I first started crab fishing in San Francisco in 1957. The next summer, I fished for salmon with my brother “Fooz” on the boat Garnet. It was a very poor salmon season, but we were able to keep food on the table for our families and put a little in the bank, too.
I leased the boat Fairway for that crab season, then I bought the boat Linda, a 33-foot, San Francisco-made boat the next salmon season. It was an old wooden boat, but had a reputation as a good sea boat. It had a Lathrup Marine gas engine in it and ran well, but had a gear-driven 6 volt, 6 amp generator on it. That really does not put out enough for much more than keeping the engine running. And with an automatic pilot and running lights at nighttime, it was not enough.
So come that crab season, I felt I could not go to San Francisco with the bigger boats that were going there to crab, a 36-to-42-hour run. At that time, during early November in Oregon, the crab season opened on the 15th of November and in Crescent City, Calif. on the 1st of December. So I thought I could get in a couple of weeks crabbing in Oregon before returning to Northern California.
My crew member Ed Stoker and I set the crab gear in Pelican Bay to deliver into Brookings, Ore. I had brought the boat to Crescent City to do some work on it and left there one day for Pelican Bay to pull the crab gear. That day it was quite rough out, and I decided to stop early and check the bar going into Brookings. If it was not good, I’d have time to head south to Crescent City before dark.
Getting close to the entrance, Ed and I did not like the looks of the bad bar, but every once in a while, it calmed down. While we were looking out the front windows of the pilot house, I did not realize that the waves were pushing the boat closer to shore. The next time it calmed down I was going to go for it, but I thought I had better close the back door to the pilot house.
When I turned around to do that, I saw a monster wave just about to hit the boat. When it hit, it put the mast into the water and carried the boat toward shore quite a ways. I moved very fast into the forecastle to get two old World War II-era and very moldy life jackets—canvas over cork. I knew we were in trouble.
The next wave turned the boat completely over. Lots of noise, with dinnerware and pots and pans and us, all rolling around while the boat was upside down. The boat did come back up in the right position, but it was full of water and only the front part of the boat was above sea level.
Ed and I made it to the bow post, sticking out of the bow deck, but we weren’t there very long when another big wave washed us off. It was so rough in those big waves that not much swimming took place. When a big comber would hit me, it was a tumble over and over, taking me deep into the water. I kept my eyes open so that I could see the bright light of day above and would swim for that. Coming out, I had just enough time for about two deep breathes and over I would go again.
After 14 of those big waves I finally could reach bottom. Walking toward the dry land, I was surprised how weak I was. Maybe the 43 degree water did not help. And just as Ed almost made it to shore, one more big wave hit him and it blew the old rotten life jacket to bits. He was lucky it did not happen sooner though, and so he did make it all the way to dry land. I was also lucky that mine stayed together.
Ed had a heart problem, so I was able to get some help, and get him to a doctor’s office. I also called my wife and asked her to bring me some dry clothes and get Ed some dry clothes, too. In the end, Ed and I both made it out okay.
We also made the front page of my hometown newspaper, the Del Norte Triplicate, on Nov. 26, 1959, under the headline “Fishermen Cheat Death in Chetco Boat Wreck.”
I was 29 years old and new to fishing, but in good shape, which I think help me at the time. The boat Linda, however, was a total wreck. So it was a lesson learned, and eventually I did get another boat and start over.
Richard Evanow is a retired fisherman. He entered the commercial fishing industry in the late 1950s after a stint in the Navy, and for 31 years, he fished professionally from San Francisco to West Port, Wash. while based in his hometown of Crescent City, Calif.