Two killed on pleasure boat after colliding just after midnight with a towed barge

A collision between a recreational boat on a midnight cruise to Santa Catalina Island and a supply barge being towed back to the mainland resulted in the deaths of two boaters off the coast of Southern California.

Investigators said the accident occurred at about 0020 on Oct. 2, 2008, shortly after the 26-foot Bayliner left the Port of Los Angeles for the 22-mile trip to Santa Catalina. The barge, 128-foot Islander, was on the return leg of its run behind Rebel II, a 69-foot tugboat owned by Catalina Freight Line. The sky was clear and moonless, winds were light and seas were less than 3 feet.

The accident was not reported until 0730, when a passing boater notified the U.S. Coast Guard of a debris field containing life vests, a cooler and a tackle box five miles south of the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor. A search quickly ensued, but authorities could not find the missing boat or its occupants. The Coast Guard suspended its search for survivors the following afternoon after scanning more than 300 square miles of ocean.

Four days later, dive teams using sonar equipment and remotely operated cameras found the Bayliner on the ocean floor in about 150 feet of water. As the wreckage was being lifted to the surface, the bodies of the missing boaters — Henry Sanchez, 51, and Penny Avila, 48, both of Santa Ana, Calif. — were discovered inside. The vessel was then taken to the Port of Los Angeles for examination.

Lt. Randy Waddington, officer in charge of investigations for Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles-Long Beach, said officials were still reviewing data and camera footage to try to determine what caused the collision. Possible witnesses were being interviewed as well.

“We have video evidence that indicates the pleasure craft had its navigation lights energized 30 minutes prior to the collision and the barge had its navigation lights energized 50 minutes after the collision," he said. “Whether they were energized at the time, no one knows."

Waddington said it had not been determined how the victims died. Results of toxicology screenings conducted by Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office were still pending.

Lynne Doll, a spokeswoman for Catalina Freight Line, said the captain of Rebel II was unaware of the collision until the Coast Guard notified the company about the debris field. She said the man has 37 years of maritime experience. A deck hand with 10 years of experience assisted him on the tug, Doll said.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Wiedenhoeft said it was unlikely the tug captain would have felt the collision because the barge was on a towline more than 1,000 feet long.

“I’d find it very difficult to ascertain something that was happening that far astern of me at that time of night," Wiedenhoeft said at a news conference Oct. 9.

Investigators have not determined who was piloting the Bayliner at the time of the accident. The boat was registered to Sanchez, who was described by the Coast Guard as an experienced boater. He was the brother of U.S. Reps. Linda Sanchez and Loretta Sanchez of California.

Rich Miller

By Professional Mariner Staff