Beauty goin' down

Built in 1937, the Sun Beauty was originally called the White Eagle.
  • Built in 1937, the Sun Beauty was originally called the White Eagle.

In May 1947, the Sun Beauty spotted a lifeboat drifting in the warm waters off Mexico. When captain Clarence Fernandes steered his tuna clipper over for a look, he found two bloated male bodies, their faces blistered beyond recognition. Fernandes hauled the boat to the large port at Manzanillo. The men had been on a freighter headed from Ecuador to San Pedro, he learned, that was lost at sea.

Two months later, the Sun Beauty sank near Cape Colonet, 110 miles south of San Diego. Clarence, his younger brother Arnold, and ten other men escaped in a 16-foot skiff, in what the Coast Guard called some of the “roughest waters ever encountered off the coast of Mexico.”

In the 1940s, tuna boats had radios, but there were no weather stations. “Someone would say ‘Storm coming’ on the radio,” says Arnold Fernandes, “then no one kept track. You watched the barometer and made a judgment call.”

Ask a tuna fisherman about the weather, and no matter how bad it’s blowing, he’s seen worse. During WWII, Arnold served as sonar operator on two 165-foot Navy cutters, Perseus and Aurora. In 1943, the Aurora was doing search and rescue off the Aleutian Islands in a storm from hell. The Beaufort Scale ranks hurricanes up to Force Twelve. With registered winds blowing up to 200 knots, this one was off the scale. Every vessel for hundreds of miles had to make port. When the Aurora pulled into the safety of Adak Harbor, the tower flashed a coded message: turn around, head back out; two Liberty ships have foundered in the storm.

“We couldn’t believe it,” recalls Arnold. “Back out in that? They should’ve just said, ‘Commit suicide.’ But the Aurora followed orders.” They found the Chief Washakie, lodged on rocks off Cape Cheerful, in waves as high as 40 feet. It had a two-inch-wide crack just forward of the bridge. The deck beams sagged and threatened to snap the hull in two. Using logging chains, crews kept the bridge and bow together until the winds subsided and help arrived.

The storm off Cape Colonet in 1947 “wasn’t as bad as that one,” says Fernandes, “but was bad enough.”

Sun Beauty left San Diego on July 10, 1947, with a brand-new white paint job. Built in 1937, and originally called the White Eagle, the wooden-hulled clipper could hold 100 tons of tuna. Clarence was the skipper. His brother Arnold was 23. “The Sun Beauty was a live-bait boat,” he says, meaning it used poles and lines to catch tuna. “Most of the fishing was done off the coast of Mexico [and] all the way down to Costa Rica and Panama.”

For the first ten hours, the clipper sailed under blue summer skies. By late afternoon, the seas began to build. “A few big swells,” says Fernandes, “but nothing, really. You must understand: tuna fishermen’re used to that.”

Although the radio said a chubasco — a tropical cyclone — was heading north from Cabo San Lucas, southern skies were cloudless.

That can be deceiving, skippers say. Often, when a chubasco nears, the sea calms. The air gets heavy. (“You can smell one coming,” says an old adage.) Then iron-gray clouds flatten out overhead and fill the sky. Winds whip and howl, swells steepen, and ships pitch about like drunks.

Toward sundown, about 20 miles west of Cape Colonet, the Fernandes brothers watched boats steer toward the protected bay under clear skies.

At midnight, Arnold took his four-hour wheel watch. Though the waters were bumpy, he saw no sign of trouble. At 4:00 a.m., relieved of duty, he stopped at the galley “for a quick cup of coffee before hitting the sack.”

He shared a starboard cabin with Bill “Red” Morgan, the navigator. As Arnold climbed into his upper bunk, the ship rolled “a little more than before, but not enough to be alarmed.” Seconds later, he fell asleep.

Around 5:00 a.m., his feet kicked straight up and his head slammed a wall. “I knew then we were in trouble.”

Something hit the Sun Beauty, jerking it 60 degrees to the right. Water spilled over starboard.

“Red!” Fernandes shook Morgan in the bunk below. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

Outside the cabin door, foamy seawater burst on deck and stampeded into his cabin. (“That sight gave me nightmares for years — over the rail and into your room!”)

The generator flooded: no radio, no bilge pumps. The main engine still ran, and the boat moved in a lazy circle, listing to starboard.

When Fernandes saw no one at the helm, he climbed to the flying bridge, raced into the pilothouse, and tried to jerk the wheel “hard over” to the right. “If a ship’s tilting to starboard, turn the rudder that way. Do the opposite, she’ll roll over.”

The rudder wouldn’t budge. “Just too far gone.”

From the flying bridge, Fernandes counted only 11 men standing below on the portside rail: the high side. Where was Joe? Sixteen-year-old Joe Cutri bunked forward of the engine room. As the skipper ordered the crew not to jump — because no one would find them in the roiling waters — Fernandes rushed down to the engine room. He shook the knob frantically, but debris jammed Joe’s door shut.

“That was the worst feeling: Joe’s trapped, and I can’t do a thing about it.”

When Fernandes climbed the slippery ladder, Joe stood on deck. “He came up through a hatch on the bow. I can’t tell you how relieved that made me.”

The Sun Beauty lurched hard to the right. The hull must have sprung a leak, or hit something? Two of the ship’s three small boats — a speedboat and a ten-foot skiff — had tumbled over the side and vanished.

After the roll, the Sun Beauty righted itself. Water on board shifted forward. The engine went dead. The bow tilted down. “We had just minutes to launch the net-tender skiff.”

Since booms and equipment had failed, it took “brute force” to shoulder the 16-foot craft into the water. Someone salvaged two oars from the others.

Part 1: Anatomy of a Tuna Clipper | Part 2: Let's Catch Us Some Tuna! | Part 3: The Lone Wolf Hits a Royal Flush

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You're one helluva researcher, Jeff! I'd still like you to take over that 1850 manuscript I once mentioned some months ago and give it the story-telling treatment it deserves. I'm just not up to the job.

T: I'd love to, but my plate is full, and my table, and my dining room, and...

Terrific article, the happy ending makes it all the better, but I'll bet you ten dollars that boat never had its name lettered in Comic Sans, which entered the world on a dark day in 1994, which, by my calendar, was some time after 1947. Tsk.

Type joke: Why can't typographers enjoy movies? The typefaces are not historically accurate!!

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