Nearly a year after his stepfather's Mexican charter fishing boat sank in the Sea of Cortez, and after four exhaustive search expeditions, Joe Jacinto stood aboard a boat last week looking at a sonar image of the wreckage he tracked to the depths below him.
The 46-year-old was supposed to have joined his stepfather Al Mein on the Erik for the ill-fated fishing trip last year, but canceled three weeks before due to a work conflict.
For the past year, Joe Jacinto has spearheaded a long-shot search effort for the 115-foot fishing vessel. Since the Erik sank July 3, 2011 in 20- to 40-foot swells, Jacinto and his small crew have covered 40 square miles, paying for some of the efforts themselves and using money raised by families to help defray other costs. Of the 27 Northern California fishermen on board, one is known to have died, 19 survived and seven, including Jacinto's stepfather, remain missing.
Often frustrated, Jacinto -- an avid fisherman and advanced boater who coordinated his searches from his garage in Clarksburg, near Sacramento -- persisted with the search, buoyed by the hopes of mourning relatives who on Sunday spent their first Father's Day without their loved ones.
In the end, it took the help of a grizzled shipwreck locator, expensive sonar equipment, a shrimping boat, a man vacationing from Colorado, Google maps and a strong dose of "fisherman's luck," Jacinto said, to find the boat. He even tracked down the Erik's
"It was a tough nut to crack," Jacinto said from his cell phone as he drove back from Mexico.
The search begins
Less than 24 hours after the Erik sank stern-first into the Sea of Cortez, Jacinto traveled to Mexico, rented boats and cruised the crash site searching for his stepfather and other survivors. After nine days of futile rescue efforts by Mexican government officials, it turned into a recovery operation; with his water experience, Jacinto soon found himself the coordinator.
He first traveled south of the border in August, tracking down every tip he got. With little time or money to waste, he got more efficient on future trips in November and February, contracting Santa Cruz-based Adventure, Depth and Technology and Capt. Wings Stocks, a 40-year veteran who had three high-tech side-scan sonar modules. Jacinto began obsessively tracking his grid searches on Google maps to avoid overlap.
The captain and shrimp
Jacinto had another mission -- to find the captain of the Erik. Going to his San Felipe home proved fruitless, but Jacinto eventually found him in Mexicali. The pair met for three hours.
"It was extremely emotional for him. I tried to structure the meeting to keep it just to business," Jacinto said. The captain could not pinpoint where the ship sank because he had no GPS and it was nighttime so he had no land references.
Jacinto convinced the captain to join him on a search, and the pair spent two days at sea.
Jacinto is keeping to himself details of the night the Erik sank. Mexican authorities have been investigating, but no report has been released. Some families want those answers more than others.
Jacinto's best tips came from six commercial shrimp trawlers whose nets got tangled in unidentified objects. Unlike in the United
Jacinto offered fishermen $100 for tips and $400 for any that led to the wreckage. He got more than 30, including one in March about a shrimper that caught its net in something near Gonzaga Bay.
One of Jacinto's best contacts was Sergius Hanson, a 61-year-old amateur shipwreck hunter from Littleton, Colo., who vacations along the Sea of Cortez. In April, Jacinto asked Hanson to check out that Gonzaga Bay tip. Using his fishing sonar, Hanson charted the area and sent back the images. They were inconclusive, Jacinto said, but piqued his interest enough for him to ask a nearby villager to further investigate. That villager dragged a piece of metal from the end of a rope off his boat, marking each time it clanked against the underwater object and charting the dimensions. The object roughly matched the Erik's size.
All along, Jacinto kept much of his information secret, not wanting to upset the presumed widows and other grieving family members.
A sonar image from the Gonzaga Bay site came back last week showing portholes and other ship features. A dive confirmed the object was the Erik, resting vertically with its stern on the sea floor.
"There was no high-fiving," he said. "It's solemn. We immediately went into overdrive. There was no time to waste."
Jacinto won't say where the wreckage is, only that it's "beyond recreational scuba" deep.
Now, the grieving families must decide whether to spend more money to dive into the wreck.
"It's taking us 10 steps back, so I need to be more thoughtful on how I want to proceed," said May Lee of San Ramon, the wife of missing sailor Don Lee. But she is grateful for the discovery.
"The only thing I can think about is my husband is no longer lost at sea and that brings me comfort."
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.
Twenty-seven Northern California fishermen went on the ill-fated Erik voyage July 3. Leslie Yee, 63, of Ceres, was the one confirmed fatality from the wreck. The missing men are Al Mein of Twain Harte; Don Lee of San Ramon; Gene Leong of Dublin; Brian Wong of Berkeley; Russell Bautista of Penngrove; Shawn Chaddock of Petaluma; and Mark Dorland of Twain Harte.