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Salvage, Part 1

The following is Part 1 of a real-life story submitted by longtime reader Charles Thrasher.

"We’re missing a boat."

"What do you mean, missing?" Marilyn Adams, who managed Club Nautique, got up from her desk and looked through the windows overlooking the docks. "Which one?"

"A Pearson 26. The one checked out yesterday after hours."

From the second-story windows she could see all of Club Nautique’s charter fleet of over 40 boats. Marilyn managed the office; I managed the docks.

NorCal Yachts, Club Nautique’s parent company, had sold four of the 26-ft Pearsons into the fleet. They were rumored to be bulletproof boats; no one had tested the claim. We allowed club members to sail them without a charter fee, even after business hours. The rules were the boat couldn’t be sailed singlehanded, and it had to be in its slip by start of the next business day.

"Where is it?" she asked.

"If I knew that, it would be misplaced, not missing. Do you have the paperwork?"

Marilyn retrieved the charter agreement from the lockbox outside the office door. "Such a nice man," she said of the charterer. "Always so polite. A Mormon, I think." Marilyn tended to bucket people as nice or nasty. She called the number listed on the paperwork and put the phone on speaker. The charterer’s wife answered. No, her husband wasn’t home. He should have been working the night shift, she said, but his supervisor hadn’t seen him. He’d been gone all night.

She seemed remarkably cool for the wife of a man missing with our boat. We reported the boat to Coast Guard Group San Francisco and the Alameda Police Department. Late that morning the Coast Guard called. A park ranger at the Presidio had reported a vessel aground on Baker Beach, on the south shore of the Golden Gate seaward of the bridge. The boat’s registration numbers matched our missing Pearson. There was no one onboard.

Just west of the Golden Gate, Baker Beach is littered with boulders. Not the ideal place to run aground, or attempt a salvage.

© Wikipedia

Our marine insurance company strongly suggested we attempt salvage, something to do with admiralty law and salvage liens. They obviously didn’t realize our attempt would compound their risk and exposure.

Fred Sohegian — the owner of NorCal Yachts and a principal of Club Nautique — appointed himself expedition leader. Before becoming a yacht broker, Fred had been a perfume salesman, and probably an unlikely perfume salesman at that. He had the strength and temperament of a Cape buffalo; not someone you’d want to surprise in the tall grass. Fred enlisted the boatyard manager, a few yard workers, myself, and a boat named Squirrelly, which was an underpowered 42-ft Albin trawler and part of the charter fleet. We had the presence of mind to scavenge from nearby charter boats several anchors with their half-inch nylon rodes, then steamed out the Alameda Estuary for the Golden Gate with nothing more than a shovel for salvage gear.

The Golden Gate isn’t a safe place for amateur salvors. The wind, constricted between Point Bonita and Lands End, squeezes through the narrow passage of the Gate like toothpaste from a tube. Deep-sea waves with the full fetch of the Pacific Ocean begin to feel the bottom beneath them, growing steeper and stacking closer together. And the current spews through the narrow passage with the force of a fire hose, often creating standing waves beneath the bridge near Fort Point.

We arrived on scene before the inevitable afternoon westerly wind began to build. Slack water was already turning to flood. Baker is the first beach beyond the bridge. and our Pearson was in the surf zone, lying on her starboard beam in a narrow bed of sand between basalt boulders. It was fortunate she had gone aground exactly there. A few hundred yards east or west and the wave action would have ground her into beach litter.

The boatyard manager was elected to survey the wreck. We sent him ashore in a cheap inflatable dinghy — the kind of water toy you buy for your kids at Walmart — with the shovel and a dozen fathoms of half-inch rode that would serve as towing hawser. The dinghy promptly capsized in the surf, pitching the yard boss ass over tea kettle and sending the shovel to the bottom. He rose to the surface spitting curses and saltwater, but still holding the hawser’s bitter end.

As far as he could tell, the boat’s hull was intact. He rigged a towing bridle around the mast. The mast, stepped on deck, was still the strongest point of attachment onboard. The load we were about to place on the hawser would likely rip any cleats out of the deck. We hoped it wouldn’t do the same to the mast.

This was already turning out to be one crazy salvage.

Tune in on Monday for Part 2 of "Salvage."

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