Dan Richter's (Completely True) Fishing Story

Two Days Without Sleep! Traumatized Tuna!
BoatUS to the Rescue!

Published:January 2011

A despondent Dan Richter and his badly damaged 29-foot Seaswirl were tied up at the Mexican Navy base in Ensenada, Mexico, this past October when he spotted a mysterious man walking down the pier toward his boat. Dan wasn't under arrest, at least not yet, but he certainly wasn't free to go home either. And after a long night without sleep in a place where none of the people he'd been dealing with spoke English, Dan was almost begging to go home.

The man was about six feet tall, distinguished looking with white hair and a relaxed, personable manner. He continued walking toward Richter's boat, stopping occasionally to exchange greetings with people on the pier he seemed to know. When he finally reached the boat, the mysterious man stopped, smiled broadly and said, "Hello, Dan, my name is Oscar. Your lawyer Jim sent me."

Dan said he felt instantly relieved, if only because Oscar was friendly, spoke fluent English, and wasn't wearing a uniform. But he didn't have a clue who Oscar was and he'd never heard of a lawyer named Jim.

Photo of Dan Richter and his son Brian Dan Richter and his son Brian.

Who's Oscar? (The Rest of the Story)

The night before, Dan had been fishing off Mexico's Isla Coronado, only a few miles south of San Diego, California. He and his 14-year old son Brian had been gingerly working their way past a series of tuna pens that were marked by buoys he'd spotted on radar. The buoys were each marked by "strobes" that Dan said were more like dimly-lit flashlights. When he thought he was safely past the last one, Dan began powering up when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. He swung the wheel sharply to port but it was too late; they struck an unmarked tuna pen. Even though they were only traveling at eight knots, the boat ramped over the metal rim and came to rest inside the pen. Both outdrives were badly damaged with one hanging precariously by its hydraulic cables.

Once he'd secured the dangling outdrive to the boat, Dan used the VHF to call the U.S. Coast Guard, which promptly dispatched a patrol boat and helicopter. Very quickly, maybe a half-hour after the initial call, the Coast Guard hailed him to say the rescue vessel was getting close and request that he shoot off a flare to mark his location. Dan complied. Seconds later, he watched a set of nav lights approaching, which, much to his surprise, turned out to be a Mexican Naval Patrol boat. Dan immediately called the Coast Guard.

The next few minutes were, in his words, "scary and chaotic." While he was on the VHF telling the Coast Guard about his predicament, his son overheard the men on Mexican Naval Patrol boat talking in Spanish about getting money from his dad. One of the men stepped aboard, grabbed the mic, and told Dan to switch to Channel 11. Dan learned later that collisions with tuna pens typically resulted in large, even enormous fines, but what nobody had counted on was that young Brian, whose mother was born in Mexico, spoke perfect Spanish.

Brian began telling the men that what they were trying to do was illegal — "This is dirty money and you know it! That pen wasn't marked. I have an uncle who works for the Mexican Border Patrol and he's going to hear about this." Meanwhile, the Coast Guard arrived and sent over an inflatable with five crew aboard, two of whom climbed onto Richter's boat. One of the Mexican Naval officers said they didn't want money, they only wanted to help. The man who owned the tuna pens, however, showed up and did want money. A Mexican Naval officer in scuba gear dove under the Seaswirl and, with the help of the patrol vessel, pulled the badly damaged boat out of the pen. It turns out that the same officer later told Brian that the accident wasn't his father's fault and gave him his contact information, just in case his father was charged for the damage.

At this point, Dan said he was becoming optimistic. The Mexican Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard had been talking back and forth, and Dan thought his boat was about to be towed back to San Diego by the Coast Guard, but, for whatever reason, one of the Mexican Naval officers announced that they were going to tow Richter's boat to Ensenada. Because they were in Mexican waters, the Coast Guard had to leave, albeit reluctantly. Dan opted to stay with his boat. At his request, the Coast Guard took young Brian home, but not before the young man fired off a few instructions in perfect Spanish about how his father was to be treated.

Young Brian's role would prove to be pivotal in his father's eventual release, but there would also be others. The rest of the story involves a long list of concerned people, none of whom had ever met Dan Richter but none the less were eager to help.

The first was David Walker, a towing dispatcher at Vessel Assist in San Diego, who made a phone call to Fred Ventura, an emergency dispatcher at BoatUS headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Because BoatUS Vessel Assist has a very tall VHF tower, Walker had been relaying the VHF exchanges between Dan and the Coast Guard. As soon as he heard Dan and his boat were going to Ensenada ("It made me mad"), he checked the computer and saw that Dan was insured with BoatUS Later that same night, at about 3 a.m., Ventura opened a claim for Dan and forwarded it to the BoatUS Claims Department. The following morning, Kerry McCook, a claims adjuster for BoatUS, called an attorney in San Diego, James Alcantara (the aforementioned "Jim"), and asked him to do whatever he could to help Richter. Jim called a colleague in San Diego, Carla Ishno, an attorney who is licensed in both the United States and Mexico. Ishno called the director of tourism in Ensenada, who happened to be her uncle Oscar!

The Plot Thickens

Dan may have been in Ensenada, but he certainly wasn't there as a fun-loving tourist. Still, he appreciated Oscar's visit ("a very likeable guy") and was willing to go along with a perfect stranger "just to get out of there." Oscar took Dan to the port master who, it turns out, had already heard from the owner of the tuna pens. Oscar and the port master started talking back and forth in Spanish. Dan listened, or at least tried to. Oscar then turned to Dan and said, "I don't know what your son said to those guys but [the man who owns the tuna pen] wants to make a deal: If you won't press charges against him, he won't press charges against you ... just sign this paper."

Dan was surprised, but he wasn't signing anything without talking to Jim, his new best friend and lawyer. Oscar read the paper and then used his cell phone to read it to Jim. (This was when Dan learned that Jim had been hired by BoatUS) The port master looked it over. They were surprised (Jim used the word "shocked") that the owner of the tuna pen had offered to make a deal that didn't involve Dan paying him huge sums of money. Finally, with Jim's blessing, Dan signed the paper and was told by the port master that he was free to leave.

Things were looking up, but the story wasn't quite over; Dan and his mangled boat had to somehow get back to San Diego. A man named Gerard, who "knows everybody in Mexico and can get things done," suddenly appeared. It turned out that Gerard had been hired by Jim and wasted no time arranging for the damaged boat to be hauled at a marina and put on a trailer. He then drove Dan back to the border. Jim, meanwhile, got on the phone and arranged for Dan to come back across the border despite not having a passport. (Getting him through customs still took almost five hours, but that's another story.) When he finally walked back into the United States, Dan was met by Jim, who had been waiting patiently. The two men smiled and shook hands; Dan said that Jim seemed genuinely happy to see him. Jim said he was genuinely happy to see Dan. Both men felt relieved.

Dan hadn't slept for two days. Thankfully, that was about to change.

Epilogue

Dan Richter's advice on what he would have done differently is simple: Don't fish behind Coronado Island at night. He added that whenever you venture into foreign waters, it helps to have someone aboard who speaks the language; just about everyone who was interviewed for this story credits young Brian for helping to get his father released without having to pay a huge fine. Finally, Dan is quick to mention BoatUS's role in helping to get the incident resolved quickly, "I can't say enough about how well I was cared for. Everyone at BoatUS was truly outstanding."End of story marker




Getting Caught in Tuna Pens

Finding yourself caught in a fish net or holding pen can be expensive anywhere. In this case, the Mexican Navy freed Dan Richter’s trapped boat, but the cost for being freed by a private towing company is considered salvage and can cost several thousand dollars. Add to that the cost to repair the net as well your boat’s props, shaft, etc., and the final tab for your navigation error could be tens of thousands of dollars. These costs are normally covered by your BoatUS insurance policy.

Photo of a sailboat caught ina holding pen

There is yet another cost that apparently has been levied by Mexican authorities in the past: traumatizing the tuna. Todd Schwede, a marine surveyor in San Diego, says the pen owner’s claim is that the tuna are traumatized and as a result won’t sell as well on the open market. A single bluefin tuna was recently sold in Japan for over $100,000.

Schwede, who makes no claims to being an expert on fish psychology, says he’s heard of other claims for traumatizing tuna that were as high as $80,000. He has no idea whether the fines were paid, however; unlike damage repair costs, fines are not covered by an insurance policy.