A 27-foot sailboat washed up on Mexico's west coast in late February, stripped and empty, with no sign of its captain.
Now a Collier County man is there in search of his 43-year-old son. But Donn Pinkney Sr. said lack of communication among Mexican authorities and bureaucratic disorganization have stymied his efforts to find out what happened.
"He is very experienced sailor. He's not an amateur," Pinkney, Sr. said. "The probability that he fell overboard — the chances are slim to none. The weather was not such that he would be flipped off. That is not impossible, but it is highly improbable."
Pinkney, Sr., 78, who lives in East Naples, acknowledged that "there's some things that are pointing in the direction of foul play." He worries about the possible involvement of drug cartels or robbers who may have entered his son's boat and "sliced him to pieces and fed him to the sharks."
The U.S. State Department on Friday confirmed the embassy in Mexico City is aware of the disappearance of Donn Pinkney, Jr. The vice consul has been in touch with Pinkney Sr. and the State Department is facilitating meetings between him and local law enforcement, but is not conducting its own investigation, spokeswoman Nicole Thompson said.
Pinkney, Jr. was last heard from Feb. 20, when he set out solo from Manzanillo — near Puerto Vallarta — on his 27-foot Catalina sailboat bound for Zihuatanejo. The 270-mile trip south should have taken him three days, his father estimates.
But on Feb. 25, his boat, the Finesse, washed up on the beaches of La Ticla, in between his departure point and his destination, his father said. However, it wasn't reported to local authorities until several days later.
Everything on board was removed, from sailing gear to personal items. By March 1, Pinkney Sr. was in Mexico, retracing the places where his son had been, and visiting where he was headed.
A friend that was to sail with him backed out of the trip, but his son went anyway.
"That was a grave error," Pinkney Sr. said. "Although it's not dangerous from a sailing standpoint, its dangerous from the standpoint of staying awake ... Where do you stop, close the door and take a nap?"
The additional concern is any involvement of drug cartels that run the same waters. Someone could have boarded the Finesse. It could be a theft-turned-foul play. Pinkney Sr. acknowledged his son could be dead.
A travel warning issued Feb. 8 by the State Department regarding Mexico cautions U.S. travelers that, while "there is no evidence that Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) have targeted U.S. visitors and residents based on their nationality ... the TCOs themselves are engaged in a violent struggle to control drug trafficking routes and other criminal activity. As a result, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country and can occur anywhere. U.S. citizens have fallen victim to TCO activity, including homicide, gunbattles, kidnapping, carjacking and highway robbery."
The number of U.S. citizens reported by the Mexican government to the Department of State as murdered in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011, according to the travel warning. Pinkney Sr. said there is no way his son was involved in drug-running or organized crime.
"I've asked him about that," Pinkney Sr. said. "He knows better than to even have (drugs) on the boat, even a little bit."
There's the chance, too, that Pinkney Jr. could be adrift on the sailboat's dinghy, or held for ransom, a possibility his father considers. Kidnapping is a concern in Mexico, the warning added. But no contact has been made yet asking for money, Pinkney Sr. said.
"It's extremely stressful. Every day that goes by, there's good news and there's different news," he said. "The good news is, no body has been found. That doesn't mean that he's not dead ... But it could be an indication that he's being held."
Pinkney Jr. last visited Naples for six weeks last summer. On Feb. 18, he last spoke with his father, who retired to Collier County in 1998. His mother and sister both live in Sarasota and St. Petersburg, respectively, but have not yet traveled to Mexico.
Pinkney Jr. grew up in the Atlanta area, and has lived in Colorado, Hawaii, and most recently, California, where he began his most recent sailing adventure in Dana Point, Calif. in mid-January with a friend, according to his father. He worked from time to time as a homebuilder, but was a free-spirited surfer and sailor who "lives like the rich and famous and he's neither," Pinkney Sr. joked.
Managers at two marinas in Dana Point had no record of Pinkney docking there in January, but said sailors leaving from the Southern California city usually only head as far south as the Baja Peninsula. Trips as far down as Puerto Vallarta aren't as common, though neither manager had been alerted to specific problems from sailors coming through Dana Point.
"He has always been adventuresome. Mountain-climbing in Nepal, surfing and sailing all over the world, white water kayaking down the Snake River, ice climbing ..." Pinkney Sr. emailed Thursday from Ixtapa, in the Mexican state of Guerrero that was to be his son's destination.
Because the expanse of coastline from where Pinkney Jr. had been — in Puerto Vallarta, then Manzanillo — to where he was headed further south covers four states and hundreds of miles, his father is filing reports with police and military authorities along the seaboard. He has yet to receive any answers.
In his most recent email to the Daily News, Pinkney Sr. wrote that hiring a private investigator may soon become a priority because of a "total lack of communication" among Mexican authorities and the "influence of the drug cartel in all aspects of Mexican life."
"It's not a pretty picture right now," he said, "and hopes are fading."
Friends of Donn Pinkney Jr. have started a website for news and fundraising in the search for the missing sailor: