For such a catastrophic disaster — the largest peacetime tragedy for the U.S. Navy, in fact — few Americans know anything about Honda Point, where seven destroyers smashed into the rocky coastline near Lompoc, killing 23 sailors on a foggy September evening in 1923. It’s even a forgotten saga for most Santa Barbara County residents, even though it was the region’s largest loss of life incident until Montecito’s 1/9 Debris Flow killed 23 in 2018.
A short new novel seeks to change that. Written by former journalists Therese Vannier and Michael Corbin Ray — both Southern California natives who met in the 1990s while working at the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune — Dead Reckoning fictionalizes the saga into a fast, 125-page read (plus a few pages of historical notes), adding elements of romance, military camaraderie, and arrogant incompetence to carry the tale.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the local histories of the places I’ve lived, and the Honda Point disaster has always been sort of floating in the background around here,” explained Corbin Ray. “Most people haven’t heard of it, but occasionally you’ll come across a picture or a recollection in a newspaper, or you’ll run into someone whose grandparents told them stories of climbing down to see the wrecks as children.”
The authors, longtime Santa Barbara residents who now live in the Santa Ynez Valley, recently answered a few of my questions via email.
Why did you decide to write a novel around the Honda Point disaster?
Therese Vannier: I’m smiling right now, because I really pushed for us to write this story. It all started with a surf trip to Jalama Beach. Like so many of us, the Jalama Beach Store was my introduction to the Honda Point disaster. The proprietor, Don Eittreim, has a significant collection of yellowed newspaper clippings and photographs that decorate the walls in the indoor (pre-pandemic) dining area. I read every dang newspaper article in there as I devoured the world’s best burger. (I’ve always been a huge fan of “man vs. the sea” tales anyhow so this story really piqued my interest.)
Honda Point haunted me and followed me home to Morro Bay, where I was living at the time. I couldn’t stop thinking about all those grounded ships. I remember how obsessed I was with researching the incident and remember wondering why I hadn’t heard about the tragedy until then.
How did you develop the characters?
Michael Corbin Ray: All the existing books naturally focus on the officers and the technical details of the disaster. We really wanted to tell a story from the point of view of the enlisted sailors — the people who weren’t in charge, but who suffered the most. Their stories were never really told.
So we created a group of fictional sailors — four friends assigned to work the boiler rooms on board the flagship Delphy. One of them, Pearson, is based on accounts of what happened to a real sailor, but we won’t get into any spoilers here. But these four, and their time on liberty in San Francisco, and their interactions with the officers and Eugene Dooman, are entirely made up.
The officers on board the ships are all real — although we might have made up a name or two. The events in our story are fictional, but they’re at least in line with a version of what could have really happened, based on what little we can ever know about that night.
Were you able to visit the shoreline to help paint a picture of the area?
MCR: We did! We were able to join a small tour that went out specifically to see the wreck site. We were there at high tide, so there really wasn’t much to see. We’ve been told that at low tide there’s a lot of scrap still visible, but I don’t know that for sure.
TV: Setting foot on that bit of shoreline was sure eerie, though. The jagged rocks just rise up — ready to wreak havoc on the metal and men who encounter them.
What other research did you pursue? The scenes in San Francisco are rich with details.
MCR: Oh, San Francisco has such a rich history, with so much rapid change. We had done a lot of San Francisco research for an earlier book that had scenes there in the 1850s to ’60s, and this almost felt like a continuation of that.
But yeah, we love the research. We love the details. We tracked down restaurant menus; we read the Hollywood gossip magazines of the early 1920s; we studied the attitudes toward Prohibition, the clothing, Navy training and drill manuals — I remember even looking up the history of Cracker Jack.
TV: Some of the menu items were pretty outrageous. I remember for instance seeing Curlew (“roasted” or “broiled to order”) on a menu under the “Game” section. There were also lots of mince pies and rum omelettes back then. Oh, and I was tickled to see the red wine listed only as “claret.” I’m sure there’s a Santa Barbara County wine that would pair nicely with Curlew, but the birder in me doesn’t want to find out….
How do you work as a team when it comes to novels?
MCR: We tend to work out plots and ideas together, using research to spin off new ideas. Then I’ll write a draft, Therese will edit, and we’ll argue our way through changes and subsequent drafts. It’s fun!
TV: We use lots of index cards and lots of Sharpies. Then Mike typically gathers his thoughts on the first draft while I gather information and push facts in his face.
Has there been any interest in turning this into a film?
TV: We hope so! In one of our writer’s groups, someone asked if Dead Reckoning were to be made into a film, what would the movie mash-up be? I responded, Titanic and Catch Me If You Can.
Buy a copy of Dead Reckoning, learn more, and find out about author appearances at baaapress.com.
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