My uncle John Hurwitz, who wrote this column since 2006, passed away after a heart attack at the age of 78 in Las Vegas on April 25, 2021.
Born in 1942, he lived a fascinating life and enjoyed a long career as a commercial fisherman. Before writing for Fishermen’s News, he wrote for Pacific Fishing. Uncle John’s stories, co-authored by his wife, Irene, were a lively recollection of their days in West Coast commercial fishing.
My uncle always seemed larger than life when I was growing up, and his adventures were like a Hollywood movie. His father, a US Marine, served in the Pacific during WWII and after the war was stationed along with his family in Japan. It was there that “Skip”, as the family called my uncle, first fell in love with fishing with his older brother, my dad Buzz.
Eventually the family relocated to Twentynine Palms, California when their dad became Sergeant Major of the USMC base. After some shenanigans as a wild teenager, John enlisted in the Army and shipped off to Vietnam. I once asked him how it was over there, and he simply said “it was great.” That was my uncle, reckless bravado combined with dry wit.
After coming home, John headed to San Francisco to collect on a debt from an overseas poker game, a small bar in the Richmond District. To his surprise, the proprietor willingly handed over the keys and John began his first career. It was there in 1966 he met Irene Marie Brown, a beautiful blonde who came into his bar canvassing for a local candidate. Four months later the two exchanged vows and began a 55-year marriage between a Republican and a Democrat.
The two soon became a dynamic business duo, buying struggling nightclubs across the city, reviving them and selling for a profit. There were other ventures along the way, racehorses, restaurants, real estate … as a young boy I looked forward to seeing what kind of sports car or hot rod they would arrive in for family gatherings. I reveled in the stories of their exploits and was awed by the two, who seemed more like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean than my aunt and uncle.
In 1969, our family had escaped the smog of L.A. for the small town of Pt. Arena in Northern California. Soon after, my dad found a small boat and started trolling salmon. Hearing Buzz had discovered a way to make a living by fishing, it wasn’t long before John and Irene bought their first boat, the f/v Alice E, a 30-foot Monterey in Fort Bragg. My uncle was enthralled with every aspect of his new endeavor, and soon realized he had found the passion of his life: commercial fishing.
In that first year with the Alice E, John met his mentor and best friend, Keith Magnani from Florence, Oregon, and the two began chasing salmon and tuna up and down the West Coast. A few years later, suddenly caught in a violent fall storm, they sought shelter in Port Orford, but Keith’s boat lost power while trying to set anchor. John tried to tow the boat from danger, but the winds were too fierce, and Keith and his deckhand were forced to abandon ship. Setting his anchor, John and his nephew Paul were able to save the deckhand but sadly, Keith succumbed to the sea.
Over the years John and Irene had an impressive roster of boats, from the stout little Kettenburg, f/v Zachary M to the offshore tuna rig f/v North Cape. In 1982, on the long run into Moss Landing at the end of a tuna trip, the North Cape broached in steep seas on a dark night, rolled over and quickly sank. John and his crew were miraculously saved by the Coast Guard and flown to the hospital in Fort Ord, California. Amongst the other boats, was the f/v Randi, a strong and beautiful 47-foot Sagstad on which I crewed for John and my dad for crabs while in college in 1984. In 2010, my wife Heidi and I bought the Randi, by then renamed the Seastar, fishing it together for 10 years up and down the West Coast and Alaska.
Uncle John had an encyclopedic memory and could remember the details of a salmon tack or the exact weight of a crab delivery many years later. He was smart about many things, including buying fishing boats. With his background in business, my uncle knew how to make a deal, and whenever I was considering moving up to a bigger boat or buying a house, I always called them for advice.
In 1986, John and Irene’s only child and my cousin, John Paul (JP) was born. Meanwhile, John was hitting bottom with his drinking. He entered the VA rehab program in Martinez, California and achieved sobriety when JP was 5 years old and stayed sober ever since. He became a drug and alcohol counselor a few years later. In 1997, I hit bottom from addiction and John was there to help guide me into rehab and a life free of drugs and alcohol. He was there as well for my wife Heidi early in her recovery and career as a drug and alcohol counselor.
In 2001, John suddenly lost most of his eyesight from temporal arteritis, but amazingly, he continued to captain their last boat, the Irene Marie, out of Half Moon Bay, California until retiring in 2013. Helping John run the boat those years was his close friend, Bill Meendering, an actual rocket scientist turned crab fisherman. Along with other local fishermen, John and Irene started selling their catch off the boat to the public, helping make dockside sales the Bay Area phenomenon and lucrative enterprise it is for fishermen today. John, an experienced salesman and gifted storyteller, was a natural, and the Irene Marie became a popular destination.
Although we are deeply saddened by his passing, John’s family and friends are also deeply grateful for the many years we shared with him. He taught us to accept and embrace life for what it is, a big wild adventure. His stories and sense of humor will be forever with us. He was extremely proud of his son John Paul who followed him to sea as a marine researcher for Scripps Institution of Oceanography. My uncle loved recounting stories of JP’s voyages from Alaska to Antarctica.
Before scrambling radios, the fleet used code to share reports. I loved what John said to let his partners know he was getting ‘em: he’d simply report, “The Eagle has landed.” Now that the Eagle has landed in his final resting place, John will finally reunite with his best friend and running partner, Keith.
Sail on, Uncle John, you have “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.” But for all of us, who have enjoyed this adventure with you, your memory will always be a blessing.
Ben Platt, f/v Miss Heidi, Crescent City, Calif.