The fishing life comes fraught with peril

The history of commercial fishing has a romantic element of men battling with nature to wrestle their livelihood from the sea.

But strip away the romance and there’s another story.

“Fishing is a tough life – lives lost, families broken,” said Paul Piercey, a longtime commercial fisherman who can trace his lineage to the first Croatian fisherman to come to Everett in 1898. “I’ve heard fishing described as ‘months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.’”

That’s certainly been the case for Everett’s fleet, which has recorded two major sinkings that claimed multiple lives and other individual deaths or brushes with it. Survivors of both sinkings have told the stories in recorded interviews.

The Dorothy Joan sinks

The first disaster came Sept. 13, 1945, when the Everett boat Dorothy Joan went down while hunting for tuna 55 miles off the Oregon coast, killing five people.

Among the dead were Pete and Johnnie Mardesich, the sons of Everett’s first commercial fisherman, Anton Mardesich.

The only survivor of the 1945 tragedy was Hank Weborg, the engineer and Anton’s son-in-law. He spent the night hanging on to a capsized skiff with three other men. Seven hours later, he was the only man still clinging to life when he flagged down another boat with his new white shirt.

Weborg didn’t like to talk about the tragedy. But he did once, years later, with Paul Piercey’s grandparents, Tony and Winnie Martinis, who taped a conversation with him.

Here are some excerpts from a transcript of that interview:

Winnie: So nothing hit the boat, you just felt it tipping over?

Weborg: The (ice) tanks were way too big for the boat. When we left the Columbia River, there were insurance companies down there that were making boats bigger than the Dorothy Joan cut their tanks way down because when they turned around, the boats listed too far.

Winnie: Did you have trouble getting out?

Weborg: I was disoriented and finally found a ladder and went up through the engine room and a couple of the crew went up from where they were sleeping.

Winnie: So then Pete and Johnnie disappeared?

Weborg: I didn’t see them. There was a little boat on the top of the pilothouse, and it broke loose and was upside down in the water next to the Dorothy Joan. So the four of us were hanging onto the bottom of it.

We hadn’t been out there too long and a boat came toward us and we yelled our heads off. It was only a few yards away.

Winnie: But it passed you by?

Weborg: It was dark, and he was running it from the pilothouse and the boat was noisy. He couldn’t see or hear us. … There were quite a few out there. … Vince kept hollering, “Where’s the boats?” I said, “Vince, please don’t keep yelling like that. You’re swallowing water and everything else, and it’s not doing you any good and nobody can hear us.” But he kept it up and eventually he drifted off the skiff and disappeared. Then Frankie and I rode it, the capsized skiff, for a long time. And then Frankie let go. I went after him and I got him back to the skiff and he was pretty well pooped out. … Eventually Frankie went. … Then it became daylight, and I was the only one left and the water was pretty rough then.

Before we left port, I went uptown to buy a new shirt. And the guy that waited on me was going out. He said he was going out tomorrow. And he’s the guy that saw me in the water from the boat that picked me up. I was bleeding from my head down to my feet.

It was so rough by that time and the swells were so big that sometimes I couldn’t see the boat that picked me up when we were in the trough. But we both came up on top of the swells at the same time and I was a few yards away from the boat. All I had on was my shirt and I got it off when I saw the mast and I was waving the hell out of it. … I damn near had given up on it by the time they pulled me up.

Winnie: So that made you about seven hours out there?

Weborg: I don’t know. It seemed like a million years to me. I think we were in the Japanese current and that’s not as cold.

Winnie: You were completely naked?

Weborg: Yes, completely naked.

Winnie: You pulled it (his shirt) off?

Weborg: You’re damned right I did, and in one big hurry, too.

Winnie: Tony gets sick every time he thinks about it.

Tony: I was sick for one year. I’ll tell you true.

Weborg: That’s the way I was, too. I’m not one to talk about it or show it, but inside of me it was bad.

Winnie: Pete and Johnnie couldn’t have lasted too long. They must have gone right down.

Weborg: I don’t know. Neither one of them could swim.

End of tape.

Capsizing of the Sunset

In the second tragedy, on June 10, 1949, another five men were killed when the Sunset capsized in Alaska during a major storm.

Among the dead were Capt. Nick Mardesich and his son, Tony, a member of the state House of Representatives who was about to be married.

Among the survivors were three of Mardesich’s sons – August, Paul and Nick – and his nephew, also named Tony.

Mardesich was a common Croatian name, and none of those on the Sunset were directly related to Anton Mardesich.

August Mardesich, or Augie, as he was called, was appointed to take over his brother’s seat in the House and later became majority leader of the state Senate.

He talked about the accident as part of a state oral history program.

John Martinis, the nephew of Tony Martinis, mentioned above, didn’t see the Sunset go down. But he was in the same storm near False Pass in Alaska. He said its fury convinced him and his brother, Andy, never to fish in Alaska again.

Martinis owned a sport-fishing shop in Everett and spent 30 years as a state legislator. His brother became a heart surgeon.

Here’s John Martinis’ story:

“There was a horrendous storm when the Sunset capsized. We were anchored in East Anchor cove just outside False Pass, and it was blowing so hard it was hard to keep the anchors set. There were big swells. It was the first year for the Dreamland, and my dad (skipper Paul Martinis) said we should try out the new boat in the weather.

“The crossing was so rough, we were getting green water over the hatch covers. My uncle Vince came with us when he saw us go. I saw at times two-thirds of his keel out of the water. We got across and stopped at the cannery. We radioed the other boats to stay where they were at. I prayed more during that two-hour crossing (which normally took 20 minutes) than I did in a year in church. I looked at my brother and said, ‘I’m out.’”

It’s unclear whether the Sunset got the message, but it braved the crossing and went down. Here are excerpts from what Augie Mardesich, who was rescued by the crew of another boat, said to interviewer Sharon Boswell.

“It was one of those blows that came up. It was getting worse all the time, and we were pulling out. There was a little cove where we had anchored, but that was no protection. … It rolled over in the wind. I was down in the lower part of the boat and my thought was very simple: Get the heck out of there.

“I found a piece of timber off the boat and held on to it. The water up there is cold as heck. Matter of fact, when they pulled me out – I’m told this – they laid me on a table in the galley and they were just beating me to warm me up.”

Boswell: It didn’t change your opinion of fishing or make you decide that you never wanted to do this again?

Mardesich: No, we came down here. It was still early and fishing season was just about to start out here. I chartered a boat that I got from a lady in Seattle. This happened in late May up in Alaska and I was out there in late June, running a boat.

Mike Benbow: 425-339-3459;

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