Sunken Ship, Rising Star
The story of the capsizing of 58-foot fishing boat, the dramatic rescue of its crew and the wreck’s new life as an abundant artificial reef scuba destination
By Scott Marshutz
The crew noticed the weather changing as they motored toward the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The slight breeze and calm conditions they cruised through for much of the afternoon and night had morphed into a wicked offshore wind sometime after midnight.
The A.C.E., a 58-foot commercial fishing vessel, was on a northeasterly course heading in after a night of bait fishing and riding in the trough. Large vertically shaped swells-coming in sets of three only seconds apart-began pounding the boat’s port side.
Captain Robert Machado and his three crewmembers continually checked to make sure the A.C.E.wasn’t taking on any water. But there was one area they couldn’t check-the portside compartment, which stretched from the engine room to the lazarette compartment. The only access was from a topside circular hatch on the low-lying deck and since almost a foot of water now covered it, removing the hatch wasn’t an option.
For more than an hour the wind-generated swells dumped on the vessel.
Machado felt the A.C.E. starting to list-only slightly, but enough to cause some concern. It was just a hunch, but he had a feeling that the hatch’s seal had broken and water might be leaking into the compartment.
In the distance, they could see the lights of the Dana Point Harbor maybe six or seven miles away. He was confident they could make it. After all, they’d made it more than 65 miles already and with a full load of fresh bait, anglers were depending on them.
Down below, engineer and second-in-command Adam Souder had a bad feeling. He was trying to get some rest after being awake for nearly 20 hours, but every time the A.C.E. was hit by another wave, the boat wasn’t responding correctly. The list was more radical now and it was starting to submarine itself.
“The boat would go up, come down and stay down,” he remembered.
Souder had to do something. He popped up from his bunk and headed up to the wheelhouse where Machado was white-knuckled. They slowed the boat down and moved the boom from the center to the starboard side to see if it might help shift the weight. The maneuver helped and the A.C.E. leveled off a bit. ?
Even so, Machado was thinking about calling Buck Everingham who had managed the family business since his father Roy retired. Roy designed the boat in the mid-1980s. It was named after Buck’s grandfather Adolphus Charles “Buck” Everingham. In his head, Machado was rehearsing what he would say, trying to minimize any panic Buck might detect in his voice.
But he never made the call.
They were hit by two more large swells, which tipped the boat radically on its port side.
He ordered his crew to abandon ship and as he reached for the microphone to issue a mayday, the 61-ton, steel-hulled vessel was slammed by yet another wave and rolled into the angry Pacific. “When it rolled, it rolled fast,” Souder said.
Crewmembers Andrew Rector and Kane Shanahan ran to the starboard side of the boat and jumped on top of the rail as it went over. Souder, who was standing on the deck above the cabin on the starboard side, hung on while it rolled. Machado pushed himself out of the wheelhouse doorway and clawed his way up the side of the vessel as it rolled on top of him. His days of setting lobster traps with his father, growing up in Laguna Beach and riding dirt bikes in Carlsbad all flashed before him in a neatly designed grid.
The force of the falling mast and wheelhouse displaced thousands of gallons of seawater as it sliced into the ocean before disappearing into darkness.
In the next few seconds, Machado found himself submerged under the vessel.
Although it was upside down, the six 500-watt halogen deck lights they used to help them fish at night, were still illuminated.mHe opened his eyes and saw the bottom of the 14-foot skiff that was chained to the back of the A.C.E.
Rector and Shanahan made it to the skiff first. Machado’s instincts told him to swim toward the stern, but the net had slid off the drum and blocked his passage. Fearing that he might get tangled up if he tried swimming underneath it, he swam back to the bow and surfaced.
There was no moon; the water temperature was in the 50s and the wind was blowing somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 knots.
A veteran seaman with more than 30 years of fishing experience, there was one skill Machado hadn’t mastered well-swimming. Struggling to pull his boots off, he heard his crewmembers yelling, “Hal where are you?”
Although Hallett was his middle name, everyone called him Hal.
He tried answering them but started swallowing water as he swam the length of the boat back to the skiff.
Between the swells and the wind he doubted they could hear him anyway.
He was laboring. Ten feet away from the skiff, he started cramping.
“I was having trouble staying afloat myself,” Souder recalled. “I yelled to Andrew that I couldn’t help Hal. Andrew said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I’ve got him.’”
Rector spotted his captain and jumped back in without hesitation. A former high school water polo player, Rector reached him in seconds.
Now freezing cold, soaked in diesel fuel and salt water and hanging on while the skiff slammed repeatedly into the stern of the capsized A.C.E., Machado, Rector, Souder and Shanahan tried to regain their composure.
Robert Hallett Machado was anxious to go fishing.
For the past week, the A.C.E. was docked at San Diego’s G Street Pier for routine vessel and net maintenance during the winter season.
But being “on the street” was the last place a commercial fisherman wanted to be.
Adding to his stress, he knew that Dana Wharf Sportfishing was running low on bait. He was receiving reports that anglers were catching yellowtail and white sea bass off Catalina Island and the holiday weekend was only a day old.
Arriving early on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, Machado figured his crew had about eight hours of work before they headed up the coast.
He recruited two of them personally after Everingham Bros. took over the contract from Mello Bros. to supply live bait to Dana Point and points north a year earlier.
At 31, Adam Souder was already beaten up from years of fishing the California coast with his father. He had fished in Alaska for a summer and survived two vessel accidents in roughly 15 years.
When Machado called his former partner on the Mona Lisa, Souder was a fleet manager for a rental car company. While the job offered him stable and safe employment, fishing was in his blood-the Souder family is deeply woven into Orange County’s fishing fabric dating back nearly 100 years. So he listened to Machado’s pitch. Everingham was offering a salary and he’d be joining the crew as the engineer and deck boss. There was even talk of moving into a captain’s position in the near future. Souder thought he was hearing things. A salary was unheard of and he felt the pull.
Like Souder, skiff man Kane Shanahan, 19, grew up in the business, but on the sport fishing side. His father Tom Shanahan was owner-operator of the Game Fish and later became a freelance captain for several boat owners.
Andrew Rector, 24, had answered an ad for a general crew position. Rector, who stood 6 foot 4 inches tall, was an Army veteran with mechanical experience. A standout high school water polo player, Machado thought Rector was a rowdy and boisterous kid, “full of piss and vinegar.” They called him Drew.
On G Street that morning, the crew replaced the net’s purse line, patched the rest of the holes and rolled it back on the drum. They pumped on 50 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic oil and loaded supplies to keep them going for at least four days.
On the short ride to the fuel dock, the crew completed the remaining items of a list, one of which was checking to make sure the deck hatches were properly sealed.
Machado didn’t like the way Shanahan and Rector were doing the test so he had Souder take the wheel while he checked all four himself-the portside hatch had given them problems during previous trips. “It was always a primary concern,” added Souder.
After filling both tanks, about 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel, the A.C.E. was on its way.
Drum seiner (or limit seiner) bait boats are known for their long clean decks, a boom and the motorized skiff that is often seen riding piggyback from the vessel’s stern. The main cabin, which is set on the forward half of the deck, carries topside controls to give the skipper a clear lookout for bait schools and tidal conditions.
Fully loaded, the boat sat about one foot above the waterline.
Although it was clear and calm at 4 p.m., forecasters predicted an offshore wind ranging from 10 to 30 knots for the area northwest of Oceanside starting late Friday night into Saturday. It was a large variable.
Buck Everingham, who was vacationing with his family in Lake Tahoe during the holiday, spoke to Machado by phone about the forecast, but the captain didn’t seem too concerned. Everingham told Machado he’d rather have him wait for the weather to pass, but ultimately it was up to his captains to make the final call.
On their way up to Oceanside, where the bait had been consistently good, they kept an eye out for schools while passing Point Loma, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Torrey Pines and Del Mar.
Before sunset, Machado spotted several vessels circling on the horizon. Through his binoculars, he recognized the San Pedro gillnet fleet. Since the fleet was going after barracuda, Machado knew damn well that barracuda targeted the same bait species he was after.
“Yes, we needed bait,” said Souder. “But you’re running out to catch something that might not be there. Our nets aren’t efficient at depths of more than 150 feet. Any time your nets don’t touch the bottom, you have a chance of losing the fish because they can swim out from underneath it.”
About 10 miles off the coast of Oceanside, Machado’s hunch proved correct. The A.C.E.‘s sonar picked up a large school of sardines and two smaller schools of mackerel.
“From what I remember, the school was very scattered. There was a lot of fish in that area. We knew the load was going to be sardines or anchovies, but we didn’t know the size or quality,” said Souder.
With a full load of bait, they rolled the net back on the drum, secured their gear and headed back to shore; they’d be tied up in the harbor well before dawn.
For the moment, Machado felt a sense of calm and reflected on his life.
Nearing 50, he was looking forward to getting married for the first time so the year ahead was definitely looking bright.
In the Skiff
Machado, Rector and Shanahan were huddled in the aluminum skiff; Souder was still hanging on the side. At 250 pounds, he was exhausted and didn’t have the strength to pull himself into the boat.
The conditions were making it difficult for the others to pull him on board.
The y-shaped alloy chain connecting the small boat to the stern of the capsized A.C.E. tightened on the crest of each wave and then slammed them back into the slowly sinking vessel-a constant battering of aluminum crashing into steel as huge swells rolled under or broke on top of them.
The A.C.E. heaved in the churning sea-uttering its final breaths of a 19-year run. Its engine prop was still sticking out of the water; the hull was already submerged.
They wondered why the life raft hadn’t automatically inflated or why the emergency radio beacon failed to send a signal to the Coast Guard.
The current was moving them down the coast and farther out to sea as the minutes ticked by.
They rolled so quickly there was no time to grab a lifejacket so Machado started improvising.
The skiff had rubber bumpers-fenders filled with air that covered its perimeter. It also had a small tool box containing flash lights and other supplies, including a flare pistol.
He cut the bumpers off, tied the pieces together with fishing twine and made a small flotation device for each person.
Machado emptied the batteries out of one flashlight, taped the red plastic illumination piece to the top of another flashlight and then taped the modified light to a broomstick handle. He gave it to Rector, the tallest of the four. They steadied the lanky Army veteran so he could stand straight up and wave it above his head like he was directing aircraft on a runway.
Meanwhile, Machado grabbed the flare pistol, loaded a round and fired. They watched the red ball of sparks cut through the clouds and disappear-hoping someone, anyone, might see it. But at 3 a.m., it was a safe bet that most of Dana Point and San Clemente were still sound asleep.
They took turns waving the flashlight.
Since he was still in the water, Souder attempted to disconnect the skiff by diving under the A.C.E. The chain connected to a longer rope line securing the skiff to the vessel. Souder thought if he could get past the chain and cut the rope he’d be able to free the skiff. He tried a couple of times, but the chain stretched too far under the vessel and without an air supply and a light source there was no chance he could disconnect it. Rector and Shanahan tried too, but Machado ordered them back in the skiff, knowing that their chances of getting badly injured or killed were too high.
Machado shot off another flare.
He scanned the shoreline to figure what the shortest distance might be in case they had to swim. Since the current was pulling them out to sea and away from shore, he calculated their odds; they weren’t very good.
Something’s Out There
Ed Westberg’s blood pressure medicine made it difficult for him to sleep through the night. He’d always wake up before dawn needing to use the bathroom.
True to the pattern, Westberg felt the urge to go at about 3 a.m. Saturday morning.
He could hear the Santa Ana winds, which had kicked up earlier in the evening, whistling around his home.
Groggy, he pulled himself out of bed and walked to the bathroom. As he looked through the sliding glass door of his second-story bedroom, a red spark caught his eye.
Westberg’s large single-family San Clemente home is a little north of the famed Trestles surfing spots. Set on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, he can see Cotton’s Point, another surf spot known for its long left walls, Seal Rock straight ahead and the entrance to the Dana Point Harbor to the north.
“I was still half asleep,” says Westberg. “I was thinking, ‘Was that a flare I saw out there?’”
He woke up his wife Jan and told her what he had seen and that he was going to call 9-1-1.
The operator connected him to Tina Maguire, the Orange County Sheriff’s dispatcher in Newport Beach.
He described what he saw to Maguire and told her to call back, if they needed more help. Westberg stayed awake and went downstairs to get a better look from his deck.
About five minutes later, he saw a red light-a very dim one in the same area as the flare. He estimated it to be less than two miles off shore in the area between Cotton’s Point and Seal Rock.
An experienced sailor, he knew there was someone out there and they were most likely sending a distress signal.
“We watched the fire boat leave the harbor and move down the coast,” the now- retired dentist said. “With its blue light on, it was easy to spot.”
By the time the patrol boat reached the San Clemente pier, Westberg’s phone started ringing.
Maguire told him that deputies Russ Endsley and Diana Honicker were having trouble seeing anything because of the sea conditions. “I told her they hadn’t come south far enough,” Westberg said.
As the boat headed down the coast, Maguire said they still couldn’t see anything.
Westberg asked Maguire to connect him directly to Honicker.
“You need to come further south and then away from shore,” Westberg told the deputy.
The radio inside the Dana Point Marine Substation squawked at 3:09 a.m.:
“RED FLARE SEEN FIVE MINUTES AGO THREE MILES OFF SHORE JUST SOUTH OF SEAL ROCK”