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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...

Author’s Note: When I dove the A.C.E. for the first time in August of 2010, I descended with very little knowledge of the vessel, but within a couple of minutes knew there was a much larger story that needed to be told. While a Google search pulled up several news stories following the accident in 2005, most centered on the dramatic rescue, but very little was mentioned about how and why the boat went down. It was a story ripe for reconstruction.

Scott Marshutz is a freelance writer based in Dana Point, CA. His articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Scuba Diving, California Diving News and several trade journals. A graduate of Chapman University in Orange, CA, he also served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1980s.


DOUBLE-CROSSING DEATH ON THE PACIFIC

By Scott Marshutz

Trouble

The crew noticed the weather changing as they motored toward the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the northern edge of San Diego County.  The slight breeze and calm conditions they cruised through for much of the afternoon and night had morphed into a wicked offshore wind sometime after midnight.

The A.C.E., a 58-foot commercial fishing vessel, was on a northeasterly course heading in after a night of bait fishing and riding in the trough. Large vertically shaped swells—coming in sets of three only seconds apart—began pounding the boat’s portside.

Captain Robert Machado and his three crewmembers continually checked to make sure the A.C.E. wasn’t taking on any water. But there was one area they couldn’t check—the portside compartment, which stretched from the engine room to the lazarette compartment. The only access was from a topside circular hatch on the low-lying deck and since almost a foot of water now covered it removing the hatch wasn’t an option.

For more than an hour the wind-generated swells dumped on the vessel.

Machado felt the A.C.E. starting to list, only slightly but enough to cause some concern. It was just a hunch, but he had a feeling that the hatch’s seal had broken and water might be leaking into the compartment.

In the distance, they could see the lights of the Dana Point Harbor maybe six or seven miles away. He was confident they could make it. After all, they’d made it more than 65 miles already and with a full load of fresh bait anglers were depending on them to deliver.

Down below, engineer and second-in-command Adam Souder had a bad feeling.  He was trying to get some rest after being awake for nearly 20 hours, but every time the A.C.E. was hit by another wave, the boat wasn’t responding correctly. The list was more radical now, and it was starting to submarine itself.

“The boat would go up, come down and stay down,” he remembers.

Souder had to do something. He popped up from his bunk and headed up to the wheelhouse where Machado was white-knuckled.  They slowed the boat down and moved the boom from the center to the starboard side to see if it might help shift the weight. The maneuver helped and the A.C.E. leveled off a bit. (1-footnote)

Even so, Machado was thinking about calling Buck Everingham who had managed the family business since his father Roy retired. Roy designed the boat in the mid-1980s. It was named after Buck’s grandfather Adolphus Charles “Buck” Everingham.  In his head, Machado was rehearsing what he would say, trying to minimize any panic Buck might detect in his voice.

But he never made the call.

They were hit by two more large swells, which tipped the boat radically on its port side.

He ordered his crew to abandon ship and as he reached for the microphone to issue a mayday, the 61-ton, steel-hulled vessel was slammed by yet another wave and rolled into the angry Pacific. “When it rolled, it rolled fast,” Souder remembers.

Crewmembers Andrew Rector and Kane Shanahan ran to the starboard side of the boat and jumped on top of the rail as it went over. Souder, who was standing on the deck above the cabin on the starboard side, hung on while it rolled. Machado pushed himself out of the wheelhouse doorway and clawed his way up the side of the vessel as it rolled on top of him. His days of setting lobster traps with his father, growing up in Laguna Beach and riding dirt bikes in Carlsbad all flashed before him in a neatly designed grid.

The force of the falling mast and wheelhouse displaced thousands of gallons of seawater as it sliced into the ocean before disappearing into darkness. 

In the seconds that elapsed, Machado found himself submerged under the vessel.

Although it was upside down, the six 500-watt halogen deck lights they used to help them fish at night were still illuminated.  

He opened his eyes and saw the bottom of the 14-foot skiff that was chained to the back of the A.C.E.

Rector and Shanahan made it to the skiff first.  Machado’s instincts told him to swim toward the stern, but the net had slid off the drum and blocked his passage. Fearing that he might get tangled up if he tried swimming underneath it, he swam back to the bow and surfaced.  

There was no moon; the water temperature was in the 50s and the wind was blowing in the neighborhood of 25 knots. 

A veteran seaman with more than 30 years of fishing experience, there was one skill Machado hadn’t mastered well: swimming. Struggling to pull his boots off, he heard his crewmembers yelling, “Hal where are you?” 

Although Hallett was his middle name, everyone called him Hal.

He tried answering them but started swallowing water as he swam the length of the boat back to the skiff.

Between the swells and the wind he doubted they could hear him anyway.

He was laboring. Ten feet away from the skiff, he started cramping.

“I was having trouble staying afloat myself,” Souder recalled.  “I yelled to Andrew that I couldn’t help Hal.  Andrew said ‘don’t worry about it, I’ve got him.’”

Rector spotted his captain and jumped back in without hesitation. A former high school water polo player, Rector reached him in seconds. 

Now freezing cold, soaked in diesel fuel and salt water and hanging on while the skiff slammed repeatedly into the stern of the capsized A.C.E., Machado, Rector, Souder and Shanahan tried to regain their composure.