LAST DIVE FROM THE SEA ESTA
by Randy Wayne White, Sunshine, September 17 1995
Copyright Randy Wayne White, 1995
On the morning of Sunday, November 6, 1994, a Coast Guard helicopter was operating 52 nautical miles off the west coast of Florida when a crewman spotted a naked man on the highest platform of a 160-foot light tower. The man was waving what appears to be a wetsuit. The helicopter flew east past the tower, banked south and hovered beside the platform. The man signaled a thumbs-up - he was okay. He pulled his wetsuit on, climbed down to a lower platform and dove into the water. The helicopter crew dropped a basket seat and winched him aboard. The man was a 27 year-old Canadian named Jeff Wandich, owner of a 25-foot pleasure boat, the Sea Esta, that had been reported overdue. The Sea Esta had left Marco Island the previous Friday morning with Wandich and a party of three other Canadians: David Madott, Kent Munro and Omar Shearer, each 25 years old, each a resident of Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto. The men had palnned to spend the day offshore, fishing and diving at a wreck called the Baja California but had not returned as expected. The Coast Guard had been searching for the Sea Esta since Friday night. The crew asked Wandich what had happened. He said his boat had sunk. When they asked where, Wandich replied, “You mean you haven’t found the other guys yet?”
A crewman shook his head. “We haven’t seen anything.”
Wandich said he had been on the tower since 11 p.m. Friday - 35 hours - and that he was very thirsty. He was sunburned, he had cuts on his hands and legs, and he appeared to be suffering from exposure.
When he was offered the option of being flown to a hospital, Wandich said he wanted to continue to search. He told the crewman his friends were wearing wetsuits and inflated BCs - buoyancy compensators.
“We should be able to find them,” he said. Yet the helicopter crew, with Wandich aboard, would find nothing.
Only Wandich would return to describe the events of Nov. 4, and his story would arouse both criticism and suspicion. In the weeks that folllowed, public gossip around south Florida and Toronto, often fueled by inaccurate media accounts, would accuse Wandich and three missing men of crimes that ranged from fraud to smuggling to murder.
It was an archetypal sole survivor story. Why did one return while the others did not? The sinking of the Sea Esta raised that classic question, along with many others: Had the Canadians really gone to the Baja California to fish and dive? Had the sinking been deliberate? Had the Coast Guard mishandled the search? If not, why hadn’t three men in inflated BCs been found?
“People can say what they want about me,” Wandich would later tell me, “but the other three aren’t here to defend themselves. They don’t deserve that kind of talk. They were great guys - the best.”
Jeff Wandich, who worked in property management in Toronto, had been coming down to Florida since his youth. His parents owned a house on Marco Island, off the southwestern coast.
For Madott, Shearer and Munro, flying to Florida to rendezvous with Wandich was a spur-of-the-moment decision, a chance to escape the bad Canadian weather. Wandich invited them to stay at his folks’ place and agreed to take them out in the Sea Esta to fish and dive. All four were certified divers, although Madott and Munro were relatively new to the sport. They arrived on Thursday, Nov. 3, and planned to fly back to Toronto the following Monday.
“They were on Marco just for the weekend,” Wandich said, “and I wanted to show them a god time.”
On Friday, Wandich and his friends left the Marco River Marina around 8 a.m., fully fueled, but returned a short time later. Wandich told mechanic Lonnie Kienow that one of his twin 225-horsepower outboards behaved as if it were overheating. After purchasing two thermostats to carry along as emergency replacements, Wandich and the others again headed out into the Gulf of Mexico. Winds were blustery, seas less than three feet, water temperature 77 degrees.
A little after 8 that night, Wandich’s cousin, Ron Nayduk, telephoned the Coast Guard and reported that the Seas Esta was overdue. Nayduk said that the man had gone out to dive a wreck he identified as the “California” and he gave loran navigation coordinates.
The Baja California is a popular wreck among experienced divers. Wandich had dived it many times. On July 18, 1942, the 962-ton freighter was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank in 120 feet of water. It is located 56 miles southwest of Marco in what is now a Naval Operations Training Area. Oddly, some nautical charts mistakenly identify the Baja California as two separate wrecks - the Baja and the California -with the Baja lying nearly nine miles northeast of the California.
At 9:52 p.m., the Coast Guard scrambled on H-60 helicopter out of its Clearwater air base. It arrived I the area before midnight. The loran numbers that Nayduk says he gave the Coast Guard are the exact coordinates of the Baja California. But whether the helicopter crew searched the Baja coordinates or the California coordinates, or concentrated on some other area, has become a subject of controversy.
By the next day, Saturday, the search group had expanded to include two helicopters, a fixed-wing aircraft, the Boast Guard’s 82-foot cutter Point Swift, and a 41-foot utility cruiser.The wind was now blowing 20 knots out the east-southeast.
The next morning, the helicopter rescued Wandich, and the search for the three missing men intensified.
The families of Madott, Munro and Shearer flew in from Canada to augment the Coast Guard’s efforts by organizing private search vessels and aircraft. They also offered a reward of $75,000 for the recovery of the missing men. They and the Coast Guard remained optimistic.
“We have rescued people who have been in the water for four days in wetsuits,” a Coast Guard spokesman said.
But by the fourth day, Tuesday, Nov 8, the Coast Guard had hunted more than 21,000 square miles of water. All it found were Wandich’s dive bag and video camera, both floating 21 miles southwest of the wreck site. Later they would find two empty air tanks and a section of rope tied to an orange life jacket in roughly the same area.
On Thursday afternoon, marine salvage operator David Satterfield towed in the Sea Esta. Satterfield’s divers had found it in 100 feet of water, lying upside down atop the Baja California, and had used air bags to refloat and right it. That same day, Kent Munro’s father, Peter, suffered a heart attack and had to be hospitalized in Fort Myers.
That night, the Coast Guard suspended what had been one of the most massive sea searches in the region’s history. It had, in six days, covered 23,000 square miles of water with boats, planes and helicopters using advanced infrared technology.
David Madott, Kent Munro and Omar Shearer had vanished without a trace.
Jeff Wandich is a short, fit man with dark hair and a choirboy face. There’s a fabric of weariness in his voice as he tells the story of what happened after he and his friends left the Marco River Marina.
“We stopped at a wreck called Ben’s Barge, about four miles out in the Gulf, to catch some bait because the guys wanted to fish and dive both,” he says. “While we caught bait, we discussed where they wanted to go. Omar had fished the Baja California but he’d never dove it, so that’s what they decided. We were listening to the weather channel on the radio, and I told them it wouldn’t be real nice out there, but it should be okay.
“Once we got out to the Baja California, the seas were about three and half feet. We fished for maybe an hour. But it was getting a little rougher, and Kent started to feel sick, so we decided to gear up and get into the water, because he would feel better then.”
The four men got into the water and started for the bottom. “I know that one of the laws of diving is you never leave your boat unattended,” Wandich says now. “The sad thing is, it was the first time I’d ever done it. We were 50 miles offshore, there weren’t any other boats around, and I knew, because of the depth, our bottom time would be only about 15 minutes. It never entered by mind that, in 15 minutes, something could happen.”
When the group got to a depth of about 30 feet, Kent Munro signaled he was having trouble equalizing the pressure in his ears. “Dave and I watched Kent and Omar go to the surface,” Wandich says. “Then we continued our dive.”
Wandich and Madott spent about 13 minutes on the wreck before starting back up. When they were 15 from the surface they made a safety decompression stop of three minutes. They then surfaced. Wandich sas he was shocked by what he saw: “Only about three feet of the boat’s bow was sticking out of the water. I couldn’t believe it. We couldn’t see Omar or Kent, and Dave yelled out Omar’s name. Omar answered back, but we still couldn’t se them because of the waves. The seas were running about four feet now.
“Dave swam straight to the boat while I swam toward Omar’s voice. When I got closer, I could see him and Kent in the water, drifting away. They both had their BCs inflated with the tanks still attached, but they weren’t wearing them. They couldn’t get back to the boat because they weren’t wearing flippers and the waves were pushing them farther and farther away.
Wandich says he and Madott helped the two men jettison the tanks and get back into their BCs. They then swam to the boat, removed their own weight belts, and hung on to the anchor line at the bow. There, Wandich says, he checked his watch. It was 3 p.m.
When things settled down" he says, "our first question, of course, was" What happened? Omar said that he and Kent climbed up the dive ladder at the back of the boat and took off their BCs and fins. Then he went to the front to take off the rest of his stuff. But he looked back and noticed water coming in over the transom, so he tried to start the motors. But the engines wouldn't start. What must have happened was, I'd had Omar run the boat while I set the anchor, and he must have switched off the engines while they were still in forward.
"Omar said water was flooding over the transom and then the boat started to tip sideways. He said it happened so fast, just like that, and that he and Kent jumped overboard. Dave asked Omar if he'd tried the radio, but Omar got a little defensive, so we dropped the whole subject. I remember thinking to myself that when we're back on land, we'll find out exactly what happened.
"The four of us floated there, hanging on to the rope. The wind had picked up even more, and waves seem a lot bigger when you're in the water. But that was out plan: stay close to the boat and wait for the Coast Guard to come and get us. Back on Marco, my girlfriend knew when we were due back, and she knew there were only a couple of places we could be."
For the next four hours, Wandich says, he and the three other men floated on their backs alongside the boat, staying close to one another to keep warm. They tied an orange life jacket and a white bumper to the end of the rope. Madott also looped the rope into his flotation vet. The sun set at 5:38.
Then, at 7 p.m., Omar Shearer yelled, "Where'd the boat go?" and the anchor line they were holding was ripped from their hands, pulling Madott, who was tied to the rope, under. Wandich says he was pulled under too and used his knife to cut the rope.
"The boat just disappeared," he says. "It went completely down. We were in shock again. That's when I told them we would have to swim to the light tower."
Equipped with strobe lights and antennas, the tower is run by the Department of Defense and lies 3 1/2 est of the Baja California. Shearer was a more experienced diver than Madott and Munro,but he was not a strong swimmer. when he told the others that he didn't think he could swim to the tower, it was Madott, his childhood friend, who tried to reassure him, saying, "Omar, we don't have a choice. We'll make it."
The four men set off swimming toward the tower. They were wearing wetsuits and inflated BCs and were swimming almost directly into the teeth of a 20-knot wind and seas that had build to six feet.
"We all swam together," Wandich says. "And about five minutes into the swim I remember being overcome with fear, because I knew we were in a lot of trouble. There was another light way off to the south of the tower like a boat, maybe. I turned toward that light because I didn't want the guys to see I had lost my composure. I heard Omar yell to me, 'Jeff, don't leave us,' and I said, 'I'm not,' and he said, 'You'll be safer here with us.' I guess he thought I was going toward the boat. But I wasn't. There was no place else to go but the tower. I wasn't far away from them, maybe 10 feet, and then I took a look to my left and... I didn't see them anymore. They were gone."
Wandich called out and started swimming toward where the men had been. "I'm almost positive I heard them yell back," he says, "but it was windy and loud. I trod water, but I never heard anything again."
After a short time, he says, he set off for the tower alone. Four hours later, at 11 p.m. he climbed up the ladder onto the tower's lowest deck. "I lay down n the platform just to reassure myself that I'd really made it," he says. "But after a while, I got up and started calling for the guys. As the night went on, I kept thinking I heard them. The wind makes strange sounds out there."
Wandich, who hadn't had anything to eat or drink since Friday morning, spend 35 hours on the tower, waving to boats, planes and helicopters that never saw him until Sunday morning.
The Wandiches, the Madotts, The Munros and the Shearers are prominent families in their communities, and the Toronto news media gave the disappearance lengthy coverage, as did the media in Florida. Soon, sinister gossip began to circulate.
One widespread rumor had it that the vessel's main plug had been pulled, a detail that, if true, would certainly suggest foul plan. Bit it wasn't true.
"The plug was definitely in," says salvage operator Satterfield. "I didn't see anything to suggest that Wandich had intentionally sunk the boat."
Another rumor suggested that on one had actually seen the missing men leave port with Wandich - it was never reported that mechanic Lonnie Kienow had watched them leave - which implied that Madott, Munro and Shearer had either disappeared by choice or had been killed. Either way, the gossip went, the sunken boat was a ruse.Yet another scenario relied upon the prevalent belief that the function of the light towers was "classified" (it isn't) and that the military may have "eliminated" the men because they had seen something they shouldn't have seen.
The most common theory, however, was that the men had gone offshore to make a drug buy, that the deal had gone bad, and that Wandich, the only survivor, was now afraid to tell the truth. This rumor was popular around Toronto. After all, Omar Shearer had been born in Jamaica, and his uncle, Hugh Shearer, had been that country's prime minister from 1968 to 1971. Weren't Jamaica and the wet coast of Florida both infamous drug depots? For many, it seemed, no other evidence was required.
The rumours were so widely believed that they began to take on the patina of established fact. Pet theories continued to be promoted even as the families continued the search. By the end of the month, they had invested a half-million dollars in the effort. They had chartered planes, boats and helicopters. They had consulted an intelligence expert and hired a private investigator.
"It just makes no sense that they all disappeared without a trace," says Bill Madott.
"One, maybe. Two, possibly. But not all three. We think it's possible that the guys were picked up by a vessel that, for political reasons, could not bring them back to the U.S. Frankly, I don't care how or why Jeff's boat sank. I just want my son back." More than anything else, it was the determination of the three families to find their sons that fired my interest in the sinking of the Sea Esta. I am the father of two young sons, and to lose something so dear without explanation was unthinkable. I decided to spend the next month researching the incident, interviewing key people. I would even go into the water at night, along - the unreasonable act of a person in search of reasons.
On December 7, 1994, I accompanied four professional divers and a private investigator to the wreck of the Baja California. They had been hired by Bill Madott to bring up equipment and personal effects that had been lost when the Sea Esta sank.
It is eerie to dive through 110 feet of murky water and then to come upon the detritus of an event that led, most likely, to the loss of three lives. After spending the better part of two days on the wreck, our divers brought up 24 items that proved to be from the Sea Esta, including Wandich's black weight belt. (Madott's weight belt had already been retrieved by the salvage divers who refloated the Sea Esta). Wandich, unaware that his belt had been found, would later tell me how he had dropped it after returning to the swamped boat. We found it near the other belts - exactly where it should have been.
We also recovered an assortment of fishing rods and tackle boxes that contained several hundred dollars' worth of tackle and lures, including new lures still wrapped in cellophane. Would a man who planned to sink his own boat invest money in new ures? One of the rods was still rigged with a number-three hook, commonly used for catching bait. Wandich had told me they stopped on the way out to catch bait.
In the end, our divers were convinced that the Canadians had come to the wreck to fish and dive - as was I. If they had wanted to buy drugs, why rendezvous at a wreck as popular as the Baja California? With loran or GPs electronics, any agreed-upon spot in the Gulf could become a precise meeting place, without risk of interruption. And if the three Canadians had wanted to disappear, why would their friend Wandich intensify search efforts by saying they were wearing inflatable vests? The same would be true if he or someone else had killed them.
So why did the Sea Esta sink? The boat, which was built and rigged in 989 by the SeaVee Corp., a now defunct Miami manufacturer, had a transom that was cut very low to the water. Twin 225-horsepower Johnson engines, weighing 455 pounds each, were mounted on the transom. The stern was burdened with more than 1,200 pounds of water and hardware. Only 11 inches of freeboard plus a folding fiberglass spray curtain separated the cockpit from the open sea. Kent Munro and Omar Shearer, with dive gear, could have added 500-plus pounds - nearly a ton, all told.
If Munro and Shearer had climbed onto the stern at the same time, the additional weight could have swamped the hatches and shorted the batteries. Because it was more than 22 feet long, the Sea Esta was not required to have flotation, and it didn't. In rough seas with that kind of load it's not at al surprising that the boat sank.
Clearly the Sea Esta was Wandich's responsibility. But Wandich is not the only one who made mistakes that day. The Coast Guard began its search in the wrong area. On its Search and Rescue Incident Phone Log, the position of the California, as provided by Ron Nayduk, is given. At the bottom corner of the log, someone has note, "(Station) believes that position is misplotted by (reporting source) as no wrecks at that position."
But there was a wreck at that position. It was the Baja California. The Cost Guard's recalculated position corresponds roughly with what has been mistakenly called the Baja, nearly nine miles to the north.
So what might have happened to the three men? A popular theory is that they were taken by sharks, but every diver I know agrees that this is unlikely. The Gulf's shark population has been decimated by Asia's commercial fin market., and species commonly found in the area feed on fish, not mammals.
It is possible that some kind of outlaw vessel rescued the men and rescued to return them to port. As Bill Madott says, "this thing is still a mystery. The guys could be hostages somewhere. Something unusual happened that night, and until I find out what is , I hold out hope."
As do the other families. The search continues. Handbills and photographs of the missing men are being circulated in Central American and Colombia even as the families and Jeff Wandich struggle to come to terms with what occurred.
"It's gotten a litter better," Wandich says now, "but I'll never be able to get it out of my mind. No matter how it happened, I feel guilty about it. It was awful; a terrible thing. I still dream about it. I dream about it every night."
When you awe the sole survivor, nightmares seldom vanish with first light.
Randy Wayne White is a contributing editor of Outside magazine. He is a veteran diver and fisherman who lives in Fort Myers.
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