Travis Lobo was in the right place in the right time, and he’s now the proud new owner of a 50-foot panga boat that was ditched April 20, 2012, on Tajiguas Beach. The Santa Barbara lobster and crab fisherman was servicing crab pots off the coast when he spotted the vessel — the type typically used by Mexican smugglers to ferry marijuana and migrants into California — stranded on the beach. It was in relatively good shape, with a value of between $20,000 and $30,000, and fitted with four Yamaha outboard motors, worth around $25,000 apiece. Because of its size and ability to reach high speeds on the open sea, authorities would later call it a “super panga.”
Lobo swam ashore and checked the area for anyone in distress and hunted up and down the shoreline for a possible owner. Finding no one, Lobo laid claim to the vessel under maritime salvage laws, wrote his name and phone number along the hull, and contacted his attorney, Robert Bartosh, who in turn called the Coast Guard and Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office to notify them his client was taking legal ownership of the boat. Bartosh said his client had the right and means to take the panga there and then, but recognizing it may have been used for criminal purposes and therefore potential evidence in a smuggling case, he decided to let the authorities tow it away.
Since then, the county Sheriff and District Attorney’s offices have kept it under lock and key, telling Lobo and Bartosh it had been seized as evidence. The DA began forfeiture proceedings to have the panga officially transferred to the state and was close to bringing the case to trial, but Bartosh received notice last week that the forfeiture effort was being abandoned and that Lobo could come pick up his boat. The lead prosecutor was out of town this week and unavailable for comment, and Sheriff’s Department officials declined to be interviewed. With more and more pangas finding their way onto Santa Barbara’s shores — there were 18 last year and seven so far this year — fishermen laying claim to the abandoned boats has become a regular occurrence. This was the first instance, though, where the authorities let the finder be the keeper.