Lived To Tell – Times Publications, May 2009
The harrowing true story of an Arizona Man’s struggle to survive while abandoned at sea.
It’s just after midnight on New Year’s Eve when the Santa Barbara, a converted shrimp boat carrying a group of America scuba divers, turns its course to head for the mainland.
On the expansive deck of the 68-foot ship, passengers are ringing in the new year, celebrating the end of what has been an exotic diving trip to Tortuga Island, a popular diving destination in the Gulf of California, about sixty miles off the coast of Mexico.
Below deck, 62-year-old Opha Watson, a retired engineer from Tucson, lies restlessly in his bunk in a small metal cabin near the bow of the ship.
At 1:30 a.m. Opha feels the rumble of the engine as it starts off for its journey home. As the boat weighs anchor, he hears the above-deck celebration coming to a close as his fellow divers head off to their cabins for some rest.
The ensuing quiet is short lived as the calm sea turns rough and choppy.
Suddenly, twelve-foot waves slam into the boat, violently tossing it from side to side. The Santa Barbara, originally built for shrimping and now used for diving excursions, is top heavy and sits high in the water, causing exaggerated side-to-side thrashing from the waves.
The engines slow as the captain reduces speed.
Opha knows something isn’t right. Inside his tiny cabin, the bunk is thrown wildly against the side of the ship. The room tumbles back and forth, the walls becoming the floor as they shift toward the horizon.
The third time the cabin flips on its side, it does not return upright.
“I knew things were pretty drastic at that point,” Opha says. “The boat was not acting like normal boats would. It was a bad situation.”
Dressed only in his pajamas, Opha grabs a flashlight and attempts to open the hatch door. It won’t budge. Sensing that time is running out, he positions his shoulders and arms against the side of the boat and uses his legs to kick open the hatch.
Water immediately begins pouring into the cabin. The Santa Barbara is capsizing.
“The sea water had already flooded half the boat,” he says. “It was sinking.” Just a few precious seconds more and Opha likely would not have been able to force the hatch open as the increasing amount of water would have weighted it closed.
Opha climbs out of his cabin and leaps into the sea, just seconds before the boat turns completely upside down.
As he jumps, he bangs his leg against the boat, severely injuring it. Four fellow passengers clinging to the ship’s railing are also tossed into the 55-degree waters and are quickly separated by the raging seas.
Opha struggles to swim away from the wreckage and grabs onto a yellow fuel drum for floatation. Within minutes, the boat is swallowed by the sea, entombing eight passengers unable to get out in time.
“Within five minutes of getting out of there the ship was gone,” Opha says.
For the next 38 hours, Opha Watson, a grandfather of two, floats adrift in the frigid waters, clinging to pieces of wreckage in a desperate attempt to survive. This is his gripping true story.
Four days prior to the wreck, the Santa Barbara left the harbor in San Carlos, Mexico, a resort community located on the Sea of Cortez, about a six-hour drive from the Valley.
Aboard the ship were four Mexican crew members and twelve American divers, including University of Arizona honor students Matthew Cannestra, 20, and Paige Houlsby, 20; Tucson architect and consultant Joel Stout, 49; and Phoenix recruiter Vernon Spidle, 42. Also from Tucson were Thomas Malloy, 53, and Nora Malloy, 50, owners of an auto rental agency. Opha rode down with the couple for the trip.
The scuba excursions were led by Tucson dive masters Carol Uebelacker, 36, and Gregory Todd, 28, both with extensive diving experience in the Sea of Cortez.
“We spent all of our time diving at different sites,” Opha says. “We were having a good time.”
The night the ship sank, the dark waters were lit up by the twinkling stars and the tiny sliver of a crescent moon.
Abandoned in middle of the sea, the five castaways grab onto anything they can for floatation and call out to one another.
“Who’s there?” Opha hollers to a figure in the distance.
“It’s Jerry. Jerry Lyons,” a man answers.
As he begins to swim toward the man’s voice, Opha sees a dive bag pop up in the water, and in what would turn out to be a defining moment in the fight for his life, Opha recognizes the dive bag to be his own. He opens it and pulls out his new, custom-made wetsuit.
“Come over here!” Jerry yells. “We have a door.”
“Who’s all with you?” Opha asks as he struggles to keep his head above water while slipping into the wetsuit, gloves and neoprene boots.
As he swims closer, Opha sees four survivors, two men and two women, clinging to a wooden door that has broken off of the ship.
Jerry Lyons, a 38-year-old Californian, is the youngest. Opha recognizes Joe Ream, 63, and Jenny Ream, 56, a semi-retired couple from Del Mar, California, who Opha had spent time diving with back at the island. Nora Malloy also clings to a life preserver.
“I don’t know how I got out,” Nora tells the others, adding that her husband likely went down with the ship. “Tom, I don’t think made it.”
Opha pulls a 30-foot nylon chord from his dive bag as Jerry helps him tie the bag and a life vest to the doorknob. The others, still in their pajamas, clamor to find floating debris to use as life preservers.
“What time is it?” someone asks.
Joe looks down at his dive watch: “3:30 a.m.”
For the next several hours, the survivors fight the violent currents, which periodically tear one or more of them away from the door. When one loses their grip, they are pulled back by the others.
As the sun begins to rise they can see the mountaintops from the island and the mainland on the horizon. They are more than twenty-five miles from land.
Jerry, Joe, Jenny and Nora are trembling in agony from the bitingly cold waters. Inside the wetsuit he has fortuitously found, Opha is insulated, but he knows if the others are going to survive they will need to be rescued soon.
“If we’re going to get out of this, it’s up to us to do it,” Opha tells the others.
It’s a harsh reality the survivors aren’t ready to face.
“They will find us,” someone says. “They’re probably out searching for us now.”
“No one knows we’re out here!” Opha argues. “We’re way off the shipping route. We’re way off the airline routes. Chances are the captain didn’t get a mayday off in time or anything.”
After some debate, the decision is made to try to paddle toward land—likely an impossible mission.
Opha keeps cadence as the five stroke in unison. But after hours of swimming, the shore seems no closer and the cold is taking its toll.
Opha recalls noticing the hope beginning to fade from the eyes of his fellow survivors.
“What religion are you?” someone asks.
They begin a discussion on God and religion. Then, occupied by their thoughts, conversation gives way to contemplative silence as hope for a dramatic rescue becomes eclipsed by the harsh realties of the vast and tireless sea.
“By that time, everybody’s facing reality,” Opha recalls. “It begins to set in: Here I am. How did I get here? How do I get out? Do I get out? You know good and well it’s going to be your end if we don’t get rescued quickly.”
By 12:30 in the afternoon hypothermia has taken its toll on Nora, who has stopped responding to the others. She is curled in a fetal position.
Jerry, who had experience as a lifeguard, swims over to check her vital signs and sees that her eyes are glazed over.
Nora is dead.
Her body peacefully floats away. A wave flips her over as she drifts off.
Within the hour, the effort to swim to the mainland is abandoned. They are all growing weaker by the minute. By 2:00 p.m. Jenny realizes she too is fading. Joe, her husband, holds her head above the water as she grows weaker. Jenny is Joe’s second wife, and after recently retiring, their life has been full of exciting adventures, including scuba trips to the Red Sea, New Zealand, Australia and Mexico. Opha recalls overhearing their last conversation.
“Goodbye. I love you,” Jenny tells her husband.
“Don’t go. It’s going to be okay, Jenny,” Joe replies.
Her body stiffens. Jerry confirms what Joe already knows—she is dead.
“Why now?” Joe screams, his face twisted with grief. “We had just started to live again.” Joe refuses to let go of his wife’s body, holding onto her as he grieves. At the same time, a rough wave knocks Jerry away from the floating door. Opha reaches out to pull him back, but just a few minutes later he’s thrown from the wreckage again.
“I can’t take anymore!” Jerry suddenly shouts. “I can’t do it. I’m done trying.” With both arms, he throws himself away from the door, just as a wave rips past, sweeping him away from the others. He disappears from sight. Opha notes the time on his dive watch, 3 p.m.
“I saw him one time later,” Opha remembers. “There was a big wave that came up, and he was riding the top of it. He waved as he went over. That’s the last I saw of him.”
Soon afterward, Joe kisses his wife’s cheek and lets her body drift away.
Joe spends the last hours of his life talking about his family. As Joe talks, Opha can’t help but think about his own situation.
There is no one waiting for Opha back home in Tucson. After 35 years of marriage, he and his wife recently separated, and their only daughter lives in Alabama with his two grandsons.
No one even knows he went on the diving trip.
By sunset, Joe stops talking.
“Finally he got so weak he couldn’t keep his head out of the water. He just died,” Opha recalls. “I held him up as long as I could. But when I was positive he was dead, I just had to let him go.”
Joe’s body floats away.
The Man and the Sea
The first night alone in the sea is quiet for Opha. The water has gone calm, the large waves reduced to small ripples.
Opha passes the time watching for birds and fish and creating projects, such as rearranging the debris for better floatation. He thinks of God, his family and his life.
Opha fell in love with diving in the Air Force during World War II, while stationed in Okinawa, Japan. With just a leaky rubber face mask, he spent his spare time swimming in the ocean looking for fish. After retiring in 1984, he took up scuba diving, going on dozens of dive trips, including a couple on the Santa Barbara.
After one of his last trips on the boat, he vowed he would never again set foot on the Santa Barbara because it tended to roll so wildly.
But the lure of diving in the crystal blue waters of the gulf caused him to change his mind. So he packed up his gear and headed to Mexico.
After more than 30 hours of floating in the water, Opha is famished and his thirst is becoming unbearable. He tastes something in his mouth and spits out blood. The dehydration is shutting down his saliva glands, and his cheeks are sticking to his teeth. He doesn’t even realize he’s been chewing on them.
Opha looks down at his finger tips. They are bruised black and blue from holding onto the side of the door. He ties the nylon chord around his arm and floats on his back to get a little rest.
Tied to the door, at least his body will eventually wash ashore, he decides.
“If I did die there, then sooner or later they would find me tied to the wreckage,” Opha says, as his eyes well up with tears. “Then at least they would have a body and be able to finalize things.”
Rum and Borrowed Shoes
While Opha makes plans for his death, he is unaware that another survivor of the Santa Barbara is still fighting for his life.
Miles from where Opha has drifted, the ship’s first mate, Vicente Gonzalez Mancilla, clings to part of a life jacket.
When the Santa Barbara was being rocked by waves, he and two of the other crew members rushed to the engine room to try to control the lurching.
“Then we saw a large wave approaching us and we knew we had to jump,” Vincente said. In the water, as the five American survivors drifted away from the wreckage, Vincente fought against the current to stay close to the shipping routes.
Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, after more than 32 hours at sea, he is spotted by a passenger on a ferry as it crosses from Guaymas to Santa Rosalia on the Baja.
After rescuing Vincente, the captain radios a message to the Mexican coast guard. Word of the accident spreads, and the harbor empties as the privately owned ships join the search for other survivors.
The Sala del Mar, an American-owned vessel, heads the farthest south.
Meanwhile, Opha prepares to spend another night alone at sea. Suddenly, he sees a small white spot on the horizon. As it gets larger, he realizes it is a boat—the most beautiful boat he has ever seen.
It is heading straight toward him.
Opha frantically tries to get the attention of the crew by waving a makeshift red cloth flag he cut out from one of the dive bags.
“I’d come up and wave like the dickens, and go down again,” he says. “I kept waving and they kept coming straight.”
The crew of the Sala del Mar spots the red cloth and heads his way. They pull Opha from the water. “¿Cómo te llamas?” a Mexican crew member asks.
“Opha Watson,” he replies.
It is estimated that Opha drifted more than 26 miles from where the Santa Barbara sank. If the Sala del Mar hadn’t gone out as far as it had, it is likely he would have never been found.
The crew helps Opha remove his wetsuit and wraps him in blankets for warmth as they radio to the coast guard. “Water? Agua?” he asks.
“They didn’t have water or anything like that,” Opha recalls. “So they gave me some sort of rum. I took a shot of that, and it warmed me up real quick.”
Once back in San Carlos, the crew from the ferry gives Opha an old pair of khaki shorts, a shirt and shoes that are two sizes too big.
A doctor comes to the boat and checks his vital signs; he never does go to the hospital. The next day he flies back home to Tucson.
None of the other Santa Barbara passengers, or their remains, are ever discovered. The search is called off three days later.
Sitting at the kitchen table in his quaint Tucson mobile home on a recent afternoon, Opha Watson calmly recounts his harrowing story.
Today, at the age of 82, his voice is gravelly and his hair and soft mustache have gone white. But behind his square-rimmed glasses, his eyes still light up when he talks about diving.
After his leg healed from a deep bone bruise, Opha continued to dive for several years, including many more trips to Mexico. A few years ago, he finally sold all his dive gear, including the custom dive suit that helped save his life. But to this day he still wears a dive watch on his wrist.
The circumstances surrounding the 1990 sinking of the Santa Barbara, and what actually caused the rough waters that night, remain a mystery.
These days Opha doesn’t often speak about the accident, but when he does reflect on the miraculous events that led to his rescue—from finding his dive suit to Vincente’s survival—he can’t help but feel blessed.
“If any of these things didn’t happen in this exact order,” he says, “this story would have a much different ending.”