In the waters off San Diego, the smuggling boats often cloak their cargoes of migrants under cover of darkness. Only the hum of the panga boat engines signals their approach to slumbering coastal neighborhoods.
But on Sunday morning it was clear and bright when Cale Foy spotted a horrible sight unfolding at the base of the craggy cliffs of Point Loma.
A 40-foot trawler-style boat had crashed into the rocks, spilling men and women and a teenager into the pounding waves and a rip current so strong that it was dragging some farther from shore.
Foy, a naval aircrewman on a hike with his family, didn’t hesitate to dive into the choppy surf.
“Once I saw people in need, the switch came on and I was at it,” said Foy, who has had rescue-swim training in the Navy. “Our motto for our rescue swimmers is: ‘So others may live.’ I guess that was the exact thing I was doing.”
Out of the 32 people on the boat, 29 survived. Seven were rescued from the water, six of them from floating debris where Foy and another man had left them. Another was hoisted up a cliff. Three people died, a man and two women, who were 35 and 41 years old.
All but two of the people onboard were Mexican nationals, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. One of the individuals was from Guatemala and the other, the captain of the boat, was a U.S. citizen taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
Aside from the suspected smuggler, there was an unaccompanied 15-year-old boy, along with 21 men and six women ages 18 to 39.
The deadly incident comes at a time of escalating maritime smuggling attempts into Southern California and a recently announced effort by federal authorities to disrupt the trafficking. Smugglers have been taking to the sea to avoid beefed-up enforcement on land as well as Title 42, officials have told The Times. The policy, invoked under a controversial order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, effectively closed the border to migrants.
On Thursday, Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations intercepted a small wooden panga-type vessel with 21 people aboard 11 miles off the coast of Point Loma. The following day, hoping to head off more risky attempts, officials announced extra resources dedicated to coastal patrols covering the land, air and sea. The operations were set to last through Monday.
“We announced it in advance to try to deter as much as we could to kind of send the message to smugglers, the ocean is inherently unsafe,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeff Stephenson. “With water temperatures being what they are … it’s a very dangerous scenario.”
The smuggling attempt on Sunday took place along the western shore of Cabrillo National Monument, a popular recreational area featuring tide pools and hiking trails.
Foy was on a family outing with his wife, two sons and daughter when they first spotted what appeared to be an empty boat getting closer to the shore. While hiking, Foy kept looking back at the boat getting pulled closer to shore, as if it “didn’t have any power.”
It was about 10 a.m., and lifeguards had been alerted that a vessel was having trouble near the surf line, but no emergency crews had arrived yet.
When Foy spotted people jumping into the ocean, he handed his wife the car keys and his phone.
“I’ll be back,” he told her. “I’m going to go help out.”
Another man, in training to be a Navy SEAL, joined Foy in the rescue. Foy warned him this would not be a controlled environment, calling it a “life or death situation.”
Few were better suited for the rescue: Foy is a naval aircrewman who flies in the back of helicopters. One of his responsibilities is rescues at sea.
In the 60-degree water, the men swam around debris and plowed through…