SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — It was about 1 a.m. last Friday and after a successful night of fishing when Captain Markus Medak set course for a new fishing spot about 90 miles west of San Diego.
As he turned, something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye: A set of feint flashing lights going back and forth.
“I didn’t think there was a boat, they were moving erratically, it had to be someone that was in trouble,” Medak said Tuesday.
Medak decided to maneuver his sports fishing boat, the New Lo-An, for a closer look.
“We turned on our floodlight, and at first I thought it was a kayak that had been blown out there, but it was a panga with people in it, they were waving at us,” he said.
Photos and video from the crew showed men, women and children in the small vessel. The majority of the 25 migrants are from Mexico; two are from Guatemala.
Medak said he could only get so close as the sea was choppy.
“We threw them a line and we were able to use it to get them water and snacks, they had no water,” Medak said. “With conditions like that, you could easily run into another boat or crush someone between boats.”
A couple of his crew members, who speak Spanish, discovered the migrants had been adrift at sea for three days.
“They were drifting east about a knot per hour, a few hours later we would have never found them,” Medak said.
After getting a call from Medak, the Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter to the scene. Later, a cutter arrived to pull the migrants from the boat. They were turned over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Lt. Cmdr. Scott Verhage of the U.S. Coast Guard’s San Diego Sector, told the San Diego Union-Tribune it was a miracle the panga boat was found saying, “this was lottery-winner-level luck … the captain and his crew are the true heroes in this.”
“We stayed there until helicopter got there just in case something happened so we could keep track of where they were. It could’ve turned into a bad situation, especially with no life jackets on board. Even if you had, the water is cold it’s not warm this time of year,” said Medak. “It could’ve very easily ended up with us finding a panga adrift or us finding bodies floating days later and I’m just so thankful.”
“That boat could’ve easily capsized that night,” said crew member Raul Garabito. “I’m very proud and part of the event that happened was very eye-opening you appreciate what you got here you look at these poor people trying to come over here for a better life and you first-hand see them literally risking their lives.”
In July, eight people were taken to the hospital after a panga capsized off the coast of Encinitas in a reported maritime smuggling attempt.
In May, three people died and more than two dozen others were sent to the hospital when the 40-food Cabin Cruiser they were in ran aground off the San Diego coast.
Border authorities saw a record-setting increase in maritime smuggling last fiscal year. Smugglers use all types of boats to smuggle migrants and drugs into the United States, prompting Air and Marine agents to pay more attention to the eastern Pacific Ocean along Southern and Central California.
Last year saw a 93 percent increase in maritime smuggling attempts from 2019, CBP has said.