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Noyo Bay Tragedy

The first I knew of it, on the last day of the year, about 11pm, in a gently falling rain, a Coast Guard HH 65 rescue helicopter pounded down the Noyo River headed for the ocean. It was flying low, meaning business.

The Fish and Games, a fishing boat somewhat under thirty feet, had floundered. Rowdy Perkins, a well-known and well-liked Noyo Harbor entrepreneur and fisherman, was in trouble in eight to ten foot seas with two of his crew, Lisa Salisbury and Richard Mottlow.

Like the rest of the working harbor, Rowdy was betting on crab. The delays in the regular crab season along the coastal zone adjacent to the Noyo River, had worked a quiet desperation among the smaller-scale local fishermen. There was a resounding boom in Noyo enterprise when the state lifted the lid on crab and finally let the season proceed. The ocean was and is filled with crab pots and lines and gear.

Last year there were 57 confirmed whale entanglements in crab gear and one confirmed whale drowning. It is presumed there were more. Suffice it to say everywhere that a crab pot could be, there is one.

The delay in opening the season did not affect everyone equally, and some not at all. The bigger boats could forego the proscribed illegal zone just by heading north of Humboldt Bay. To the smaller boats, and the local guys armed only with hustle and a few dozen pots, that distance presented a challenge. For the small boats the opening of the delayed season was just in time.

These days fishing in its generality has been reduced to a painful minimum. Even the urchins, that occur in mass only in conditions of ecological collapse, and have therefore been abundant, are now in catastrophic decline. For decades they were the largest fishery in California but they are going, too.

Crabs, however, are still plentiful. It is almost true that crabbing is about the only game in town. Certainly, it is the only one where earnings look anything like they used to.

The Fish and Games was never pretty and she was loaded with pots. The three of them on board were just a little south of Todd's Point. What is known is that the prop became entangled twice in a crab lines, first south of the cliffs and then, running on secondary power, she got entangled again.

Losing power that close to the rocks is, with no debate at all, big trouble. Rowdy, with his habit of command, went into the water both times to cut the entangling lines. Somehow it all went wrong. The boat swung into the rocks and broke, dumping the crew into the icy water. They got off a call to 911.

Within minutes, the local Coast Guard had put out their rescue ship while other coast rescuers drove in haste to the cliffs. They found Lisa pretty quickly; she had somehow contrived to make land but was caught in a narrow tidal gulch in the surging water, fighting to hold on to the rocks. The waves pounded her and tried to draw her back into the ocean.

The first HH65 rescue helicopter dispatched flew straight down the coast from Humboldt Bay. It got there fast— maybe 30 minutes. But by the time the rescue chopper was over the cliffs, local Fort Bragg was on the scene.

As the word had gone out from the 911, as many as 45 emergency responders from every local agency, were positioned atop the stunningly beautiful Todd Point cliffs, setting up apparatus and moving into position. The Fort Bragg Fire Department rappelled down the cliff to the stranded Lisa, a tough and gutsy survivor if there ever was one.

It took three rappels to get to Lisa and get hold of her, but finally they did .

She was of course hypothermic but was successfully basket-lifted off the rocks by helicopter and flown to the hospital in Humboldt.

Rowdy Perkins is notoriously tough. He is also smart and extremely capable. Somehow before all the rescuers arrived he had already hauled himself out of the pounding surf and was sitting disconsolate with his back against the rocks and the ocean that had taken his boat crashing at his feet. The crew at the top of the cliff got blankets and supplies down to him and on his urging continued calmly, professionally and desperately to look for the third crewman, Richard Mottlow, 67, of Fort Bragg.

There were candles and a little altar set up outside the Tip Top bar this morning. I knew him of course. Richard was solid and capable. He was a gambling buddy of my own good friend Charley. He was disliked by nobody that I knew and always generous when he could be. He had a quality of self-possession and a calm that never failed him. He was comfortable in his own skin, and was no one to mess around with.

Two more helicopters were dispatched from Humboldt. Both failed to locate Richard, and being the gas guzzlers that they are went back to Humboldt after their allotted hour.

One more HH 65 was sent up from San Francisco. The local Coast Guard ship searched till 1am and went out again an hour before dawn. The Fort Bragg Police Department was there in force. The fire department did the actual climb down to the rocks. CDF and deputy sheriffs were there. Even CalFire was on the scene. Basically, everybody that we have locally from every agency that we have gave Richard all they could.

At dawn the Coast Guard found Richard at the foot of the cliffs at Pomo Bluffs Park.

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