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.
The bow slowly nosed downward. While others lowered the skiff, Fernandes cut loose “anything that would float, so passing ships might see the debris — and the crew would have something to hold onto if they ended up in the ocean.” To make more debris, he hacked free bamboo poles on the chummer’s canopy.
Clarence held the bowline as the crew boarded the skiff. “Stand by astern,” he told them.
No one wore life jackets. “They didn’t like them,” says Arnold. “In those days, life jackets were big and bulky and stuffed with slabs of cork. They were too heavy to permit much movement. Even my brother wouldn’t wear one. And he couldn’t swim.”
He told him, “Get your jacket on!”
Clarence shouted, “Don’t need it!”
The brothers were the last to leave. They jumped down from the stern, took positions up front. As the winds rose, crewmen pulled hard on the oars.
“Without the large skiff,” says Fernandes, “I’m afraid we’d have been lost at sea. Also this: for an unknown reason I picked up a bottle of Seagram’s VO and a can of asparagus sloshing around the deck. I threw them into the skiff. Little did I know that the can would save our lives!”
When they were less than 40 feet away, the Sun Beauty went down in a whirl of foam. “We were all in our shorts — had no time to dress. Our clothes, all our belongings,” including a shaving kit with lucky gold coins that Fernandes had carried throughout World War II, “sank with the ship.”
“The last thing I saw I’ll never forget: ‘Sun Beauty, San Diego’ on the stern, before she disappeared in churning bubbles of water. The whole crew had tears in their eyes. And what an eerie feeling: it gets smaller and smaller, then swallowed up. Something you’ve been living on for weeks and months. Like watching your home sink.”
Fernandes estimates that from the time the boat listed to the time it sunk was at most 15 minutes. “All these things ran through my mind,” he recalls. But once in the skiff, he had a single thought: “Everyone made it out okay.”
“The sea was rough, but skies were clear. It wasn’t foggy or raining. Just big swells, big rolling ones, way over our heads.” The real storm, they learned later, was on the way.
When the skiff reached the top of a swell, they could see the horizon. But then it nosed back down into a trough, “and no one could see us.”
The skiff began to fill like a bathtub. The crew had just a few inches of freeboard, above the water level. “We bailed and rowed, bailed and rowed. We tried to head toward shore, hoping someone would see us or the debris, but couldn’t get any closer.” They bailed gallons and gallons of brine, but that only made room for more.
Clarence had a thought. Tie a blanket to one of the eight-foot oars and make a sail. He tried. No go. The wind lufted it.
Around noon, with over six hours in the skiff, the winds picked up. Two nearby albacore boats were headed for Colonet. One was so close that Fernandes could make out the name: Lusitania. “We were too low in the water; they couldn’t see us.”
A crewman handed Fernandes an old flare gun and five or six hand flares. When the skiff reached the crest of a swell, he pulled the trigger. “A dud. Probably put onboard when the ship was built.”
Fernandes tried the hand flares. Same procedure: skiff rises, ignite a flare, raise it high. “I did that, and they dripped. Look” — he rolls up a sleeve: thin red scars streak down the inside of his right forearm.
For a few seconds, the ships might have seen something — debris? — then kept going. Men on the skiff yelled, but roaring winds and walls of water muffled their pleas for help.
The sun sank quickly, as if to avoid the oncoming storm.
Around 5:00 p.m., they spotted a small albacore boat chugging toward Colonet. It bounded like a cork on the mountainous waves.
“I figured this is our last chance,” recalls Fernandes. He picked up the can of asparagus and polished the lid. At the peak of a swell, he aimed the lid directly at the sun and the boat’s flying bridge. “I sent an SOS: dit…dit…dit dah-dah-dah. I could see reflections I was making on the windows.”
The boat continued south. “Our hearts began to sink. Then all of a sudden, it turned and headed toward us.”
But even the rescue was in doubt. The boat was the Lillian Ann, a 20-foot albacore vessel out of Fort Bragg. It only had a two-man crew and “wasn’t much larger than our skiff.” It was seaworthy, though, and roller-coastered up and down rows and rows of waves, the spindrift lit by the setting sun.
“It seemed a lifetime for them to reach us.” When they did, they threw the skiff a line and towed it to the harbor at Colonet.
“That was the last vessel headed in before the sun went down. I don’t know if we could have made it through the night.”
The next day, the Perseus (one of the cutters Fernandes served on during the war) came from San Diego and picked them up. “They gave us food and water, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, so we didn’t have to land in San Diego in our shorts.”
A rumor spread through San Diego that the Sun Beauty had gone down with all hands. “As we approached the Embarcadero, we could see our worried families. I can’t tell you how relieved they became.”
The Coast Guard and various insurance companies interviewed the crew about the cause of the shipwreck. No one had an answer.
“My theory,” says Fernandes: “The ship took on a large wave from portside. It rolled her over to starboard. This caused the ice in the hold to shift from port to starboard. I think that’s it. But today it still remains a mystery.”
Two weeks later, Clarence Fernandes purchased the Sea Wolf. “We kissed the family goodbye and headed back out.” ■
— Jeff Smith
- 1. Hans E. Rosendal: “Such gales came on with little advance warning, and vessels did not have time to seek the greater safety of the open sea.”
- 2. Edward Soltesz: “Weather reports were very hard to get. If there was any noticeable storm [reported], it was always after the fact.”
- 3. San Diego Union, July 12, 1947: “The craft went down in what was described as ‘the roughest waters ever encountered off the coast of Mexico.’”
- Fernandes, Arnold, “The Sun Beauty’s Last Voyage,” self-published; “The Rise & Fall of the Tuna Industry in San Diego,” self-published; interview.
- “Vessels lost during the year 1947,” Merchant Vessels of the United States, 1948.
- Rosendal, Hans E., “Mexican West Coast Tropical Cyclones, 1947–1961,” Weatherwise, October 1963.
- Soltesz, Edward S., “Pole Fishing for Tuna, 1937–1941: An Interview with Edward S. Soltesz,” Journal of San Diego History, Summer 1991, vol. 37, number 3.
- “Sun Beauty Sinks,” Sun Harbor Catch and Can News, August 1947.
- Articles in the San Diego Union, the San Diego Tribune-Sun, and the Reading Eagle.
Part 1: Anatomy of a Tuna Clipper | Part 2: Let's Catch Us Some Tuna! | Part 3: The Lone Wolf Hits a Royal Flush