A Bisbee Black and Blue Marlin Tournament boat sinks leaving anglers in the drink with no lifeboat.
The capsized boat stayed afloat until the seven men aboard were rescued, but eventually sank. Divers who examined the boat said it had a hole in its hull.
A crew of fishermen that included three Billings businessmen survived unscathed after their boat sank during a marlin fishing tournament off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, on Wednesday.
“We didn’t win the tournament, but we’re happy to be home and alive,” said Carter Stewart, owner of Cardinal Oil and Stewart Geological in Billings.
Stewart was one of seven aboard the 1958, 37-foot Merrit sportfishing yacht named "Betty Boop," owned by his friend, Jim Arthaud of Belfield, N.D. Also onboard were Jim Bennett, owner of the Windmill Restaurant, and Tom Ryan, of Montana Oil Properties. The Black Betty team was fishing in the Bisbee’s Black & Blue marlin tournament, advertised as one of the world’s richest tournaments.
The tourney that attracted 945 anglers is based out of Cabo San Lucas, a resort city with a population of about 68,000 on the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. To the west of the peninsula is the Pacific Ocean, and to the northeast is the Gulf of California.
Other members of the crew could not be reached or chose not to comment on the incident.
It was the first day of the tourney, and the anglers had three marlin strike their lures, but none of them got hooked. When the first day of the tournament ended at 5 p.m., the anglers reeled in and boat captain T.J. Dobson began motoring back to the docks. After about 10 minutes, Dobson shut down the motor and came into the boat’s cabin.
Stewart said that’s when the crew learned that although the bilge pumps were working full time to remove water from the hull, the boat was still taking on water.
When Dobson checked the hold, he found it half filled with water. The crew formed a bucket line with one of the crew members up to his thighs in water in the hold. Despite their work, he was soon up to his chest. Then a wave swamped the slowly sinking back of the boat. That’s when the call was made to abandon ship.
“That doesn’t make for a good situation,” Stewart said. “It was a bit harrowing.”
Betty Boop was 28 miles offshore when the mayday call was sent over the two-way radio with the boat’s GPS coordinates. With no lifeboat on-board, life jackets were handed out and coolers were emptied to act as flotation devices, Stewart said. Luckily, the water was about 87 degrees, so hypothermia wasn’t a concern.
Dobson went into the cabin to get the flares and satellite phone when the boat finally went under and rolled, trapping him inside. He had to shed his life jacket to swim out.
“I thought he was a goner,” Stewart said. “When you see your boat going under the water, you feel real small.”
Instead of sinking to the bottom, the bow of the boat stayed afloat, allowing the men to climb atop. It was the white hull sticking up that helped guide a San Diego boat owner to the capsized crew. Stewart said that luckily their rescuer was only about 12 to 15 miles away when he heard the distress call. Within less than an hour, he had reached them and pulled them aboard.
“I was sure happy to see that boat show up,” Stewart said.
Back in the harbor he said the drama caused a “fire drill” scramble as about 20 boats motored out to search for the capsized yacht before the stand-down call came in.
“There was a little bit of panic,” he added. “Our loved ones had to wait for 45 minutes after hearing the mayday call and not knowing what happened.”
By the time the men reached shore, a representative of the Mexican government was there to offer any help and to put them in touch with the American Consulate. The next day, the story was on the front page of the local newspaper. An investigation by divers showed the sunken boat had a hole in its hull.
Looking back, Stewart said he’s grateful they never caught a marlin, since having a large, bleeding fish along may have attracted sharks. They never saw any sharks, and he said a shark attack never came across any of the passengers’ minds.
“Everyone stayed calm and listened to logical orders,” he said, but in the back of their minds they were preparing for a possible night on the water with a long, dark wait for rescue.
Amped up on adrenaline, by the time he reached the harbor Stewart said he was exhausted, drained by the ordeal. But the next day the group was out playing golf and Dobson went out on another boat to continue fishing in the tournament. Stewart is hoping they may get half of their entry fee back since no one in their divisions landed a qualifying fish.
The boating accident won’t keep Stewart from going out to sea again, but he said the next yacht will have to be bigger, at least 65 feet and equipped with a life raft.
“It was pretty unnerving when that first happened,” Stewart said. “When you look into the hold and its half-filled with water you get a sick feeling in your gut.”
By Brett French
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