The bow slowly nosed downward. While others lowered the skiff, Fernandes cut loose “anything that would float, so passing ships might see the debris — and the crew would have something to hold onto if they ended up in the ocean.” To make more debris, he hacked free bamboo poles on the chummer’s canopy.
Clarence held the bowline as the crew boarded the skiff. “Stand by astern,” he told them.
No one wore life jackets. “They didn’t like them,” says Arnold. “In those days, life jackets were big and bulky and stuffed with slabs of cork. They were too heavy to permit much movement. Even my brother wouldn’t wear one. And he couldn’t swim.”
He told him, “Get your jacket on!”
Clarence shouted, “Don’t need it!”
The brothers were the last to leave. They jumped down from the stern, took positions up front. As the winds rose, crewmen pulled hard on the oars.
“Without the large skiff,” says Fernandes, “I’m afraid we’d have been lost at sea. Also this: for an unknown reason I picked up a bottle of Seagram’s VO and a can of asparagus sloshing around the deck. I threw them into the skiff. Little did I know that the can would save our lives!”
When they were less than 40 feet away, the Sun Beauty went down in a whirl of foam. “We were all in our shorts — had no time to dress. Our clothes, all our belongings,” including a shaving kit with lucky gold coins that Fernandes had carried throughout World War II, “sank with the ship.”
“The last thing I saw I’ll never forget: ‘Sun Beauty, San Diego’ on the stern, before she disappeared in churning bubbles of water. The whole crew had tears in their eyes. And what an eerie feeling: it gets smaller and smaller, then swallowed up. Something you’ve been living on for weeks and months. Like watching your home sink.”
Fernandes estimates that from the time the boat listed to the time it sunk was at most 15 minutes. “All these things ran through my mind,” he recalls. But once in the skiff, he had a single thought: “Everyone made it out okay.”
“The sea was rough, but skies were clear. It wasn’t foggy or raining. Just big swells, big rolling ones, way over our heads.” The real storm, they learned later, was on the way.
When the skiff reached the top of a swell, they could see the horizon. But then it nosed back down into a trough, “and no one could see us.”
The skiff began to fill like a bathtub. The crew had just a few inches of freeboard, above the water level. “We bailed and rowed, bailed and rowed. We tried to head toward shore, hoping someone would see us or the debris, but couldn’t get any closer.” They bailed gallons and gallons of brine, but that only made room for more.
Clarence had a thought. Tie a blanket to one of the eight-foot oars and make a sail. He tried. No go. The wind lufted it.
Around noon, with over six hours in the skiff, the winds picked up. Two nearby albacore boats were headed for Colonet. One was so close that Fernandes could make out the name: Lusitania. “We were too low in the water; they couldn’t see us.”
A crewman handed Fernandes an old flare gun and five or six hand flares. When the skiff reached the crest of a swell, he pulled the trigger. “A dud. Probably put onboard when the ship was built.”
Fernandes tried the hand flares. Same procedure: skiff rises, ignite a flare, raise it high. “I did that, and they dripped. Look” — he rolls up a sleeve: thin red scars streak down the inside of his right forearm.
For a few seconds, the ships might have seen something — debris? — then kept going. Men on the skiff yelled, but roaring winds and walls of water muffled their pleas for help.
The sun sank quickly, as if to avoid the oncoming storm.
Around 5:00 p.m., they spotted a small albacore boat chugging toward Colonet. It bounded like a cork on the mountainous waves.
“I figured this is our last chance,” recalls Fernandes. He picked up the can of asparagus and polished the lid. At the peak of a swell, he aimed the lid directly at the sun and the boat’s flying bridge. “I sent an SOS: dit…dit…dit dah-dah-dah. I could see reflections I was making on the windows.”
The boat continued south. “Our hearts began to sink. Then all of a sudden, it turned and headed toward us.”
But even the rescue was in doubt. The boat was the Lillian Ann, a 20-foot albacore vessel out of Fort Bragg. It only had a two-man crew and “wasn’t much larger than our skiff.” It was seaworthy, though, and roller-coastered up and down rows and rows of waves, the spindrift lit by the setting sun.
“It seemed a lifetime for them to reach us.” When they did, they threw the skiff a line and towed it to the harbor at Colonet.
“That was the last vessel headed in before the sun went down. I don’t know if we could have made it through the night.”
The next day, the Perseus (one of the cutters Fernandes served on during the war) came from San Diego and picked them up. “They gave us food and water, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, so we didn’t have to land in San Diego in our shorts.”
A rumor spread through San Diego that the Sun Beauty had gone down with all hands. “As we approached the Embarcadero, we could see our worried families. I can’t tell you how relieved they became.”
The Coast Guard and various insurance companies interviewed the crew about the cause of the shipwreck. No one had an answer.
“My theory,” says Fernandes: “The ship took on a large wave from portside. It rolled her over to starboard. This caused the ice in the hold to shift from port to starboard. I think that’s it. But today it still remains a mystery.”
Part 1: Anatomy of a Tuna Clipper | Part 2: Let's Catch Us Some Tuna! | Part 3: The Lone Wolf Hits a Royal Flush