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Sea Tales

Excerpts from Tom Kendrick’s Bluewater Gold Rush


The waterman tradition of Santa Barbara runs deep. Among the army of pleasure yachts and billionaire toy boats that stuff our harbor, there is a core collection of hardworking commercial fishing boats, their captains and crew an essential and refreshingly authentic ingredient to the fabric of our seaside community. In his book Bluewater Gold Rush, former Santa Barbara resident Tom Kendrick recounts the glory days of our once mighty sea urchin industry and the many colorful characters who fearlessly chased dreams, dollar signs, and swells during the halcyon days of the late 1970s and 1980s-when urchins caught in the Santa Barbara Channel waters were shipped all over the world.

Currently enjoying its second run of printing and having just recently been snapped up by the bigwigs in Hollywood as future feature film fodder, Bluewater Gold Rush is an important and downright enjoyable read for anyone who likes the cool embrace of the Pacific Ocean. From a capsized boat off Santa Rosa Island to a brutal and fatal shark attack near a now-famous surf spot off San Miguel Island, what follows is a quick taste of the salty nuggets found in Kendrick’s tale. Enjoy. - Ethan Stewart

December 15, 1980

A high-pressure system centered in Idaho had created a mild offshore flow that made for an unseasonably calm ocean. Lenny and I had been slaying ‘em on the front side of Santa Rosa Island.

The water had been so clear at Talcott Shoals that I was able to use the “stay dry” survey technique. Lenny stood at the helm, idling the boat around in the large beds of kelp, while I lay on my stomach up on the bow. As we slowly crept through the calm waters of Talcott, I hung my head off and looked down at the bottom, 30 feet below.

These conditions-no wind, no swell, and water visibility up to 50 feet-are extremely rare at the Channel Islands, especially in the often murky waters of Talcott Shoals. But on this warm sunny day, our fourth in a row, I gazed at the bottom, which was perfectly visible from the boat.

Polka dots were what I was looking for, and now, as a large field of black spots came into view, my hand went up. “Okay, stop the boat!”

I felt the slight clunk as Lenny pulled the shifter down into reverse, bringing the Coyote to a stop. And although my view of the bottom was now obscured by the milky bubbles caused by the counter-rotating propeller, I knew we were on a good spot. I quickly pulled the hook from the open anchor locker and threw it toward the edge of the large kelp paddy.

Once the anchor line was secured to the bow cleat, we took a minute to survey our surroundings-three other urchin boats were in sight. The Hot Chocolate was closest, anchored up in the next kelp bed over, about a quarter mile away. They had two bags on deck.

The Debra Ann sat in a shallow kelp bed down toward Brockway Point, about two miles east of us. Here decks were empty, a sign that the urchins were eluding them.

Weener was about a half mile outside of us, toward the mainland. As usual, a big pile sat on the deck of the Florentia Marie.

As with the previous three days, the conditions, as well as the urchins, cooperated, and by three o’clock, the Coyote had a good load on her deck. We had about 4,000 pounds aboard, but the prices were good, and I knew we’d have an easy ride home across the smooth channel, so I elected to get one more five-hundred-pound bag. That mistake, borne only of greed, would haunt me for years to come.

Fire up the popper, Lenny. I wanna get one more quick bag.”

You got it, Captain!” He had already changed into his clothes but he didn’t mind. The weather had been splendid and we were in high spirits.

A 24-foot Radon boat can safely carry about 4,000 pounds of urchins, depending on the layout of the deck and the ocean conditions. After that, the boat becomes unstable. The Coyote’s record load was 5,200 pounds, but after that harrowing ride in, I decided 4,000 pounds was all she would carry.

I was only down for about 20 minutes. After I surfaced, Lenny pulled on the dive hose, dragging our final bag through the kelp, with me hanging on to it. When he tossed me a bag line that almost hit me in the head, I snapped it onto the bag, swam to the boat, and climbed on. Lenny shut the popper off and hooked the winch line to the floating bag. I gave him a hand as he brought it up out of the water.

We got the bag up on top of the pile, but the boat was leaning a little. “Easy, partner, bring it up a touch-let’s get this boat level.” The entire deck was filled with urchin bags. Lenny stood on the engine lid holding the winch button, keeping his distance from the sharp spines (his hand was swollen from being stuck the previous day, but it was a minor injury). I was standing on the narrow rail. I had a good grip on the mesh of the bag, and pulling on it, easing it closer to middle of the stack as Lenny worked the winch.

As his finger held the control button down, the boat lurched. The bag I had a hold of lifted up off of the pile, but it got away from me. “Let her down!” I yelled-but it was too late. I released my hold on the netting to avoid falling on the spiny urchins. A split-second later, the bag slid off the pile, wildly swinging out over the water.

The neatly coiled dive hose slid off the stern as the Coyote leaned farther and farther. My mask, fins, and weight belt fell into the water-time slowed to a standstill as the Coyote started to roll. “She’s going over!” I yelled. When she reached 90 degrees, I dove off. Lenny clung to the rail, trying to avoid the inevitable.

Floating in the water, a few feet away, I watched helplessly as 4,500 pounds of sea urchins splashed into the sea, and my boat rolled over.

Large bubbles gurgled to the surface as she awkwardly settled into her new position, and although the watertight bulkheads kept her afloat, my boat was now upside down.

Dazed, I swam over and joined my tender who was sitting on the belly of our floating craft.

Lenny’s eyes were wide with disbelief. “What happened?” he wailed.

I was too stunned to speak.

The urchins, of course, went straight to the bottom, along with everything else. Anything that could float started popping up all around us: sleeping bags, soda pop cans, a bag of tortilla chips. Always alert, Lenny snagged the chips and started eating dinner.

A mix of emotions swept over me. I was mad at myself for being greedy and overloading the boat. Sadly, the engine, wiring, and electronics would be ruined. But the scene was so ridiculous looking-things floating all over the place, Lenny munching on tortilla chips. The humor of our predicament overtook us. A few minutes later, we were laughing our heads off.

December 9, 1994

Weener always suited up first, and did all the surveying. He liked to use a scuba bottle and a hand-held underwater scooter-this method allows the sea urchin diver to cover plenty of bottom area in a short time. Once he had his wetsuit and gear on, he stood up, holding on to the cabin handrail while Steve lifted the heavy tank and helped the diver strap it on.

Ward throttled down the diesel motor and shifted it into neutral. “Okay, boss. We’re on our numbers-it’s 65 feet under the boat.”

I’m in!” Moments after falling backward off the rail into the dark water, Weener cleared his mask, adjusted the tank on his back, and gave Steve the signal to hand him the scooter. “I think we finished up about 50 feet forward. Get ready with the hook while I take a quick survey.” Following his captain’s orders, Steve, the tender, carefully walked to the bow, keeping a firm grip on the handrail to avoid falling from the pitching boat. A few seconds later, he knelt down next to the anchor winch and pulled back on the lever, disengaging the clutch. The anchor was now ready to drop.

Weener squeezed the trigger of the scooter, activating the propeller, allowing himself to be pulled downward. Bubbles rising to the surface indicated his location and direction of travel. Up on the bow, Steve lifted his right arm, holding it 30 degrees to starboard. Ward stood inside the cabin, one hand on the wheel, the other on the throttle lever. He watched Steve’s hand signals, and following the tender’s directions, slowly eased the rocking boat forward. They both knew to keep the spinning prop well behind the bubbles, 50 feet or more, to keep their diver safe. The three-man team had been at this for years, and had performed the maneuver hundreds of times.

A minute later, Steve’s hand clenched into a fist, the signal to stop the boat. Weener surfaced 20 feet from the bow. “Drop it!” he shouted. The chain rattled loudly as it fed off the freespooling winch, sending the 30-pound Bruce anchor on its way to the bottom.

The boat, however, was at the mercy of the wind now that the motor was out of gear-in the 20 seconds or so that it took for the anchor to reach the bottom, they could easily drift off the spot. “I’m gonna go check the hook!” Again, he triggered the scooter and headed down the anchor chain.

Inside the wheelhouse, Ward checked the plotter numbers, thinking, “We might have drifted 20 feet or so, but I’ll bet we put the hook close to where he wants it.”

Ten seconds later, the anchor grabbed, causing the boat to lurch as the bow swung around into the wind. Ward killed the motor, walked out on deck, and joined Steve, who had left the bow and now stood behind the cabin, out of the cold wind. Both men hung on, steadying themselves against the pitching motion of the boat as Weener’s bubbles headed back.

An immense pool of blood was the first indication of the tragedy. Weener surfaced next to the starboard rail, screaming, “I got bit by a shark! Get me on the boat!” He let go of the scooter, which immediately sank, and he floated helplessly as the crew members leaned over to grab him. “Oh, my God!” Ward whispered. Adrenaline took over, helping them to lift the nearly 200-pound man with his 50-pound scuba tank onto the boat. Both men grunted as they hauled him up and over the rail, head first. As his body fell onto the deck, they saw his legs. Both were mutilated, with the right one skewed at an awkward angle-it hung limp, and was almost completely severed. Within seconds, the boat was red with blood-it spewed uncontrollably, covering the decks and pouring out the scuppers. Ward’s eyes filled with tears as he pulled the tank off of his friend and threw it aside. Steve, having first-aid training as a ski patrol member, ran into the cabin and pulled the belt from his jeans. Second later, it was wrapped around the disfigured thigh, stemming the tremendous flow of blood. Next, he ran into the cabin and grabbed the radio microphone. “Mayday, mayday, mayday! Vessel Florentia Marie! Our diver has been bit by a shark-mayday!”

Oh God! Jesus!” Weener screamed, looking at his mangled leg. Ward cradled the diver in his arms.

Florentia Marie, this is Coast Guard station Channel Islands-what’s your position? Over. ”

Castle Rock, San Miguel Island. Over!”

Florentia Marie, copy! A helicopter is being dispatched-he’ll be on the scene in 30 minutes!”

Roger that!”

Weener had been on the boat for less than two minutes. “Ween, we gotta get you outta your suit!” Ward and Steve were both covered with blood, aghast at the gruesome sight. The scuba tank rolled from side to side on the heaving deck. Weener’s voice was fainter now, but he was emphatic. “Don’t take my suit off, boys. Please. It’s the only thing keepin’ my leg on.” His friends looked at each other.

Okay, Ween. We’ll leave it on.”

Vessel Florentia Marie, Coast Guard rescue helicopter six nine four. Over!”

Florentia Marie, go ahead!”

We’re 10 minutes out, how’s your man?”

Not good, please hurry!”

Ward Motyer and Steve Stickney sat with their friend on the crimson deck of the Florentia Marie. His color drained and his voice lowered to a whisper. “I love you guys.” “We love you too, Weener.” Both men’s faces were wet with tears as their skipper faded into unconsciousness.

The rescue basket, with Weener strapped in, was winched up to the helicopter. Forty minutes had gone by. The pilot, Major Dan Lewis, looked down at the boat. “Jesus, there’s blood everywhere. This is not good,” he thought. Coast Guard Medic Tommy Phillips commenced CPR, working on his patient nonstop during the 15-minute flight to Goleta Valley Hospital. After Weener’s transfer to a rolling gurney, emergency room technician Janice Tapper climbed up, continuing resuscitation efforts. His wounds were so severe that the emergency room physician would later say, “Even if it had happened on the steps of the hospital, I don’t think we could have saved him.”

Jim Robinson, The Weener-diver, surfer, and friend to all who knew him-died on December 9, 1994.

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