I first saw her early one morning looking down from the Noyo Bridge in Fort Bragg, California. I was on my way to town and it stopped me in my tracks. I’d never seen such a large vessel in that tiny little harbor. Her “house” looked to be three stories high, and she was at least 60 feet in length. She was tied up at Grader’s fish dock. My first reaction was to head straight down there to see what was going on.
You might say I was an adventure seeker. In those days it was not uncommon for a guy seeking work to pound the docks and ask prospective boat captains if they needed a deckhand or crew. For salmon boats, this entry level position was called a “puller” because that’s what you did – you pulled in the bait, lines and fish for a percentage of the catch. Payment was in cash, received on the dock for the trip you’d just been on, anywhere between six and twelve percent, depending on skill and experience, and perhaps your relationship to the captain.
I walked down to the docks and was surprised to see the dilapidated condition of the deck and rails. It didn’t make sense for such a stately vessel to be in such sad shape, like a beautiful but disheveled woman down on her luck.
There was a nice looking blond lady wandering out on deck from one of the doorways of the massive cabin of the boat. I caught her attention and we started chatting. I asked what they were doing, where they were going, and whatever else I could think of before getting around to whether they needed a crewmember. It turned out they were headed to San Francisco, and in those carefree days of impromptu wandering, a trip to the City by sea sounded like an adventure not to be missed.
Mary was her name. She invited me aboard to come speak with the captain, her husband Bear. He was a big, loud Viking of a man, long-haired, blond and burly. After briefly interviewing me regarding my experience on the ocean, he immediately agreed to let me make the run, with the understanding that my minimal duties would cover only the expenses of the trip, since they were on a very tight budget. I got a brief tour of the vessel and was told we were leaving that day. I was ready, and so met the only other crewmember, Jackie, a mechanic from Comptche, whose function was to keep things running for the 130 mile voyage. We untied and headed out the channel into a beautiful blue Pacific on a gorgeous sunny day.
Bear and Mary were friendly and talkative, and gave me free reign of the ship to explore, including hanging out in the wheelhouse where I began to learn the real story of their circumstances. It turned out they were just a half-step ahead of the law. The Sheriff had just missed trying to serve a lien on the vessel in order to re-possess it. Although I never learned all the details, Bear apparently owed some money to the previous owners, and they’d just had another close get-away at their last stop up in Oregon.
When lunchtime rolled around, I found out just how dire things really were. Mary apologetically explained that the only food on board was some bread and mayonnaise, so lunch consisted of mayonnaise sandwiches. But the ocean was so beautiful and the coastal journey so exhilarating, hunger was not a worry, especially since we’d be in the City in a matter of hours.
The Mirene wasn’t the fastest boat on the Pacific, so it was well into the night before we approached the Golden Gate. By this time, Jackie was extremely drunk. I remember sitting below deck while he pounded out boogie-woogie blues riffs on his guitar, a couple of which he patiently tried to teach me.
It took a long time of hard steaming to make it through the Potato Patch and under the Gate, finally tying up in Sausalito. Before he disappeared into the night, Jackie dramatically told me how close we’d come to not making it. “We were going against the tide because Bear was in such a goddam hurry to get in, no matter what,” he told me, “the fuckin' drive box was gettin’ red-hot, about to blow. You don’t know how close we came.”
I spent the rest of the night on the Mirene and took off the next morning, bidding friendly farewells to Bear and Mary.
That was the Mirene's last ride. A few years later she was bought for $8,000 and resurrected by Stewart Brand, Ryan Phelan and company.