BANDON — Sixty miles out to sea in 6,000 feet of water could be a lonely place to have an on-board explosion that sends you flying through the air.
But in a fishing community, help can be a radio call away, even 14 hours from the nearest port.
Such was the case on Monday, Aug. 5, when Mark and Cynthia Schneider lost their livelihood in a few short minutes. The engine of their fishing vessel, the 60-foot Sea Princess, blew a hole in the hull of the boat while they were albacore fishing in the Pacific Ocean about 85 miles northwest of Coos Bay.
Port of Bandon commissioner and fellow commercial fisherman Rick Goche, a Coquille resident, also was albacore fishing in the area aboard the Peso II, along with several other boats. Goche received the call about 5 p.m. and arrived on the scene 15 minutes later to find the Scheiders floating in the water, watching the Sea Princess sink before their eyes. Goche and his brother Larry pulled the couple out of the water.
Then they saved the cats.
Fishing was good that day and the weather was calm. The Schneiders, who moor their boat in Winchester Bay during the winter months while they enjoy snow-related activities from their LaPine home, live on their boat during the fishing season.
It was a 1924 fixer-upper that the Schneiders poured thousands of dollars into and worked on endlessly last summer and for three months straight this year, repairing and remodeling the aft-house schooner from stern to bow.
It was their first trip out of the season and the boat had been restored and outfitted with the latest safety devices.
“We basically brought this boat back from the brink of death,” Mark said. “And we have pretty high standards regarding safety and mechanical issues so we did a lot of work. These old boats have a lot of character and we’d always dreamed of owning an aft-house schooner.”
Jasper and Topaz, two shelter-rescued cats, were gaining their sea legs living on the boat while Mark and Cynthia worked on it at Winchester Bay.
The Schneiders have a reputation for being well-prepared. Even the Coast Guard inspector was impressed with the level of safety equipment on the Sea Princess. They both have taken many U.S. Coast Guard classes and regularly practice survival skills. Mark had an arsenal of tools and supplies that would facilitate a repair at sea if needed.
Fire, fire, fire!
But nothing could have prepared them for the chain-reaction they believe happened that day, likely caused by a pin-hole leak in the diesel tank. Mark thinks the leak sent a super-fine mist of diesel onto the intake, making it backfire. He believes the final backfire blew up a freon bottle, which ignited, causing an explosion.
Both of them were wearing ear plugs, float coats, hoodies and rain gear. The explosion sent a roiling ball of fire out of the engine room and the force shot Cynthia backward about five feet. Both Mark and Cynthia suffered first-degree burns and singed hair on their faces.
The boat’s fire suppression system worked well and the fire didn’t advance. When Mark rushed down the ladder into the engine room to assess the damage with the intention of getting the pumps running, he saw blue sky and ocean, with water pouring into where the hull of the boat had been only minutes earlier.
“I don’t know for certain, it all happened really fast, within two minutes, but we have procedures for all of these kinds of situations that we’ve been trained for,” Mark said.
He and Cynthia went into survival mode.
Cynthia had already radioed for help and was putting on her survival suit. Mark was dazed and Cynthia later told him he kept calling for the cats. Cynthia grabbed her purse, some jewelry and a camera and put them in a backpack.
“I went up and said, ‘we’re sinking,’” Mark said. “Cynthia said, ‘I know.’ I said I couldn’t leave the kitties but she told me to get into my suit. She told me they would follow their instincts and finally had to yell at me to get off the boat.”
Help on the way
Goche said he was about a mile and a half from them when I heard Cynthia over the radio. He immediately headed to them, as did other boats in the area.
Cynthia also had called the Coast Guard and told them they were abandoning ship. Goche pulled Cynthia, who is of slight build, out of the water, but had trouble pulling up Mark because the hood of his survival suit, which in his haste hadn’t been pulled over his head, had filled up with water.
Other fishermen were arriving at the scene by this time, some who had seen the blast. They all pulled their gear and circled around the sinking boat, watched silently for about 45 minutes as it sank. Goche said it was weirdly surreal and reminded him of a documentary he once saw about elephants who gather around when one of them is dying.
“It was really quiet and solemn,” he said.
As they watched the boat sinking, they saw something struggling in the water. It was Topaz, the Schneider’s 4-year-old calico, swimming frantically toward them.
Goche picked up the cat and brought it aboard. That’s when they saw Jasper, a 1-year-old spotted tabby, climbing to the bow of the boat and clinging for dear life to the anchor as it sank. Despite calling, the cat would not let go until the boat sank, then he began to swim and Goche was able to rescue him as well.
Thousands of dollars of gear and about 40,000 pounds of albacore also sank with the boat. The couple did have some insurance but not full coverage. A fund has been set up by the Newport Fishermen’s Wives to help the couple. Donations can be sent to: Newport Fishermen’s Wives, Inc., P.O. Box 971, Newport, OR 97365.