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The Sinking Of The San Juan

I went the Harbor Commission meeting last week like a prisoner to his execution. Well, maybe it was not that bad, but it was grim.

To briefly recap. On February 13 the noble San Juan, my ship and my home on the Noyo River, a 200-ton 80-footer known to everybody in our small town, was slammed in the bow by what I think it is fair to call a massive (and horribly pointed) redwood log.

The river that day after the biggest rains of the year was deep brown and running at full flood. All day giant rafts of fallen trees and uprooted brush had been reeling down the river in enormous floating islands, piling into the docks and banging into the moored ships. It seemed that whole mountainsides had been sliding into the Noyo during the night's heavy rains.

When the ship was holed of course I fought to save her and the Coast Guard did too. We worked the pumps all night and all of the next day, until all of us were utterly exhausted. Late in the afternoon the day after she was hit, the San Juan went down.

In the course of the old ship's long life she had dodged a lot of bullets. She was once hit by a surfacing submarine and she once caught fire. She fought the Japanese in the Second World War up in the Aleutians with a machine gun glued to her wooden prow. Good thing she never ran into any combat. She is just short of a hundred years old and still absolutely solid in her ribs and her planking.

The San Juan is a double-hulled, oak-ribbed, cedar-built diesel schooner. The ship museums north and south of us tell me there is nothing comparable in ships of her vintage on the West Coast. She still has the original engine with a 5,000-pound flywheel.

When she sank, about a third of her submerged. She leaned over into the docks and settled her aft into the mud like a tired dog. It almost killed me.

I guess for disinterested observers it was pretty dramatic. And of course the harbor authority was all over it. Tom Powers, a minor but gun-bearing Fish and Wildlife functionary, got there before the crowds the first night. He was in high outrage. He came in over the fence in his enthusiasm although the gate was not locked, making it loudly clear that he could at his whim put me in jail. He did a lot of strutting and threatening hoping someone would take him seriously. No one did.

By noon the next day there were 20 or 30 Coast Guard officers and enlisted men (always courteous and professional) doing what I do not know. The EPA showed up with clipboards and severe looks. There was a little oil in the water, not much, that must of come from a spare generator I had in the forward hull. The quantity of leaked oil was less than you see coming off a trawler on many an occasion. But we all felt the necessity of addressing it. I know I did.

In the seething crowd of interested officialdom nobody talked to me. I sat there like a gnome perfectly invisible to the official process. I asked the EPA person if they wanted to talk and they did not. They made sure I owned her. I did. Gradually the crowd tapered off and went on to other things. I bet the taxpayers spent fifty grand on salaries that day. They strung some floating booms to contain the pint of leaked oil and went to lunch. By the time darkness fell on the second day I was still sitting there but alone.

I bought the San Juan in 2002. The famous or infamous Bruce Abernathy sold her to me for cash. The money was the last I had from my old life in New York. I gave him my cash and settled into a river that was a whole different river from what we have now. It was greener by far, there were still schools of herring and waving eel grass in the shallows. There were kingfishers and a family of river otters lived in the mud under the building.

When the salmon season came around the whole river filled up with little boats. Twenty to forty footers, most of them. At night I would call it quietly rowdy. There was a regard for public peace and quiet but no tolerance for unwarranted intrusions on the divine right to inebriation. A little boat could earn twenty or thirty or forty thousand in the course of the season. It was gravy for the working man. The salmon they were catching were big, beautiful fish. At night they would jump in the channel between the ranks of boats.

When the season was over the river reverted to its natural wildness. I have a million stories.

My ship was the last dwelling in the world. It lived at the end of all sidewalks and the terminus of every road I had ever traveled. I filled her with books. I became a professional unpaid reader. I read the things that you never have a chance to read in a normal busy life. I finally read Aristotle and I read Livy, Virgil, Sam Pepys, and Herbert Spencer. I read Plutarch and Jean Stafford and George Eliot and Tacitus. I had a Shakespeare period. I read the Bible cover to cover more than once. I read everything I could get by C.J. Cherry. I read as much as I could. I seemed to be reading all the time, and my time on the other earth of mundane reality contracted to manageability.

By the time the ship went down I estimated that I had a thousand books. They are still in her, turning to pulp in the silt.

Of course I never made the slightest dent in what there is to read and my concentrations were wholly self-serving and absurdly indolent. I am self-educated in an extremely lopsided and eminently impractical way. I would read on the deck or in the galley or down in the hold. I got a dog that lived with me for many many years. That was Shadow. Olive came later.

There is something about living on a moving river that anyone who has done it for a few years will agree is calming and absolutely magical. The Noyo was certainly the most beautiful river I had known, not as majestic as the Hudson and nothing like the East River, the Noyo was wild. In those days it was full of tiny herring. It was green. It was alive. Most of the time I had it pretty much to myself.

When the ship went down, my chickens, as they say, came home to roost in a massive, sun darkening flock. What the hell had I been doing? I discovered myself with no small surprise as an indolent, irresponsible hippie son of a bitch. Other people thought so too. I was served and had to go to court. While I had been punking around in ancient Greece everybody in the entire world had been working. Hello dumbass, I greeted myself.

For the first few nights I slept on the dock. We did not have enough blankets. It rained and was damn cold. My bacon was saved by a well known denizen of the Tip Top bar. Long tall Mike. Mike who is an expert pool shooter and a writer himself, sold me a truck on terms and for peanuts with a camper shell and a solid, reliable motor. He did it as a favor and because he was a reader of mine, and because he had a sense of adventure and I thought likely some experience with personal disaster. The three dogs and I moved in with enormous gratitude. Thanks Mike. Bruce Anderson reached out to me. And more than anyone Paul McCarthy who you know.

Hundreds — I am not kidding — hundreds of people have offered me sympathy and kindness. It has altered my opinion of mankind.

By the time the Harbor Commission convened to declare the San Juan an abandoned wreck and impediment to navigation. I had evolved a plan.


  1. Michael Koepf April 26, 2017

    This is lovely and honest writing. Thoughtful. Rex, what ever happens next…good sailing.

  2. Tom Williams May 5, 2017

    Bruce Abernathy was the owner of the San Juan for many years. Bruce lived along the banks of the Noyo River since 1991. He passed away on December 13, 2015. Bruce sailed and worked the San Juan , fishing, scientific research, guarding Telephone cable out in the Pacific. He once took his family all the way to Mexico on a long vacation. And spent time in the Sea of Cortez, Guaymas, Sonora.
    My family and I became close friends with Bruce, when we sailed our 64 foot schooner, the Arctic Ark into the Noyo and anchored on the river for the summer. Bruce adopted our family with friendship and taught us how to be better sailors. At the end of that summer he wished is well as we set sail for Panama.through the years we stayed on contact through letters and phone. Almost ten years passed and we returned to the Noyo River. Again Bruce helped us find a place to rent and as always was a dear friend.
    I met this man who was living on the San Juan before we left for Mexico. He was a homeless man and had his young son loving with him. Bruce, being Bruce had compassion on him and let him sleep on the San Juan and helped him in many ways financially . When I returned to the Noyo in 2011 Bruce told me had been swindled out of his Boat the San Juan. The homeless man wanted to buy the San Juan but never paid for it. Bruce wanted his boat back but the man would not return it. Bruce, being old did not want to fight it. The story above was not true and I want to set the record straight . The sinking of the San Juan in the Noyo River is fitting. In the end the boat hammered out justice, and rid itself of a all the rats.

  3. rex gressett May 5, 2017

    I normally do not respond to posts but I will make an exception for the esteemed Mr. Williams. I paid cash for the ship. She is Coast Guard registered to me. The receipt of payment is available to Mr. Williams if he would care to improve his understanding. I recall Mr. Williams. He and Mr. Abernathy and I were happy drunks together. I am touched by the inebriated loyalty of good pals but I note that his little missive is devoid of facts. We are privileged to read his blurry but heart warming impressions only. These oily, half witted, erroneous misapprehensions suggest to me that rat-hood is in the eye of the beholder.

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