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My Maiden Voyage

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My Maiden Voyage

Postby tacorajim » Tue Oct 20, 2009 10:18 am

By Jim Shannon

Until Mother sent the clipping, I didn’t know I made Page 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Fisherman ‘lost’ at sea”.

And I didn’t know how calmly we can approach our pending demise when we’re adrift in a blow on a 26-ft. troller approaching the face of a 100-ft. cliff 20 miles off Point Reyes. We do, however, know we’re minutes from disaster here. We know it’s disaster when in our path we see how high those monstrous waves crash above the rocks. But we are fortunate, because last evening when the engine quit 100 miles up the coast, I became ‘we’ to give myself some company . . . someone to talk to in this storm.

Admit it, we’re exhausted, man. Maybe we should just hop overboard and snooze afloat, resist the simultaneous destruction of man and boat versus rock and hydraulic velocity all tangled and mangled together thrashing, stabbing, strangling crunching, bleeding, and drowning.

Or can you swim for it? Could you make it, say, left around those rocks? They say it’s like a millpond behind North Farallon Island. Not much time to decide. That cliff is steadily rising, and this current is tugging you smack dab to its middle. You have about five minutes, dude.

Hey sport, that was some bash Friday night, your Maiden Voyage Party. Must’ve gone through a keg of Oly at the Cove. What . . . maybe three hours sleep? And guess who forgot his water jug and box of groceries atop the wharf after staggering to the bait shack and then shoving off. So quit bitchin’ about not eating for forty hours. You’re a tad thirsty too? Well just because they were toasting your first day of skipperdom, you didn’t have to stay for last call, you idiot. You may deserve this. But what about your loving widow and those two towheaded tykes at home in the Cove?

Back off some! I can function. I swung that creaky deck pump lever back and forth every five minutes all night long. And when the beach got too close at midnight, I turned us around by gripping the forestay in fifty knots going spread-eagle, holding my raincoat like a sail. A freak breaker knocked me flat, so it took a little while, but we leaked less afterward with our port side in the lee. And when that ship nearly ran us down I screamed myself hoarse until the wake rolled us halfway over, which the crew on the stern got a kick out of. Come daylight I rigged a 3:1 pulley with tuna line and a spool . . . cranked my brains out trying to generate for a CB call. Okay, it didn’t work, but I tried. And when that Herc flew over this morning, I made an oil slick with those extra quarts of oil. But our boat blended too well with the surrounding combers. And now I’ve got both doors open for less wind resistence to slightly delay our meeting with those rocks up yonder. I just wish to hell I was religious right now so I could pray, or give myself last rites or something.

You being totally honest with yourself, dude? You laid down to rest in the foc’sl’e beneath that drip, drip on your forehead to keep you awake, and your right hand rested near the bilge to alarm you to resume pumping if you felt cold water. Now excuse me mister, but didn’t a rusty can of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup roll into that hand? It came open with a screwdriver, yet you didn’t have any? No food for forty hours? Malarkey.

Oh yeah. The soup. But that moldy blue Wonder Bread crust I dipped in it made me throw up.

Do you see what I see? Look on the horizon shoreward. A glistening steeple. I swear to God, this is a miracle! And it’s Sunday morning. I may be off to Heaven after all.

This is what fatigue does, dude. I think you’ve lost it. Are we going overboard? Seriously. When the crest of a hundred-foot cliff lurks at a forty-degree angle, think hypotenuse. Meaning we’re about fifty yards from doom, give or take. Meaning we jump. Or we go crouch in the foc’sl’e and shiver with fright. Meanwhile, I vote we put on that life jacket.

When the steeple rose above huge bursts of brilliant spray a third time, you could see the stately white flared bow with Coast Guard insignia rising, shedding floods of water. Then only the steeple flashed, tilting slowly, rising again, until this dauntless 95-ft. cutter emerged, slicing and blasting her way through the waves.

Soon I was in tow to San Francisco Bay. Being Sunday, they probably wanted to get back in time to watch the game, so they cruised beyond my hull speed. I stepped to the bow with their walkie-talkie in one hand and a fillet knife in the other. “Slow that mother down. I’m taking on more water than all through the storm. Or I’ll cut the line.” They backed down. Two hours later they transferred the Hard Tack to a 44-footer for docking at Fishermen’s Wharf, the City Fire Dock.

Tied side-by-side, the husky steel craft dwarfed the old wooden Hard Tack. Nearing the docks, the ebbing 6-foot swell made it obvious that we should land from downstream. Ease up into the current. But when they came around upstream I screamed frantically not to. A bosun on deck shrugged like he couldn’t hear me.

Too late. With the roar of engines came a horrendous crash that dropped me to my knees amidst falling broken glass. When I arose, I saw my busted bulwarks and guard rails. But looking up, I saw two beautiful women atop the wharf. My wife and my mother.

This Coastie with a gun leaped aboard waving a clipboard. He ordered an immediate inspection. I uttered two . . . words . . . not Yes or Sir, whereby I stepped out and climbed the ladder. I was greeted by an older husky fireman guy labeled Murphy above his badge. “You earned a break, skipper. We’ll bring down a pump and watch the boat all night, no problem.”

Mom bought us prime rib at a fancy new joint called Scoma’s. I downed five glasses of water. Tourists stared at us, mumbled under their breath to one another, and then resumed staring. If they only knew what we just went through. My wrinkled Levis and black rubber boots were hazy gray with salt. My raggedy wool shirt was untucked, with sleeves sheared at the elbows. My hair felt like matted spinach. My sunken eyeballs ached. I stunk, and needed a shave. Yes folks, at a table with two dazzling women nicely coiffured, dressed in Macy’s finest, brandishing diamonds and pearls. Your rare authentic waterfront scene.

My wife took the wheel for our 3-hour drive home to Arena Cove. She went on about how Roy, the wharfmaster, comforted her as darkness fell and I was obviously lost. He said I was probably broke down and adrift. I would come in near Stewart’s Point, then the current would take me back out into the shipping lanes for a few hours. And if I survived that, I’d be sent straight to the face of North Farallon Island. But the strong summer current would make it impossible to crash due to constant backwash. The cliff would instead repel me, and I’d drift around the shoreward side and be sucked into shelter behind the island. Roy did the math and figured drifting in a 40-knot-average wind, and being last spotted when the blow kicked up at 4pm Saturday, my ETA would be 11am Sunday, making three knots. Precisely correct.

She said they closed the bar at 6pm in memoriam, but used Arena Cove Café as a command post to coordinate rescue efforts. Constant phone calls until midnight with the Coast Guard and Air National Guard. 50-some volunteers set up all-night vigils on various beaches from Anchor Bay to Stewart’s Point. Deputies and medics double-shifted to supervise..

She said that around 7pm, my brother-in-law took his 40-ft. LeLo out to search. But he was back in 30 minutes. Better to lose one boat than two, he told Roy.

We cuddled the night away. Next day I arranged to haul out for repairs in Sausalito, then rode back down from Point Arena with a new battery, regulator and generator.

But the boat was gone. At least I couldn’t see her until I walked out the dock. She wallowed on the bottom like a dead cow in 16 feet of clear green water. Oddly, she lay off the opposite side of the pier from the crash. This is beyond cruel, dude. She survived your maiden voyage and nearly 60 years of service. Now do yourself a favor. Go back to the Cove and make yourself at home.

Roger that, as soon as we find out why the S.F.F.D. let her sink. It looks like they tried to move her, unsuccessfully. Let’s go visit the Port Authority.

A rendezvous back at the pier got me fighting mad. A skinny guy in blue denims, a cap with Port insignia, refused to detail the Hard Tack’s sinking. A crowd began to gather as a yelling match ensued. “That fireman had no authority to keep the boat afloat,” he barked. “Besides, the Port is not responsible for private property on a restricted City pier.” And he ordered the boat gone within 48 hours, citing the hazard to navigation, or the Port would charge me plenty to remove it. He mumbled something about a derelict boat ordinance, salvage rights. Then he ordered me off the premises, threatening to charge me with trespassing. I started to delete him, opting for an assault charge, but some of the gathering crowd pulled me off.

I retreated to Arena Cove and made myself at home. Got a job driving dump truck. It took two years to get my next troller.
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Re: My Maiden Voyage

Postby Salty » Tue Oct 20, 2009 3:28 pm

Thanks so much, what a great great story. Inspires me to type up some of mine, like how I got the shaft at Port Alexander, or when I fired my mother, but I don't have any story quite like this one.
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Re: My Maiden Voyage

Postby tacorajim » Tue Oct 20, 2009 3:42 pm

Thank you back, Salty.

Almost terminated your mother? Write about this while you can. We're nearly as extinct as buffalo hunters and stagecoach drivers.

This story was harder to write than it was to live through.
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Re: My Maiden Voyage

Postby BigBug » Tue Oct 20, 2009 7:03 pm

Great story! Thanks for posting to the world.
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Re: My Maiden Voyage

Postby f/v henrietta w » Thu Oct 22, 2009 3:59 am

Thanks for the story, Tacora Jim. I'm trying hard to get the old-timers down here to write down some of the great stories, or at least repeat them on video, so they're not lost forever. Trolling was always colorful because of the people, the weather, the adventures. Very few occupations on this earth can give you the satisfaction of returning home alive, coming back to town under that bridge or across that bar, alive.

We have a salmon commission meeting here on Newport on the 28th, and one of the agenda items is a buyback. We are on the cusp of losing trolling in Oregon permanently. I hope the Alaska folks look south and learn whatever they can to not lose what they have. My boat was built by two brothers on Camano Island in 1937. I always wanted to troll her in 2037, to be a steward of that history. Not sure we'll get the chance, as aside from a few weeks of Coho she hasn't had salmon blood on her decks the past three (non) seasons.

On a side note, there's a painting on my study wall of the Tacora tied up at Jesse's. My folks picked it up in Ilwaco, years after I delivered my first commercial salmon to Pierre. She's a beautiful boat.

Thanks again for the story - and keep 'em coming.
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