The Rising Tide, 1920-1941

CHAPTER FIVE: The Long Chase

For all that anyone knew, it had always been that way. About the first of July of each year, sometimes earlier, sometimes later, albacore arrived at the Coronado Islands in Mexican waters just south of San Diego. In three weeks they worked their way up the California coast through the channel between San Pedro and Catalina Island. By August they were in the vicinity of Santa Cruz Island in the Santa Barbara channel.

By September they had worked their way back to the Coronados. When the skipjack appeared, the albacore disappeared, “like the blowing out of a light.”

Albacore was the choicest of the tuna fish and a whole industry had grown up with a rising demand for its white, tasty meat. Three other varieties of tuna in California and Mexican waters were being taken and processed, yellowfin, bluefin and skipjack. The yellowfin always came in season first, with the beginning of the year, and the fishing lasted about sixty days, when the bluefin came and ran all summer.

The coastal area frequented by the albacore was found to be very small in extent. The southward limit of commercial possibilities was Descanso Point not far below the international border, though occasional specimens were found as far south as San Quintin Bay. The albacore seemed to travel some well-defined ocean highway that reached the coast near San Diego. Where it began or ended nobody knew.

In 1926 the albacore suddenly began shifting farther out to sea and some fishermen feared that they might disappear from the coast altogether. The cause of the change in their habits was not known. There was speculation it might have been due to a shift in the Japanese current, or to a faint contamination of the water from the oil of boats, or from sewers.

The albacore catch in 1925 was more than twenty-two million pounds. In 1926, albacore caught off the California coast had dwindled to a little less than two and a half million pounds. The total rose somewhat in 1927, but the following year was the poorest on record, with less than 300,000 pounds taken in coastal waters.

Summer arrived late in 1929. There really had been no Spring at all. Toward the last of June a few warm days occurred and immediately, as if bred by the sunshine, excited rumors were spread around of albacore landings — big landings — but always at some distant port. By the middle of July some landings were being made at San Diego and a few at San Pedro.

Fishermen were confident that the Long Fin, as they were known, were actually returning in numbers as they were appearing in groups or schools, instead of being dispersed over large areas of the sea. A boat either landed a good catch or none at all. By the end of August, however, it was estimated that the total catch had not exceeded sixty-five tons. In the West Coast Fisheries magazine of September of 1929, George Roger Chute wrote:

“When the sun goes down at six o’clock, you may know that the albacore season is through. With the waning of the days, the Long Fin take their departure, for even the lingering heats of a late September fail to deter them from the instinctive trait of making their autumnal disappearance about the close of the month of August.

“Therefore we know that the end is here. And a queer sort of end it is, for it seems almost like the conclusion of a thing that never had a beginning. Rather than the end of actual fishing, it is the end of our hopes, for all of us — as always — have hoped against hope that this year, this year, the fish would return at last.”

The pursuit of albacore into warmer waters was disappointing. Boats cruised the 825-mile long coast of Lower California, waters they had known but whose fishing possibilities they had never fully developed. Crews became familiar with the isolated bays of the unfriendly peninsula. From San Quintin Bay, 160 miles south of San Diego, they pushed on to Cedros Island and Vizcaino Bay, 300 miles from home, and then visited Turtle Bay just below Vizcaino Bay. Magdalena Bay was 375 miles farther down the peninsula.

Then they turned the bows of their vessels around Cape San Lucas and into the Gulf of California. Eventually the search was carried westward as far as the Hawaiian Islands.

Fishermen learned from their fruitless chase of the albacore that the farther south they went the richer the fishing for yellowfin and skipjack, which were steadily growing in importance. An advertising campaign successfully stimulated the acceptability of “light-meat” instead of “white-meat” tuna. Fishermen discovered in their invasion of the southern seas they did not have to be tied to seasons in taking yellowfin and skipjack.

Tuna often were found with the porpoise and there seemed to be some symbolic relationship between them. Fantastic stories were circulated as to the size and abundance of warm water tuna. The slopes of underwater hills proved to be rich with fish hunting each other. Manuel G. Rosa, a Portuguese skipper who had been born on the island of Pico in the Azores, discovered a fishing bank southwest of Vizcaino Bay which became known as the “Rosa Bank.” He later recalled:

“The tuna were so thick that it looked as if one could have walked across the ocean on their backs. They were hungry, too, and it required very little time to fill our boat to capacity.”

The year that the albacore disappeared the fleets caught more than 16,000,000 pounds of all varieties of tuna in Mexican waters. The total catch, in the waters above and below the international border, was more than 45,000,000 pounds. In another year this was doubled.

In a short time a wide-ranging, live-bait fishing fleet had been created, with a range of more than 5000 miles. It was Manuel O. Medina of San Diego who built the first of the great clippers and then set his eyes on the equator.

The fishing colony of Southern California was dominated by the Portuguese. Medina was born on the volcanic island of Pico in the Azores group 600 miles off the coast of Portugal, as had so many in the fishing fleet. Others had come from San Miguel in the Azores, or from the mainland, and later they were joined by Portuguese from the Madeiras and the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of North Africa. Long periods at sea were common to the Portuguese fishermen. The Lisbon fleets had been sailing regularly from the River Tagus in Portugal to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, on voyages lasting six to eight months.

Other Portuguese had been picked up from their islands by the whaling fleets of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Before them, others had migrated to America and had roamed the Pacific seas with the Boston fur ships. And even before them, a Portuguese in the service of Spain, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, had been the first to explore the northern Pacific Coast and sight the ports of California.

In San Diego they had clustered in the La Playa-Roseville area of Point Loma, from where they originally had pursued the gray whales on the annual migrations up and down the Pacific Coast from breeding grounds in the lagoons of Lower California. In competition with Chinese and Italians, the Portuguese, with their long love and respect of the sea, gradually came to control the off-shore fishing fleets as they spread out over a vast area almost two-thirds the size of the United States.

But when Medina started building the Atlantic many in the industry thought he was “crazy.” The Atlantic was 112 feet long, the first tuna boat of more than 100 feet. It was equipped with refrigeration and a diesel engine. Even at that it probably was only forty-five to fifty feet longer than the San Salvador, the flagship of the tiny fleet with which his countryman, Cabrillo, almost 350 years before had explored the coast at the mercy of the winds.

While the fishermen who persisted in hoping that the albacore would return to Southern California still clung to protected waters, other captains had begun widening their cruises far out to sea. On the cruises which led them to Clarion Island they searched vainly for the Allaire Banks, reported discovered by a commercial ship which claimed it had been able to anchor easily 700 miles off the coast of Mexico.

The banks were thought to be a range of mountains rising from the ocean bed to within a few fathoms of the surface. Perhaps this was the spawning ground of the yellowfin. But the clippers never did find the banks. Neither did they know that this also was the spawning ground of severe storms.

Southeast of the lost banks was Clipperton Island, and far beyond the horizon to the east was the Isthmus of Panama.

In the Spring of 1929 the Atlantic with Medina as captain and Joe Marques as engineer, led four sister vessels past Cape San Lucas at the tip of Lower California, past Cocos Island off the coast of Central America, and drew up at the fabled Galapagos Islands, 500 miles off the coast of Ecuador in South America and more than 3000 miles from home. This was the grandest fishing grounds of them all.

All during 1930 the Atlantic was high ship. It brought in more full fares more times than any other ship, its total of landed fish was higher and the percentage of the catch which had to be discarded unusually small. For the first time the total catch of tuna exceeded 100 million pounds.

Even before the equator had been crossed at the Galapagos, and the richness of the southern waters proved, the lead of Medina had been quickly followed. In the summer of 1929 three even larger tuna boats were being readied for launching at the Campbell Machine Company at San Diego. The San Joao, the largest, 121 feet in length, was being built for Sabina Y. Inos, Medina Sabina and associates, and cost $95,000. The Invader, being built for Joe C. Monise and Mathew Monise, was 117 feet long. The Navigator, 120 feet in length, was being built for Manuel H. Freitas.

The success of larger boats ended attempts to conduct tender fishing, that is, with a “mother” ship and a flock of smaller craft, and discouraged plans for canneries in Lower California which might shorten the distance a clipper would have to travel to unload and return to the banks. In a short time at least fifteen larger clippers were under construction, ranging in size from eighty-five to 120 feet and with capacities of seventy to 200 tons of iced fish.

A description of one of the early cruises to these distant waters in 1930 was carried in West Coast Fisheries of 1931. Edgar E. Crane, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, signed aboard the Navigator with a companion named Ralph Upjohn. He wrote:

“We boarded her at the La Playa anchorage under the lee of Point Loma… together with the captain (Manuel Freitas), the cook and a crew of twelve Portuguese. Among these there was a preponderance of “Does,” of which there were five; “Tonys” ran a close second, there being three; two “Franks”; one each “Tiago” and “Chico”; fine fellows all.”

After stopping at Cape San Lucas for additional supplies, the Navigator stood out to sea once again, followed by the diesel clipper Atlantic, with Captain M. O. Medina, which boasted a wireless transmitter and an operator, a source of great comfort to the apprentice seamen Crane and Upjohn.

The most northern of the Galapagos group was sighted at 4:45 in the morning, April 12. They circled it before proceeding south to Wenman, sighting no fish although large schools had been reported in the area. However, on reaching Redondo Rock, at the north end of the great Isabela, also known as Albermarle Island, and astride the equator, fishing began in earnest, as Crane wrote:

“A few hours of strenuous work rewarded us with fourteen tons of three-pole tuna. Groups of three men, each individual having in his hands a strong bamboo pole, the one-fathom lines from which converged at a single hook, did the work. The barbless hooks were baited with a large sardine; when a tuna struck, all three men lunged backward simultaneously, catapulting the great fish out of the sea. The team-work of the men exceeded the trained tactics of any football squad or shell crew that ever was seen.”

The yellowfin taken that day ranged from forty to 300 pounds, the average being about seventy pounds. The bait was drying out rapidly because of the temperature of the sea. Sometimes the heat of the ocean water reached eighty-nine degrees. On Monday, April 14, the bait tanks were depleted and the Navigator headed southward for James Bay on San Salvador Island. From there they went on to Santa Cruz Island. Crane and Upjohn were impressed by the utter lack of fear of human beings evidenced by all of the creatures which they found on the islands. The animals, birds and reptiles had seldom been molested, except for occasional visits by the whalers.

Bait tanks filled once more, the Navigator headed back toward Redondo Rock and found that the schools of yellowfin had vanished. Reports of tuna at Cocos Island drew them 420 miles northward. Crane wrote:

“Easter morning, April 20, we awoke early…That afternoon we reached Cocos, which belongs to Costa Rica. It is a beautiful tropical island thirteen miles in circumference, covered with dense foliage, cocoanut palms and many other kinds of trees and plants. The sweet, scented odors of the tropics drifted out to our vessel. Waterfalls cascaded from the tops of cliffs.”

Crane and Upjohn hurried ashore to make their own hasty search for treasure supposedly buried by pirates or concealed by Incas driven from Peru by the Spanish conquerors. They were frustrated, as many were to be after them. Crane continued his story, however:

“That evening we exchanged greetings with the crews of the Atlantic and the Stella di Genova, both of which had arrived that day after a week’s separation. The Atlantic transmitted wireless messages to home and received others in return, for which we were very grateful, then being four weeks that we had been out of touch with civilization.”

After about a week of fishing, the Navigator turned homeward, and for seven days the weather was delightful. Then they ran into the storm belt and encountered severe conditions. The first land they saw in days was near Manzanillo, Mexico, above Acapulco, and they finally docked at San Diego on May 7, after an absence of two months.

The yellowfin had been plentiful; the tropics had warmed their bodies; but the storms had given warning that the Pacific expected to exact a toll for everything that it gave up.

In a few years the fishing fleet had established a pattern of operation based on the little-understood movements of tuna. A study by the California Bureau of Marine Fisheries reported that in the winter months from November to the end of February, the fleet exploited the Galapagos Islands. Through March, April and May the boats fished off the Central American mainland. In June and July they often fished in the Gulf of California and around Cape San Lucas. In August and September the fleet scattered along the Lower California coast and the neighboring banks and islands as far as Clipperton Island. Through the Fall they mostly reverted to the Central American mainland. And then they began the cycle again with the coming of winter.

The method always was the same. Upon sighting a school the course of the ship was changed to intercept the fish and bait from tanks was thrown into the sea by the “chummer.” In a fast-biting school there was a steady rain of fish upon the decks, and it became not uncommon to take thirty to forty tons of tuna in a single day. On an average, however, a crew could count only upon two or three good days of fishing with a daily catch of twenty to fifty tons. The balance of the catch often came agonizingly slow. As H. C. Godsil in the state report on tuna fishing related:

“Tuna fishing is never a continuous process. The school will stay with a boat for an interval varying from a few minutes to half an hour, and then suddenly move on or down. The tuna boat then pursues the school if it remains on the surface, chums it up again and starts to fish. If the fish will not bite, the vessel after two or three such tries will abandon it and seek another… In the log book of a tuna boat will be seen repeatedly the statement: “Lots of fish-won’t bite,” and to one who knows, this terse excerpt tells a tale of an irritated crew in enforced, exasperated idleness with days and profits slipping by.”

In the tales of the sea the cruises of the tuna clippers did not receive as much attention as the cruises of the historic whalers or the New Bedford cod fleet which penetrated the Atlantic fogs of the Grand Banks. But danger was never very far away. It was the “chubascos” which held the most dread for the fishermen. Similar to the hurricanes of the Caribbean, they are born in the area of the Mexico-Guatemala border and generally move in a northwest direction, with an intensity ranging from seventy-five to 125 miles an hour. When they reach the latitude of the tip of Baja California, they can change directions, sometimes blowing out to sea and other times turning inland to lash the mainland with the fury of a thousand demons.

By experience the fishermen learned that the chubasco season was fairly long, from late June until mid-October, and the storms averaged seven or eight a year.

In the same area of the Pacific which produced the chubascos were the Tehuantepec winds. These winds are not hurricanes but they come up with little warning and rarely are accompanied by rain. From October 1 to May 1 these draughts of wind funnel down the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in southern Mexico and upper Central America, from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean and may blow from three to twelve days at seventy miles an hour.

The wind hits the coast with such force that it can blow the water out of the gulf over a vast stretch of ocean front. At the beginning of the blow the water temperature may be as high as eighty degrees. In a short time it can drop to as low as fifty degrees. Before a skipper realized what was happening the entire afterdeck of his boat would be under water.

But the sea was in the blood of the Portuguese and they knew little of fear. It was said that Captain Guy Silva, sailing out of San Diego, was fishing off Cape San Lucas when a huge leopard shark rose to the surface and drew alongside. Acting upon impulse, Silva jumped overboard and landed on the shark’s back. Shouting to his men to clear the deck, he ran the length of the shark’s back and then clambered back on board.

The loss of time searching for bait led in 1931 to experimental use of an airplane as a spotter. Guy Silva and his son, Grey, fitted a small plane with pontoons and carried it into Central and South American waters atop the deck’s bait box of the ninety-five-foot Emma R.S. The practice of airplane spotting was rather widely adopted, though later it was carried out by planes based on the mainland. As the range of the fleet increased far out to sea, the small planes lost their usefulness.

The first of the tuna clippers to be lost was the Greyhound, owned by Machado Medina. In August of 1929 it went ashore and was abandoned at San Hipolito Point, 300 miles from San Diego on the Lower California peninsula below Turtle Bay.

It was in 1931, two years after the southern waters had been reached, when disasters began to mount. A double wreck involved two of the five Medina brothers. Captain Joe Medina was skipper of the Patria and Machado Medina, who now had the San Salvador, were in the vicinity of San Benito Island, just west of the Cedros Island, 300 miles south of San Diego in Mexican waters. Joe Medina told the story:

“The San Salvador was in the lead; I followed somewhat astern and to one side. The weather was calm, the sea smooth and the night a good one until about 2:30 a.m. when we ran into heavy fog. Visibility got worse and worse; we had to run by dead reckoning entirely. Well, at 4:45 a.m., we struck — hit the rocks of San Benito Island.”

The San Salvador actually had struck the rocks first, but the prow of the Patria hit the rocks a glancing blow, veering outward enough so that it lay parallel to shore in a cradle of jagged stone. In the morning, when the fog had cleared, the two boats discovered they were on the rocks within a few hundred yards of each other. Both boats were worked free, but being severely damaged, had to wait for towing craft to return them to San Diego.

On another occasion in October 1931 the San Salvador encountered serious trouble. She battled a four-day chubasco about 1350 miles down the coast, off Clarion Island, one of the worst storms in the memory of Machado Medina. He related:

“We lost our anchor and deck gear and had to run before the gale for four days and nights. Several times we almost capsized, but did not use our wireless. There was no use sending for another craft until we really needed aid.”

Many of the tragedies occurred in Mexican waters, or in the protected bays of Lower California, when bait or supplies were being taken aboard. Newspaper reports told how six vessels were lost in 1931.

In February the F.F.F. sank off Cape San Lucas and a month later the Morgan overturned and sank when the cargo shifted while fishing at the Uncle Sam Bank in Lower California waters, 425 miles from home. Mike Ballestieri’s Lisboa was destroyed by fire in Magdalena Bay on April 14 and on May 16, the San Gabriel caught fire in local waters and was abandoned. On September 23, M. Crevillo’sG. Marconi was destroyed by fire off Santa Barbara. The last ship to meet grief that year was the Abraham Lincoln, which went down at a loss of $30,000.

The next year was a bad one for the clipper fleet. On July 2, 1932, the Point Loma crashed on the fog-shrouded reefs of tiny Asuncion Island, located near San Roque Island. On the same day the Yolando was destroyed by fire in Turtle Bay. Fire destroyed the 115-foot Adventurer on November 14, in Magdalena Bay at a loss of $85,000. The crew was saved by Captain John Gabelich who two years later was to disappear without trace. The following day the Continental burned off Cocos Island. On the 30th the St. Veronica struck a reef on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.

In 1933 the clipper Huntress, a converted submarine chaser, was destroyed by fire near Ensenada on February 20. In June, Denny Moore’s Del Mar went down off Cape San Lucas, gutted by fire. Fire also claimed the Trojan on July 29 in the Gulf of California. On November 22 the Neshleetia, with a reputation of being the jinx ship of the fleet, was lost when a seacock gave way while the crew was fishing at Alijos Rocks 150 miles from shore and 520 miles south of San Diego.

The story was the same the following year. The Uncle Sam caught fire in Turtle Bay and sank. The Vasco da Gama exploded and sank off Cape San Lucas. The Lois S. hit rocks in Magdalena Bay and three persons, including Captain E. Edwards, were drowned.

An enduring mystery of the sea involved the Belle Isle, skippered by John Gabelich and valued at $75,000. On June 25, 1934, she was off Costa Rica, where she was in radio contact with the San Diego clipper Alert. That was the last ever heard of her. Whether she foundered in a hurricane or was destroyed by an engine room explosion was never learned. Local fishermen believe it was caught in one of the equatorial hurricanes along the west coast of South America and went down with all hands.

In the decade since offshore tuna fishing began in 1925, nearly half of the first fifty clippers to be built had been lost. The lost ones were replaced, and often bore the same names, time and again.

The loss of life was not as great as might have been expected, as the vessels so often fished close together or within a short radio range of each other. To the fishermen, the greater hazard was in the actual fishing. Flying barbs could strike the men in the face or jerk them into a sea literally boiling with frenzied tuna and sharks, where the chance of getting back on board without the loss of an arm or leg was remote.

By this time the clippers had been converted into small liners and their range expanded to more than 7000 miles. The Cabrillo, launched on May 6, 1935, and owned by Joe and M. O. Medina, and David and George Campbell, cost $135,000. Quarters for a crew of twenty-one were clean and comfortable, and the captain’s cabin was furnished with a desk, radio, easy chairs and a bed. A licensed radio operator and cook were on salaries but the rest of the crew shared equally from the profits of a trip. She carried 600 huge blocks of ice for refrigeration.

Just aft of the wheel room on the port side was the chapel, a common feature of most of the larger clippers. It had a small altar with images of the Sacred Heart, St. Joseph and St. Anthony. On the walls were miniature reproductions of the Stations of the Cross. There always was time for prayer, and too often a moment when help was needed.

Regardless of the losses of clippers and the threat of imported Japanese tuna, and the troubles of the early years of the depression, the use of tuna gradually increased across the country. The five canneries at San Diego had their busiest year in 1935. And for reasons unknown, albacore suddenly began to reappear in their coastal haunts after a mysterious absence of almost a decade.

Though the white meat of the albacore was still prized, an expanding market had been built on other varieties and the fickle and elusive albacore no longer could dominate an industry.