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Salvage, Part 2

Picking up from Part 1 on Friday. After one of their Pearson 26s went missing (along with the skipper), the staff at Club Nautique eventually found the boat hard aground at Baker Beach, just outside the Golden Gate. They decided to try to salvage the vessel, using Squirrelly, an underpowered, 42-ft Albin trawler, to try to tow the boat off the beach. 

Squirrelly, anchored to the shore by a boat full of sand and saltwater, was in an awkward position, buffeted by a rising crosswind reinforced by the gathering tide. The black rocks to leeward were sharp as broken teeth. A Coast Guard 36-ft motor lifeboat held station just beyond the rocks. They were there for rescue, not salvage.

The yard boss launched his dinghy from the shore, paddling ferociously with a piece of broken plywood. He made it through the first breaking wave but not the second. The entire flat bottom of his dinghy was visible as it climbed the wave, hung suspended for a heartbeat, then gracefully succumbed to gravity, falling backward. When we finally got him back onboard he was shivering from hypothermia. His lips were blue.

Slowly I took a strain on the hawser. The slack line snaked through the water and grew taut as a wire halyard, wringing salt water from the strands of nylon. Smoke belched from the trawler’s exhaust pipes as I advanced the throttles. Her stern squatted under the load. We swung through a 70-degree arc like the plumb bob of a pendulum. Slowly the Pearson pivoted on her keel. Her bow swung into the surf. She shifted slightly, the trawler surged forward a foot, and the hawser snapped. The yard boss looked distraught.

The entire dumb show was repeated. Once again the yard boss paddled ashore. Once again Squirrelly was wreathed in her own smoke. Once again the Pearson remained immobile.

"Give it all she’s got," Fred yelled, standing beside me on the flying bridge. I ran the throttles full forward. The hawser stretched another three feet, then once again parted. 200 feet of half-inch line was abruptly released from tremendous strain, like an arrow released from a bow. We were the bullseye.

Fred dropped to the deck like a stone. I stood, a deer in the headlights, while 200 feet of half-inch line drove into the trawler’s transom with the staccato sound of an M-60 machine gun. The towing hawser then fell into the racing props. The props were immediately fouled. Both engines seized and died as if they’d been cold-cocked. Immediately we began drifting toward the rocks to leeward.

Don’t be fooled by these tranquil-looking conditions at Baker Beach. Things can get downright nasty there, especially if you’re trying to tow a sailboat off the beach.

© Wikipedia

The beleaguered yard boss, still shivering, was sent over the side again to clear the props. The rat’s nest was tightly wrapped around the shafts, each wrap levered tight by hundreds of pounds of torque. Each wrap had to be sawed apart with a knife. The yard boss, working almost blind, submerged in the cold, boisterous water. Every time he surfaced, with every breath he took, he could see the rocks drawing closer. The Guardsmen on their motor lifeboat began to fidget.

The starboard prop was freed. I didn’t dare start the engine with a man in the water. We drifted farther, driven by wind and current. The Coast Guard motor lifeboat began to position themselves for our rescue when the yard boss broached the surface with thumb raised high. The crew plucked him out of the water like a crab buoy. I fired both engines and throttled up, swinging the boat away from the rocks.

We abandoned the wreck and returned to the bay. A professional salvage crew would refloat her in a day or two. The insurance company could pay for the job and be damned. We were cold, wet and disgruntled. Fred offered to buy us all dinner.

It was a singular act of generosity but, typical of Fred Sohegian, one with an odd caveat. He was taking us to dinner at the St. Francis Yacht Club.

The St. Francis was one of only two places left in the United States (the other being the New York Yacht Club) where gentlemen still wear blue blazers and a tie for dinner. We trooped through the dining room wearing frayed foul weather gear, crooked grins, hair in wild disarray, with salt stains streaking our cheeks. Heads turned, eyebrows raised, and the disapproval was palpable. Fred was wonderfully amused.

For several months after our dismal salvage attempt we assumed our missing charterer had been lost overboard while sailing solo that night, his body carried out to sea by the ebb. Singlehanded sailing was strictly forbidden by Club Nautique’s rules but we still felt culpable in the tragedy. Then we got a call from the Club’s insurance company. Our drowned man was in Canada.

It seems he had gotten so deeply in debt that his crack-brained solution was to fake his own death. His insurance policy would pay his wife. But the drowned man had underestimated his loneliness and his family’s unbending righteousness. He called his father long distance (collect, I suspect) and explained why he was not dead. His father, a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, praised the Lord and called the police. The police eventually called the insurance company who finally called us. It had all ended badly.

The Pearson, refloated and repaired, was returned to service. Turns out, they actually are bulletproof.


  1. Grant 4 years ago

    Love this story! Love the happy ending?

  2. Ros 4 years ago

    Fabulous story! Life and work be darned, the one thing that gave me incentive to come back from vacation was Part 2 of this ripping yarn. Thank you for following up on the fate of our drowned drongo; having all parties safely home for tea is the best outcome you can imagine in a situation like this.

  3. George 4 years ago

    This appears to be a very old event (years). It would be nice to see some date attached as to when this happened.

    • Charles Thrasher 4 years ago

      George, you’re correct. The incident occurred in the mid-80s, so long ago I think that I alone am left to tell the tale (badly misquoting Melville).

  4. Fred Sohegian Jr 4 years ago

    Thanks for bringing back old memories!! It was quite obvious we were all young and bulletproof! I remember the situation like it was yesterday. John Verdoia, Craig Fair were as crazy as I was during those years. Today I feel lucky I survived my tenure as “John Wayne’! Hope all is well and thanks for sharing some of the history of the life and times of “Norcal” and our valiant employees!!
    Fred Sohegian

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