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SOS: Boat Stuck … In A Cave?


TowBoatUS San Diego responds to an incredibly strange distress call caused by a one-in-a-million missed waypoint.

“There’s not many times I can say it after 30 years as a tow boat captain, but this was a first.” So says Capt. Rob Butler, 52, owner of the TowBoatUS San Diego port, while describing his response to a 28-foot sportfishing power catamaran stuck inside a deep sandstone cave along a southern California cliff wall. The story of how it got there boggles the mind.

Apparently, two men were fishing hard some 30 miles offshore. They headed back on calm seas under a bright full moon. The owner went below to get some sleep while the crew put the boat on autopilot for the Shelter Island Boat Launch. Then he fell asleep. The men were awakened by the sound of surf as their boat — tuna tower and all — cruised into the 15-foot-high cave.

“If they missed by 10 feet on either side, it could have been fatal,” Butler says. “It’s really a ‘Twilight Zone’ type of situation, if you think about.”

Thankfully, they had enough VHF radio signal to hail the Coast Guard, which triggered responses from TowBoatUS, the San Diego Lifeguard Service, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) (investigating whether it was a drug running vessel). It was CBP’s infrared camera that detected heat 200 feet deep within the cave. Lifeguards swam the men out to safety, but an offshore storm was kicking up big surf, making it unsafe to attempt a boat salvage. The Pacific Ocean then proceeded to pulverize the fiberglass boat in what amounted to a jagged edged trash compactor.

Butler’s crew later spent several day shuttling out the debris on a 20-foot aluminum canoe — even the twin sterndrive engines!

“Our last large item to remove was a ball of debris tangled with anchor chain, fishing gear, a sea anchor, and one of the outdrives all twisted into a large part of the tuna tower,” Butler says before offering this piece of advice:

“Although autopilots make boating easier, it is very important there is always someone on wheel watch. A good rule of thumb is to set a destination point 3 miles at sea and hand steering into the harbor. You can also install a watch alarm that will deter whoever is on watch from falling asleep.”

Rich Armstrong

Senior Editor, BoatUS Magazine