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Waves capsize A.C.E. bait boat full of sardines and mackerel

San Clemente man with binoculars helps crew rescue

The writer exploring the wreck in December 2010.
The writer exploring the wreck in December 2010.

The crew of the A.C.E. noticed the weather start to change after midnight: the slight breeze and calm conditions morphed into a wicked offshore wind. The boat, a 58-foot commercial fishing vessel, was heading due north after a night of bait fishing, and riding in the trough. Large vertical swells, in sets only three seconds apart, began pounding the boat’s port side.

Bob Lohrman (left) and Roger Healy were the first to dive the A.C.E. after it was located nearly two years after it went down.

Captain Robert Machado and his three crewmembers checked to make sure the A.C.E. wasn’t taking on any water. But there was one area they couldn’t check: the port side compartment, which stretched from the engine room to the lazarette. The only access was through a circular hatch on a low-lying deck that was already almost a foot underwater. For more than an hour, the swells slammed into the vessel. Eventually, Machado felt the A.C.E. start to list slightly — enough to cause some concern. He had a hunch that the hatch’s seal had broken and the compartment was taking on water.

The crew could see the lights of the harbor, maybe six or seven miles away. Machado was confident they could make it. They’d come more than 65 miles with a full load of fresh bait; anglers were depending on them. But 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, he could tell that the boat wasn’t responding correctly. The list was more radical now.

Souder remembers, “The waves weren’t that big, but they were close together and their shape was sharp. They were almost straight up and down. A lot of times, when a wave hits a boat, some it falls on top and the rest of the swell curves over it. In our case, the waves were breaking on top of the deck and pushing the boat down. It was really gnarly — shallow water waves that were breaking on top of us. I could hear the waves hitting the boat, and just like when you’re driving a car, if something hits the tire, you can feel it — same way with a boat. The boat would go up, come down, and stay down.”

Souder popped up from his bunk and headed up to the wheelhouse to find a white-knuckled Machado. They slowed the boat and moved the boom from the center to the starboard side to see if it might help shift the weight. The A.C.E. leveled off a bit, but even so, Machado was thinking about calling Buck Everingham, who had managed the family business ever since his father Roy retired. Roy had designed the boat in the mid-1980s, and it was named after Buck’s grandfather, Adolphus Charles Everingham.

He never made the call. The A.C.E. was hit by two more large swells, which tipped the boat radically onto its port side. He ordered his crew to abandon ship, and as he reached for the microphone to issue a mayday, the boat was hit by another wave and rolled into the ocean. “When it rolled, it rolled fast,” Souder remembers. So fast, the crew was unable to release the skiff or grab any lifejackets.

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 capsized. Machado, who was entering the wheelhouse, pushed himself out of the doorway and clawed his way up the side of the vessel as it rolled on top of him. Though the boat was upside down, the six 500-watt halogen deck lights they used to help them fish at night were still illuminated, which was critical in helping Machado navigate.

The moment he surfaced, he saw the bottom of the skiff that was chained to the back of the vessel. Machado’s instincts told him to swim toward the stern, but several feet of net had rolled off the drum and blocked his passage. Fearing that he might become entangled, he swam back to the bow and surfaced. Though he was a veteran seaman with more than 30 years of experience, there was one skill he hadn’t mastered: 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, 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.

The A.C.E. towed a 14 ft. skiff. The crew was unable to cut the chain connecting the skiff to the A.C.E after it capsized.

For his part, Souder recalled, “When the boat first rolled, I started looking for the life raft and the emergency radio beacon, because both of those things are supposed to float. I didn’t see the EPRIB flashing, and it’s a bright flash — a bright LED.” The hydrostatic release on the life raft malfunctioned as well. When the raft is submerged under water, it is supposed to automatically release and inflate. Souder couldn’t locate either one, so he swam directly to the skiff. “It was hard enough for me to keep myself above water, but when I heard Hal scream, I started that way, but there was no way I could get to him. So when Drew said, ‘I see him and I’ll go get him,’ I headed for the skiff.”

Rector spotted his captain and jumped in without hesitation. A former standout high school water polo player, Rector reached him in seconds. Soon, freezing cold and soaked in a mixture of diesel fuel and salt water, Machado, Rector and Shanahan were huddled in the small boat. Souder was still in the water, hanging onto the side.

Gone Fishing

For the past week, the A.C.E. had been docked at San Diego’s G Street Pier for routine vessel and net maintenance. But being “on the street” is the last place a commercial fisherman wants to be. And Dana Wharf Sportfishing was running low on bait. Anglers were catching yellowtail and sea bass off Catalina, 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 coast. He had 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, Souder was already beaten up from years of fishing the California coast with his father. He had fished in Alaska during the summer of 2000 and had survived two vessel accidents in roughly 15 years. The two were family — second cousins — and had worked together on the Mona Lisa in the 1990s.

When Machado called, Souder was out of fishing and had settled into his new job as a fleet manager for a rental car company. But while the job offered him stable and safe employment, fishing was in his blood. Everingham was offering a salary, and Souder would be joining the crew as the engineer and deck boss, the second in command. Souder thought he was hearing things. “Earning a salary is very rare in the fishing industry. Typically, you’re paid a percentage of the catch,” he said. “Hal mentioned that there was an opportunity for me to eventually move into a captain’s position.”

Ed Westberg spotted flares from his San Clemente home and guided the deputies to the site and rescued the crew.

So yes, he was interested. But he wanted to inspect the boat. “I didn’t like the placement of the deck hatches,” he recalls. “They were located in the lowest possible area when the boat is loaded down. The deck hatches were about six inches from a step up, so if water got on the deck, which is a given, you were going to get a foot of water there. That’s not a place where you want a potential access for water.” Still, he agreed to join.

Skiff operator Kane Shanahan, 19, grew up on the sportfishing side of the business. His father Tom Shanahan was owner-operator of the Game Fish, and later became a freelance captain for several boat owners. Andrew Rector, 24, was an Army veteran with combat and mechanical experience. Machado thought Rector was full of piss and vinegar; he liked strippers and bad girls. They called him Drew.

On the short ride to the fuel dock, the crew finished its preparations, 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 port side hatch had given them problems during previous trips. Recalls Souder, “We had a weld mark on the hatch, which lined up to a weld mark on the back bulkhead. And the weld mark on the hatch was facing toward that weld mark on the back tank. The port side hatch was right underneath a scupper, which allowed the water to flow out. While they were doing maintenance on the boat — changing hydraulic lines —they moved our mark, which we used to line up the hatch. That was always a major concern of mine.”

Ride Out

Although it was clear and calm at 4 pm, forecasters predicted an offshore wind ranging from 10 to 20 knots (with gusts to 30) for the area northwest of Oceanside, starting late Friday night into Saturday. It was a large variable, meaning the forecast was likely to change. Buck Everingham, who was vacationing with his family in Lake Tahoe, spoke to Machado by phone about the forecast, but his captain didn’t seem too concerned. Everingham told Machado he’d rather have him wait for the weather to pass, but said that ultimately, it was up to him 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. Before sunset, Machado spotted several vessels circling on the horizon. Through his binoculars, he recognized the San Pedro gillnet fleet and knew they were fishing barracuda. He also knew that that barracuda targeted the 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.” Machado and Souder debated the idea, but Machado stood firm and they headed into deeper water.

About 10 miles off the coast of Oceanside, Machado’s hunch proved correct: the A.C.E.’s sonar picked up three small schools, which he thought were close enough to get his net around. Souder: “From what I remember, the schools were very scattered. There were a lot of fish in that area. We knew the load would most likely be sardines or mackerel, but we didn’t know the size, species or quality.” Once Machado got the net around the bait schools, it was pursed. The load was tightened until the fish were tight enough to go through the doors in the side of the hull. Once the doors were opened, the bait was loaded and dropped into combing tanks filled with recirculating seawater. It took about an hour to get the bait in the tanks, but they had hit the trifecta: one school of sardines and two schools of mackerel. It was a lucky catch, considering the distance they had traveled and the chances of netting a variety of bait in one attempt.

With a full load, they rolled the net back onto the drum, secured the gear, and headed back to shore; they planned to be tied up in the harbor well before dawn. Then, as the A.C.E. headed into shallow water, Souder noticed the change. “The air started warming up a bit, and swells were coming from a different direction—east to west and south to west.” The variable mentioned in the forecast “was starting to happen a little earlier than planned.”

John Pratt, captain of the Rival, another boat in Everingham Bros.’s fleet, radioed at about 1 am, asking for a weather report. Machado told him to turn back, but Pratt said it wasn’t that bad behind Pt. Loma, which is behind Pt. La Jolla—points on the coastline that break up the wind and swell. Dana Point, in comparison, doesn’t stick out that far, so mariners are wide open to the channels heading from San Clemente to Catalina Island. Machado had experienced rougher weather in his years as a live bait fisherman, but he felt a little uneasy. “I put Kane and Drew on wheel watch,” he says, “and went down below and checked the engine room and all the compartments. Even if there was a quarter inch of water, I’d pump it out. We weren’t taking on any water.” But he couldn’t check under that submerged port hatch.

Sling Shot

Returning to the wreck: the 280-pound Souder was hanging on the side of the skiff because he was exhausted and didn’t have the strength to pull himself into the boat. Efforts by the crew to get him in the boat failed several times. The capsized A.C.E heaved in the churning sea as it slowly sank, still chained to the skiff. Each wave would pull the aluminum craft away from the bigger boat, then slam it back into the steel hull. They were roughly five miles south of the harbor, but the current was moving them down the coast and farther out to sea as the minutes ticked by. Machado didn’t waste time. There had not been time to grab lifejackets, so he improvised. The skiff had rubber bumpers — fenders filled with air that covered its perimeter. He cut the bumpers off, tied the pieces together with fishing twine, and made a small flotation device for each crewmember. There was also a small toolbox containing flashlights and other supplies, including a flare pistol.

Machado emptied the batteries out of one flashlight, taped the red plastic housing to the top of another flashlight to create a makeshift beacon and then taped that to a broomstick handle. He gave it to Rector, the tallest of the four. They steadied the lanky Army veteran on the skiff’s console so he could stand straight up and wave it above his head. Machado grabbed the flare pistol, loaded a round, and fired. They watched the red ball of sparks cut through the clouds and disappear, and hoped that someone, anyone might see it. The chances were slim: at 2:30 am, it was a safe bet that most of Dana Point and San Clemente was fast asleep. They took turns waving the flashlight. Machado shot off another flare.

Chad Steffen (left) and Josh Aardema located the A.C.E. in June 2007.

The chain connecting the skiff to the stern of the A.C.E. was shackled to the bow, so without a chain cutter, there was no way to disconnect it. Machado scanned the shoreline. “We’re holding on in the skiff, with the improvised floatation devices I made, and I’m looking for a place on the beach — the closest spot,” the captain recalls. “We were going to stay in the skiff until the last possible minute. I didn’t want to put my crew in the water until it was absolutely necessary — so we were going to stay with the boat. That’s when I realized we were getting father away from the beach. By delaying the swim, I increased our distance.” He calculated their odds. They weren’t good.

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Somebody’s Out There

Ed Westberg’s San Clemente home sits a little north of the famed Trestles surfing spots. From its spot on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, he can see Cotton’s Point, another surf spot, Seal Rock straight ahead, and the entrance to the Dana Point Harbor to the north. Westberg’s blood pressure medicine made it difficult for him to sleep through the night. At a little before 3 am that Sunday morning, he felt the usual the urge to go to the bathroom. Groggy, he pulled himself out of bed, and as he walked past the sliding glass door of his second-story bedroom, a red spark lit up his peripheral vision. “I was still half asleep,” Westberg remembers. “I was thinking ‘Was that a flare I saw out there?’”

He called 9-1-1. The operator connected him to Tina Maguire, the Orange County Sheriff’s dispatcher in Newport Beach. About five minutes later, he saw a red light — very dim, but in the same area as the flare. He estimated it to be about two to four miles offshore, in the area between Cotton’s Point and Seal Rock. An experienced sailor, he surmised that there was someone out there — and that they were sending a distress signal.

Still on his phone, he stepped out on his deck. The Santa Ana winds whistled around his home — clanging wind chimes, whipping flags, and even making loose gutters bang against fascia boards. With one hand on the deck’s wooden rail and the other holding binoculars to his face, he described what he saw to Maguire and told her to call back if they needed more help. “We watched the fire boat leave the harbor and move down the coast,” the now-retired dentist explains. “With its blue light on, it was easy to spot.”

As the patrol boat reached the San Clemente pier, Westberg’s phone rang. Maguire told him that the deputies were having trouble seeing anything because of the sea conditions. “I told her they hadn’t come far enough south,” Westberg says. As the boat headed down the coast, Maguire said the deputies still couldn’t see anything. Westberg asked Maguire to connect him directly to the patrol boat. “You need to come further south and then away from shore,” Westberg told the deputy.

Rescue

At 3:09 am, the radio inside the marine substation squawked: “RED FLARE SEEN FIVE MINUTES AGO THREE MILES OFFSHORE JUST SOUTH OF SEAL ROCK…” When they heard the call, deputies Diane Honicker and Russell Endsley were skeptical. Nobody should have been out there, not in those conditions. Nevertheless, the deputies grabbed their floatation coats, sprinted out the side door of the small facility, and untied the 32-foot Seaway fireboat, its engines already warmed up.

In the years the two had patrolled the Orange County waterways, they’d experienced rough conditions and made some difficult rescues, but this one was going to be rougher than most. “When we were headed out, the swells were clearing the canopy, and I was completely drenched — the water was hitting me in the face consistently,” Honicker remembers.

As they moved down the coast, eight-foot waves dropped out from underneath them, sending the boat on a wild ride of peaks and valleys. Maguire radioed with an update: “ADVISING FLARE WAS SEEN A LITTLE FURTHER DOWN COAST AND ABOUT THREE MILES OFFSHORE…HE SEES LIGHTS FROM A BOAT OUT THERE BUT IT’S HARD TO TELL DISTANCE IN THE DARK…” Then the dispatcher connected the informant directly to Honicker. She changed her heading, but still couldn’t see anything. Westberg told her to come further south and then head away from shore.

Honicker recalls, “I saw a little flash, a tiny little flash — something caught my eye. So I turned and headed away from shore. But he was saying, ‘No, no…you’re going in the wrong direction.’ I told Endsley, ‘Listen there’s nobody out here except for us and who’s ever in trouble. I saw something, and that’s where I’m headed.’” Honicker took a new compass heading, and a few minutes later, Endsley shined the boat’s high-wattage search lights off the port side. At first, they thought they were looking at some kind of military hovercraft, which wasn’t too far out of the realm of possibility, considering the fact that the Camp Pendleton Marine Base was only a few miles away. But as they got closer, they realized it was a huge engine prop sticking out of the water from a capsized vessel. “And there was a small boat that was right on top of the prop,” Honicker remembers. “The skiff was angled with its stern popping up as the A.C.E. was dragging it down. I saw how big the prop was, and I yelled, ‘What kind of boat is it?’ And one of the crewmembers yelled back that it was the A.C.E. bait boat.”

When Honicker heard “bait boat”, she made a quick U-turn, cut the port engine so she’d have at least have one engine in case the other one got tangled up, made a sharp right turn, threw it in reverse — using the starboard engine for control —and angled the swim step as close to the skiff as possible. While Honicker fought to maintain their position in the roiling ocean, Endsley assisted each crewmember onto the fireboat. Because of Souder’s weight and fatigued condition, it took every ounce of strength Shanahan, Rector and Machado had to help him on to the swim step. When Endsley grabbed him, the two boats dropped off the crest of a swell, and all of Souder’s weight shifted. Endsley felt a sharp pain in his shoulder; he pulled Souder onto the boat, but tore his rotator cuff in the process.

Once Souder was on board, Shanahan and Rector jumped from the skiff onto the rescue boat. Machado followed. By all accounts, it took less than five minutes to get the crew off the skiff; Honicker shifted into drive and they were gone.

Endsley helped the four inside the small cabin, gave them blankets, and cranked up the heat. According to the deputies, the crew was hypothermic and in various stages of shock. As they pulled away, Machado remembers seeing Honicker looking back to where they were seconds earlier and he could tell by her expression that the skiff had disappeared. As the fireboat bounced hard off the swells, Shanahan looked at Rector and said, “Now you know why Hal put the flare pistol in the skiff.” According to the dispatch record, the search and rescue was completed in less than one hour, thanks in large part to Westberg’s involvement.

Back inside the sheriff’s facility, the crew showered and changed into dry clothes provided by the deputies. While the crew declined medical treatment, Machado was still in shock. He’d lost all of his personal gear in the accident, including his cell phone, and couldn’t remember important numbers. So he called his brother Joe, who called Everingham to let him know what happened. “Machado was in tears,” Honicker remembers. “He was hugging me — extremely grateful. I think they all realized just how close they came to dying out there.”

Aftermath

For weeks after the accident, the sheriff’s underwater search and recovery team, the Coast Guard, fishermen, and virtually anybody with a boat and sonar device went searching for the A.C.E.. But everyone came up empty.

Although Machado went back to work, he wasn’t the same. He suffered from post-traumatic stress. He put his wedding plans on hold. He had lost his passion for the sea. Losing the A.C.E. was like having an albatross wrapped around his neck. “It’s something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life,” he says.

To combat his depression, he sent hand-written letters to government officials and the sheriff’s department, detailing the rescue and how the efforts of Westberg, the dispatcher, and the two deputies saved him and his crew. On February 8, 2006, the Orange County Board of Supervisors recognized Westberg for his civic involvement. Machado and Honicker attended. A month later, the O.C. Sheriff’s Department hosted its 18th Annual Medal of Valor Luncheon, where Honicker and Endsley received medals for life saving. Buck and Kate Everingham attended and presented the deputies with a plaque as well.

Sweet Spot

Nearly two years after the A.C.E. went down in the wind-whipped waters off the coast of San Clemente, Chad Steffen was taking a group of anglers out on the San Mateo, one of several boats in Dana Wharf’s Sportfishing fleet. It was June 2007. “During the summer, we’ll head down the coast for a day trip and fish the typical spots,” Steffen explains. “As a fleet, we’re going to swing to the outside a little bit, to a depth range of 90 to 240 feet. Sometimes we’ll stagger ourselves as we’re looking for fish coming up from Baja.”

As captain, Steffen watched his fathometer, an echo sounder used for measuring the water depth, closely as the San Mateo motored a few miles out of the harbor. “We ran over an edge of something where there was a solid indication of fish,” he says. “I turned the boat around and came back to try to find it again, and the second time I was thinking, ‘What the heck is this?’ Considering the time of year, I was also thinking it could be a really concentrated ball of sand bass. We anchored on it and immediately started catching bass, but then we started catching rockfish too, which are structure fish — you’re not going to find them out in the mud. I’ve been fishing these areas for several years, and I knew there was no structure down there, so it had to be something new. That’s when I thought it was probably the A.C.E. and wrote the coordinates down.”

A.C.E. tied up in San Diego. The bait boat operated for 19 years.

Steffen knew the value of what he had. “When I realized it was most likely the A.C.E., I wanted to keep that to myself — I didn’t want the word to get out,” he says. His interest in the prospect of a great haul overrode the fact that he might have solved a mystery. “The other boats in the fleet weren’t catching anything, so they moved to other spots, and I didn’t tell them we were catching rockfish either. We stayed on it for a couple of hours and caught a lot of fish.”

Steffen and his deck hand, Josh Aardema, kept quiet for a solid year. But eventually, word got out and people grew more curious. “We’re a pretty close-knit community here,” Steffen said. “We share information about fishing spots all the time, but this one was mine, and I wasn’t giving it to anybody. People started looking a lot harder — they knew the general area of where it went down — but it’s a big area,” Steffen recounts. “You get out of the harbor and you don’t realize how much ocean there is to cover. Nobody knew which way the A.C.E. was drifting when it sank.”

About a year after Steffen marked the site, Roger Healy, a local diver and fisherman, expressed interest in diving it. “Roger said he wanted to dive the site and that he wouldn’t share the location with anyone else,” says Steffen. “He was the only one I gave the numbers to. While I was reluctant to give them out, I was also curious.”

While Steffen is credited with finding the A.C.E., Healy and Bob Lohrman were the first to dive on it. Recalls Healy: “The first thing I saw was the life ring; I swam right to it and cut it off. We wanted to establish that it was the A.C.E. It was eerie … especially being the first ones to dive on it. The skiff was still attached to the stern, and the net was still covered — it was in perfect condition.” As a gesture of goodwill, they returned the A.C.E.’s life ring to Everingham Bros.

By 2010, Steffen’s closely guarded fishing spot had become a heavily trafficked area for anglers and divers. For Beach Cities Scuba, the wreck was a boon for business, albeit temporarily. The site became so popular that several buoys, set to help captains locate it easily, were cut; fishermen didn’t want the spot marked at all, and they made sure the divers weren’t going to make it easy for just anybody to tie up there. There was no love lost between the two groups. The tension endured until the dive shop finally gave up trying to maintain a buoy and quit taking divers out to the wreck altogether. (It has since been reopened.)

To locals, the A.C.E.‘s resting place 114 feet below the surface was akin to a sacred burial ground; a chapter of Dana Point’s fishing history that was better left alone. “You can understand the frustration,” Healy says. “There was a very small group of people who knew about it for a fairly long time. And there aren’t a lot of unique areas left like that.”

Full Circle

When his 35-year career as a commercial fisherman went down with the A.C.E., Machado was forced to broaden his horizons. This was ultimately beneficial; he was able to appreciate more thoroughly his footprint on the earth. He retired from San Diego-based CEVA Logistics in 2021 and relocated to northern Arizona, where he lives with his wife Mary of 15 years.

Adam Souder returned to Everingham Bros. after the accident, but a back injury forced him out of fishing for good. He was later employed by the Ralph’s grocery chain. Kane Shanahan and Andrew Rector declined several requests to be interviewed for this story.

[This is a condensed version of the story. The author is currently seeking support for a film based on the complete account.]

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The writer exploring the wreck in December 2010.
The writer exploring the wreck in December 2010.

The crew of the A.C.E. noticed the weather start to change after midnight: the slight breeze and calm conditions morphed into a wicked offshore wind. The boat, a 58-foot commercial fishing vessel, was heading due north after a night of bait fishing, and riding in the trough. Large vertical swells, in sets only three seconds apart, began pounding the boat’s port side.

Bob Lohrman (left) and Roger Healy were the first to dive the A.C.E. after it was located nearly two years after it went down.

Captain Robert Machado and his three crewmembers checked to make sure the A.C.E. wasn’t taking on any water. But there was one area they couldn’t check: the port side compartment, which stretched from the engine room to the lazarette. The only access was through a circular hatch on a low-lying deck that was already almost a foot underwater. For more than an hour, the swells slammed into the vessel. Eventually, Machado felt the A.C.E. start to list slightly — enough to cause some concern. He had a hunch that the hatch’s seal had broken and the compartment was taking on water.

The crew could see the lights of the harbor, maybe six or seven miles away. Machado was confident they could make it. They’d come more than 65 miles with a full load of fresh bait; anglers were depending on them. But 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, he could tell that the boat wasn’t responding correctly. The list was more radical now.

Souder remembers, “The waves weren’t that big, but they were close together and their shape was sharp. They were almost straight up and down. A lot of times, when a wave hits a boat, some it falls on top and the rest of the swell curves over it. In our case, the waves were breaking on top of the deck and pushing the boat down. It was really gnarly — shallow water waves that were breaking on top of us. I could hear the waves hitting the boat, and just like when you’re driving a car, if something hits the tire, you can feel it — same way with a boat. The boat would go up, come down, and stay down.”

Souder popped up from his bunk and headed up to the wheelhouse to find a white-knuckled Machado. They slowed the boat and moved the boom from the center to the starboard side to see if it might help shift the weight. The A.C.E. leveled off a bit, but even so, Machado was thinking about calling Buck Everingham, who had managed the family business ever since his father Roy retired. Roy had designed the boat in the mid-1980s, and it was named after Buck’s grandfather, Adolphus Charles Everingham.

He never made the call. The A.C.E. was hit by two more large swells, which tipped the boat radically onto its port side. He ordered his crew to abandon ship, and as he reached for the microphone to issue a mayday, the boat was hit by another wave and rolled into the ocean. “When it rolled, it rolled fast,” Souder remembers. So fast, the crew was unable to release the skiff or grab any lifejackets.

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 capsized. Machado, who was entering the wheelhouse, pushed himself out of the doorway and clawed his way up the side of the vessel as it rolled on top of him. Though the boat was upside down, the six 500-watt halogen deck lights they used to help them fish at night were still illuminated, which was critical in helping Machado navigate.

The moment he surfaced, he saw the bottom of the skiff that was chained to the back of the vessel. Machado’s instincts told him to swim toward the stern, but several feet of net had rolled off the drum and blocked his passage. Fearing that he might become entangled, he swam back to the bow and surfaced. Though he was a veteran seaman with more than 30 years of experience, there was one skill he hadn’t mastered: 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, 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.

The A.C.E. towed a 14 ft. skiff. The crew was unable to cut the chain connecting the skiff to the A.C.E after it capsized.

For his part, Souder recalled, “When the boat first rolled, I started looking for the life raft and the emergency radio beacon, because both of those things are supposed to float. I didn’t see the EPRIB flashing, and it’s a bright flash — a bright LED.” The hydrostatic release on the life raft malfunctioned as well. When the raft is submerged under water, it is supposed to automatically release and inflate. Souder couldn’t locate either one, so he swam directly to the skiff. “It was hard enough for me to keep myself above water, but when I heard Hal scream, I started that way, but there was no way I could get to him. So when Drew said, ‘I see him and I’ll go get him,’ I headed for the skiff.”

Rector spotted his captain and jumped in without hesitation. A former standout high school water polo player, Rector reached him in seconds. Soon, freezing cold and soaked in a mixture of diesel fuel and salt water, Machado, Rector and Shanahan were huddled in the small boat. Souder was still in the water, hanging onto the side.

Gone Fishing

For the past week, the A.C.E. had been docked at San Diego’s G Street Pier for routine vessel and net maintenance. But being “on the street” is the last place a commercial fisherman wants to be. And Dana Wharf Sportfishing was running low on bait. Anglers were catching yellowtail and sea bass off Catalina, 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 coast. He had 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, Souder was already beaten up from years of fishing the California coast with his father. He had fished in Alaska during the summer of 2000 and had survived two vessel accidents in roughly 15 years. The two were family — second cousins — and had worked together on the Mona Lisa in the 1990s.

When Machado called, Souder was out of fishing and had settled into his new job as a fleet manager for a rental car company. But while the job offered him stable and safe employment, fishing was in his blood. Everingham was offering a salary, and Souder would be joining the crew as the engineer and deck boss, the second in command. Souder thought he was hearing things. “Earning a salary is very rare in the fishing industry. Typically, you’re paid a percentage of the catch,” he said. “Hal mentioned that there was an opportunity for me to eventually move into a captain’s position.”

Ed Westberg spotted flares from his San Clemente home and guided the deputies to the site and rescued the crew.

So yes, he was interested. But he wanted to inspect the boat. “I didn’t like the placement of the deck hatches,” he recalls. “They were located in the lowest possible area when the boat is loaded down. The deck hatches were about six inches from a step up, so if water got on the deck, which is a given, you were going to get a foot of water there. That’s not a place where you want a potential access for water.” Still, he agreed to join.

Skiff operator Kane Shanahan, 19, grew up on the sportfishing side of the business. His father Tom Shanahan was owner-operator of the Game Fish, and later became a freelance captain for several boat owners. Andrew Rector, 24, was an Army veteran with combat and mechanical experience. Machado thought Rector was full of piss and vinegar; he liked strippers and bad girls. They called him Drew.

On the short ride to the fuel dock, the crew finished its preparations, 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 port side hatch had given them problems during previous trips. Recalls Souder, “We had a weld mark on the hatch, which lined up to a weld mark on the back bulkhead. And the weld mark on the hatch was facing toward that weld mark on the back tank. The port side hatch was right underneath a scupper, which allowed the water to flow out. While they were doing maintenance on the boat — changing hydraulic lines —they moved our mark, which we used to line up the hatch. That was always a major concern of mine.”

Ride Out

Although it was clear and calm at 4 pm, forecasters predicted an offshore wind ranging from 10 to 20 knots (with gusts to 30) for the area northwest of Oceanside, starting late Friday night into Saturday. It was a large variable, meaning the forecast was likely to change. Buck Everingham, who was vacationing with his family in Lake Tahoe, spoke to Machado by phone about the forecast, but his captain didn’t seem too concerned. Everingham told Machado he’d rather have him wait for the weather to pass, but said that ultimately, it was up to him 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. Before sunset, Machado spotted several vessels circling on the horizon. Through his binoculars, he recognized the San Pedro gillnet fleet and knew they were fishing barracuda. He also knew that that barracuda targeted the 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.” Machado and Souder debated the idea, but Machado stood firm and they headed into deeper water.

About 10 miles off the coast of Oceanside, Machado’s hunch proved correct: the A.C.E.’s sonar picked up three small schools, which he thought were close enough to get his net around. Souder: “From what I remember, the schools were very scattered. There were a lot of fish in that area. We knew the load would most likely be sardines or mackerel, but we didn’t know the size, species or quality.” Once Machado got the net around the bait schools, it was pursed. The load was tightened until the fish were tight enough to go through the doors in the side of the hull. Once the doors were opened, the bait was loaded and dropped into combing tanks filled with recirculating seawater. It took about an hour to get the bait in the tanks, but they had hit the trifecta: one school of sardines and two schools of mackerel. It was a lucky catch, considering the distance they had traveled and the chances of netting a variety of bait in one attempt.

With a full load, they rolled the net back onto the drum, secured the gear, and headed back to shore; they planned to be tied up in the harbor well before dawn. Then, as the A.C.E. headed into shallow water, Souder noticed the change. “The air started warming up a bit, and swells were coming from a different direction—east to west and south to west.” The variable mentioned in the forecast “was starting to happen a little earlier than planned.”

John Pratt, captain of the Rival, another boat in Everingham Bros.’s fleet, radioed at about 1 am, asking for a weather report. Machado told him to turn back, but Pratt said it wasn’t that bad behind Pt. Loma, which is behind Pt. La Jolla—points on the coastline that break up the wind and swell. Dana Point, in comparison, doesn’t stick out that far, so mariners are wide open to the channels heading from San Clemente to Catalina Island. Machado had experienced rougher weather in his years as a live bait fisherman, but he felt a little uneasy. “I put Kane and Drew on wheel watch,” he says, “and went down below and checked the engine room and all the compartments. Even if there was a quarter inch of water, I’d pump it out. We weren’t taking on any water.” But he couldn’t check under that submerged port hatch.

Sling Shot

Returning to the wreck: the 280-pound Souder was hanging on the side of the skiff because he was exhausted and didn’t have the strength to pull himself into the boat. Efforts by the crew to get him in the boat failed several times. The capsized A.C.E heaved in the churning sea as it slowly sank, still chained to the skiff. Each wave would pull the aluminum craft away from the bigger boat, then slam it back into the steel hull. They were roughly five miles south of the harbor, but the current was moving them down the coast and farther out to sea as the minutes ticked by. Machado didn’t waste time. There had not been time to grab lifejackets, so he improvised. The skiff had rubber bumpers — fenders filled with air that covered its perimeter. He cut the bumpers off, tied the pieces together with fishing twine, and made a small flotation device for each crewmember. There was also a small toolbox containing flashlights and other supplies, including a flare pistol.

Machado emptied the batteries out of one flashlight, taped the red plastic housing to the top of another flashlight to create a makeshift beacon and then taped that to a broomstick handle. He gave it to Rector, the tallest of the four. They steadied the lanky Army veteran on the skiff’s console so he could stand straight up and wave it above his head. Machado grabbed the flare pistol, loaded a round, and fired. They watched the red ball of sparks cut through the clouds and disappear, and hoped that someone, anyone might see it. The chances were slim: at 2:30 am, it was a safe bet that most of Dana Point and San Clemente was fast asleep. They took turns waving the flashlight. Machado shot off another flare.

Chad Steffen (left) and Josh Aardema located the A.C.E. in June 2007.

The chain connecting the skiff to the stern of the A.C.E. was shackled to the bow, so without a chain cutter, there was no way to disconnect it. Machado scanned the shoreline. “We’re holding on in the skiff, with the improvised floatation devices I made, and I’m looking for a place on the beach — the closest spot,” the captain recalls. “We were going to stay in the skiff until the last possible minute. I didn’t want to put my crew in the water until it was absolutely necessary — so we were going to stay with the boat. That’s when I realized we were getting father away from the beach. By delaying the swim, I increased our distance.” He calculated their odds. They weren’t good.

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Somebody’s Out There

Ed Westberg’s San Clemente home sits a little north of the famed Trestles surfing spots. From its spot on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, he can see Cotton’s Point, another surf spot, Seal Rock straight ahead, and the entrance to the Dana Point Harbor to the north. Westberg’s blood pressure medicine made it difficult for him to sleep through the night. At a little before 3 am that Sunday morning, he felt the usual the urge to go to the bathroom. Groggy, he pulled himself out of bed, and as he walked past the sliding glass door of his second-story bedroom, a red spark lit up his peripheral vision. “I was still half asleep,” Westberg remembers. “I was thinking ‘Was that a flare I saw out there?’”

He called 9-1-1. The operator connected him to Tina Maguire, the Orange County Sheriff’s dispatcher in Newport Beach. About five minutes later, he saw a red light — very dim, but in the same area as the flare. He estimated it to be about two to four miles offshore, in the area between Cotton’s Point and Seal Rock. An experienced sailor, he surmised that there was someone out there — and that they were sending a distress signal.

Still on his phone, he stepped out on his deck. The Santa Ana winds whistled around his home — clanging wind chimes, whipping flags, and even making loose gutters bang against fascia boards. With one hand on the deck’s wooden rail and the other holding binoculars to his face, he described what he saw to Maguire and told her to call back if they needed more help. “We watched the fire boat leave the harbor and move down the coast,” the now-retired dentist explains. “With its blue light on, it was easy to spot.”

As the patrol boat reached the San Clemente pier, Westberg’s phone rang. Maguire told him that the deputies were having trouble seeing anything because of the sea conditions. “I told her they hadn’t come far enough south,” Westberg says. As the boat headed down the coast, Maguire said the deputies still couldn’t see anything. Westberg asked Maguire to connect him directly to the patrol boat. “You need to come further south and then away from shore,” Westberg told the deputy.

Rescue

At 3:09 am, the radio inside the marine substation squawked: “RED FLARE SEEN FIVE MINUTES AGO THREE MILES OFFSHORE JUST SOUTH OF SEAL ROCK…” When they heard the call, deputies Diane Honicker and Russell Endsley were skeptical. Nobody should have been out there, not in those conditions. Nevertheless, the deputies grabbed their floatation coats, sprinted out the side door of the small facility, and untied the 32-foot Seaway fireboat, its engines already warmed up.

In the years the two had patrolled the Orange County waterways, they’d experienced rough conditions and made some difficult rescues, but this one was going to be rougher than most. “When we were headed out, the swells were clearing the canopy, and I was completely drenched — the water was hitting me in the face consistently,” Honicker remembers.

As they moved down the coast, eight-foot waves dropped out from underneath them, sending the boat on a wild ride of peaks and valleys. Maguire radioed with an update: “ADVISING FLARE WAS SEEN A LITTLE FURTHER DOWN COAST AND ABOUT THREE MILES OFFSHORE…HE SEES LIGHTS FROM A BOAT OUT THERE BUT IT’S HARD TO TELL DISTANCE IN THE DARK…” Then the dispatcher connected the informant directly to Honicker. She changed her heading, but still couldn’t see anything. Westberg told her to come further south and then head away from shore.

Honicker recalls, “I saw a little flash, a tiny little flash — something caught my eye. So I turned and headed away from shore. But he was saying, ‘No, no…you’re going in the wrong direction.’ I told Endsley, ‘Listen there’s nobody out here except for us and who’s ever in trouble. I saw something, and that’s where I’m headed.’” Honicker took a new compass heading, and a few minutes later, Endsley shined the boat’s high-wattage search lights off the port side. At first, they thought they were looking at some kind of military hovercraft, which wasn’t too far out of the realm of possibility, considering the fact that the Camp Pendleton Marine Base was only a few miles away. But as they got closer, they realized it was a huge engine prop sticking out of the water from a capsized vessel. “And there was a small boat that was right on top of the prop,” Honicker remembers. “The skiff was angled with its stern popping up as the A.C.E. was dragging it down. I saw how big the prop was, and I yelled, ‘What kind of boat is it?’ And one of the crewmembers yelled back that it was the A.C.E. bait boat.”

When Honicker heard “bait boat”, she made a quick U-turn, cut the port engine so she’d have at least have one engine in case the other one got tangled up, made a sharp right turn, threw it in reverse — using the starboard engine for control —and angled the swim step as close to the skiff as possible. While Honicker fought to maintain their position in the roiling ocean, Endsley assisted each crewmember onto the fireboat. Because of Souder’s weight and fatigued condition, it took every ounce of strength Shanahan, Rector and Machado had to help him on to the swim step. When Endsley grabbed him, the two boats dropped off the crest of a swell, and all of Souder’s weight shifted. Endsley felt a sharp pain in his shoulder; he pulled Souder onto the boat, but tore his rotator cuff in the process.

Once Souder was on board, Shanahan and Rector jumped from the skiff onto the rescue boat. Machado followed. By all accounts, it took less than five minutes to get the crew off the skiff; Honicker shifted into drive and they were gone.

Endsley helped the four inside the small cabin, gave them blankets, and cranked up the heat. According to the deputies, the crew was hypothermic and in various stages of shock. As they pulled away, Machado remembers seeing Honicker looking back to where they were seconds earlier and he could tell by her expression that the skiff had disappeared. As the fireboat bounced hard off the swells, Shanahan looked at Rector and said, “Now you know why Hal put the flare pistol in the skiff.” According to the dispatch record, the search and rescue was completed in less than one hour, thanks in large part to Westberg’s involvement.

Back inside the sheriff’s facility, the crew showered and changed into dry clothes provided by the deputies. While the crew declined medical treatment, Machado was still in shock. He’d lost all of his personal gear in the accident, including his cell phone, and couldn’t remember important numbers. So he called his brother Joe, who called Everingham to let him know what happened. “Machado was in tears,” Honicker remembers. “He was hugging me — extremely grateful. I think they all realized just how close they came to dying out there.”

Aftermath

For weeks after the accident, the sheriff’s underwater search and recovery team, the Coast Guard, fishermen, and virtually anybody with a boat and sonar device went searching for the A.C.E.. But everyone came up empty.

Although Machado went back to work, he wasn’t the same. He suffered from post-traumatic stress. He put his wedding plans on hold. He had lost his passion for the sea. Losing the A.C.E. was like having an albatross wrapped around his neck. “It’s something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life,” he says.

To combat his depression, he sent hand-written letters to government officials and the sheriff’s department, detailing the rescue and how the efforts of Westberg, the dispatcher, and the two deputies saved him and his crew. On February 8, 2006, the Orange County Board of Supervisors recognized Westberg for his civic involvement. Machado and Honicker attended. A month later, the O.C. Sheriff’s Department hosted its 18th Annual Medal of Valor Luncheon, where Honicker and Endsley received medals for life saving. Buck and Kate Everingham attended and presented the deputies with a plaque as well.

Sweet Spot

Nearly two years after the A.C.E. went down in the wind-whipped waters off the coast of San Clemente, Chad Steffen was taking a group of anglers out on the San Mateo, one of several boats in Dana Wharf’s Sportfishing fleet. It was June 2007. “During the summer, we’ll head down the coast for a day trip and fish the typical spots,” Steffen explains. “As a fleet, we’re going to swing to the outside a little bit, to a depth range of 90 to 240 feet. Sometimes we’ll stagger ourselves as we’re looking for fish coming up from Baja.”

As captain, Steffen watched his fathometer, an echo sounder used for measuring the water depth, closely as the San Mateo motored a few miles out of the harbor. “We ran over an edge of something where there was a solid indication of fish,” he says. “I turned the boat around and came back to try to find it again, and the second time I was thinking, ‘What the heck is this?’ Considering the time of year, I was also thinking it could be a really concentrated ball of sand bass. We anchored on it and immediately started catching bass, but then we started catching rockfish too, which are structure fish — you’re not going to find them out in the mud. I’ve been fishing these areas for several years, and I knew there was no structure down there, so it had to be something new. That’s when I thought it was probably the A.C.E. and wrote the coordinates down.”

A.C.E. tied up in San Diego. The bait boat operated for 19 years.

Steffen knew the value of what he had. “When I realized it was most likely the A.C.E., I wanted to keep that to myself — I didn’t want the word to get out,” he says. His interest in the prospect of a great haul overrode the fact that he might have solved a mystery. “The other boats in the fleet weren’t catching anything, so they moved to other spots, and I didn’t tell them we were catching rockfish either. We stayed on it for a couple of hours and caught a lot of fish.”

Steffen and his deck hand, Josh Aardema, kept quiet for a solid year. But eventually, word got out and people grew more curious. “We’re a pretty close-knit community here,” Steffen said. “We share information about fishing spots all the time, but this one was mine, and I wasn’t giving it to anybody. People started looking a lot harder — they knew the general area of where it went down — but it’s a big area,” Steffen recounts. “You get out of the harbor and you don’t realize how much ocean there is to cover. Nobody knew which way the A.C.E. was drifting when it sank.”

About a year after Steffen marked the site, Roger Healy, a local diver and fisherman, expressed interest in diving it. “Roger said he wanted to dive the site and that he wouldn’t share the location with anyone else,” says Steffen. “He was the only one I gave the numbers to. While I was reluctant to give them out, I was also curious.”

While Steffen is credited with finding the A.C.E., Healy and Bob Lohrman were the first to dive on it. Recalls Healy: “The first thing I saw was the life ring; I swam right to it and cut it off. We wanted to establish that it was the A.C.E. It was eerie … especially being the first ones to dive on it. The skiff was still attached to the stern, and the net was still covered — it was in perfect condition.” As a gesture of goodwill, they returned the A.C.E.’s life ring to Everingham Bros.

By 2010, Steffen’s closely guarded fishing spot had become a heavily trafficked area for anglers and divers. For Beach Cities Scuba, the wreck was a boon for business, albeit temporarily. The site became so popular that several buoys, set to help captains locate it easily, were cut; fishermen didn’t want the spot marked at all, and they made sure the divers weren’t going to make it easy for just anybody to tie up there. There was no love lost between the two groups. The tension endured until the dive shop finally gave up trying to maintain a buoy and quit taking divers out to the wreck altogether. (It has since been reopened.)

To locals, the A.C.E.‘s resting place 114 feet below the surface was akin to a sacred burial ground; a chapter of Dana Point’s fishing history that was better left alone. “You can understand the frustration,” Healy says. “There was a very small group of people who knew about it for a fairly long time. And there aren’t a lot of unique areas left like that.”

Full Circle

When his 35-year career as a commercial fisherman went down with the A.C.E., Machado was forced to broaden his horizons. This was ultimately beneficial; he was able to appreciate more thoroughly his footprint on the earth. He retired from San Diego-based CEVA Logistics in 2021 and relocated to northern Arizona, where he lives with his wife Mary of 15 years.

Adam Souder returned to Everingham Bros. after the accident, but a back injury forced him out of fishing for good. He was later employed by the Ralph’s grocery chain. Kane Shanahan and Andrew Rector declined several requests to be interviewed for this story.

[This is a condensed version of the story. The author is currently seeking support for a film based on the complete account.]

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