Sportboat With 111 Bales of Pot Runs Aground at Point LomaBy: Jack Innis | Thursday, May 01, 2008 12:00:00 AMLast updated: Thursday, May 01, 2008 2:02:00 PMIncident is the latest in a wave of cross-border smuggling by boat.
Captured Contraband — San Diego lifeguard Rod Messenger removed several of the 111 bales of marijuana recovered from a sportboat that ran aground near Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. SAN DIEGO
— An abandoned 18-foot runabout with more than 60 pounds of bundled marijuana hidden on board was discovered on the rocks at the base of steep cliffs on Point Loma April 21. An early morning passerby on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard noticed the vessel and alerted authorities.

Owing to a recent rash of similar discoveries along the San Diego coastline, the discovery caused officers from several agencies to scramble to the scene, including San Diego City Lifeguards, San Diego Harbor Police, the Coast Guard, the San Diego Police Department, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Lifeguards dispatched a boat, personal watercraft and rescue truck to the scene at about 7:30 a.m., according to Lt. Nick Lerma. The boat was hard aground and foundering on jagged riprap used to protect the base of the cliff from erosion.

Two lifeguards climbed down the cliff to examine the vessel. Rod Messenger hopped aboard and pried up a section of carpeted marine plywood that served as a false floor, and discovered the cache.

“The boat looked a lot like a 16- to 18-foot Glaspar,” Lerma said. “The marijuana was packaged in bricks — some as big as 2 feet by 2 feet — stuffed into the false compartment and just about every other nook or cranny accessible.”

With the boat rolling in the building surf, Messenger began the two-hour chore of removing the bundles from the boat. The packages were gathered together at the base of the cliff and hoisted by crane onto the street above before being inventoried and removed.

A lifeguard atop the cliff used his vantage point to warn Messenger to brace himself when larger waves or sets of waves approached. Messenger fell twice on his backside, but was not seriously injured, Lerma said.

While the contraband was being removed, Coast Guard and San Diego Police Department helicopters hovered directly offshore, looking for loose bales and possible suspects. Several boats also participated in the search, and a few loose marijuana bales were retrieved from the adjacent kelp forest.

No suspects have yet been apprehended or identified in association with the grounding.

After the boat was emptied of contraband, Vessel Assist Capt. Eric Lamb tried to tow the boat off the rocks. The boat was to be examined for further evidence, but the recovery effort — at the behest of authorities — was doomed from the beginning.

“The boat had a basketball-size hole in it and had been taking quite a pounding in the rising tide and surf,” Lamb said. “It was pretty broken up, but we were trying to tow far enough away from the surf zone so that we could pump it out and tow it to Mission Bay. Unfortunately, it sank about 100 yards offshore.”

Discovery of the smugglers’ boat is but one of many recent findings along the San Diego coastline. Earlier in April, a similar boat washed ashore at Torrey Pines State Beach. Authorities said evidence suggests that the vessel had been used to successfully smuggle narcotics.

Using boats to smuggle humans is also prevalent. In April, a boat believed to have been used for smuggling humans was found abandoned in the surf along Coronado’s Silver Strand. A month earlier, 15 suspected illegal immigrants were discovered crammed into a small runabout 15 miles off La Jolla.

The practice of ferrying drugs and illegal aliens across the border by small boat became more common after Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994.

Operation Gatekeeper increased manpower and led to the installation of double fences, lights, motion sensors and other technology along the U.S./Mexico border at San Ysidro and part of Otay Mesa. The project was designed to force smugglers away from southern San Diego urban areas and into the rural East County. In addition to cutting off the easiest and most direct route, authorities found it easier to detect and apprehend smugglers in the open rural areas.

But shortly after Operation Gatekeeper began, the Coast Guard noticed an increase in smuggling attempts by sea. Such attempts are now increasing as the fence along the U.S./Mexico border is being lengthened and strengthened as part of the Secure Fence Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2006. The program calls for hundreds of miles of fencing and other barriers along the border to be completed by the end of 2008.

Some along the waterfront are worried that the rise in smuggling attempts, coupled with a recent spike in violence just south of the border, may create unsafe conditions for Southern California boaters.

“Most of what we’re experiencing seems to happen at night,” Lamb said. “So, boaters out there at night should approach other vessels cautiously.”