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October 10, 2011

Double-Crossing Death on the Pacific

An account of the sinking of a ship named the A.C.E. off the Southern California coast...

Gone Fishing
Robert Hallett Machado was anxious to go fishing. 

For the past week, the A.C.E. was docked at San Diego’s G Street Pier for routine vessel and net maintenance during the winter season.

But being “on the street” was the last place a commercial fisherman wanted to be.

Adding to his stress, he knew that Dana Wharf Sportfishing was running low on bait, he was receiving reports that anglers were catching yellowtail and white sea bass off Catalina Island and the holiday weekend was only a day old.

Arriving early on the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, Machado figured his crew had about eight hours of work before they headed up the coast.

He recruited two of them personally after Everingham Bros. took over the contract from Mello Bros. to supply live bait to Dana Point and points north a year earlier.

At 31, Adam Souder was already beaten up from years of fishing the California coast with his father. He had fished in Alaska for a summer and survived two vessel accidents in roughly 15 years.

When Machado called his former partner on the Mona Lisa, Souder was a fleet manager for a rental car company. While the job offered him stable and safe employment, fishing was in his blood—the Souder family is deeply woven into Orange County’s fishing fabric dating back nearly 100 years.  So he listened to Machado’s pitch. Everingham was offering a salary, and he’d be joining the crew as the engineer and deck boss. There was even talk of moving into a captain’s position in the near future. Souder thought he was hearing things. A salary was unheard of and he felt the pull.    

Like Souder, skiff man Kane Shanahan, 19, grew up in the business, but on the sport fishing side. His father Tom Shanahan was owner-operator of the Game Fish and later became a freelance captain for several boat owners. 

Andrew Rector, 24, had answered an ad for a general crew position. Rector, who stood 6 foot 4 inches, was an Army veteran with mechanical experience. A standout high school water polo player, Machado thought Rector was full of piss and vinegar; he liked strippers and bad girls—the sleazier the better. They called him Drew.

On G Street that morning, the crew replaced the net’s purse line, patched the rest of the holes and rolled it back on the drum. They pumped on 50 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic oil and loaded supplies to keep them going for at least four days.

On the short ride to the fuel dock, the crew completed the remaining items of a list, one of which was checking to make sure the deck hatches were properly sealed.

Machado didn’t like the way Shanahan and Rector were doing the test so he had Souder take the wheel while he checked all four himself—the portside hatch had given them problems during previous trips. “It was always a primary concern,” added Souder.

After filling both tanks, about 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel, the A.C.E. was on its way. 

Drum seiner (or limit seiner) bait boats are known for their long clean decks, a boom and the motorized skiff that is often seen riding piggyback from the vessel’s stern. The main cabin, which is set on the forward half of the deck, carries topside controls to give the skipper a clear lookout for bait schools and tidal conditions.

Fully loaded, they sit about a foot above the water line.

Although it was clear and calm at 4 p.m., forecasters predicted an offshore wind ranging from 10 to 30 knots for the area northwest of Oceanside starting late Friday night into Saturday. It was a large variable.

Buck Everingham, who was vacationing with his family in Lake Tahoe during the holiday, spoke to Machado by phone about the forecast, but the captain didn’t seem too concerned. Buck told Machado he’d rather have him wait for the weather to pass, but ultimately it was up to his captains to make the final call. (2-footnote)

On their way up to Oceanside, where the bait had been consistently good, they kept an eye out for schools while passing Point Loma, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Pacific Beach, Torrey Pines and Del Mar.

Before sunset, Machado spotted several vessels circling on the horizon. Through his binoculars, he recognized the San Pedro gillnet fleet. Since the fleet was going after barracuda, Machado knew damn well that barracuda targeted the same bait species he was after.   

“Yes, we needed bait,” says Souder. “But you’re running out to catch something that might not be there. Our nets aren’t efficient at depths of more than 150 feet.  Any time your nets don’t touch the bottom, you have a chance of losing the fish because they can swim out from underneath it.”

About 10 miles off the coast of Oceanside, Machado’s hunch proved correct: the A.C.E.’s sonar picked up a large school of sardines and two smaller schools of mackerel.

“From what I remember, the school was very scattered. There was a lot of fish in that area. We knew the load was going to be sardines or anchovies, but we didn’t know the size or quality,” adds Souder.

With a full load of bait, they rolled the net back on the drum, secured their gear and headed back to shore; they’d be tied up in the harbor well before dawn. 

For the moment, Machado felt a sense of calm and reflected on his life.

Nearing 50, he was looking forward to getting married for the first time so the year ahead was definitely looking bright.


Tied up in San Diego. (courtesy of Everingham Bros. Bait Co.)

Ed Westberg points to the area where he spotted sparks from the flare. (photo by Scott Marshutz)

The A.C.E. became a dive site last year. (photo by Boonchob Vijarnsorn)


In the Skiff
Machado, Rector and Shanahan were huddled in the aluminum skiff; Souder was still hanging on the side. At 250 pounds, he was exhausted and didn’t have the strength to pull himself into the boat.  

The conditions were making it difficult for the others to pull him on board. 

The y-shaped alloy chain connecting the small boat to the stern of the capsized A.C.E. tightened on the crest of each wave and then slammed them back into the slowly sinking vessel—a constant battering of aluminum crashing into steel repeatedly as huge swells rolled under or broke on top of them.

The A.C.E. heaved in the churning sea—uttering its final breaths of a 19-year run. Its engine prop was still sticking out of the water; the hull was already submerged. 

They wondered why the life raft hadn’t automatically inflated or why the emergency radio beacon failed to send a signal to the Coast Guard.

The current moved them down the coast and farther out to sea as the minutes ticked by.

They rolled so quickly there was no time to grab a lifejacket so Machado started improvising. 

The skiff had rubber bumpers—fenders filled with air that covered its perimeter. (It also had a small tool box containing flash lights and other supplies, including a flare pistol.) 

He cut the bumpers off, tied the pieces together with fishing twine and made a small flotation device for each person.

Machado emptied the batteries out of one flashlight, taped the red plastic illumination piece to the top of another flashlight and then taped the modified light to a broomstick handle. He gave it to Rector, the tallest of the four. They steadied the lanky Army veteran so he could stand straight up and wave it above his head like he was directing aircraft on a runway. 

Meanwhile, Machado grabbed the flare pistol, loaded a round and fired. They watched the red ball of sparks cut through the clouds and disappear—hoping someone, anyone might see it.  But at 3 a.m., it was a safe bet that most of Dana Point and San Clemente were still sound asleep.   

They took turns waving the flashlight.

Since he was still in the water, Souder attempted to disconnect the skiff by diving under the A.C.E.  The chain connected to a longer rope line securing the skiff to the vessel.  Souder thought if he could get past the chain and cut the rope he’d be able to free the skiff.  He tried a couple of times, but the chain stretched too far under the vessel and without an air supply and a light source there was no chance he could disconnect it.  Rector and Shanahan tried too, but Machado ordered them back in the skiff, knowing that their chances of getting badly injured or killed were too high.

Machado shot off another flare.

He scanned the shoreline to figure what the shortest distance might be in case they had to swim.  Since the current was pulling them out to sea and away from shore, he calculated their odds; they weren’t very good.