When county fire Capt. Steve Escoto and the other rescuers hopped aboard the 50-foot vessel that had run aground on the rocky shores of Santa Catalina Island on Thursday, they expected to find a wayward sailor.
The engine was running and steam was streaming out. But when rescuers searched the Heather, they found no one on board.
“You start thinking about the driver. Did he have a heart attack?” Escoto said. “The boat was running, so somebody had to start it. Where were they?”
So began an hours-long mystery in the Catalina Channel.
Five boats, four from the county’s Baywatch and one from the Coast Guard, searched a vast area between Catalina and the mainland, and along the coast between Marina del Rey and Palos Verdes Peninsula, Coast Guard Lt. Tony Migliorini said. A Coast Guard C-130 aircraft and three helicopters crisscrossed the channel.
Three hours later, the skipper of the Heather was found.
Craig McCabe, 59, -- wearing shorts and a T-shirt -- was clinging to a buoy about a mile from the Port of Los Angeles.
Authorities believe McCabe fell overboard and that the boat somehow made it 26 miles across the channel unmanned.
Lance McCabe told Coast Guard officials that his brother was doing some work near the back of the boat off Palos Verdes Peninsula when a swell rocked it, knocking him overboard.
McCabe was able to grab onto some driftwood, paddle to a buoy and hold on, Migliorini said.
He was found around 2:15 p.m. by people in a pleasure craft. Moments later, Lance McCabe -- who mounted his own search after the empty boat was found -- arrived and plucked him out of the water.
Migliorini said it appears McCabe fell off the vessel around 9 a.m., meaning he was in the water for about five hours.
He was suffering from hypothermia and was taken to St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach in stable condition.
“He’s in pretty good condition all things considered, because that was a considerable amount of time to be in the water,” Migliorini said. “It’s cold out there.”
Avalon Baywatch Capt. Steve Kirkland said it was fortunate that McCabe’s vessel, by seeming chance, ran aground on Catalina rather than traveling even farther out into the ocean -- or worse, crashing into another vessel in the busy channel.
But Kirkland said he could see how some boaters would prefer for the boat to have simply run out of gas in the middle of the ocean.
That way it would remain undamaged, Kirkland said, and “someone could pick it up and have it brought back to me.”
This is not the first missing-boater mystery on the shores of Catalina.
Escoto said about a year ago, rescuers searched for a survivor after a vessel was found grounded on the island.
When rescuers shut down their search, “the guy came out from behind some rocks,” Escoto said.
It turned out the man had accumulated a number of tickets and knew that if he had been found after wrecking his boat, he would probably lose his marine license, and worse.
“He was trying not to get caught,” Escoto said.