THE RAISING OF THE RUTH ELLEN
An excerpt from a short story by JAKE WINSTON
One of the Ruth Ellen’s sister ship, THE AKAMAI
Episode one: 12.17
On a dark stormy night on November 28, 1978, the fifty-seven-foot trawler, Ruth Ellen was slowly dragging its fishing gear through its familiar fishing grounds twenty-miles Southwest of California’s Humboldt Bay, a major fishing port lying about halfway between San Francisco Bay and the Oregon border.
At three bells in the evening, 9:30 landlubber time, Blake Ryker donned his Helly Hansen foul-weather gear, poured himself a cup of coffee in the small galley and climbed the ladder to the fly bridge to stand his watch at the helm. He took over the wheel, set his coffee and his wallet on the shelf behind the windscreen and checked the gauges and compass heading. He spoke briefly to, his fellow crew member, Oslo Ericsson, relieved him, and sent him below to get some rest.
A thick fog, choppy seas, and an intermittent cold pelting rain made it miserable to be on deck. These conditions limited the skipper’s visibility to just a few hundred yards. However, he soldiered on and maintained his Southerly course hoping to fill his net and tanks with bottom fish in the next few day. He was anxious to return to port, offload and spend the Christmas holidays with his family.
At about three a.m. the following morning, something terrible went wrong, and the Ruth Ellen went to the bottom. The next day, her owner reported her missing when she failed to check-in at the appointed hour. The Coast Guard commenced an extensive search. However, they found nothing.
Blake’s family and friends prayed and hoped that somehow the crew was safe. Perhaps, they were in survival suits and had been picked up by a passing vessel, or they made it to a remote, unseen, beach somewhere. Maybe they had made it into a life raft and drifted out of the search area.
After a week had passed with no news, it didn’t look good for our two friends. Ten days later, an empty survival suit and some wreckage washed up on the beach at Trinidad Head forty-five miles north of the sinking. That’s when we knew that the sea had swallowed up the crew, and they were not coming home.
The hard fact is that commercial fishing was one of the most dangerous occupations in America. Those who search for lost fishermen seldom found them, or brought them back alive. Authorities rarely determined the cause of the sinking.
A typical Fishing fleet harbor
Episode two: r 11.29.17
Over the years, Blake become a familiar and respected celebrity of sorts in the small Humboldt Bay community of Eureka, California. Blake enjoyed a successful professional life as a newspaperman and photographer for the local newspaper, the Times Standard. Then he decided to follow his heart and enter the dangerous, but profitable world of commercial fishing. His daughter Silvia and son, Michael, swam on the Redwood Swim Team with my kids. The weekend before the Ruth Ellen went down, Blake and I sat on a rock outcropping above the beach in Crescent City, California. We were keeping an eye on our kids playing on the beach, as we discussed the Alaska tidal wave that had devastated this town in 1964. We were enjoying some quiet time after officiating at the kid’s swim meet earlier in the day. I still think of that pleasant afternoon we shared, from time to time.
Blake and Oslo were now with their Maker, but they were not forgotten. May God bless and have mercy on their souls. Normally that would be the end of the story. However, not this story for these special men, who had touched a lot of people along the way. They paid their dues in triplicate, not only to family and friends, but also to the community.
The fisherman’s hangouts, market places, marine, supply stores, canneries and neighborhood back yards were filled with whispering about whether or not the insurance companies would pay off Blake and Oslo’s generous life insurance policies to the surviving families before Christmas.
When the community learned that the insurance company refused to pay on the policies, until and unless, the bodies of the deceased were found and identified, they were shocked and angry. This was a small, tight knit, fishing community and they were determined to find a way to take care of their own. The low rumble of early concern escalated to a growing swell for action. At the height of this outcry, three friends of the lost fishermen met for their weekly, Friday afternoon, wind down lunch and a few drinks at the Embers Restaurant south of town, and…