By Scott Graves
Wescom News Service
Fisherman Brian Wilby watched Thursday as the doctors at Sutter Coast Hospital turned off the life-support system keeping his long-time buddy, Billy Guinnane, alive.
The day before, a wave capsized the men's 15-foot Gregor aluminum boat off Brookings' Sporthaven Beach, sending both of them into the 54-degree water.
Only Wilby survived.
It was the second capsizing in four days at this popular beach. The two fishermen in the first incident survived.
On Friday, Wilby was out of the hospital and back at the Port of Brookings Harbor posting signs warning other anglers about the dangers surf conditions off Sporthaven Beach.
"We're hitting all the places where fishermen go," Wilby said. "They gotta know about this."
He's not alone. The U.S. Coast Guard has issued a press release about the danger to media outlets throughout Oregon and Northern California.
"We really have to do something to make people more aware of how dangerous these waters can be especially here, this winter," said John Dunn, masterchief for the U.S. Coast Guard Station Chetco River. "People just don't know how dangerous it is sometimes."
A newly-formed sand bar has built up off Sporthaven Beach this winter, creating shoaling that produces large waves in an area that is usually calm.
The area, popular with recreational crabbers, is most dangerous at low tide when breakers may appear quickly and without warning.
At high tide the sand bar has little affect, making for smaller waves that break closer to shore. This, Dunn said, could lead fishermen into a false sense of security as they place their crab pots just off shore.
"It's not as deep as they think it is," he said.
Non-local fishermen may not realize that conditions at their favorite ocean fishing spot has changed dramatically since their last visit, Dunn said.
That wasn't the case for Wilby, 70, of Fort Jones, Calif., and Guinnane, 57, of Redding, Calif.
"We're not new to the area," Wilby said Friday. "I've been coming to fish here for the last 30 years. Billy and I have been fishing together for the last 15 years."
Wilby said he and Guinnane were cruising on Wednesday afternoon in their boat back and forth about 60 feet from the beach. They were looking for one of several crab pots they had placed near the south jetty three days before.
"We were looking for that one last crab pot," he said.
When Wilby realized they had motored into the wave impact zone he began heading toward the jetty and the safety of the river channel.
"I saw this big wave breaking it was about 10 or 12 feet and I knew we wouldn't make it," Wilby said. "I turned the boat toward the beach and had the motor wound up, hoping to ride the wave to shore."
The boat was sliding down the face of the wave at a 60 degree angle when the wave overtook the boat and pitched the back end up and over, he said.
Neither men were wearing life jackets.
As the shorebreak pushed the struggling men and the boat toward land, two bystanders, Harbor resident Cory Hanna and another man who wished to remain anonymous, waded into the water and pulled the men to safety. Other people helped drag the anglers farther from the water.
Wilby was suffering from salt-water inhalation and hypothermia, but was conscious and talking. Guinnane was unconscious with no vital signs.
Paramedics arrived at the scene and began administering CPR to Guinnane, and continued to do so as he was transported to Sutter Coast Hospital. He stayed in the intensive care unit until life support was removed Thursday afternoon, according to Wilby.
The cause of death was tentatively listed as drowning, he said. The doctor told him a full autopsy will be done later.
"I loved him dearly," Wilby said. "Sober or drunk, he was a great guy, the neatest guy in the world."
Wednesday's capsizing follows a similar one that happened Jan. 28 at the same beach.
In that incident recreational fishermen Mark Batenhorst, of Central Point, and Allan Cartwright, of Medford, Ore., were tossed into the ocean when a wave flipped their small aluminum boat about 50 feet from shore.
Both men were wearing life jackets and were able to reach the shore, although Cartwright was helped by a local surfer who had quickly donned his wetsuit and came to his aid.
In addition to sending out a press release about the danger at Sporthaven Beach, Dunn has instructed personnel in the watch tower to pay particular attention to area of Sporthaven Beach. They are to immediately make radio contact with any boats entering that area, telling the fishermen of the dangerous shoaling. If the Coast Guard is unable to reach the fishermen by radio, a boat will be sent out to make contact with them.
Dunn also has added a verbal warning about the shoaling to the Coast Guard's recorded phone message about current ocean, bar and weather conditions.
A relatively new sign at the port, near the corner of Lower Harbor Road and Boat Basin Road, informs fishermen with flashing lights, when the bar is under certain restrictions. The sign instructs boaters to tune into 1610 AM for more information.
Boaters should use extreme caution when transiting through the area off of Sporthaven beach between the south jetty tip and the Best Western hotel and approximately 700 yards off shore, Dunn said.
Mariners also shouldavoiddeparting from the marked channel (established by the range) whenleaving or entering Chetco River, he said.