Drowned Man Walking

Twenty-five years ago I started my first job as a sailor, working the docks as operations manager for Club Nautique, a sailing school and charter company on the Oakland Estuary, San Francisco Bay. We had several stout little sloops—Pearson 26’s—which club members sailed without charge, sometimes sailing after the office closed and returning the boat to the slip before we opened again next morning. One undistinguished Thursday morning a Pearson was missing.

On the phone, the charterer’s wife seemed uncommonly cool for a woman whose husband was missing with our boat. He should have been working the night shift, she said, but his supervisor had seen nothing of him and he had not returned home.

We reported the vessel missing to the Coast Guard and the local police. It wasn’t until late morning that the Coast Guard returned our call. A park ranger at the Presidio had reported a vessel aground on Baker Beach, on the south shore of the Golden Gate just beyond the bridge. The boat’s registration numbers matched our missing Pearson. The boat was abandoned; no one was onboard.

Our marine insurance company strongly suggested that we attempt salvage—something to do with Admiralty Law and salvage liens. Years later I learned that a salvor can be awarded a percentage of a vessel’s value depending upon the amount of risk incurred but I didn’t learn that until I became a marine salvor myself.

Fred Sohegin appointed himself expedition leader. Fred was the owner of NorCal Yachts and a principal of Club Nautique. Before becoming a yacht broker Fred had been a perfume salesman. I imagine he made an unlikely perfume salesman. He had the strength and temperament of a Cape Buffalo; not someone you’d want to surprise in the tall grass. He also had a dubious reputation on the San Francisco Bay and was most commonly called Fast Freddy.

Fred enlisted the boat yard manager, a few yard workers, myself, and a boat named Squirrelly. Squirrelly had been aptly named. She was an underpowered, 42 foot trawler built by Albin and owned by Don Durant’s father. Don Durant was then (and is now) the owner of Club Nautique. Fred Sohegin is long gone, hotly pursued by creditors and plain clothes policemen, it’s rumored.

We had the presence of mind to scavenge several anchors with their ½ inch nylon rodes from nearby charter boats, then steamed out the Alameda Estuary for the Golden Gate with nothing more than a shovel in the way of salvage gear.

The Golden Gate is not a safe place for amateur salvors. The wind, squeezed by Venturi’s Effect, rockets through the constricted passage between Baker and Fort Point. Deep sea waves all the way from Guam begin to first feel the approaching shore, growing steeper and stacking closer together. The current races with the force of a fire hose and standing waves often break between the south tower and the shore.

We arrived on scene before the afternoon westerly wind began to build with clock-like certainty. Slack water was already turning to flood. Baker is the first beach beyond the Bridge and our Pearson was in the surf zone, lying on her port beam in a narrow bed of sand between basalt boulders. It was fortunate she had gone aground exactly there. A few hundred yards east or west and she would have been ground into beach litter.

The boatyard manager was elected to survey the wreck. We sent him ashore in a cheap inflatable dinghy, the kind of water toy you buy for your kids at Walmart, with the shovel and a dozen fathoms of ½ inch rode that would serve as towing hawser. The dinghy promptly capsized in the surf, pitching the yard boss ass over tea kettle and sending the shovel to the bottom. He rose to the surface spitting curses and salt water but still holding the hawser’s bitter end.

As far as he could tell the boat’s hull was intact so he rigged a towing bridle around the mast. The mast was stepped on the keel and heavily staid with wire rope—the strongest point of attachment onboard. The load we were about to place on the hawser would likely rip any cleats right out of her deck.

The Coast Guard had positioned a 36 foot motor lifeboat to windward, probably more for our safety than their amusement. Squirrelly was now attached to the shore—an awkward position for a boat—buffeted by a cross wind and beset by the current. The yard boss launched his dinghy from the shore, paddling ferociously with a piece of broken plywood. He made it through the first breaking wave but not the second. The entire flat bottom of his dinghy was visible as it climbed the wave, hung suspended for a heartbeat, then gracefully succumbed to gravity, falling backwards. When we finally got him back onboard he was shivering from hypothermia and his lips were blue.

Slowly I took a strain on the hawser. The slack line snaked through the water and grew taut as a wire halyard, wringing salt water from the strands of nylon. Smoke belched from the trawler’s exhaust pipes as I advanced the throttles. Her stern squatted under the load. We swung through a 70 degree arc like the plumb bob of a pendulum anchored to the shore. Slowly the Pearson pivoted on her keel. Her bow swung into the surf. She shifted slightly, the trawler surged forward a foot, and the hawser parted abruptly. The yard boss looked distraught.

The entire dumb show was repeated. Once again the yard boss paddled ashore like a sacrificial victim. Once again Squirrelly was wreathed in her own smoke. Once again the Pearson remained immobile.  “Give it all she’s got,” Fred yelled, standing beside me on the flying bridge. I ran the throttles chock-a-block. The hawser stretched another three feet, then once again parted. 200 feet of ½” line was abruptly released from tremendous strain, like an arrow released from a bow, and we were the bullseye.

Fast Freddy dropped to the deck like a stone. I stood, bemused, like a deer caught in the headlights, while 200 feet of ½” line drove into the trawler’s transom with the staccato sound of an M-60 machine gun. The towing hawser then fell into the racing props. The props were immediately fouled. Both engines seized and died as if they’d been cold cocked. Immediately we began drifting toward the rocks to leeward.

The beleaguered yard boss, still shivering, was sent overside again to clear the props. The rat’s nest was tightly wrapped around the shafts as well as the propellers, each wrap levered tight by hundreds of pounds of torque. Each wrap had to be sawed apart with a knife working almost blind in the cold, boisterous water, holding himself in position with one hand, locating the line with another, and cutting with the third. Every breath he took he could see the rocks drawing closer. The Guardsmen on their motor lifeboat began to fidget.

The starboard prop was freed by I didn’t dare start the engine with a man in the water. We drifted closer. I could see the belligerent expression of the gulls roosting on the half-tide rocks. The Guardsmen began a tentative approach when the yard boss broached the surface with thumb raised high. The crew plucked him out of the water like a crab buoy. I fired both engines and throttled up, swinging her head away from the rocks.

We abandoned the wreck and steered to re-enter the Gate. A professional salvage crew would refloat her in a day or two—the insurance company could pay for the job and be damned. We were cold, wet, and disgruntled. Fred offered to buy us all dinner.

It was a singular act of generosity but, typical of Fred Sohegin, one with an odd caveat. He was taking us to dinner at the St. Francis Yacht Club.

The St. Francis is one of only two places left in the United States—the other being the New York Yacht Club—where gentlemen still wear blue blazers, their yachting caps emblazoned with a fouled anchor, and they always wear a tie for dinner. We trooped through the dining room wearing frayed foul weather gear, crooked grins, hair in wild disarray, with salt stains streaking our cheeks. Heads turned, eyebrows were raised, and disapproval was mutely noted. Fred was wonderfully amused.

Post script: For several months after our dismal salvage attempt we assumed our missing charterer had been lost overboard while sailing solo that night. Single-handed sailing was strictly forbidden by Club Nautique’s rules—rules that were not especially effective. Then we got a call from the Club’s  insurance company. Our drowned man was in Canada.

Seems he had gotten so deeply in debt that his crack-brained solution was to fake his own death. I guess his wife intended to become Canadian, too. But the drowned man had underestimated both his loneliness and his family’s unbending righteousness. He called his father long distance (collect, I suspect) and explained why he was not dead. His father, a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, praised the Lord and called the police. The police eventually called the insurance company who finally called us. Not only did the poor bastard fail to get an insurance settlement, he had become an international outlaw on Interpol’s shit list. The Pearson, by the way, was repaired and returned to service. Those boats were bullet-proof.

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