An annual fishing trip for four lifelong friends who grew up in Riverbank ended in tragedy Wednesday morning after their 24-foot sport fishing boat capsized off the Marin County coast.
Three of the men died and one is missing near Point Reyes, according to authorities and family members.
The bodies of Riverbank resident Henry Medrano, 62, and Arkansas resident Melvin Cox, 67, were recovered Wednesday. Family members said they were notified Thursday afternoon that the body of 65-year-old Riverbank resident Ronnie Fuentes had washed ashore.
Riverbank resident Jack Taylor, 62, remains missing.
The four men belonged to Oakdale Offshore Fishermen. Most of the group members grew up together in Riverbank and Oakdale and are in their 50s, 60s and 70s.
Over about two decades, the men have fished in Mexico, Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But their big annual trip is to Bodega Bay in July.
About four dozen group and family members gathered at Westside Campground near Bodega Bay on Monday for six days of stories, good food and fishing.
They set up camp the first day and fished for halibut Tuesday and Wednesday, said Oakdale resident Robert Rodriguez, who organized the trip.
"The friends I lost, I've known them since I was little," Rodriguez, 68, said Thursday. "It was hard last night. Everyone was in shock. The looks on their faces.
"These are the kind of people you'd never get mad at. That's the shocker. That four quality people would go all at once. It leaves a void you cannot imagine."
Fishing for halibut
At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, the group launched about a dozen boats from Westside Campground and left Bodega Bay to fish for halibut.
Rodriguez said they were fishing off 10 Mile Beach, a few miles north of Point Reyes, when the boat capsized. Seas were 4 to 6 feet and there was a light westerly wind, and the group of veteran fishermen considered it relatively calm.
The accident remains under investigation, but the Coast Guard believes the boat got too close to shore and capsized in the heavy surf about 40 yards from the beach, Lt. j.g. Laura Wil- liams said Thursday.
Rodriguez said he was fishing about a half-mile away when his friends' boat overturned. He said he suspects the boat lost power because of a mechanical problem and drifted too close to shore.
"They are too good of skippers," he said. "They knew what they were doing. It had to be mechanical failure or something."
The four were in Taylor's boat, a 30-year-old Sea Ray, with a deep vee hull that Rodriguez said was good in the water. Fuentes was more experienced and was the skipper, Rodriguez said.
The men were not wearing life jackets. Rodriguez said most members of the club — including himself — don't wear life jackets. He said he'll wear one now after Wednesday's tragedy.
The Coast Guard received a mayday call about noon when the boat capsized.
Rodriguez said he and other fishermen in his group saw the helicopters and Coast Guard boats and for 90 minutes kept trying to raise Taylor's boat on the radio and by cell phone.
Still, from the description of the boat they overheard on the Coast Guard radio channel, they didn't know it was one of their group until they got back to Westside Campground.
The Coast Guard called off the search about 11 p.m.
Only three north coast boating accidents over the past 55 years have taken more lives.
Friends had lifelong bond
Rodriguez said Cox was a retired construction worker, Taylor a retired welder and Fuentes a retired truck driver. Medrano retired as maintenance leader in the spring after 32 years with the Oakdale Joint Unified School District.
"Henry was just a great, great employee," said Marc Malone, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources. "He took a lot of pride in his work and the district."
Taylor's daughter, Dena Solimine of Modesto, said the four men had a lifelong bond.
"They were just best friends," she said. "Most of them saw each other every day."
Rodriguez said Cox moved to Arkansas a few years ago, but he still made the annual trip to Bodega Bay.
Medrano's family said he loved to laugh and make people laugh, and was the heart of his big family.
The four men loved classic cars from the 1950s and 1960s. Back in the day, when they were young, they would cruise Modesto's 10th Street, Rodriguez said.
Fuentes was a crack mechanic and a street racer in his youth. He also raced stock cars, go-karts and motorcycles.
"My dad — anything to do with racing and fishing, he probably did it," said Corey Fuentes of Oakdale. "He was a champion. He passed away doing what he loved."
JJ Medrano said he and his two brothers will make next year's trip to Bodega Bay, where they will scatter their father's ashes.
"My dad didn't want to be buried," he said. "This is one of his favorite spots. He really wanted us to join him. A few years back, the three us were supposed to go, but it didn't work out."
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Bee assistant librarian Karen Aiello contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2316.