A local boater who left Marina del Rey last Thursday en route to his hometown of Newport Beach suddenly found himself jettisoned from his 65-foot yacht, a 1960 Stevens, into the 58-degree Pacific Ocean.
Craig McCabe, whose boat Heather could be seen docked in various locations around the Marina over the past few months, was working on deck as he was heading south in relatively calm seas.
McCabe was traveling alone and without a life jacket when, without warning, a large swell broadsided his boat and dumped him abruptly into the chilly ocean.
After his tumble into the water, McCabe tried in vain to reach and hold onto a line hanging off of his trailing dinghy, but the boat was moving too fast and he was instead forced to watch as Heather motored away at cruising speed with no one at the helm.
Eventually, the boat veered from its Newport heading and headed directly for Catalina Island, where she ended her journey without anyone at the controls.
The boat made land, running up on some rocks near Willow Cove about one mile north of Avalon Harbor.
“We got a report that a boat had run aground and was still in gear and running,” said Captain Kirkland from Baywatch Avalon. “Sure enough we went out there and we saw a powerboat named Heather was aground with smoke billowing out the back.”
The Baywatch crew that boarded and secured the boat —half expecting to find someone passed out down below — found only an empty cabin.
“It went 22 or so miles [unpiloted] and just a little variation could have sent it in another direction,” Kirkland said. “One wave could have caused it to miss the island all together.”
Or send it directly into Avalon Harbor, which had more than 50 moorings occupied that day.
But while Heather steamed her way through the ocean, 59-year-old McCabe fought for his life alone off the coast of San Pedro.
Reports indicate that McCabe grabbed hold of a party balloon and used it for buoyancy until it ran out of air, then he found some floating driftwood to take the balloon’s place.
He made it to a buoy but was denied access by an aggressive sea lion.
“We got a call about 11 in the morning from the guys in Avalon that a boat had run aground with the engines running and no one on board, so we initiated a ‘person in the water’ case,” said Coast Guard Lt. Tony Migliorini.
“We didn’t have much to go on. We found the owner/operator contact number from the CF numbers and from there we were able to contact his family.”
Once the Coast Guard contacted McCabe’s family, the Guard had a better idea of where he might be.
“His brother said that he was going to leave Marina del Rey in the morning and head to Newport Beach,” Migliorini said. “Then, we at least had a starting point for our search.”
The Coast Guard deployed numerous boats and aircraft in an attempt to find McCabe, whose body temperature was now slowly dropping and passing through the degrading stages of hypothermia.
McCabe sat in the water waiting for help while the search continued.
Finally, after more than five hours in the frigid waters, a passing boater saw him in his desperate state, picked him out of the water and called the Long Beach Lifeguard.
Moments later, McCabe’s brother arrived on the scene to the delight of his wary sibling.
After McCabe was brought into the boat’s cabin, his brother and the boater who rescued him began to warm him up until the Long Beach Lifeguard came and assisted with the appropriate aid.
“Our rescue boat, which has a captain who is also a licensed paramedic, got out there and started administering medical care,” said Lifeguard Paul Rodriguez.
Soon after, the boats made a beeline for the shore and McCabe was brought to the hospital for treatment of hypothermia.
His body temperature was down to 90 degrees and he most likely wouldn’t have lasted very much longer in those conditions.