King Neptune’s on the Loose

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Night of Madness, by Daniel Sipes (continued)

Catalina's Year-End Storm

King Neptune’s on the Loose

Radio traffic intensified:

“Harbor patrol, we are free! We need assistance.”

“Harbor patrol, we are free, too.”

“Harbor patrol, we have sick people on board and need to be evacuated.”

“Harbor patrol, we have elderly on board and need to get to shore.”

“Harbor patrol, the captain is not on board, what do we do?”

“Harbor patrol, we have a person having an anxiety attack with shortness of breath. We need to be taken ashore.”

“Harbor patrol, this is Catallac. We are down to one mooring line now and need assistance.”

“This is the harbor patrol,” the radio crackled, time and again. “We are trying to control loose boats right now. Others will have to wait.”

At length, an unfamiliar voice on the radio blurted, “King Neptune is loose!”

I knew the massive King Neptune well, having performed a personal-best free dive (at the time) to 101 feet from her decks many years before. It was particularly concerning that she was adrift because she had been moored in the outer harbor and was a very large vessel—65 feet. She would do a lot of damage to the vessels in the inner harbor if she were pushed ashore by the rising wind and waves.

I watched from the bridge. King Neptune was moving through the harbor striking boats. These were glancing blows—causing damage but not threatening destruction. She was now essentially moving broadside to the waves and wind.

Then it appeared the midsection of King Neptune was going to hit a 40-some-foot trawler. I thought to myself that if she hit she would either break the trawler off the mooring and push her to the beach or actually push the vessel underwater and destroy her. Seconds later, she hit the trawler. I watched the pulpit collapse and King Neptune just seemed to hang up for a bit. Then a woman from within the trawler screamed into the radio, “Help! We are breaking up! Our boat can’t take this! It’s coming apart! Help us!”

By this time three harbor patrol boats were maneuvering around King Neptune. They put personnel onboard, secured a line at the bow, and towed the big boat off the trawler (which remained afloat miraculously) and headed for calmer, more protected water. But the towline parted. So they secured another line and started to tow but that line snapped as well. King Neptune once again was drifting through the anchorage and again hit the same trawler, this time a glancing blow. The harbor patrol repeatedly tried to take the immense vessel in tow but the lines would just break. Finally, someone who had somehow boarded King Neptune said on the VHF, “I’m trying to start the engines.”

The voice belonged to 39-year-old harbor patrol officer Timothy Mitchell—a New Zealander who had moved to Catalina in 2000 and had worked on this very boat as a SCUBA instructor. Before joining the harbor patrol, he’d also been a volunteer fireman. Getting the engines going was the only hope for the boat, of course, but it was too late. King Neptune hit the seawall about 100 feet behind my boat, but more toward the Green Pier. The waves pounded and rocked her violently. A crowd gathered on land—now only feet from King Neptune. The stern of the big boat was very close to the steps that are used by swimmers in calmer times.

I heard over the radio, “Tim fell off the Neptune and is in the water!” I immediately hoped, as I’m sure everyone else did, that the young man could get clear and not be pulled under the boat by the tremendous suction that develops under such conditions. Many in the crowd ashore screamed and some gasped. Many turned away, but some leaned in further. I knew what had happened.

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