A Diver Story by Michael Thomas
Right around the time the sea urchin business really started to take off, I get a phone call from Glen Huebner. I worked for Glen on the Double Eagle (now the Trilogy) and he was a very motivated and gifted, diver, skipper and whatever else he decided he wanted to do.
Glen had partnered up with 3 other very successful, leading, high liners, and purchased a 45 ft landing craft. Thats right the kind they ran up on the beach at Normandy. The plan was to use the Integrity as a pick-up boat for the small fleet that Glen and his partners Joe Burke, Quiten Quider and Mike Lucas owned or controlled. Glen needed me to take helm watches for the voyage up to northern California.
He went on to say this would be ideal for Shelter Cove, as getting a truck up there was a daunting task, putting it mildly. They converted the Integrity while they all had new boats on order as well. That left little time for the partnership to focus there attention on the Integrity, and guess who was the latest candidate to make that operation happen? They did not come right out and say that, but it became evident, even if by default I had a big landing craft on my hands. At first we made a few trips, out to the Channel Islands to kind of break her in, because everything was brand new, almost antiseptic. The engine room was impressive two shoulder high diesel motors and a huge generator. I was familiar with the twin screw handling, as the 41 ft Coast Guard rescue boats were twin screw as well, and I operated them while stationed there. Basically Glen had said on the phone that they were “killing it” out at the Farallon Islands, outside San Francisco, and that I should go with the Integrity so I could take advantage of the Bonanza, once I arrived. Which was his way of getting me to crew the Integrity, up to Bodega Bay for free.
So off we went, The skipper was the electrician who was hired to rewire the Integrity. He was a sailboat owner, and he had some knowledge of Navigation, but he knew absolutely nothing about the urchin business, or power boats and many other things I discovered later on. He came with his deck hand. He did not seem like a bad person, he just carried out the “skippers” instructions and did not say a whole lot.
The Integrity was made out of steel, with a square bow and flat bottom with no keel. Part of the plan was to have the capability to run the Integrity loaded with sea urchins on the beach, and then use the crane on the Integrity to off load to a 4 wheel drive truck, since off loading facilities were far and few between in that neck of the woods. Came to find out later that the Skipper thought it would be fun to test the Integrity’s, landing capabilities. I guess it did not dawn on him that to do that, it should not be on the concrete that boat ramps are made out of, but it did not and that is exactly what he did, with disastrous results, as one could imagine. I also speculate that he was too embarrassed to admit and report his mistake, as the bilge pumps were keeping up with the seawater that was leaking thru the cracked seams that were caused by his folly. These facts were slowly, one by one revealed to me, as I was getting the shit beat out of me, by the crashing and rolling of the Integrity as we approached Pt Conception. That flat bottom and square bow, heading into the prevailing winds was murder.. That was my initiation, as I took my first wheel watch. If that was not miserable enough, the sound was thunderous, as the Integrity crashed over those waves. No insulation allow
ed for the Integrity’s hull to act as a drum, with me the BB inside it.
If I had been any more miserable before that experience, I could not remember, but I was soon to find out that our little break from the torture, as we motored into Half Moon Bay, would not be long enough for me to recover. I woke to the sound of the “Skipper” and his helper off loading their gear. They were jumping ship, because they were not getting paid, they said. I think all the red flags were in place, and I was stuck anyway, with a sinking Landing craft in an unfamiliar harbor. After the skipper bailed I went down to the engine room to familiarize myself with the systems, so I could have a fighting chance if something else happen. I got on the phone and was able to speak to Joe Burke, one of the owners I never met. He instructed me that it would be necessarily for me to gear up and inspect underneath of the hull, and report on the seriousness of the damage. I thought about it, and I replied I would do it for $500. When he refused, I hit the docks, searching for an urchin boat, that could use a diver as Half Moon bay, was only 22 miles from the Farallons and the chosen harbor for a significant fleet of urchin boats, in the midst of a feeding frenzy. I approached the Homeboy, which I was familiar with from Santa Barbara. The owner Tyrone, the only African American diver I knew, was very congenial and maybe he would put me on. I found Glen Brisadene who reported he had recently purchased the Homeboy from Tyrone, and that he had arrived and was waiting for his regular diver to show up. I told him my story, and I can tell you that he and several other divers were not happy to see that big old landing craft showing up and being responsible for cleaning the sea urchins out of the spots they had there eyes on. At least that was their– fear. Glen went on to say I could make a trip, while he was awaiting his divers arrival.
Next morning we were underway, and when I jumped in I can tell you that the Farallons were like another planet compared to the Channel Islands and the urchins were everywhere. The long waist to shoulder high reefs were ideal for knocking the urchins off and straight into the net bag. I had to learn to sneak up on those urchins, because they would clamp down like an Abalone if they sensed a swell or a northern California rookie diver. We had a good day and headed in. As we entered the harbor at Half Moon Bay The Integrity was missing from her mooring. “Oh no” I thought I forgot to flip the switch on the bilge pump and the Integrity was on the bottom with Davy Jones locker.
I was relieved to discover that the Integrity was still intact, but I was mortified to find out that Joe Burke had driven down and boarded the Integrity and was currently underway for Bodega Bay! This presented a problem for me, since I was staying on the boat and all my other personal property was on the boat, except for my dive gear and the clothes on my back. No wheels no money and stranded!
I frantically paced and swore up and down the harbor parking lot. Pre- cell phone era prompted attempted collect calls from one of those foul weather shelters, we used to call phone booths. More pacing and swearing, then miraculously, a powerful looking short gentleman approached took pity on me and inquired why I was so distressed. I relayed the tale to him and by the look of that shit eaten grin that arrived and remained thru most of my story, I think he enjoyed the story so much he volunteered to drive me and my dive gear up to Bodega Bay, as it was basically on his way anyway. I don’t really think it was, but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth right? He turned out to be former logger who now was a sea urchin diver, as the logging industry was in decline. So was the fishing industry, for that matter, except for the sea urchin fishery, since for one reason these northern California waters had never been fished for urchins. He was very nice and I was extremely grateful. The Integrity was not hard to find in Bodega Bay, it was tied to Lucas Wharf where many boats of the fleet would unload their catch, and the high end steak and seafood restaurant located within a short walk, was a nice touch. I boarded the boat, thanked my ride and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
The next morning I was sitting up in the pilot house when 3 faces I did not recognize were giving me a curious look, when one of them said “are you Mike Thomas?” I answered that I was, when the one who I now know was Joe, wanted an explanation of why I refused to inspect the bottom of the Integrity, after all I was staying on the boat and it would seem reasonable to him that I should want to know the status of the vessel I was attached to. By the tone of his voice, there also was an implication that I was obligated to perform the duty as the boat was in danger of sinking’ Trying as hard as I could not to show how indignant I felt, I explained that, the only reason I was staying on the boat, is because Glen needed another body to take a helm watch, for the long voyage, and it did not hurt that once I arrived I would be an asset as an experienced diver, that had proven his value as he worked for Glen a number of years. I did not actually say that last part, but I could tell how the conversation went between the owners as the decision to transport the Integrity north by sea was made. Glen must have made me sound even better than I really was to convince his partners, I was worthy. I went on to add that I was not getting paid to deliver a boat, and that the Captain and first mate jumped ship, supposedly because of payment of wages was not forthcoming, and I became suspicious enough that a demand for payment of my services, was not unreasonable under the circumstances. I also thought that even if I did feel obligated to do the inspection, I was NOT obligated to do it for free. They seemed to accept this explanation and their attitude and body language relaxed. It became apparent to me that these partners knew absolutely nothing about the Integrity. They both were operating much smaller vessels, simultaneously while they were awaiting delivery of a newer bigger faster vessel as well. This was confirmed a couple weeks later, after we got underway for the appointment to the boat lift. Dry dock was mandatory for the necessary repairs, so as we were approaching the narrow slot that would position us over the slings that would support the hull as the boat was lifted out of the water. Joe who was at the helm said “Mike I think you better take it from here, I am not used to these twin screws” So I was the hero as I easily used the throttles to steer the Integrity directly into the slot. It was apparent that repairs could take sometime, so my services were available to the partners vessels. The Hot Pursuit, The Avril Q, and others.
As it turned out the Integrity never did become the pick-up boat, it was sold to an outfit that used it for the clean-up in Alaska for a little oil spill that occurred that year courtesy of the Exxon Valdez.