At least three dead, dozens injured after ‘smuggling vessel’ capsizes and breaks apart off Point Loma

A boat capsized and broke apart off the coast of Cabrillo National Monument the morning of May 2.
A boat capsized and broke apart off the coast of Cabrillo National Monument the morning of May 2.

At least three people were killed and more than two dozen were injured May 2 when an overloaded boat crashed into a reef and broke apart in rough water off Point Loma in what authorities said was a human smuggling attempt.

“Every indication from our perspective is that this was a smuggling vessel used to smuggle migrants into the United States illegally,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeffery Stephenson.

Lifeguard Chief James Gartland said the maritime crash was likely “one of the bigger vessel accidents” the region has seen.

“It’s a tragedy,” he said.

The number of people who survived was unclear. Fire officials said three people died and 27 others were taken to area hospitals. The Coast Guard said later that 29 people were accounted for after the crash — four who died and 25 who survived. The agency said one of the 25 was in critical condition in a hospital.

Among the group of survivors was the possible operator and smuggler, officials said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection turned over the detainees, suspected of being undocumented immigrants, to the Border Patrol.

San Diego lifeguards initially got a report of a boat that appeared to be in trouble about 10 a.m. They were told the boat was drifting toward the shoreline with one person on board, officials said.

It turned out the 40-foot cabin cruiser was packed with dozens of people. A breakdown of their ages, genders and nationalities was not immediately available.

By the time lifeguards arrived at the rocky peninsula, the boat had crashed and broken apart near Cabrillo National Monument. Some people were injured onshore, while others were caught in a rip current.

“Conditions were pretty rough — five to six feet of surf, windy, cold, the water is around 60 degrees,” San Diego lifeguard Lt. Rick Romero said.

Lifeguards on rescue boats and personal watercraft pulled seven people from the water, including at least two of whom drowned, Romero said. Lifeguards also rescued one person from a cliff.

Among the rescuers who jumped into action was at least one good Samaritan: a Navy sailor who was in the area with his family, Romero said. The sailor jumped in the water and swam out to someone in what Romero described as “a huge help.”

Video from OnScene.TV showed medics performing CPR on two men on a Harbor Police dock, while a Coast Guard helicopter crew lowered a man in a basket of sorts in a field. Medics took some people away on gurneys, while others walked alongside medics.

Romero said there were life preservers on the boat, but it was unclear whether any passengers were wearing them.

Jose Ysea, a San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokesman, said that when he got to the scene, he saw a large “debris field” in the water.

“It is very rocky over there, and the waves, while they weren’t too high, they looked pretty strong” — enough to slam a boat into the rocks, he said.

Stephenson called a smuggling attempt during the day’s conditions a “very dangerous scenario.”

“The reality is, crossing the border illegally is unsafe no matter the method, especially at sea,” he said. “The smugglers really just don’t care about the people they’re exploiting. All they care about is lining their own pocket for profit.”

The Mexican consul general’s office in San Diego said in a statement that it was in touch with authorities to assist any victims of Mexican descent and their families.

The deadly crash happened during a weekend in which the Border Patrol and partner agencies ramped up efforts to thwart maritime smuggling off the coast of San Diego. Stephenson said the cabin cruiser was not on their radar.

He noted that the boat was not a panga — a low-slung, open fishing boat commonly used by smugglers. He said the cruiser was likely trying to blend in with commercial traffic and other “legitimate” vessels at sea.

Human and drug smugglers increasingly turned to the Pacific Ocean in recent years as the Trump administration tightened border infrastructure on land.

“Smugglers look for vulnerability they think there is,” Stephenson said. “They’re looking for any method they can to move what they view as a commodity.”

In fiscal 2020, Border Patrol agents detained about 1,200 people during maritime smuggling attempts — a 92 percent increase compared with fiscal 2019, Stephenson said.

In fiscal 2020, the Border Patrol recorded 309 maritime smuggling incidents.


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