My Dad's first commercial fishing boat was a Monterey which he berthed at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. He had been searching for an affordable boat and looked closely at several WW2 surplus LCVP landing craft and USN motor launch conversions. His friend Dom Battaglia, who then had the Paula B, convinced him to get a "real fishing boat", not a surplus conversion. Dom encouraged my dad to find an affordable Monterey with a diesel not gas engine. $4000 was my Dad's maximum budget. My Dad bought his boat from Sal Vermi, a Monterey CA based fisherman who had named it after himself as the "Sallie Boy." Sal was a "highliner", a person who caught a lot of fish. Sal's fishing revenue financed the purchases of a series of larger boats culminating in the brand new gorgeous steel troller, the Sallie Boy III. Sal moved up to a brand new big boat the hard way. It was an old wooden green and white Monterey that got him started. Dom Battaglia made a good call. A diesel powered Monterey was the perfect choice for my Dad given what he needed and what he had to spend. Commercial fishermen, by the way, never called these classic boats Monterey Clippers, just Montereys.
It was considered very bad luck to change the name of a boat, but my Dad was not superstitious. He renamed it the "Josie M" after my stepmother. The Josie M was powered by a Cat D 3400 diesel engine, a large 1930s vintage 4 cylinder engine that only produced about 26 shaft HP according to the manual. Peterson Tractor company, the local CAT distributor, couldn't believe that there was still an original D 3400 running. They sent over the president who donned coveralls to take a close look at the engine that he cut his teeth on as a young mechanic. The early D 3400 had been used in bulldozers. He changed our filters and made some valve lash adjustments, all on the house.
The ancient CAT was a wonderful engine even though it had untold thousands of hours on it and had appeared to have never been rebuilt. It was reliable and just sipped fuel. We consumed about a gallon an hour on average between running (6.5 knots) and trolling (2.6 knots). Old timers told us that the engine was salvaged from a sardine cannery in Monterey and had been used to power a big seawater pump used at the plant. It had probably powered a bulldozer before that.
Below is the only picture I could find of a CAT D3400. This one isn't "marinized", as it was used with an attached generator for backup electrical power on shore. It sold at auction for $110.00 in 2009.
Fishermans Wharf was a magical place for me as a kid. The sights, the smells and even the sounds were those of a real hardcore fishing port somehow surviving in the midst of a major tourist attraction. The Wharf still had a vibrant commercial fishing scene in the 60s. Shrimp were processed, drag boats unloaded huge catches of bottom fish, and inside the fish houses then located on a dock at the foot of Leavenworth St., long lines of women worked at cleaning tables processing rock cod and Dover, English, Petrale and Rex sole. The smell of fresh fish is actually pleasant and sweet. I liked the smell of the filleting lines. But mixed in was the strong unpleasant odor of rotting fish, often from just a few small carcasses that were left in a bottom trawl net stored on the dock. The fish houses were actually quite clean. They had concrete floors with drains that opened right into the bay water below. Everything was hosed down when a shift ended. Bleach and other disinfectants were used liberally . Sea lions often hung out below the pier to grab the scraps.
Late at night, when the tourists were in bed, a ghostly symphony of creaking, moaning, squealing pulleys dominated the Wharf sounds. These were the days before the sea wall was built and big ocean swells made their way through the Golden Gate and into the Wharf's lagoons, although greatly diminished in intensity and size. The slow rise and fall of the boats caused an up and down movement of the mooring lines which ran through pulleys to counterweights suspended underwater. As many dozens of old pulleys turned, they produced haunting unearthly sounds. It often sounded like a soundtrack for a horror film, or perhaps the background for a live reading of an HP Lovecraft story. Other times, when the swell wasn't so strong, it sounded mournful, moody and melancholy. No matter what the tune or rhythm, it was always on the dark side of the emotional spectrum, never uplifting, never cheerful. During a large winter swell, the squeals and moans combined into a chorus of out of tune harmonies, full of screeches, chatterings, and clashing tones. The underlying rhythm of the ocean swells was, of course, conducted by Neptune himself. If you closed your eyes and imagined, you could hear Captain Nemo playing his pipe organ in a submerged Nautilus lurking just below. I never thought to record this symphony and now with the seawall blocking the swells, it is gone forever. I still hold out hope that somebody captured it, perhaps during a winter day while shooting some video. It was best at night but I'd settle for a noisy daytime recording.
The Wharf back then had a long established commercial fishing business presence, now sadly gone. You could hang out in a gear store, talk shop and socialize with other fishermen without being elbowed by a crowd of visiting out-of-towners. The lure of tourist money eventually crushed the fishing stores and support businesses. Rents soared and tourist trinkets replaced commercial fishing gear and marine hardware. Back in the 60s there were still many 100% commercial marine establishments (selling no tourist goods) at Fishermans Wharf. They sold fishing gear, serviced marine electronics and there were several diesel engine shops as well.
Cincotta's was the main commercial fishing gear store followed by Frank's Fisherman Supply which is still there but mostly stocks tourist goods now. Shoreline Diesel had a shop where Scomas restaurant is now located. Shoreline was run by Rocky, who specialized in 71 series Detroit Diesel (GM "Jimmy") engines. Rocky, as far as I know, had no formal training in electronics, but he was a very smart man and could just figure things out, no matter how complicated they were. Rocky developed aftermarket sold state "brain boxes" for old Wood Freeman model 11 autopilots. Some of the older Wood Freeman brain boxes used a vacuum tube for a compass contact amplifier and solenoid tilted SPDT mercury switches configured to reverse the DC steering motor. "Rocky Boxes" as they were called sold like crazy and some are still in service today nearly half a century after they were made. Shoreline Diesel moved to SSF. Rocky's successor Paul (also a 71 series expert) no longer works on boats.
Andy's Lookout was a dive bar/restaurant that catered to fishermen and was located next to Shoreline Diesel. Pompeii's Grotto also catered to commercial fishermen serving good food and opening in the wee hours of the morning to serve coffee to departing skippers and deckhands. Frank owned and ran Pompei's grotto. He came from a fishing family and fished with his father Mario when he was a kid.
Bobby Oswald and his brother ran Oswald Diesel which was sited across from the old haulout ways. They made a lot of money during the 1960s building diesel generator sets for the military for use in Vietnam. Boicelli and Mercury was on Jefferson Street and had all sorts of marine mechanical parts.. Tom Mercurio ran the place and was a good man. My Dad's CAT D 3400 starter burned out and CAT no longer supplied parts for that ancient engine. The unit was beyond repair and we were really stuck. My Dad went to Tom to ask for advice. Tom, who had an incredible memory, recalled that they had stocked a starter for the D 3400 decades ago and didn't recall ever selling it or scrapping it. Three days later he called my Dad and said he had found a brand new D 3400 starter buried in a ton of old stuff in a warehouse. He could have charged us 10x what it was worth and we would have paid it. We had no alternatives. Instead Tom sold it to us for what commonly available diesel starters sold for, and not a penny more.
Coast Marine, on Jefferson Street, supplied ships and fishing boats with deck gear, hydraulics and some fishing gear as well. Chuck from Coast Marine was the Wharf's hydraulics guru and was the go-to guy if you had a tough troubleshooting problem. They had a hose shop too and could make any kind of hydraulic hose you might need. They also serviced liferafts. Very few commercial fishing boats carried inflatable liferafts or survival suits until the USCG began requiring them. Everyone carried life jackets but all they would do is keep you afloat, immersed in 54 degree water, while you slowly died from hypothermia. Without a raft you either got rescued in a few hours or died. USCG approved rafts are expensive ($3000 and up for good ones) and most require yearly service that runs about $500. Dan Bohne and Sons Marine Insurance had an office in Frank's Fisherman Supply and Monroe and his family took care of the fleet's marine insurance needs. It is easy to idealize when looking back with nostalgia, but I remember a lot of really good people in these businesses, people who were honest and kept their word, always. Fishermen seldom used purchase orders, contracts or work orders; a handshake sealed most deals.
There were two radio shops at the Wharf that kept old marine electronics running. Manny was the tech at the one next to the Crab Boat Owners Assn Hall and Jay was the tech at the other one located across the alley. Both of those guys gave me a lot of practical knowledge about troubleshooting marine electronics and undoubtedly influenced my later decision to become an electrical engineer. These guys could literally fix anything electronic that was used on a boat: radars, radios, fathometers, autopilots, etc. . They both passed on a lot of useful tips to me about how to make parts or substitute equivalent components when you couldn't find exact replacements. Manny taught me how troubleshoot radios using a signal tracer and also how to align receivers using a signal generator. Jay taught me all about high voltage DC power supplies and how to diagnose and fix problems without getting electrocuted. They were patient and helpful to a bothersome 12 year old kid who thirsted for more knowledge about electronics.
I became increasingly obsessed with electronics. For some reason it just called to me. Radio seemed magical to me: an invisible energy going through solid objects and travelling great distances at the speed of light. I was absolutely fascinated and yearned to unlock its mysteries. I began reading and experimenting with an insatiable thirst. Even today, half a century, later the magic still endures and in fact has increased its allure.
Look at the picture of the Josie M at the top of the page. This photo was taken in the late 1960s. The lack of visible nav antennas tells you: no LORAN, no radar, of course no GPS etc. All you'd see on most Montereys back then was a crude homemade center fed CB (called "mickey mouse" or "little set") wire dipole running from the mast top the bow and a vertical 2-3 MHz top loaded whip antenna for the AM "big set". The "big set" antenna was mounted in insulated stand-off clamps on the mast.
It wasn't easy navigating in the fog with no radio navigation aids and no radar. Knowing (actually guessing) where you were and trying to avoid collisions took a lot of attention. Your ears gave clues. You listened for ship horns, foghorns, buoy bells etc. It was hard to hear with the diesel engine running all the time. Often by the time you heard a ship's horn it was getting dangerously close.
I put a WW2 surplus APN-9 LORAN A set on my Dad's Monterey the Josie M. All of a sudden we had reliable position info. That set was a power hog. Had vacuum tubes, lots of them. I got an APN-9 for only $25 that needed some repair. It wasn't hard to fix but did need a power inverter to convert 12 VDC boat power to 110 VAC 400Hz aircraft power. Commercial inverters cost $225 so I built one myself for about a third the price. For under $100 we were in business.
I later added an ARN-7 WW2 surplus ADF (automatic radio direction finder) which had a distinctive aerodynamically streamlined "football loop" enclosure". That streamlining sure wasnt necessary on our 6.5 knot Monterey. You can see the football ADF antenna on the wheelhouse roof (port side) of the Josie M. In the wheelhouse interior photo at the top of the page you can see the ARN-7 control box mounted on the starboard wall and the bearing indicator mounted at an angle attached to the ceiling nearby. I made some modifications to the ARN-7 to allow it to shoot bearings on boats transmitting in the 2-3 MHz marine band. The stock configuration only operated on the beacon and broadcast bands (100 KHz to 1750 KHz) . We had the two main nav gear sets (APN-9 LORAN and ARN-7 ADF) that WW2 B-29 bombers carried. Kinda funny to think of 1960s Monterey, built in the 1920s and equipped with the same radio navigation gear as a 1940s B-29. The surplus gear was very well made and served us well with few failures.
We fished our Monterey mainly between Monterey on the southern end and Shelter Cove (above Ft Bragg) on the northern end of our range. King (Chinook) Salmon was the primary target although sometimes we also caught rock cod. When I started fishing with my Dad in the 1960s we received 5 cents a pound for any kind of rock cod and 16 cents a pound for Ling Cod. King salmon were 65 cents a pound for "splitters" (large Kings over 12 pounds) and 35 cents and 45 cents a pound for small and medium salmon. Occasionally my Dad would make a few trips out 100 miles or so for Albacore tuna in the fall. We caught a lot of Silver (Coho) Salmon back then but were paid very little for them. Once in a blue moon we would catch a Steelhead, an ocean going Rainbow Trout which we would release, or a "Humpie", an Alaskan Pink Salmon which we would usually eat. We often fished near the Farallon Islands and anchored there regularly when the weather permitted. We also anchored a lot at Drakes Bay in the Pt Reyes area. Other anchorages included Princeton, Bodega Bay, Timber Cove, Fort Ross, Fish Rocks, Cuffey's Cove, Arena Cove, Albion and Usal.
Lloyd and Lila operated a fish buying station at Pt Reyes (Drakes Bay) in the 60s and early 70s. There were two fish buying piers on the west edge of Drakes Bay, north of the Coast Guard lifeboat station. Ownership changed now and then but as I recall one was owned by Cal Shell (California Shellfish Co.) and the other by Standard Fisheries. Ownership of the two buying docks seemed to rotate over the years. Paladini, Alioto and other companies were mentioned by others as dock operators at different times. Lloyd, Lila's husband, was Native American and told me often that the DFG hunting and fishing regulations didn't apply to him. I came up on the dock one day to see him bleeding an all white deer he had shot. He also showed me an Eagle he had killed "for the feathers". Lloyd drank a LOT and I worried about him shooting while he was drinking, but no accidents occurred. Lila was really on Lloyd's case to cut down on his drinking, but that was a lost cause. Lloyd had stashed flasks of liquor in various places around and under the fish dock so it was impossible for Lila to cut off his supply. When Lloyd drank, which was nearly all the time, he mumbled and it was really hard to understand what he was saying. Lloyd did whatever he wanted at Pt. Reyes and didn't give a damn about any Park Service or DFG regulations. I'm sure glad he didn't tangle with any Rambo game wardens.
Above: One of the two fish buying docks that graced the shores of Drakes Bay in the 60s. Some purists will scorn my use of the word "graced" but I like fish docks, and always will. It probably comes from my childhood. After a rough day eeking out a living in the deep and often rough waters off Pt Reyes, it was comforting to come into the calm shallow waters of Drakes Bay and see these outposts. You knew you'd be greeted warmly and supplied with whatever you needed to go out and get beat up by the ocean the very next day.
Lila was a real character. She was a large strong bossy woman with bright white hair. Despite her sometimes rough manner, everyone knew that Lila had a heart of gold. She scolded my Dad without mercy one day when we came in around 4 PM from a super rough day with only 4 fish. Everybody else stayed on the hook that day as the swells were huge and NW wind was really howling. She was concerned for my safety and thought my Dad wasn't cautious enough. She really let him have it. Lloyd was drunk. He just mumbled a few words and nodded in agreement with the big white haired dock boss.
The USCG had a lifeboat station in Drakes Bay and my Dad often stopped there to give them a few "shakers", (undersized salmon) and assorted rock cod. It was illegal to keep salmon shorter than 26 inches and we normally released them. If they came up too injured to survive, however, they were then destined for the Coastie's table not the bottom of the ocean as crab food. The Coast Guardsmen really took care of us too. Once we had an autopilot malfunction that caused the powerful steering motor to go hard over and rip out part of our steering gear. The Coast Guard guys noticed my Dad tiller steering as he came alongside their dock to give them some fish. They asked him what the problem was and he explained. They told him to tie up, join them in a meal and that they'd take a look at the problem. After a nice meal with the CG guys, my Dad returned to the Josie M to find all the steering problems expertly repaired including the addition of new parts including a brand new bronze steering quadrant attached to the rudder shaft. They explained that those parts had been sitting on a shelf and were for a lifeboat type that was no longer in service. They told my dad to keep it quiet as they weren't supposed to give away govt. property.
Above: the now decommissioned USCG Lifeboat Station Pt. Reyes. The one remaining fish buyers dock can be seen in the background. You can see the sloped marine railway that was used to launch and recover the motor-lifeboats that the CG kept above water. This depicts a windless day, quite unusual during the summer months of salmon season.
Those were the good old days when you could sell your fish in Drakes Bay rather than having to go to SF or Bodega Bay. Fishermen selling there were given free boxed herring bait (pre tray pack days), free sourdough loafs, free red wine, free salad greens and occasionally other food items such as Oreo cookies. "Free" might have been worked out in slightly short fish weights but nobody complained. If you needed parts or gear you could have them in a day or two as regular fish deliveries were made to SF. You could fish out of Drake's Bay for a month or more if you wanted to. Everything you needed was available there. There were no tie up docks however. You delivered your fish and then anchored out. My three younger brothers Paul, Nick, Tony and I rotated deckhand duty on my Dad's boat. If he was working out of Drakes Bay or Bodega Bay it was easy to catch a ride in a fish company truck from SF to either place.
Above: in the 60s you could even buy diesel fuel at Drakes Bay from the fish buyers docks. The USCG Lifeboat Station with its two story building is seen in the distance. These days its probably a felony to transfer fuel in the Pt. Reyes National Seashore area.
Marie DeSantis has written a book about commercial fishing titled Neptune's Apprentice. Her book chronicles, among other things, an appealing slice of the Pt. Reyes and Drakes Bay salmon fishing history. I recommend this book. Marie is a good writer and brings you into the world of commercial fishing. She immerses you. You get wet, you get tired, you feel the fear, desperation and joy as if you were living it yourself.
I had already been commercial salmon fishing for a few years when Marie got into the business. Same area of the CA coast too. She just nailed it, captured the life and put it to words. Many unique personalities would be forgotten if not for Marie's book. Jimmy Hobo, the gravel voiced skipper of the Jackie Boy. Mario, Danny, Chef and the rest of the Yukon Gang, out of SF Fisherman's Wharf. Anchoring at Pt. Reyes and the Farallons. Seeking salmon with small boats in all kinds of weather and conditions. It was a wild life, dangerous too, almost exclusively male and then Marie entered it: Kaboom! Culture shock. I remember the astonishment of some of the old timers when word got out that a woman was running a commercial fishing boat and actually doing well. Could it possibly be true? True it was and Marie pioneered the way for other successful female skippers such as Bev Knoll.
There were practices, customs and priorities that seemed crazy to me at the time. Marie captured them with fidelity. Mario Balestreri, who was sometimes called by the nickname Chicken Charlie, was the leader of the Yukon Gang, a small fleet of identically painted tan and white SF based Monterey Clipper trollers. Mario's boat, the Barbara Ann, was the sole exception to the fleet color scheme. The Barbara Ann was painted blue and white. The Yukon Gang was made up of Sicilian fishermen and based at Fishermans Wharf in SF. Everybody on the coast knew who they were. They were good fishermen and always caught their share and more. One practice, however, separated the Yukon gang from everyone else and it was discussed from time to time by other fishermen. Mario would sometimes radio "put em on the boat boys, early barbeque" right in the middle of hot fishing. Now remember, they already had a good morning catch on the deck, but they were leaving good fishing with many hours left in the day. Mario's order was never questioned, just obeyed. The gear was pulled and five boats "headed for the barn", usually Drakes Bay where they would enjoy red wine, sourdough bread, sea urchin roe, salmon and each others' company while the rest of us slavishly toiled to make the most out of a hot salmon run.
I was 11 years old when I first witnessed this astonishing behavior. I asked my Dad: "are they crazy?" We were fishing off the North Farallon Islands and the bite was good: big fish and plenty of them. It was inconceivable to me that anyone would just walk away from such good fishing. My Dad tried to explain it to me but I didn't get it. I just had ambition and no wisdom at that age. It wasn't until I was much older that I finally understood what Mario's philosophy was really about. It was about life being about more than just money. It was about proving it. It was about showing others that you could literally walk away from it. The Yukon Gang guys knew what it meant to live a good life and they practiced it. Grabbing the very last dollar really didn't matter in the end.
My Dad knew Mario, Danny, Chef and the other Yukon Gang fishermen. We docked near them at the Wharf. My Dad was agitated about something one day and was excitedly talking to Mario about it. Mario paused and then said: "You gotta take it easy Ted, Easy by Easy." I think the use of the word "by" was a reference to compass directions, e.g. north by northwest. "Easy by Easy" was the compass heading to a good life. "Easy by Easy" really captured the essence of Mario and the Gang. They weren't lazy, far from it. They worked hard, really hard, but they knew when to stop. They knew what really mattered and it wasn't material wealth. For them, money was something you needed to live your life, but you didn't live your life for money.
In some ways, the Yukon Gang's approach, although not boastful or belligerent, was the ultimate machismo. What other fishermen could turn their backs on easy money? I certainly couldn't and and didn't know anyone else who could. I often wondered how it all got started, and why it was unique to a tight knit group of five Fishermans Wharf based Italian skippers. There is a story there and I hope it can be told before the last man dies.
Mario passed away in 2008. Marie DeSantis, by writing Neptune's Apprentice has done a lot to insure that Mario and the Yukon Gang will never be forgotten. I will never forget them. They made an impression on me that endures to this day. Did I lead my life they way they did? No, I didn't. I never ran in to port in the middle of hot fishing. I just wasn't that tough. But their example did shape how I looked at things. I don't obsess about money. I try hard to keep up friendships. I will never be like those guys, but even adopting a little bit of their philosophy makes for a better life. Rest in peace Mario, fair seas, Easy by Easy.
Well known fisherman Mike McCorkle shot this picture of Mario fishing the Barbara Ann in flat calm water in 2001. This was undoubtedly shot near Bolinas in the late fall. Mario must have been about 77 years old when this was taken.
Drakes Bay provided a huge sand bottomed anchorage well protected from the prevailing NW winds of summer. In June you might see well over a hundred trollers anchored in Drakes Bay at night and there was room for many many more. I almost never saw pleasure boats anchored there. Once a freighter anchored in Drakes Bay out in deeper water. I heard that they had some mechanical problem and had anchored to repair it before entering SF Bay. Subs plied the waters around Pt. Reyes and once in a great while would snag a boat's underwater fishing gear. The Pisces skippered by Gene Brown suffered this fate and was towed backwards for a brief period with one of its davits bent right down to the deck. Fortunately the snagged gear broke off and the boat didn't capsize.
There were many other characters that fished most of the season out of Drake's Bay. Hans on the Christel D, Jay, Hans's running partner (can't recall Jay's boat name), Duke on the Alice Mary and many many others. Hans was a native German and spoke English with a heavy accent. I think it was Hans who gave Mario the nickname Chicken Charlie, which might have come from the tuna commercials that Chicken of the Sea ran at the time featuring a tuna named Charley. Hans was close to the Yukon Gang and although not an official member, participated in most of their Pt. Reyes barbecues. The Christel D was a Monterey as was Jay's boat too. Duke, on the Alice Mary, was African American. A lot of fishermen back then harbored prejudices towards other races but Duke was a fellow fisherman and was exempt. I never saw Duke treated or referred to as anything but an equal.
Many fishermen had nicknames that were used so often that their real first names became irrelevant at sea. Among those I recall were Freckles, Banjo, Baby Huey, Green Crab, Jimmy Hobo, Junior, Lefty, TD, DB, Tupper, Tiny Tim, Sarge, Skeeter, Steamer, Lumpy and Hop Sing. If you were working out of a harbor that wasn't your home port, you were considered an outsider, no matter how well you knew the locals. You'd often hear fishermen say: "he's a Bodega guy" or "he's a Eureka guy" indicating that they were talking about an outsider who might be temporarily working out of their home port. Despite cliques and other exclusionary groups, all fishermen were brothers if one fisherman was in trouble. The territorial lines disappeared in an instant if a distress call was heard. Fishermen regularly risked their lives to save others in danger. You had to. It was a necessity. If this bond were ever broken nobody would be safe.
It was easy to get crabs and Sea Urchins for eating around Drakes Bay. Some sort of a small chain net was used by the Italian fishermen to drag Urchins off the rocky bottom near Chimney Rock. The bright orange Sea Urchin roe was called Rizzi and it was delicious raw. A simple crab ring-net baited with fish nearly always came up with dinner when you were at anchor. Although it was illegal to keep female crabs, we preferred them as the eggs tasted delicious. I never saw a game warden on the water inside Drake's Bay. Once in a while they drove to the unloading docks and stayed out of view hoping you might unload a few short fish. I wonder if they ever figured out why they never caught many violators? If a game warden was on the dock Lila would switch hats to a red one which could be seen at a distance when approaching the dock. When we saw that red hat we slowed down and very carefully measured any small fish to be sure they were at least 26 inches.
We had no anchor winch on the Josie M which meant we had to pull anchor by hand. It was hard work, especially if the wind was blowing. It made you hungry. We had no oven or toaster on our Monterey, just a crude two burner propane stove. My Dad used to toast sourdough bread with a BenzoMatic propane torch. Fastest way to do it. Onions, scrambled eggs, and canned sardines went onto the hot flame toasted sourdough. His own version of Egg McMuffin. Tasted pretty good en route to the Islands in the early AM.
Back in the 60's, before continuous NOAA weather radio on VHF, there were only USCG weather observations broadcast a few times a day on the big set band though the SF Marine Operator on 2406 and 2003 KHz. There were no data reporting buoys, only on the scene human observations. Fishermen used to call the Pilot Boat California for real time weather outside the Gate where they stood by at the Pilot Station (a location just outside the SF Lightship) to place Bay Pilots on entering freighters and retrieve them from departing ones. You could usually call them even in the early AM and get an on scene report. The Bay Pilots were salty mariners and knew exactly what info mattered. Their reports were short and to the point e.g. "pretty sloppy here Cap, 8 ft swells and 17 knots of Northwest wind, gusting to 23, seems to be picking up." I remember hearing such reports on the way out from the Wharf to the Gate at 2:30 AM and thinking "damn, we are gonna get pounded running out to the Islands." Once in a while the Pilot Boat California would set its sails. It was an absolutely gorgeous 127 foot schooner originally named Zodiac: We also saw them with rods over the side trolling for salmon while they waited for the next ship.
The wholesale fish buyers ran a sort of informal operations financing for fishing boats that sold to them. In many ports, if you were a trustworthy skipper, you could charge fuel and fishing supplies to your "account" at the fish company. There were a few times when I had no money at all and needed fuel, bait, ice and gear to make my next trip. I got it all with a no paperwork short-term interest-free loan. The fish company deducted my charges from the amount they owed me when I delivered my next catch. Fishing sometimes was very lucrative, thousands of dollars made in a few days. There were other times when it was a complete bust, you actually lost quite a bit of money fishing. Most commercial fishermen are like gamblers, they only remember the jackpots. Small boat salmon trolling was mostly a subsistence fishery, only a very few got rich enough from their catches to move into big boat fisheries.
Fishing had its own version of the mortgage loan crisis, but the fishing loan crisis came first. The Production Credit Assn (PCA), was a federal loan system created by Congress through the Farm Credit Act of 1933 to provide short- and intermediate-term credit to farmers, ranchers and rural residents. In the early 1970s, PCA decided to expand their loan program for financing the purchase of commercial fishing boats. Experienced fishermen used PCA loans to upgrade from small to large boats and quite a few of them prospered. The program, however, operated under loan qualification guidelines that took little or no account of fishing skills or experience. Fishing had been good around that time and boat prices were high. Easy PCA loan money enabled people with zero commercial fishing experience to buy expensive large boats, and buy they did. Almost all of these ended up badly. There were some terribly sad stories of dreams tuning to disasters. It's easy to romanticize commercial fishing, especially if you have never done it. From a distance it looks so appealing, but the reality can be quite harsh. Unrealistic dreams often became nightmares following the PCA financed purchase of fishing boats by people who had no commercial fishing experience at all. Some barely seaworthy boats were painted up nicely and sold to unsuspecting rookies. "Bad" engines, such as WW2 Navy surplus BUDA diesels seemed just fine to a new buyer who didn't know any better. I remember seeing one "greenhorn" PCA financed boat come in to SF after a six day Fall trip with not one salmon aboard. They had been trolling "junk" (artificial lures) exclusively during a time when local salmon wouldn't bite on anything but whole herring baits. They also had been fishing in an area that was often red hot in June but always barren in September. You have to know where to fish and how to fish and there are no courses out there to teach these skills. Most learn how to fish by deckhanding under an experienced skipper. Too many of these PCA greenhorn boats were skippered and crewed by people with zero experience. At best they caught a few fish and at worst they wrecked the boats due to lack of experience and poor judgment. Some paid the ultimate price for their inexperience, losing their lives in sinkings and shipwrecks.
Fishermen, especially the Italian ones, didn't actually call rookies "Greenhorns", they called them "Okies", referring to the dirt poor Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas immigrants who came west during the dust bowl. The implication was that you were ignorant, foolish, inexperienced etc. A common curse that I'd hear on the radio from the Italian fishermen was "Putana di Okie" which I suppose meant "whore of the Okie". For example if a fisherman had run all night in rough weather to get to a hot spot, only to find it barren at daybreak he might say: "I run all night to get here, beating my brains out and what do I get? NOTHING...Putana di Okie".
Summer off the coast of Northern California is foggy, plain and simple. Fortunes have been made at Fishermans Wharf selling cheap sweatshirts to tourists who arrive in June wearing t shirts and expecting hot sunny weather. If you want sunny weather, go to LA or wait for fall. A LOT of our fishing was done in foggy weather. We had no radar, no LORAN and GPS wasn't invented yet. We had only a compass and a fathometer (depth sounder) as our navigation tools. We used charts, dividers and parallel rules. I knew how to dead reckon at age 11. We also listened for shore based foghorns and steamer horns. Running out from SF to sea in pea soup fog with no radar is not for the weak hearted. Sometimes it seemed as if the fish congregated in the steamer lanes when the fog rolled in forcing us to risk our lives fishing literally in harms way. My Dad joked that we try to kill the salmon and then, when it gets foggy, the salmon try to get us killed. When I later skippered a boat that had radar, and saw how many collision threats presented themselves in fog, I wondered how my dad survived without it.
All along the West Coast fisherman used the same terms when talking about running North or South of where they are. If going to a place to the North, you are going "up the line". If Southern travel is planned, you will be going "down the line". Nobody in SF would say: I'm going North to Ft. Bragg. They'd say: "I'm going up the line to Ft. Bragg". It wasn't North South East and West, it was up, down in and out. Somehow ports and fishermen further up the coast were seen as tougher. Monterey or Santa Barbara never had the same reputation for toughness that Crescent City or Eureka did. It wasn't entirely rational, but that's the way it was. Prevailing weather might have played a role in the toughness grades, but there was plenty of bad weather to be found anywhere on the CA coast . If there were NW winds and a decent swell you talked about "bucking" up the line rather than running up the line. When "bucking", you were running directly into the swells and wind which made for a tough ride. typical fishing boat running speeds were about 7.5 knots and even at that slow speed you'd be slamming into the oncoming seas if there was a swell running and typical summer NW wind blowing. The G forces were all over the place as you hit waves, were lifted by them, and then dropped into the trough.
The rigging on the Josie M was pretty primitive and we had no hydraulics at all. Two tall cedar trolling poles were used as outriggers to spread the trolling lines and prevent leader and line entanglement. The six spool Kolstrand gurdies (bronze manually clutched trolling line winches made in Seattle) were powered directly from the engine PTO through a series of pulleys, shafts and V belts. The trolling line was seven strand stainless steel wire rope rated at 600 lbs breaking strength. Bent galvanized steel pipe davits rising from the deck and extending in an aft arc supported the bronze trolling blocks (pulleys) that fed the line on and off of the gurdies. We had Kolstrand reverse boxes on both sides of the pit (trolling cockpit in the stern) so that one person could be raising troll gear while the other on the opposite side of the pit was lowering it.. An old Ford automobile 3 speed stick shift transmission was positioned in the drive train before the reverse boxes. It allowed us to shift gurdy drive shaft speeds so that when the engine was running at high RPMs, as was needed bucking into a strong NW wind while trolling, the gurdies weren't running too fast. Hydraulic gurdy drive motors would have been a huge advantage, offering infinitely variable speed and cutting way down on gurdy clutch and brake wear, but we could not afford it. We fished bait (herring), brass and painted spoons, plugs and hootchies (plastic squid). Leaders were clipped to the trolling wire at three fathom intervals. On each side we ran a bow line, a main (or tip) line and a dog line. The bow lines, had 35-50 lb lead weights. The mains had less and the dog lines less than the mains. The idea was to give different slopes to the trolled wire so that the ones furthest forward (the bow lines) would have the steepest slope and the ones behind it shallower slopes thus avoiding tangles.
Above: two sets of three spool gurdies. One set was mounted on either edge of the deck just forward of the stern trolling cockpit, which was always referred to as "The PIT". The gurdy sets ran on a common stainless steel or bronze shaft and had brake and clutch assemblies on each spool controlled by a common handle. Often hose pieces were sleeved over the handles to make them easier and more comfortable to grip.
If the water was deep enough we could drag a total of 40 or 50 leaders spaced apart on our six trolled wire lines at a speed usually between 2 and 3 knots. There were some days where we caught no fish at all, this was called "getting skunked". The first fish of the day "got the skunk off the deck." A really good day was catching 300-500 lbs of fish. Some "highliners" (top fishermen) would get up to a ton in a day but that was very rare. Salmon were cleaned (gutted and gilled, head on) then iced belly up in the fish hold if you were trip fishing. If you were day fishing, the salmon were covered with wet burlap sacks which relied on evaporation cooling to preserve the fish. The water temp was usually in the low 50s Fahrenheit and periodic hosing of the sacks with sea water kept things cool as well.
Fishermen see the ocean quite differently than other people do. When I look seaward from Half Moon Bay I see, in my mind, the hazardous Deep Reef, lurking just under the surface, ready to rip out the bottom of any unsuspecting vessel which strays too far out of the deep water approach the breakwater entrance. When I look out from Stinson Beach I see, in my minds eye, the rocks of Duxbury Reef rising from the smooth safe sandy bottom ready to snag and destroy the gear of a careless troller who loses attention during a calm Fall day. Just north of Sail Rock in Mendocino County, roughly half way between the anchorages of Fish Rocks and Arena Cove, lies the wicked Saunders Reef. Saunders Reef is particularly "evil" because it lies in deep, seemingly safe water half a mile offshore. Over the years it has claimed a few boats and lives, usually fishing boats running at night thinking what could possibly happen in 20-25 fathoms of water on a calm evening run. Just a little bit inside of that comfortably deep water lies ruin. Saunders Reef is clearly marked on the NOAA charts but some non local boats have just assumed deep water half a mile offshore is safe. That assumption has been fatal for some unlucky mariners. GPS and computerized chart plotters have made such errors less likely, but I'll bet Saunder's Reef hasn't claimed its last victim. My Dad had a rule passed on to him by others and passed on to me by him: when running North of Bodega Bay, especially at night, stay out in at least 40 fathoms of water. If you do that you can't hit Saunders Reef.
It's not only small fishing boats that have come to grief on Saunders Reef:
The image below, from the Alaska Trollers Association gives a good visual outline of troller rigging. It shows a shallow water spread with only three leaders per line but we often fished deep water with many more leaders. The illustration shows a boat with four gurdies. Most California trollers have six. The picture also shows "hayrack" gurdy and davit rigging with the gurdies mounted up off the deck and near its center. Hayracks were common on Washington and Alaska based trollers. On most California trollers, the gurdies were mounted on the deck right next to the gunwhales just forward of the trolling cockpit..
In September we fished in close off Duxbury Reef and Bolinas in shallow water dragging only a dozen or so leaders due to the shallow depth, Big salmon were caught in the fall here, but the total catch was never very high like it might be in June in the area SE of the Farallons. On the very last day of the commercial season (Sept 31) in the mid 1960s (1964?) my Dad and I fished sunup to sundown off Bolinas in beautiful flat calm weather but catching nothing at all. As the sun set and we were rolling up the gear to go home, a huge salmon bit and we fought it for some time being careful not to break the leader or pull the hook out of the salmon's mouth. We finally landed the fish and I was astonished. I had never seen such a large salmon. We gutted it and headed in.
We normally sold our catch to Standard Fisheries run by Pat Flanagan, a great guy, but the wholesale fish docks were closed by the time we arrived at Fisherman's Wharf. We sold our one fish catch to a Wharf restaurant that had a retail fish stand and a scale. It weighed 54 pounds gutted! We were paid 65 cents a pound for the fish and treated to two free dinners, our choice of anything on the menu with no limitations. We chose filet mignon, the first time I had ever tasted that elite cut of beef. When times were good we ate beef at home, but cheap cuts and cheap grades. Have any of you ever had USDA Utility or Cutter grade beef? It's a few steps below Choice and Prime. It actually tasted pretty good, but you almost needed a power saw to cut it. When times were bad we ate fish, which was ironic because it was usually local salmon or ling cod, species which gourmets prized. When times were really really tough, we ate boiled chicken feet, feet, not legs. They were 5 cents a pound. They too tasted pretty good with enough seasoning. You had to eat a lot of them to fill up as there wasn't much but skin and bone on them. I thought about boiling some up to show my kids what it was like for our family when hard times came, but I couldn't find any place that sold them.
Neither my father or I ever caught another fish like that 54 pound monster. My largest King was 42 pounds caught in very shallow water in Drakes Bay in September. I was dragging just two leaders on a single bow line after pulling anchor and heading out to the grounds. I had seen birds working a bait ball just outside the anchorage and wanted to see if there were salmon underneath the bait. My Dad's next largest King was 38 pounds caught again off Bolinas in September. California commercial trollers (who are permitted to use only hooks, not nets) catch only a few King Salmon that weigh more than 35 lbs. The world's record King weighed an astounding 126 lbs and was caught near River's Inlet BC in a commercial gill net.
As late as 1967 there was still one active commercial fishing Monterey using a primitive Hicks gasoline engine operating out of Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco. It also had the aft wheelhouse and separate focsl sleeping quarters which most boats had remodeled into a single integrated forward structure. It was owned and run by Guiseppe "Joe" DeGrande, an old timer who spent his last years at sea fishing for rock cod with "basket gear" long lines. Joe made a big impression on me as a kid. He was, like most of the Wharf fishermen, Italian and was probably born in Sicily. He never said too much to me, but my Dad's boat was docked right next to his and I watched how hard Joe worked. Joe was quite old, but he was fast and very strong. On Sundays he would show up at the Wharf wearing a very fine quality perfectly fitting suit having probably come from Mass. His Sunday shoes were perfectly shined and always looked like new. Joe and other old timers would hang out on a bench in front of the Crab Boat Owners Association hall and talk, mostly in their native Italian. Later, they would go over to Aquatic park just a few blocks away and play Bocce ball on the oyster shell courts.
Back then there was a crude marine railway (called ways) right next to Castagnolas restaurant. It was owned by the Port of SF and could be used free of charge to haul your boat out for repairs or painting. Hauling out there was a dicey operation as there were no wheeled cradles for the boats, just a ramp with keel slots for the boats. You ran your boat up at near high tide, being sure that your keel was in the slot. You then ran a line from your bow through a shore based pulley to a capstan which remains to this day. The electric motor driven capstan was used to winch you boat up as high as possible with the keel riding in the greased slot. As the tide receded you used poles, timbers, wooden fish boxes and whatever else you could find to keep your now high and dry boat from tipping over. The ways are gone which is a shame. My Dad and I used them once to remove a damaged prop and get it repaired. We were one of the last few boats to use it before the Port shut it down citing liability and pollution concerns.
If you look at the 1930s postcard below you can see the Fishermans Wharf ways ramp in the upper left with many hauled out Montereys on its sloping ramp.
One day Joe DeGrande, our next door neighbor at the Wharf, watched me spend a long time untangling some gear on my Dad's boat and said nothing. I had absentmindedly piled some leaders in a box in calm weather and then it got jumbled up when the box started sliding side to side in rough weather. My Dad got mad trying to untangle it and made it far worse impatiently trying. He left it to me to fix the mess I had made. Joe was busy baiting the hooks on his rock cod longlines and neatly putting them in to baskets. He just looked over disapprovingly at me from time to time which bugged me. I finally got it all untangled but it took forever, probably close to an hour. When I was done, Joe motioned for me to come over with my now neatly sorted out lines. He put his hands in the box and scrambled them all up again. I was stunned and pissed off but I could say nothing disrespectful to an elder like Joe. He laughed as he saw my face turn bright red. He then showed me the right way to untangle fishing gear and he was done in less than ten minutes. He scrambled it up again and told me to do it by uttering just a single word: "you." We went through several lessons that afternoon but I finally learned his method. Over the years it has probably saved me literally hundreds of hours. I don't know if Joe spoke much English. He only used a few English words of greeting to me when I said hello or goodbye. He did, however, teach me well and he didn't need to speak fluent English to do it.
The Hicks engines like Joe DeGrande had in his boat used drip oilers, were of low horsepower (8 hp), low RPM (350) and had a very distinctive repeating "bang, gasp, hiss" sound. In slack water Joe's boat could keep up with the diesel powered Monterey Clippers, but fighting a strong tidal current the low HP of the Hicks engine would cause him to fall behind the boats with similar hulls but more modern engines. The modern engines could go to higher RPMs and could produce far more HP than the Hicks when needed. A common diesel repower choice for the Montereys was a Detroit (GM) model 2-71 (or 3-71) two stroke supercharged diesel engine which proved to be extremely reliable and long lasting. Far less popular choices included Caterpillar D 3400 (1930s vintage model), Lister air cooled diesels, Detroit model 353 and others. A few Montereys had straight six Chrysler Crown gasoline engines, but diesel was greatly preferred for reliability and fire safety.
The shape of the Monterey hull gave good performance in rough seas. I always felt safe aboard my Dad's boat, even in really heavy seas. We got tossed around and slammed by waves but the boat was like a duck, always floating and never tippy. A low center of gravity assured a strong righting moment and she always felt stable. The flare of the bow provided lift in oncoming seas and the beautiful rounded double ender stern provided following sea capability that was superb. Their overall hull shape is very pleasing to the eye, a perfect combination of form and function. I spent a number of seasons commercial salmon fishing with my father on his Monterey in the 1960s. They were small boats with lengths ranging between 26 and 30 ft typically but there were a few in the 30-40 foot range. The big ones seldom were double enders and had more conventional transoms and sterns. As a kid, I called any old wood fishing boat with a clipper bow a Monterey, but the purists would disagree. Most Montereys were noisy, had primitive systems (imagine pulling anchor by hand at the Farallon Islands, no winch) and tiny damp living quarters in a focsle with no heater. They were not big on comfort but could be depended on to get you to the fishing grounds, put in a hard days work and bring you home safely, year after year.
Although by the 60s all Montereys in the commercial fishing fleet had converted to wheel steering, most retained the ability to tiller steer. It was a good backup. My Dad actually docked at the Wharf from the stern cockpit using tiller steering and a remote throttle and gearshift. You could turn the rudder faster with the tiller than the wheel. I liked disengaging the autopilot and tiller steering in a following sea coming in from the islands. It was relaxing and I felt a solid connection with the sea and boat. You could feel the sea's surging forces on the rudder. You also got a bit of a workout keeping the stern perpendicular to the swell as it passed under the hull. It's hard to effectively articulate the behavior of a Monterey in a following sea. Sweet is the word that comes to mind. It never "snapped" into a broach as a square transom hull can sometimes do when a tumbling breaking wave hits the stern. Every move was predictable, smooth and stable.
Below: an incredibly accurate model of a Monterey Clipper. What craftsmanship!
Running bars (sandbars) which form outside many harbor entrances is scary business. I have been a skydiver for nearly half a century. I have had two parachute malfunctions from which I had to do a cutaway and go to my reserve chute. Your remaining lifetime is in those situations is only about 9 seconds unless you do everything right. Crossing the bars at Tomales, Eureka and Astoria in dicey conditions was actually scarier than anything I have encountered in skydiving. There is no reserve chute, no plan B. The swell can hump up huge when it hits the shallow bar area and can capsize unlucky vessels. I never crossed dangerous bars in a Monterey, but I'd bet the its beautifully shaped hull would perform better than many other hull shapes if caught in marginal bar conditions. In a huge breaking bar wave just about any boat is doomed, but sometimes there are breaking waves that aren't so high where one boat might make it OK and another might broach and capsize. The Monterey's distinctive clipper bow had a lot of lift up high and that would help prevent pitchpoling, i.e. driving the bow underwater at a sharp downward angle in a really steep following sea. The double ender stern didn't have a big flat vertical area for a following sea to push on and force the hull to slide parallel to the wave face. Sure, a Monterey could, under the right conditions capsize or pitchpole or broach, but I think the design had a lot going for it to prevent those bad outcomes from happening. I always felt safe in my Dad's Monterey. I worried a lot more about getting run down in the fog by a steamer than I did about any solo calamity where the boat just couldn't take what the sea was dishing out.
A testimony to the craftsmanship in their design and construction is that Monterey Clippers had no caulking between their butt jointed hull planks. It is a precise wood to wood interference fit made watertight by the expansion of the plank dimensions as it absorbs moisture. A Monterey which has been sitting at a dock for a while will leak until it gets splashed water on the planks that are above the waterline which happens when it goes to sea.
Below: the beautiful lines of the basic Monterey Clipper hull can be seen in this drawing
I ended up fishing on larger boats including steel vessels that fished the mid Pacific between Midway Island and Japan. I crewed with Stan Davis on the Laura Lee II and the Nightwind and learned a ton from him. What I learned is that highliners are human "big data" supercomputers. They observe, memorize and correlate a million things then figure out relationships between the facts in their cerebral database. They learn patterns. They decode linked causes of seemingly unrelated sequential events. I paid attention to water color, but the highliners looked at it in a far more complex way. I just noted whether it was brown, green or blue and knew that dark green was generally better than any other color. The highliners knew where the color breaks were, what the current was doing, and what it all meant during this time of year in this particular location. I tended to stay where I had good fishing. Highliners would often run at night to a new location up or down the line because they knew the salmon school would move. The next morning they were on the fish and I was setting my gear at yesterdays hot spot.
I found out that I didn't have that special highliner talent. It can't be taught if you don't have the basic instincts to begin with and I didn't have them. I did observe first hand how it works and how it pays off. I did learn how to fish better and, as a result, had really good days now and then with respectable catches. But the highliners would have many more really good days. One thing I noted about highliners: they were all smart, really smart. By smart I mean high intelligence, not necessarily higher education. I thought I was smart too, but something was missing, the crucial ingredient that separated the highliners from the "others". Even though I was schooled by one of the very best, I remained one of the "others", better informed than before, a better fisherman for sure, but still far below the coveted highliner status.
Stan Davis was a highliner, a top producer. He knocked em regularly. So did a bunch of Bodega guys like the Carpenters, the Burkes, the Ames, the Daniels, etc. Ft. Bragg had some major talent too: Sonny Maas, Charlie White, Bill "Lumpy" Escola, Bobby Cox, and many others whose names I will add when I can recall them or some reader reminds me. Fisherman's Wharf had plenty of big producers including Dom and Phil Battaglia, the Pomillias, Lou Ferrari, Johnny T, Skeeter, Chico, Candy, Frank Damato, Albie and Vince Spadaro and others. Mike McHenry out of HMB was one of the all time greats. Mike McHenry, Geno Law and the rest of the Z Squad killed em regularly, even catching huge Kings in Oregon trolling split tail Bodega style herring baits deep and slow in unfamiliar territory that was mostly yielding Silvers to the locals.trolling painted spoons higher up. Mike McHenry made a fortune as a squid highliner, but salmon trolling was the fishery that he enjoyed the most. Moss landing, Eureka and Crescent City had some killer highliners too and if readers will remind me of their names I'd be happy to add them here. Ones that I recall were David and Lonnie Suggs, Bobby Burchell, Roy Myking and Billy Murtha.
Coincidentally Stan and I ended up in the same law school class at U.C. Hastings in SF after graduating from college. It was a real surprise as neither of us knew the other was applying. Both our fathers were fishermen. We saw each other on the docks in Bodega, Albion and Fort Bragg, but never talked about school. A lot of fishermen's sons dropped out of school so it just wasn't something you talked about. It was a huge relief to have a fellow commercial fisherman in my class to act as an antidote to the stuck up cutthroat backstabbing ambition that so many law students exhibited. We just didn't get into that rat race. Stan and I went through all three years of law school together fishing salmon and albacore during the summer breaks while our classmates were "angling" for summer clerkship spots in prestigious law firms. Fortunately we both passed the tough 1975 California Bar exam (then 3 days long with a 57% failure rate) on the first try but Stan stayed at sea and I chose the easier land path. Stan is smart as hell and a really great guy. I was deeply honored that he chose me to be the best man at his wedding. We remain very close friends to this day. We kid each other about our career choices. Sometimes I think he made the better one. His choice was certainly the harder of the two available. I get a regular paycheck. The weather and fishing conditions have no effect on the amount I earn. I sleep in a warm dry bed every night. Still, I crave for a return to fishing and I know for sure that Stan doesn't crave a desk job. As I write this he is off the NW Pacific coast chasing tuna with live bait and racks while I daydream of bird schools and jumping albacore.
Although I've fished on far more substantial, comfortable and capable boats, the Monterey has a special place in my heart. It is, without a doubt, the most eye pleasing small fishing boat ever made. Its crucial role in early west coast fishing earns it a well deserved deserved place in maritime history . There are still a few berthed at Fisherman's Wharf and they are worth a careful look on a sunny day. Their lines and curves appeal to everyone, not just fishermen or boat enthusiasts.
Fishermans Wharf is not all about restaurants and souvenir shops. The Wharf is still a working fishing port with drag boats, herring gill netters, crabbers, salmon trollers and long liners. The wooden ones with a beautiful clipper type flared bows are the Montereys. They were made by Italian immigrants and had their roots in Mediterranean hull designs. Some of them were built 80 years ago and still earn a living. Fish are still unloaded at pier 45, often early in the morning while you sleep.
Many fishermen who have departed the Wharf never returned, long before the dangers of commercial fishing became glorified on the Discovery Channel. One incident is burned into my mind. A Wharf based boat full of albacore tuna was sinking off Half Moon Bay at night in a storm during the 1960s. It was beyond the reach of Coast Guard helicopters and could not stay afloat long enough to be reached by other boats. They had no life raft. The crew radioed that they were closing the doors and "going down with the ship". With all the bloody tuna aboard they knew they would be shark food if they tried to stay afloat in life jackets. The bodies and the boat were never found.
In 1986 the Fishermans Wharf based dragger Jack Jr. was run down by a tanker off Pt Reyes with the loss of the entire crew. In that tragedy, the skipper's last words, captured in an emergency radio transmission later replayed on news broadcasts, were, "Oh, my God, you're going to hit us!" The tanker kept right on going and never even stopped or searched for survivors. The captain of the tanker was charged with a crime in federal court but got off on a legal technicality.
The Fishermans Wharf based dragger St Francis was struck by a freighter near the Golden Gate Bridge in 1994 with only one crewman surviving.
In 2002 the Reliance was sunk by a freighter that never stopped to help. The link below mentions this and many similar incidents.
In 2004 the dragger Relentless disappeared inbound to SF with all hands, not a trace was ever found. many suspect that it was run down by a freighter that just kept going, not stopping to help or search for survivors.
The list goes on and on. Fishing is a dangerous trade and too many fishermen don't live to see retirement. Its not only Bering Sea King Crabbers on the Discovery Channel that face extreme danger. There is plenty of danger and tragedy close to home.
Next time you are at the Wharf, take a good look at the boats. There are sport fishing boats and a few pleasure boats, but there are still a number of hard working fishing boats which call Fisherman's Wharf home. Today they have radar, GPS, life rafts, satellite distress beacons and other devices to improve safety, yet danger still claims lives and boats in the seas off SF. Next time you are down at the Wharf, pay some respect to those who paid the ultimate price to put fresh fish on your plates. Their names are on a plaque in front of the little chapel on the pier straight across the water from Scomas.
I fished with my Dad out of the Wharf during the 60s. We had no radar and no life raft, couldn't afford either one. How we went from the Wharf to the Farallon Islands and Pt Reyes, time after time in the dark and in pea soup fog without getting run down by the numerous freighters that come in and out of SF still amazes me. Later, when I skippered a boat that had radar, I had to use it frequently for collision avoidance in the fog. I just don't see how we survived without it. My Dad was an eternal optimist. For him the glass was always half full. He just figured we would be OK in spite of all the high risks. Someone was surely watching out for us.
My favorite fishing area was the Farallon Islands, 27 miles straight out from the Golden Gate. There is something ghostly about the Farallons. I spent a lot of time fishing in that area and anchoring right up close to the main island in Fisherman's Cove at night. They are primordial in the extreme. The sight, sound (zillions of screeching birds and barking seals and belching sea lions) and smell (not pleasant, those zillions of birds and marine mammals do not use toilets) are unique. The image of those prehistoric islands looming out of the fog as you approach them is straight out of Jurassic Park, the sea version. You expect a Pterodactyl to soar over your boat with a wriggling fish in its beak and a Megalodon to be cruising the island's edges, looking for something huge to eat.
Read The Devils Teeth (a best selling non fiction book) if you want to get a "feel" for the islands. It is a bit over the top (ghosts in the old lighthouse buildings) but the author's descriptions of the eerie atmosphere ring true. Fishermen rarely use the word Farallons. They are just referred to as "the islands". The Farallons' poor cousins are the uninhabited North Farallon Islands which rise nearly straight up from the sea and have never had human inhabitants due to extreme access problems. Use Google Earth and take a look at the Isle of St James in the North Farallon chain if you want to see a savage place. Fish, mammals and birds abound around the Farallons. White Sharks abound too during certain times of year, especially when seals are giving birth. We very occasionally saw close up shark attacks on seals. It wasn't something we saw often, maybe twice in a decade, but it made a deep and long lasting impression. Even though you were in the comfort of a boat, it was bone chilling to watch. You were witnessing at close range the violent bloody fate that awaited you if you sank in "Mr White's" territory. The sharks we saw at the Islands were big (12-15 ft) and they moved fast when they grabbed a seal. We had only life jackets. We could not afford a life raft, radar or other such safety enhancing devices back then.
My Dad proudly taught me his trade, but he made me promise him that I'd fish only as means to finance an education, not as a lifelong career. He wanted better things for me. I grew up on commercial fishing boats and spent most summers at sea, starting at age eleven. I entered the trade at the very bottom working the deck and gutting fish. I wanted to work my way up from deckhand as fast as I possibly could. I wanted to be up in the warm dry wheelhouse having a glass of red wine after we anchored, not freezing wet, working on the deck, covered with fish guts and blood.
My Dad was very supportive, but told me I had to earn my captain's spot from someone else. He had no intention of letting me have my first command on his boat. He knew that my credibility and credentials as a skipper would not be solid if I ran a family boat. I went to work scouring the fleet for a good seaworthy boat and an old owner who didn't want to go back to sea the next season. My youthful optimism amazes me now. I would never have leased a boat to a kid like me. I somehow managed to find someone kind enough to entrust a big commercial boat to a kid. I started skippering leased boats at age 17. I paid nothing up front, just a percentage of the catch. My Dad got a big kick out of the fact that his kid was skippering a boat substantially larger than his own.I was often the target of good natured teasing from older fishermen because of my young age. I occasionally imagined myself as a near equal to the old salts but they obviously didn't share my inflated opinion. That was made crystal clear when some would address me: "hey Baby Captain". It was all good hearted and the old guys really helped me a lot, telling me about local uncharted snags and hazards, where to get needed parts and gear, etc. I was too young to go into the rough waterfront bars and drink with the other fishermen, but that might have actually been a blessing. Thankfully it all worked out. No disasters occurred on my watch and I earned a respectable living as a young skipper.
My judgment, however, was that of a kid and it showed sometimes. Once I tried going down the Albion River during a slight outgoing tide and realized almost immediately that I had too little steering control to make it out successfully at a slow safe speed. I slammed it into hard reverse as I neared the end of the tie up dock and fortunately Al Winters of the Jean D was there to catch a line and tie me off. He shook his head and mumbled a few choice words about my stupidity. The look on his face said far more than any further scolding or ridicule could have accomplished. Lesson learned, fortunately without anything breaking or sinking.
Later I was fishing the Cordell Bank off Pt. Reyes and in the company of a very elite group of Bodega Bay highliners. I kept my distance, kept my mouth shut and didn't crowd their tacks. I was getting a few big salmon. I found that as I got closer to a gear threatening underwater spike of rocks, my catch rate increased. I started cutting it closer and closer, relying on my fathometer to keep me out of trouble. There was a current running which moved every tack a bit closer to the hazard, but I thought I could compensate for it with minor course corrections and avoid "hanging up" (snagging my trolled gear). Earl Carpenter, a highly respected fisherman elder, called me on the radio and just said, "watch it over there Mark, been a lot of lead lost just inside of you." I thanked him and kept fishing the same way, right on the edge, pulling six really big fish in a single tack right next to this high spot. Looking back on it, that was an act of disrespect. A wise man at the very top of the fleet pecking order had been gracious enough to warn me... and I ignored his counsel.
Long story short, I kept pushing the limit and cut it just a little too close on one pass. I hung up my gear on the rocks and broke off both expensive bow line leads. I was lucky that I didn't break both trolling poles and bend my steel davits down to the deck. I quickly turned away from the Bodega gang, hoping nobody would see the now slack bowline springs on my poles. I am sure that the attempt to conceal my mistake was futile. Highliners see everything. They see every bird, every tide rip, and keep track of who is fishing where and what tacks they are making. One reason they catch so much more than the average is that they know, from years of observing, what data correlates with hot fishing. Just my quick turn was enough to tell them I had screwed up. Earl Carpenter was probably telling his deck hand "Look over there, Mark just hung up. I warned him but he wouldn't listen." There was a reason the highliners were fishing where they were and a reason where I was fishing where I was. The difference was their maturity and my lack of seasoned judgment. You just cant instantly learn wisdom and sound judgment when you are a kid. It takes time, a lot of time, and even then some people never get it. I now regret having acted so immaturely, but there were no lasting hard feelings. As I grew up, I had a chance to return a few favors and everything balanced out just fine. .
With subsequent seasons I learned more lessons and finally started to learn how to effectively assess and manage risks. In my shore job I do a lot of that, but it's all about intellectual property and high tech business transactions rather than ocean bottom topography, old work boats, fish movements and weather. The lessons learned at sea, however, have served me well in my shore job. On an old fishing boat there are always new problems and an ever increasing list of items needing repair. If you fixed every problem as it appeared you couldn't catch enough fish to make a living. You learned to prioritize, to assess what really mattered, what mattered less and what didn't matter much at all. You learned to apportion effort efficiently. You learned that some risks were never worth taking. You learned a lot about preventative maintenance, ways to prevent or forestall problems. It was a lot easier to prime and paint a steel part than deal with a badly rusted item later. It was easier to regularly grease a pillow block shaft bearing than deal with a seized one later. You learned to draw a diagram of something you were taking apart rather than trying to guess how to reassemble it later. You also learned how to read people, who you could trust and who you had to keep a wary eye on. In selecting crew, you were literally betting your life on who you signed on. You had to learn how to choose right and get people to work together as a cohesive team under very tough conditions. I've always managed to put together a good crew in fishing and in running law departments for public companies. I've developed a sense for who has the right skills, good judgment and can be trusted. That was learned at sea, not behind a desk but it has been invaluable in the corporate world.
When it came time to choose a college and start thinking about a major, my Dad handed me a newspaper and instructed me to read the employment ads. "Why?" I asked. "Just read them Mark" he replied. When I had finished he asked: "see any ads for historians or political scientists... see any for anthropologists? His point was made. My Dad was very proud when I graduated with an electrical engineering degree from UC Berkeley with honors. I did learn a lot of shore-job relevant skills in seven years of university training, but I learned just as much if not more on the water. I wouldn't trade that fishing experience for anything. It gave me confidence as well. If I could run a commercial fishing boat out of SF in thick fog, without radar and without any nav aids, catch fish offshore and get me and my crew home safely, I figured I could handle risk, adversity and work effectively with thin resources whether at sea or on the shore.
My Dad taught me a lot about how to interact with people. He was a very open and kind person. He would talk to just about anyone. He often conversed with homeless guys around Fisherman's Wharf and I listened to many fascinating conversations with people who were "invisible" to most who passed them on the street self consciously pretending not to see them. My Dad was homeless during the Great Depression. He developed a wary distrust for cops starting then. Cops beat homeless people back then to run them out of "respectable" towns where they went door to door seeking odd jobs to get enough to eat. He was on the wrong end of a brutally wielded nightstick a few times and he never forgot it. My Dad was rescued from abject poverty by enrollment in FDR's CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps. He got a little pay, 3 square meals, clean clothes, new shoes and a brighter outlook on life. He and his fellow CCC workers built dams, roads and trails for the federal government. He told me that anyone can fall on hard times and you should remember that when you are tempted to shun someone or ignore them just because they look shabby. His compassion was born from experience on the other end of the prosperity spectrum.
My Dad was a left leaning liberal, but he didn't like something-for-nothing welfare for able bodied people. He strongly believed that people needed to work to have pride, self esteem and stay out of the kind of trouble that idleness can foster. He often wished that the CCC model had survived the depression and would provide jobs to anyone who needed one. He hired more than a few down and out pan handlers for a few hours to do some minor work on our boat, like sanding, painting or cleaning. He paid them a fair wage too. One guy, a down and out former merchant marine sailor named Bill, turned out to have great rigging skills. He worked for several days replacing all our galvanized steel wire rope rigging with new stainless steel cables. He taught me how to neatly splice wire rope and we did away with all our kludged cable clamps. Bill was very grateful to have this small job and it gave him the boost he needed to clean up and look for work. He ended up landing a full time job and would drop by once in a while to chat with my Dad. My Dad had a big heart. He scorned the professional beggars at the Wharf but had deep compassion for those who were truly down and out. He felt especially bad for the mentally ill street people who didn't even beg, but rummaged through trash cans for food. He often gave them freshly made sandwiches and for those too psychotic to interact with him, he would put a bagged meal down near them and then left them alone to "find" it. That always worked. We didn't have much money but he always gave to charities which he thought really helped people rather than those which spent most of their budget on big exec salaries, fund raising and marketing. He took me by St. Anthony's Diner in SF, where free hot meals were served to the needy. My Dad donated to this charity and I do too, even to this day.
I was in Bodega Bay CA one summer afternoon in the early 1970s refueling a commercial fishing boat that I was skippering, one considerably larger than a Monterey. I had just unloaded 2400 pounds of beautiful King (Chinook) salmon and I was getting $3.15 a pound. I'd love to say that that was a day's catch but it took me four days to catch that much. The fish were plentiful that year off of Pt Reyes, the Farallon Islands and Bodega Bay. Diesel fuel was dirt cheap. Times were good, really good. The Tides Fuel Dock man was named Jerry. Jerry, clad in dirty greasy coveralls, noticed an aviation magazine lying on a hatch cover. There was a B-47 Stratojet bomber on the cover. He asked me if I knew what kind of plane was on the cover and I answered" yes, that's a B-47." I wondered why this older tattered looking man was asking. "I used to fly B 47s" he said. Although it seemed highly improbable, I took him at his word and inquired further. He was a retired USAF Lt. Col. and had indeed been a B-47 and later a T-39 pilot in General Curtis LeMay's Strategic Air Command. Jerry had many interesting tales to tell, especially about landing the B-47. It had early unresponsive turbojet engines so Boeing developed a small drag chute that was deployed on approach. The extra drag allowed the pilot to run the 6 engines at higher power settings where they had better throttle to turbine spool up response times. Being an aviation nut I just drank it up. Here was a guy who most fishermen thought was just a marine gas station attendant when in fact he had been an aircraft commander on USAF SAC nuclear bombers. My Dad had always told me: "Don't make snap judgments about people based on their appearance. You never know who they are or what they have experienced until you talk with them for a while." My Dad was right and I try to practice what he taught me even today.
My Dad loved the Farallon Islands and told me that when he died, he wanted his ashes put right where we always anchored in a fjord like inlet called Fisherman's Cove. He was an environmentalist before his time. We never tossed any plastic or toxic litter overboard and never pumped our bilges anywhere near the islands. Sea lions near the islands used to pull salmon right off our gear which absolutely enraged me, but my Dad kept a cool head. I actually obtained a federal permit to kill marine mammals if they interfered with our fishing gear and begged my Dad to put a rifle on the boat, but he just kept putting it off and I finally got the message. One day when I was throwing a fit as sea lions took fish after fish off our gear, my Dad said:" cool down Mark, we'll be OK, it's their ocean too." I got that message too. I still do not like sea lions, even today. Old grudges die hard. I think their population needs significant thinning to preserve endangered wild salmon runs, but I am not a scientist or an ocean ecosystem expert.
The Farallons are a true "lost world" that is only about 27 miles from SF, but a million years back in time. The Farallons are burned into my psyche. They resonate with some primitive archetype that is encoded in my brain. The islands show up in my dreams. I think about them even when I am working at my "shore job" which is what my Dad called any job that was done away from a boat. Perhaps my father felt a similar pull from the islands as he chose them for his final resting place. Under good stewardship, the islands will flourish, but they do not need to be over regulated and that's what is being done now. The rules are myriad and confusing. The government chart of the SE Farallon Island has color coded prohibited/restricted zones that overlap and follow tortuous paths. It's pretty clear that the feds and the eco folks would prefer that we simply stay away from "their" islands. I cannot even legally anchor in close at Fisherman's Cove any longer which is just absurd.
My Dad passed away in the late 70s. He had his boat hauled out at Allemand Bros shipyard in Hunters point and was painting the bottom. At the end of the day he took a Muni bus to North Beach and started the walk up hill to his apartment. He told his wife that he was not feeling well and she called an ambulance. It turned out that he had suffered a severe heart attack part way up the hill but stubbornly completed his steep walk home. My brothers and I visited him in the hospital and he was really glad to see us all together. He truly wasn't afraid of dying and remarked about what a good life he had lived. We and he knew his chances of survival were slim, too much myocardial damage had been suffered. After a few days and an unsuccessful attempt to implant a temporary pacemaker, my Dad passed away at age 67.
On an unusually calm day in June, and after catching a few hundred pounds of King Salmon fishing right next to the main island, I pulled his old wooden boat into the cove at sunset and put my Dad's ashes right where he wanted them. He would have liked that; a few hundred pounds of fish iced in the hold, calm weather and a night peacefully anchored in Fisherman's Cove.
I fished during summers starting at age 11 and continued fishing to earn my way through seven years of post high school education. I have a great "shore job", something that would have really pleased my Dad. I still have an active commercial salmon permit (new permits are no longer issued) and intend to fish when I retire. I won't take the same chances I did when I was younger, but I like working at sea and want to resume what seems like an interrupted occupational journey. If I can eek out a modest retirement living doing it, then all the better. I was very close to my father. I literally miss him every day. He is gone now, but commercial fishing makes me feel like he is still around, looking over my shoulder.
Below: SE Farallon Island, called The Main Island by fishermen.
As you circle the main island on a sport fishing, whale watching or environmental cruise, tip your hat to my Dad, Ted Meltzer. He loved the place, taught me to love it and he now rests there eternally in Fisherman's Cove. There is no Fisherman's Cove marked on the NOAA Farallon Island charts, but nearly every commercial fisherman on the north coast knows exactly where it is. It is at the upper end of a larger area marked as Fisherman Bay. You probably need a zillion permits and an environmental impact study to put human ashes there now. I am pretty sure you needed permits when I did it and I am equally sure my application would have been rejected. There was absolutely no way I was going to let bureaucracy or rules prevent me from carrying out my Dad's wishes about his final resting place. My Dad was really anti authoritarian and hated bureaucracies. It would have pleased him greatly to know that we didn't ask bureaucrats for permission, didn't get any permits, but just did what was right.
prize fight on the radio, circa 1953. My Dad was a Rocky Marciano
fan so of course I was too. I wasn't really smoking, but I sure enjoyed
those times together. He was a good man and I miss him a lot.
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