When San Martin resident Lee Ikegami, 67, called his wife Murphy
on Sunday afternoon after clinging to a life raft for several hours
in the Sea of Cortez, his first words were,
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When San Martin resident Lee Ikegami, 67, called his wife Murphy on Sunday afternoon after clinging to a life raft for several hours in the north point of the Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico, his first words were, “I’m OK.”
“Maybe six months from now I might get some inner thoughts,” said his wife, 69, who describes Lee as “very low key” and not a big talker. “If everyone he knew was all right, I would have bombarded him with questions. But we have a family friend who died, and one who is missing.”
The couple is retired, has three daughters and has been living in San Martin since 1980.
Details are arriving in short, successive waves for Murphy since the sport fishing vessel named “Erik” carrying her husband and his friends was broadsided by 20-foot swells, causing the boat to turn on its side at 2:30 a.m. off the coast from the town of San Felipe. The group was less than a day into their six-day trip. Murphy said there were 44 people on board, comprised of 27 passengers and 17 crew members.
The body of Leslie Yee, a resident of Ceres and close family friend of the Ikegami’s for about 40 years, was later discovered washed ashore on a lonely beach some 67 miles south of San Felipe.
Referring to him as “Les,” Murphy pointed out this was Yee’s first time partaking in the fishing excursion.
Don Lee of San Ramon, 62, who organized the trip for his group of fishing companions that included a small group of buddies and relatives, is a close friend of the Ikegami’s who is also missing.
“For my three daughters, this is Uncle Don to them,” said Murphy. “They’re really upset.”
When Murphy and her husband first got married and moved into an apartment complex in San Francisco, she said Don lived below them, and Yee lived next door.
On Thursday Murphy said her Lee was on his way home and driving Les’s truck when it broke down, and that he might have to take a Greyhound bus to Modesto.
“He’s not a happy person right now,” she said, noting it would be a bad idea to prod him with more questions concerning the ordeal. “I’m not going to poke the bear.”
While bits and pieces of the story have been coming to Murphy in sequences and continue to evolve since she first learned of the tragedy, she knows enough to understand Lee is “one of the luckiest people in the world.”
When their boat capsized in the dead of night, Lee told Murphy he was in his cabin but was “on the up-side” and was able to get out, where as “the guys on the other side were under water. They couldn’t open their doors.”
Lee, along with one other person, was thrown into the water not far from a life raft.
“They were in the middle of a storm, 20-foot swells, no moon, no stars, pitch black – just touchy feely,” she said, relaying her husband’s account of splashing around blindly in hopes of finding something to grab onto. “They were so lucky. He said it was so fast, they didn’t even get an SOS out.”
About four minutes later, Lee recalled a second wave flipped the boat over and sank it.
For the next several hours, the 67-year-old paddled with one hand while clinging to a life raft that had no bottom, as “it had rotted out,” Murphy said. She added Lee eventually happened upon a panga, or, small watercraft.
Murphy isn’t sure of the exact number, but said her husband was in the company of other passengers.
It would be more than 12 hours until the group came ashore; a moment Lee described to his wife as “amazing.”
Physically speaking, Murphy said Lee is OK, save for a rash and sunburn. Since he was fully dressed with wallet and passport in his pocket, her husband fared better than others, she noted.
Lee’s group then walked about a mile until they came upon what Murphy called a “wonderful” family on the beach, who took the survivors into their home, fed them, gave them water and called search and rescue crews, which flew out to the isolated area in helicopters.
The 115-foot boat, operated by Baja Sportfishing and Diving, was a well-known boat in the area and had a clean safety record, according to Escobedo Ortiz, the Mexican director of civil protection agency for the state of Baja California. The “Erik” set out on a clear day, but the kind of quick and powerful storm that hit the boat is not unusual in the Sea of Cortez, he said, and like boats usually do, the “Erik” was trying to reach the shelter of a cove when it was hit by back-to-back waves.
As of Tuesday, seven people were still missing with some 37 people were pulled out of the water; 27 people on the boat were American passengers, many from Northern California. The U.S. Coast Guard is assisting the Mexican Navy in search and rescue efforts.
McClatchy News Services contributed to this report.