Mexican standoff

The five men aboard the Señor Hefe looked forward to wresting tuna from the calm seas as they left Mission Bay near San Diego on July 18. The Señor Hefe, a 48-foot Viking, was aiming for an area referred to as the "295 Bank," a sweet spot off the coast of Mexico about 70 miles south of San Diego.

Dan Liston, aka Capt. Dan, had the first watch. A former tackle salesman, Liston is an old friend of the boat's owner, Wayde Nichols. At 12 knots, Liston figured they'd arrive sometime after 5 a.m., plenty early to get a jump on the bite.

Liston, Nichols and three other men -- Gary Bobel, a business associate of Nichols; Tim Carew, a recent addition to the group; and 19-year-old hand Anthony Saputo -- had no reason to doubt they'd reach the 295 Bank.

But what transpired instead was nothing shy of the wildest fishing trip any of them had ever been on, one that would result in a 15-hour drama involving Mexican and American authorities -- yet still position them for epic tuna action.

About four hours into the trip, after midnight, the five men reached Mexican waters. At about 2:30 a.m., Liston went below to sleep, handing command to Saputo. Living on the boat next to the Señor Hefe at the marina, Saputo had known Nichols for three years and, despite his youth, was a tested and trusted member of the crew.

It was about 3:30 a.m. when Saputo, who posted an account of the incident in a Web forum on BloodyDecks.com, noticed something out of the corner of his eye that startled him. A pole was sticking out of the water.

Almost immediately, a loud bang -- the sound of the hull striking something -- stirred everyone else awake.

"Gonna get ugly"

The starboard engine stalled. The crew turned on the floodlights, revealing that they hadn't run into a weather buoy or a skiff as Saputo suspected. They had somehow run over a 3-foot-high barrier and found themselves inside a massive floating pen, filled with thousands of tuna.

The bilge pump had kicked in, but the engine room's shafts and fittings looked dry. The good news was the ship wasn't sinking.

But it didn't take long for them to realize something else: They were moving, despite having killed the throttle. Someone was towing the entire structure -- and dragging the Señor Hefe sideways with it.

Whatever was towing them through the darkness didn't respond to radio calls on Channel 16, the international distress frequency.

A 44-year-old entrepreneur whose latest venture involved financing mobile homes, Nichols in the past had run six businesses simultaneously, earning the friendly nickname "Boss Man" or, in Spanish, "Señor Jefe."

Nichols describes himself as a "hard-core fisherman," having trolled these waters for 20 years. He was still trying to sort out what had happened, but he knew enough to understand he and his crew were in a real jam.

"I knew instantly the damage I had caused and -- being inside a tuna pen -- that it was gonna get ugly fast," he told ESPNOutdoors.com.

The pens were, in essence, floating cages. Made with PVC pipes that frame a giant, circular net, a pen holds fish like a floating pasture, in which they grow until they're mature enough to harvest.

Nichols said the pen's tow vessel had been moving east, perhaps 2,000 feet away from the pen, while the Señor Hefe had been heading south.

"We hit [the pen] dead center," he said. "That pushed the ring down, and we went up and over it."

He rang the U.S. Coast Guard, but the radio man there didn't seem to understand the predicament. Nichols said he did his best to explain what was happening.

From the fly bridge, the vessel towing the pen looked to be about 100-feet long. At that point, Saputo guessed it to be 200 meters away. Nichols again tried to alert the vessel by radio, then flares and, finally, a handheld spotlight to get the attention of the other crew.

A pair of Avon inflatable rafts motored over, followed by a third. Each toted a couple of men in wetsuits.

Without acknowledging Nichols or the others, the divers entered the water, flashlights in hand. Slowly they circled the pen, inspecting the net for damage.

After a few minutes, they returned to their boats and called in Spanish to Nichols' crew, asking if anyone had been injured.

"I kept asking them to send somebody that spoke English," Nichols said. "Finally, some guy named Lemmon showed up. He told us that they don't know what they're going to do, that this is a Korean-owned operation with Mexican permits, that the Koreans are very concerned about their catch and 'please just be patient.'"

A couple of divers offered to investigate the boat's props and hull. The Señor Hefe was tangled in the rope holding the pen together, which allowed it to maintain a stable position while being dragged sideways. The boat also had a small bend on one of its props.

Nichols said he checked in with the U.S. Coast Guard, which suggested that Nichols call its vessel-assist line instead. Having previously served in the Coast Guard himself, Nichols knew a standard towing operation wasn't going to be enough.

"I was saying, 'Are you kidding me?'" Nichols recalled. "'This is going to turn into an international incident. You guys need to pay attention to this!' What they didn't really understand was that there was a 3-foot ring around me that I wasn't going over with a 60,000-pound vessel."

Penned in

At dawn, the towing vessel, the Cap Luis Pinel, swung around directly alongside the pen. The entire crew, it appeared to Saputo, had come to the deck to snap pictures with their cell phones.

Divers were ordered to free the Señor Hefe from the net. Once they had removed the tangled rope, they attached lines to secure the boat.

Around 9 a.m., a crane from the Pinel swung over the barrier and lowered an Avon inflatable boat into the pen. The operation manager and his assistant for Acuacultura de Baja California, an Ensenada-based business that owns the tuna-ranching operation, motored up. Both Korean nationals, they requested permission to come aboard.

Nichols and company agreed. Before long, they found themselves peppered with questions. The manager wanted to know how, despite the pen's lights, Saputo could have run into it. Indeed, that will be a sticking point for Nichols and Saputo for some time.

The tuna pen had two lights that were operating when the collision occurred, the company's legal adviser, Matias Arjona, told the San Diego Union Triune.

"There are 50 to 60 floating cages out there from different companies," Arjona said. "All of them have the same lighting."

Acuacultura's 10 tuna pens off Baja had never been hit by a vessel, said Arjona, who added that the pen involved in the accident sustained $7,000 to $8,000 in damage.

Nichols and Saputo argued with the fishery managers that only two lights for such a massive structure -- roughly the size of half a football field -- wasn't enough to warn boats of the potential danger. In addition, the dead-slick water had helped keep the pen flat and inconspicuous on the open seas.

The fishery representatives' first priority was the $3 million worth of bluefin tuna in the pen. The manager announced that another pen, still 15 miles away, was being towed to the area. Once it arrived, they planned to transfer the fish.

As the two parties exchanged insurance information and documents, Nichols and Saputo began floating ideas for an extraction. One suggestion was for a pair of boats to sit atop the pen and sink it just enough for an escape. The manager dismissed it as too risky to the pen.

"Another idea was to have ... [them] pull us over the pen without submerging the tuna pen tubes, which could lead to the shafts, props or rudders being ripped off and sinking our vessel," Saputo wrote. Eventually, "the Korean [operations] manager said that we would need to be towed with the pen into Ensenada Harbor. Our first reaction is 'Hell no!'"

Desparate for some resolution, Nichols agreed to board the Pinel. There, the fishery's owner kept telling Nichols over the phone to "be patient." He stressed there was a lot of money at risk. They also felt Nichols was at fault.

Nichols disagreed, but kept the bulk of his protests to himself. He was on their ship, in international waters. Now wasn't the time.

By 10:40 a.m., Nichols said he was back aboard his own vessel. He radioed the Coast Guard again, which said it was working on a plan, and also favored the idea of towing his boat into Ensenada.

Nichols sympathized with the fishery's predicament, but remained adamant his ship would not be going to Mexico.

"Have you ever heard of 'la mordida'?" he said, referring to the Mexican words for bribe. "I'm not going with $150,000 in damage and they see a boat with gold reels. All they'd see is money. I'm not getting into that situation in Mexico. I'll sink the boat. No, I'm not going."

The fishery representatives returned to the side of the Señor Hefe, asking Nichols to draw up a statement declaring that he and the Señor Hefe were liable for all damages. They wanted him to sign it.

The Coast Guard urged Nichols to be accommodating and give the fishery what it wanted. Reluctantly, Nichols agreed, hoping a court would later throw out anything he signed under duress.

To kill time, the Señor Hefe crewmen chatted with divers near the boat while Nichols was away. What they had learned was even more troubling than liability issues: Mexican authorities had been called and were on the way.

Catch of a lifetime

The replacement pen arrived around 3 p.m. Despite their fatigue, Saputo and the others were impressed as the relocation process began. It looked as though every diver from the Pinel -- Nichols counted at least 50 -- took to the water to prepare the netting.

The two nets were brought alongside one another and opened. Once they were connected, the old pen was gradually emptied by divers, who inflated float bags beneath the net, gradually lifting it upward to the surface. Others, meanwhile, blew streams of bubbles into the water where the tuna were docile.

All around the Señor Hefe the sea shimmered from the silver scales of the stampeding tuna.

"We all sit and watch this amazing operation of the tuna transfer," Saputo said. "It was like watching 'Tuna Cowboys,' but live!"

After 30 minutes of watching, Nichols' fishing bug was biting hard. He said the fishery representatives had come back periodically, insisting on changes to each revision of his liability statement.

The sun was pounding down, everyone was frustrated, and as he sat feeding schools with his bait, Nichols finally snapped. He flagged down the operation manager.

"They're sitting there, watching us," Nichols said. "Hovering over us. I said, 'We're fishermen, you're fishermen. Come on. We've both had bad days -- it's about a $150,000 problem, I'm sure -- [but] can't we just catch a couple of fish? We've been sitting here for hours.'"

The manager refused.

Potentially serious trouble was on its way from Mexico. Nevertheless, Nichols couldn't focus on anything but those thousands and thousands of tuna.

"I look at the Korean [operations manager] and say, 'Aw, c'mon, can't we just catch a couple of fish?'" Nichols said.

The manager paused. Then he spoke two magic words: "Two fish."

Grinning, Nichols decided to press his luck. "Four," he said. To his delight, the manager said OK.

Apprehension kept all but Nichols and Bobel in their seats. The two raced to their gear.

The first bait in the water was an instant hit: A hooked bluefin came up boiling, but the line snapped -- the glistening fish was gone.

Another 20-pound line hauled another tuna up from the deep. It broke, too.

The sight of tuna swimming past the boat was beyond tantalizing. Nichols and Bobel upgraded to 30-pound line. Snapped lines gave away two more fish. Nichols and Bobel upgraded again to 40-pound line. Those lines snapped, too.

A murmuring over the waves steadily grew louder. Work on the Pinel and around the pen had all but stopped. Nichols and Bobel were being watched -- and their observers were keeping score.

"We can't land the tuna," Nichols said. "We take off all the top-shot mono line. Just go directly to the Spectra [braided]. They're all laughing because they think it's funny as s--- that we can't get the fish in."

Nichols broke out the heavy artillery. He returned with his marlin equipment, nicknamed "The Beastmaster," a 50-inch-wide Tiagra reel rigged with 80-pound test.

First one bluefin, then another were on the deck within seconds.

Saputo and the others got to their feet. Someone grabbed a rod with 50-pound test and slammed the drag to full. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam -- seven more catches.

"I just knew it would get uglier and uglier, so we were trying to have fun," Nichols said. "We caught the four fish and I looked at them and go, 'Are all of your fish in the pen?'"

The operation manager replied they had transferred all the tuna that they could reach. The Pinel was about to leave, abandoning as many as one or two tons within the damaged pen.

Nichols asked if his crew could finally ignore the imposed limit and keep fishing. The manager, visibly tired, agreed.

As the Pinel departed, the anglers were left alone. The live bait bite was wide open.

"We proceed to freakin' just whack em', hard," Nichols said. "All the vessels stand down, a mile away and we're sitting alone in that pen. We're catching fish. I'm claiming fish."

The catch count skyrocketed, going from 7 to 10 to 14 to 18 to 20. Catches averaged between 25 and 40 pounds.

Nichols kept in touch with the Coast Guard, discussing other means of rescue. It was 4 p.m. when someone spotted the gunship.

Paradise lost

"We're still fishing, catching a few fish and a Mexican Federales boat comes up with machine guns mounted and bulletproof vests on," Nichols said. "They said, 'We're going to come aboard the boat.' There's still a 20-foot gap between us and the boat. They're circling the pen, trying to get to us.

"I said, 'You come on this boat, I'm sinking it. I'll take this net out. I'm not playing this ballgame with you guys.'"

Nichols knew his rights on international waters. One of his jobs with the Coast Guard had been boarding ships.

The Coast Guard's Command-Pacific, also known as "Comm-Pac," had contacted the Mexican consulate. The consulate put Comm-Pac in touch with the Mexican navy, which had sent the vessel.

Nichols, who later described his emotional state as "sheer terror," had informed the Coast Guard that if push came to shove, he would defend his boat.

The crew of the Señor Hefe watched with relief when the Mexican sailors went below deck and returned without their weapons. Most emerged in the T-shirts they had been wearing under their Kevlar.

One sailor put on a wetsuit and climbed onto the pen's edge with a hacksaw. The Mexican ship couldn't enter, and the Señor Hefe couldn't leave, so the enclosure would have to be cut open.

"We're feeding them beer and tequila," Nichols said. "They're fishing with us and they're laughing and telling us the Koreans are all pissed off. In the meantime, we're fishing and giggling because we know it'll take them 20 to 30 minutes to cut through the pipe."

It didn't sound like Mexico was standing down behind the scenes. Nichols said the Coast Guard reminded the anglers to keep Mexican officials from boarding "under any circumstances." If the sailors attempted to seize the Señor Hefe, they would be in violation of international law.

Everyone fished calmly, but Saputo and the others wondered what would happen. Once the pen was open, the rules would change.

It was 4:20 p.m. when the Coast Guard notified Nichols that the Sea Otter, a 110-foot patrol vessel, had been dispatched. The bad news was that it would take two hours to get there.

The sailor with the hacksaw wasn't wasting time.

Nichols updated the Coast Guard crew.

"They cut through the top rail," Nichols said, "And I said, 'Listen, I'm telling you now that I fear for my life. I am not going to stand down and I will defend myself. Haven't you heard the news? Americans are dying in Mexico.'"

The Coast Guard responded by dispatching a helicopter. It would arrive ahead of the cutter, but it wasn't due for another 35 minutes.

All they could do, other than pray, was fish. Anglers on all sides seemed to be making the best of an otherwise sunny day on the Pacific.

The sailor cutting the PVC cleared the second pipe. By 5:15 p.m., the fishing holiday was over.

As the Mexican sailors returned to their boat, they attached a line from the bow to the pen, preparing to haul it open. With the gunship pulling on the rope, the men aboard the Señor Hefe steeled themselves for the worst.

Showdown at the corral

Then came the cavalry, according to Nichols and Saputo: Thumping in from the distance, a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter arrived on the scene and began circling.

Once the patrol vessel had created a makeshift gate, a trio of Avons from the fishery arrived. Nichols and the others had prepaid for some extraction assistance.

"They've got three little rubber boats working for the Koreans around me, trying to get me out of this pen," Nichols said. "One's pulling me, one's pushing me [and] two divers are helping as the props keep getting tangled up."

By 6:10 p.m., extraction and repairs -- including the bent port prop -- were complete. This was the good news.

But there was still the matter of the Mexican gunship.

The sailors on the Mexican vessel had begun to re-equip: They were on-deck with their weapons once again. Nichols watched as some of them began boarding an Avon.

"The Coast Guard helicopter is circling us," Nichols said, "I can see that they're donning [Kevlar] -- a boarding party. In the meantime, I'm trying to start my motor. I can see the Coast Guard cutter in the distance."

It's at this point that accounts of what happened diverge and drift into dispute.

Saputo has written online that the boarding party began approaching the Señor Hefe from the port stern. Meanwhile, he maintains, the Coast Guard helicopter responded by moving astern on the Señor Hefe's port side.

According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, the helicopter dropped in between Nichols' boat and the Mexican inflatable, creating turbulence on the water with its wake.

"Right then, the Coast Guard helicopter swoops down between me and the boarding party," Nichols said. "He comes out on the loudspeaker and says, 'You will stand down. You are not gonna board. This is an American vessel.' The hair on the back of our necks stood up."

Saputo's Web account says the Mexican sailors were held back by the rotors' wind wash. Nichols agreed, adding that the boarding party had to hold their hands to their heads "because their hats were flying off."

Given no alternative, the sailors made their way back to the gunboat.

The helicopter pilot, Lt. Joshua Nelson, downplayed the encounter. In an interview with ESPNOutdoors.com, he painted a more benign picture of the situation, insisting that he was there to assist the Mexican navy in helping the anglers.

"We didn't use our rotor wash," Nelson said. "When we showed up on scene, the Mexican navy was on scene and we talked with them. The Coast Guard is investigating the entire incident to see what happened."

Whether the anglers are telling fish stories or the Coast Guard has diplomatic reasons to dull their account, both agree that the Señor Hefe made it to the cutter. A boarding party from the Sea Otter came over, inspected Nichols' boat and found it "100 percent compliant" with maritime regulations.

With heartfelt thanks from the anglers, the boarding party returned to the Sea Otter, which then escorted the Señor Hefe more than 40 miles back to U.S. waters.

"If they hadn't done that, I would be sitting in a Mexican jail right now," Nichols said. "Basically the Coast Guard assessed the situation and saw that I could only do about 900 RPMs because the propellers were vibrating so bad. They escorted me home, within 24 miles of shore, because they were concerned that the Federales would try to follow me."

With everyone back on dry land, life returned to normal. Almost.

Saputo's post on BloodyDecks.com has received a number of responses praising the anglers and the Coast Guard for their actions. Others question how the Señor Hefe could even hit the pen, given its size, the lights and radar capabilities.

According to Nichols, they've also received threats. In one post, a man threatened to harm Nichols if he sees him "on the dock." Another warned the crew had "better be careful" if they go south to fish again.

This shouldn't be a problem, Nichols said, since he has no plans to return in his vessel.

"I'm a marked man and my boat's a marked boat," Nichols said. "I can't even fish now in Mexico. I don't feel comfortable with it because I know they'd board my boat in a second. Not to mention my insurance problems: I've had a major boating accident out there and I didn't do anything wrong."

The fishery seeks $300,000 to $350,000, Nichols said, for damage to the rings and subsequent loss of a large part of the tuna harvest. Damages to the Señor Hefe have been estimated at $75,000. Nichols' insurance company has retained a maritime lawyer in San Diego.

Even when the freezers of bluefin are empty, the legal matters settled, the Web threads forgotten and the incoming threats ended, the Señor Hefe crew will never forget this trip.

"It was moments of sheer terror, compounded by sheer boredom and laughter in between, because that was all you could do," Nichols said.

"Anthony Saputo was driving the boat. When we pulled out, he goes, 'Wayde, I'm gonna put you on top of the fish.' I didn't realize he was going to be so literal about it."