week. Again, the wind was the culprit.

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A team of scientists from the U.S. and Japan, including noted U.C. Davis professor Gary A. Polis, were overcome by a fierce westerly that blasted unexpectedly out of the Baja desert and raked the sea, flipping their skiff as they were trying to return from one of the islands on the fringe of the sprawling bay.

Five of the nine, including Polis, perished. The four others were able to swim to another small island and await rescuers.

When reporters came calling, Abraham Vasquez, the town’s physician who has one of only two phones in a village of about 1,000 permanent residents, told a Times reporter, “We don’t want to be blamed for what happened. Nor do we want to be known for this type of thing.”

There isn’t much to the town, reachable by car about 350 miles south of Tijuana. But in and beyond the bay is a natural wonderland frequented not only by huge schools of yellowtail, seabass and other highly prized game fish, but by porpoises, whales and even large and docile whale sharks.

The pristine nature of an unspoiled desert and the watery wilderness offshore make L.A. Bay attractive to adventurous tourists, the more experienced of whom never take the area for granted.

“It can be so beautiful one minute, but then the next you have these dangerous winds,” said San Diego’s Lynn Mitchell, who has owned a home in L.A. Bay for 21 years.

Mitchell, editor of the Discover Baja newsletter, once was stranded with a small group 40 miles south of town at Punta San Francisquito, forced ashore there by a wild storm complete with thunder and lightning.

They found a small abandoned fish shack, where they remained until they discovered a small family-owned restaurant and bar that opened for business just for them.

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“So it was not the worst place to be stranded,” Mitchell said.

*

In fairness to the San Felipe skiff-and-mother ship operations that bring sportfishing clients down to what is called “the Midriff” section of the Sea of Cortez, the death of Madrid on the shore of Guardian Angel is said to be the first accident-related fatality involving the fleet in more than 40 years.

That’s a remarkable statistic, if it’s accurate, considering that the panga captains go strictly by landmarks for navigation, most do not have radios and all occasionally venture well out of sight of other skiffs and the mother ship in pursuit of game fish.

Some get lost well into and even through the night, but always before they managed to find their way back.

Part of the reason is that, in most cases, the skiff guides have lifelong experience as fishermen and have become especially keen about their surroundings because they lack the luxury of modern technology and sophisticated electronics.

Said San Diego’s Gene Kira, a Baja historian and author, “There is a panguero named Pedro on [the Celia Angelina]. I have seen this man punch an empty--and therefore very hard to handle--panga through a 60-plus-knot gale and run it up onto a beach to save it. He did this voluntarily, as part of his day’s work, and then he sat down to lunch as though nothing had happened. In the evening, he went fishing as usual.

“I have also seen Tony Reyes Jr., in the middle of a pitch-black and starless night, pull back the throttle of the [mother ship] Jose Andres, 20 seconds before we met an especially large wave. He was of the opinion that he had done nothing extraordinary, even though he could not explain why or how he had done it. Yet somehow, he had known that wave was coming. . . . I would bet my life, really, on men like these. I’m convinced there is something very different in them.”

Perhaps, but basic safety equipment such as radios, flashlights and flare guns should be mandatory on the pangas and might have made a huge difference in the case of the missing fishermen, especially Madrid.

HOT TUNA

If last week’s storm didn’t drive the yellowfin out of local waters, what will?

All the storm seemed to do was bring in other species of game fish that should be available at this time of year.

On Monday, things went from amazing to bizarre for those aboard the Freelance out of Davey’s Locker in Newport Beach. The three-quarter-day boat returned to port with an unusual mixture of 28 white seabass, 24 yellowfin tuna and 18 yellowtail.

Things remained quiet during the week until Thursday, when the offshore tuna grounds, as close as 20 miles, erupted again.

“There are fish foaming and jumping all over the place,” said Norris Tapp, owner of Davey’s Locker.

Several vessels were on the scene and all had tuna in double figures on the deck by mid-morning. Among the boats were some that had already loaded up on yellowtail and seabass, both along the coast and at Catalina.

FIELD NOTES

* Pheasant season runs Nov. 11 through Dec. 10 and hunters should not ignore the Imperial Valley. Lt. Joe Brana of the Department of Fish and Game says, “It’s not uncommon to see 400 pheasants on a morning patrol, just driving the roads.”

Brana, who is based in El Centro, explained that the pheasant population in this region has “sky-rocketed” because of a recent shift in crop growing, from mainly lettuce, melon and alfalfa to asparagus and suddan grass, which provide far more suitable habitat.

Brana said that hunters should not do much scouting around in their cars immediately before the season opens at 8 a.m., as the birds are easily spooked.

Brana also cautions that only roosters can be shot and that the sex of the bird must be identifiable to DFG wardens. The bag limit is two a person during the first two days of the season, then three daily after that.

* Chukar and quail seasons open Saturday and prospects are fair to good throughout all but southeastern California. The daily bag limits are six chukar and 10 quail. The DFG is offering, free, its Upland Game California publication, profiling both species. It can be obtained at department offices or downloaded at https://www.dfg.ca.gov.

WINDING UP

Boreal Mountain Resort near Donner Summit in the Lake Tahoe area can boast of being the first ski and snowboarding resort in the nation to open this season--and the first to close.

“We only made it through [last] Saturday, which was our goal,” said Jody Churich, director of sales and marketing at Boreal. “We beat our record [for earliest opening] and the response was overwhelming.”

Taking advantage of last week’s storm, which left a foot of snow on the slopes, the resort opened one lift on Oct. 11 and closed three days later. Churich said snowboarders outnumbered skiers, 10-1.

“We did it to make history, but also to get people pumped up about winter,” Churich said.

* FISH REPORT, D14


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