Here’s a final sea story for the Summer.
30 years ago a 167’ fishing boat named West 1 sank on her way from Honolulu to the Philippines. Her crew of seven were cast into the sea without warning, at night. The castaways, in liferafts, survived for weeks. One died. Another set out in a skiff, with improvised sails, navigating by sextant, alone. So far, the story promises to be an exciting, if sad, tale of survival at sea. But there is much more to the story.
I first heard it as a young mate. One of the heroes of the story went on to be a distinguished captain in the maritime industry. Recent contact with him caused me to recall the story. I understand he is reticent about discussing the incident, which I respect. I sincerely hope he is not too offended if I resurrect it.
Here are the details, condensed from a newspaper account written 30 years ago by the journalist Richard E. Meyer. Unfortunately I butchered his article by abridging it. I’ve also left out names. Do a bit of Googling and you can read the whole thing. Much better. But here goes:
“West 1 listed to starboard. Her stern sank, and she settled. Then she sank some more, and her bow rose straight up. From the life raft, she looked like a buoy against the sky.The First Mate heard her port engine rumble and die. The sea rushed in through the stern, and it forced air up and out through the foredeck vents. From 40 feet away, the rush sounded like a roar. For two harrowing weeks the crew tossed in life rafts and drifted across 230 miles of the Pacific north of Hawaii. They were rescued by a research ship 350 miles northeast of Honolulu. But not before the First Mate had struck out on his own. One day after the sinking, he had climbed into the aluminum skiff and gone to find help. Instead, he disappeared… The First Mate, an experienced seaman, first stepped aboard the West 1 in Seattle. She was a 167-foot commercial fish processing boat headed for the Philippines…He met Capt. Calderon…and the rest of the crew: Tom Devins, the [owners] representative; the second mate; the ship's engineer; and three other crew members. The hand of fate stayed steady until the ship was three days out of Honolulu--575 miles to the northeast. It was June 21. At 4:40 a.m., a voice cried out: "Get up, we're sinking. Everybody get up! We're sinking!” The First Mate climbed out of bed, tried to turn on the lights, discovered there was no electricity The boat was listing. Devins told him not to enter the engine room because it was taking on water… But what had happened nobody seemed to know. The First Mate ran to the bridge. Calderon was sitting in the captain's chair. He seemed to be in shock. Jacobsen told him the vessel was sinking. "Stop the ship," he said. "Put the engines in neutral." The captain did.…Launching rafts from a moving vessel could cause them to fill with water or tangle their lines in the screws…. The First Mate and Devins lifted [an aluminum skiff] onto the rail at the bow of the ship. Then they tied the two rafts, afloat and already holding some of the crew, to the skiff. In the chaos, the First Mate ran to his quarters, collected his sea bag [and sleeping bag]. He ran up to the bridge and checked the radios. All were dead except one, an emergency, battery-operated signal-sender that Devins had told him he had already activated. Jacobsen grabbed his sextant and a chart of the Pacific Ocean. Before leaving the ship, Jacobsen found its EPIRB. He took it along with him to the rafts. The First Mate and Devins were the last to abandon ship. They lowered themselves down a hand line directly into the rafts. They tried to operate the EPIRB…It appeared to work for awhile, but…it floated away. Afterward, tensions arose quickly. Most centered on the aluminum skiff. When the wind and seas were up, it kept threatening to puncture the inflated rafts…The next day, Jacobsen decided he would get into the skiff and set it adrift. He planned to stay in the vicinity of the rafts but remain far enough away to ease the tension--and double chances for a casual encounter with another ship. Jacobsen put aboard his share of water--18 containers…and nine cans of sea biscuits…He started the Evinrude, foolishly burning some of the two cups of gasoline in the tank. He bailed out the skiff and fell asleep. [Two days later], with the can opener in a pocket knife, he cut a hole into the wooden thwart. He took a seven-foot oar and fitted it into the hole. He cut his sleeping bag into two sails and hung them onto mast… the dead engine provided just enough drag to serve as a rudder. He was under way. Excited by the prospect of reaching Hawaii and summoning aid for his shipmates, the First Mate ran wing and wing all night. With the wind from astern, he fairly flew. [Days passed]. Flying fish fell into the skiff. Jacobsen filleted and ate them. Each day at midday, he used his sextant and his jogger's watch to measure the angle of the sun at noon--to determine his LAN… [Days later]he saw the lights of Oahu. He celebrated by drinking an extra can of water. But the wind was from full astern. Unable to tack, he sailed right past Oahu…On July 7, he passed one mile south of Kauai.
[ Later he found] he was headed straight for Niihau.
At about 150 feet out froth beach, he jumped into the surf [and made it ashore]. He slept on a surfboard that had washed up on the rocks, then set out in the morning for a navy communication facility on a mountaintop. By the morning of July 10, he had reached the mountaintop… He was met by, the project manager, in a jeep. Construction workers gave him a ham and cheese sandwich and a Coke.”
So much for the brave and skillful First Mate. As for the rest of the crew, here is a heavily edited version of the AP new service story at the time:
"Skipper Enrique Calderon, 59, died on the morning of July 4, 1986, less than 24 hours before the other survivors -- five men, a woman, and a small dog - were rescued. Calderon 'seemed to just give up,' a survivor said. 'I don't know. He got too worried over too many different things and got sick…” He was buried at sea.The other survivors were picked up by USNS Indomitable, which spotted their flares early… 580 miles northeast of the island of Hawaii. The six spent two weeks in a pair of life rafts after the West I, a converted Navy tug…sank June 21. A small dog also survived the shipwreck and is in quarantine in Honolulu. The survivors told reporters about the monotony of their ordeal. ‘’…We had our own, you know, little squabbles over small things - dumb little things, because everybody was so on edge -- but pretty much we did stay together…” So there is the tale of the sinking of the West 1. But I mentioned there was more to it. Soon after the survivors made it ashore, the loss of the boat was suspected of being an insurance scam, perpetrated by a mysterious individual aboard. If the sinking of West 1 was an insurance scam, then the captain’s death could be called murder; the second murder laid at the door step of this mysterious character. That’s the first mystery. The second is this: While the sinking, and suspicion of insurance fraud, was a cause celebre in the Summer of 1986, the entire matter disappears from public record immediately afterwards, unsolved and forgotten. Why? But this post must have set a record for length. And, maybe, boring content. So I'll stop here, and if anyone is interested let me know, and I’ll finish it later.