Me, the Sea & the Frances E

Frances E
The 48-foot fishing vessel Frances E.

It was the month of October and I was salmon fishing out of Coos Bay, Oregon.

At the time I owned a 34-foot salmon boat. Although the season was about over, I was day fishing and catching eight or 10 salmon a day. Days were getting short and I knew it was wise to head for my home port of Crescent City, Calif.

On this particular day, I quit early and after delivering my salmon, I tied up in an empty slip. There was a bigger fishing boat on the other side of the float with a “For Sale” sign in the window.

I needed a bigger boat as I was crab fishing in the winter. My vessel at that time was not a very good boat for crab fishing. I was fishing 38-inch traps and could only get seven traps in the fish hold at once.

The for-sale boat was a 48-foot vessel with lots of open stern deck, good for crab fishing. I could get maybe 120 traps on that boat. So, after talking to the owner who was aboard, we came to an agreement: they would take my boat, the Siesta as trade, along with a pocket full of money.

Days later, I headed out early in the morning. I really didn’t know how fast this boat would go, but like most boats, eight or nine miles-per-hour is about it. Thinking ahead, I figured it should take me about 13 hours to get to Crescent City.

The f/v Frances E had an APN 9 Loran; I was used to an APN 4. Although they were both surplus, they did read different. In getting ready to head south, I didn’t write down the different procedure of reading a 9. My bad. The Frances E had a Furuno paper recorder Fathometer—I had never seen one before. I had opened the front and was checking out the “deep” from the “shallow” readings. It also had a “slow” and “fast” switch on the outside of the housing, also there were two pulleys inside.

Each had a small groove and a bigger groove; you had to put the belt on which one you wanted. One way was for fast reading (shallow) and the other grove was for slow (deep reading). It did seem to be working well, though.

As I went past Cape Blanco, Blanco looked a long way in there. I also couldn’t see Fox Rock buoy, which was in 60 fathoms. All was going well, so I just dismissed the fact that I couldn’t see the buoy.

Later, when I was a bit north of Brookings, Ore., fog set in. It was super thick. “I am close to home,” I thought. “I know these waters. I will go into 11 fathoms and go through Point St. George Reef Pass until I come to the whistle buoy off Crescent City harbor.”

I had done this before, so no big deal. All of a sudden, the Furuno paper recorder was showing rocks under the boat. Now if I had had a “flasher” fathometer, I might have missed it, but with a paper recorder, it draws a good picture of the bottom that you are going over. This picture was not what I was wanting to see.

So, there it was; it showed a big rock. “There are no rocks in 11 fathoms,” I thought. I know this area. But I am in rocks for sure though, and so I headed west-southwest for deeper water, I did not go far when a rock came up under the boat to where there was no reading between the bottom of the transducer and the top of the rock.

I quickly put the clutch in neutral, hoping to not damage the propeller. No sooner was I past that rock when the bottom showed very flat. No rocks. I brought the boat to a stop and went up on the bow and released the anchor.

By the time I was back in the pilot house, I was shaking like a tree leaf in a hurricane. I was shaken to the core, for sure. Super thick fog, dark and I’m in a rock pile somewhere. I am lost. I do not know where I am.

One thing at least, is that I’m safe for the time being. It was good that I had enough sense to stop right where ever I was, as I was still floating without any damage to the boat. I leave the fathom meter running; it shows 11 fathoms in a flat bottom.

After about an hour and a half, I decided to shut the engine down. I stuck my head out of the pilot house door and I hear sea lions barking. I now know where I am. There are always sea lions on Southwest Seal Rock.

I’m not in 11 fathoms, but in 22 fathoms, right in the middle of St. George Reef. I stayed anchored overnight, and after the sun came up and did away with most of the fog, I headed for Crescent City harbor. When I was anchored, I was about 70 feet from SW Seal Rock, a rock that’s perhaps 50 feet wide, 100 feet long and sticks about eight feet out of the water. I’ve never gone past this rock without seeing sea lions on it.

If I hadn’t stopped when I did, I would’ve busted the bow of that 45-year-old wooden boat and the boat would have sunk. I had no life raft or lifeboat of any kind, and if the sea lions had not eaten me, I would have died of hypothermia.

The morning after, I made sure the fathom recorder was running at the right speed to give me true depth. I waited until the fog burned off, headed northwest for a short time, then turned southwest until I was in true 50 fathoms and then headed east until I came to Crescent City harbor.

My dad was on the dock pacing, waiting for me to show. He helped me tie up and then said, “when it was so terrible foggy, I figured you would anchor up someplace until daylight came.” I said “yes, that is just what I did.” I never told him the whole story about the day before.

This happened in 1962. For 58 years I had never told anyone about this happening to me. It was stupidity on my part, and maybe that is why I never told anyone. It should have never happened like it did.

I can say I was lucky. Yet it must have really scared me, because even after 59 years, I can still remember that night as if it had just happened yesterday.

Richard Evanow
Richard Evanow

Richard Evanow, a retired fisherman, entered the commercial fishing industry in the late 1950s after a stint in the Navy. For 31 years, he fished professionally from San Francisco to West Port, Wash. while based in his hometown of Crescent City, Calif.