- Mendocino County
- Anderson Valley
by Miguel Lanigan, July 13, 2016
When I was earning my living fishing, I, just as you, got pretty good at predicting weather by looking at clouds, waves, the behavior of birds, and wind direction. But, what I really set my clock by was Betancourt, an old-timer fisherman whose arthritic hands and knees never failed to tell us when weather was upon us. I only fished the big boats a few times, preferring to fish the small boats of the “mosquito fleet” – twenty to thirty feet in length. So, for us, it was even more critical that we not get caught too far off shore, or too far down the coast away from the safety of our harbor. One of the mosquito fleet guys was Admiral Bullshit – I forget his given name, no one used it anyway. He was an alcoholic survivor of the massacre of most of his unit in Vietnam. He was a unique and ballsy guy, but his courage and hardheadedness sometimes put him, his deckhand and boat at risk. One morning I was working on rebuilding my little boat I had named “VOLT” in the Village Boat yard.
A few boats over from me the Admiral came out of his tool shed, fired up a chain saw and began sawing the wheelhouse off his boat. This, of course, aroused the curiosity among us water folk, but in our little costal village, Princeton by the Sea, people were all the times doing weird shit, so we watched and debated. He finished chopping it down to deck level, then began replacing it with a very small, but sturdy built, wheelhouse just big enough for two people to stand in side by side. It now was a weird looking boat: all hull with this tiny conning tower of a wheelhouse. For reasons, known only to him, he painted the boat a vivid bright yellow from stem to stern including the telephone booth like wheelhouse. When she slid down the boat launch tracks into the harbor, she immediately was dubbed “The Yellow Submarine” and was known throughout the fishing fleet by that name for as long as I was still in the harbor. Later on it was proven prophetic. . . . It was winter fishing and the albacore tuna were running 120 miles off Half Moon Bay. Many of the big-boat guys, and several of the mosquito fleet, stripped the salmon gear from their boats, rigged for albacore trolling, and motored out to fish for these incredibly beautiful albacore tuna. The Admiral, and his hard drinking deckhand Slim, rigged up the Yellow Submarine and followed the big guys out to where the money swam in what was reported to be a very large school of fish. After twelve hours running, they found the tuna and dropped the gear. To their delight, the tuna were ravenous; the storm had put the fish into a feeding frenzy and they jumped on the hooks as soon as they hit the water. Slim and the Admiral pulled and pulled till their hands bled, but they didn’t mind, they were having orgasms of monetary dreams coming true, as they filled their hold with albacore dollar bills. Greed pushed caution aside; they kept on pulling in dollar bills long after they should have pulled their gear and run for safety.
They didn’t heed the increasing wind, which by now had shifted to the southwest and was pushing the ugly, black storm right at them. We all knew that ugly storm was coming from reading the clouds, the gulls running for cover, the barometer falling, the weather reports and old man Betancourt’s knees, but, these were lean times: the salmon fishing had been sparse, but the bills weren’t. So, once again, economics trumped caution and pushed many fishermen who knew better, to chance a quick run out to get in on the bite before the heavy weather set in. That was why the Admiral and Slim were out there chancing it in The Yellow Submarine. Finally the Admiral came out of his greed stupor: they pulled the gear, went about the boat securing everything as best they could, and headed for the barn. It was too late-- the storm was upon them.
They knew they had waited too long and were going to be slammed hard. The old boat could only do nine knots and they were 120 miles from the harbor running with a increasingly heavy following sea.
Later on, in between gulps of the Gallo white port that eventually killed him, Slim and I sat in the abandoned boat he was calling home, and told me about their fearful return trip. As they ran for home, waves from astern kept building. Some, he estimated, were cresting at thirty feet. As the hours passed, the period between crests got closer and steeper like those in the movie ‘The Perfect Storm’. Slim said he looked back and, to his horror, saw a monster steamer wave coming right at them with spray flying off its crest. He dove to the deck and grabbed hold of something. It was later agreed that the only thing that saved them when they pitch-poled, was the tiny wheelhouse made of stout Douglas fir timbers. The boat did a 360, but because there was so little weight to the wheelhouse above the waterline, she rightedherself with her diesel engine still chugging faithfully along. The interior was a slimy mess of broken gear, smashed electronics, and broken batteries, but the tired old girl kept on heading for her Pillar Point sanctuary. One pitch pole in a waterman’s life is quite enough, but TWO on the same trip . . . As they approached the coastal shoaling waters, they were hit with yet another monster and over they went for a second time. The old girl did another 360 and again righted herself.
Never did the harbor entry buoys look so welcoming. They waited outside the reef for a large wave, then surfed it through the narrow opening in the Pillar Point reef and on to the safety of our harbor They tied up to the pier and didn’t even think of selling their fish that night—there was always tomorrow – besides they had much more important things to do. They top iced the fish, locked up and hurried to the Ketch Jo Ann harbor bar at the end of the pier, and to many rounds to celebrate still sucking in air and not having their names engraved on the dead pole by the harbor master’s office. From then on, we all looked at the Yellow Submarine with grudging respect, and would point her out to visitors and tell the story. Never again did any of us make fun of the faithful yellow ugly duckling.