Lucky fisherman launches his boat in mid-tsunami
Crescent City harbored widespread misfortune on March 27-28, 1964, but one local fisherman was at the top of his luck.
Richard Evanow at Citizens Dock, where he launched the Francis E into the third wave. The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson
He was also on top of the fourth and largest tidal wave, by then safely out at sea aboard the 48-foot Francis E.
Thanks to his fortitude and good fortune, Richard Evanow accomplished what so many others couldn’t, reaching his vessel and departing the harbor between the waves of destruction.
In 1964 there was no inner boat basin, so fishing boats anchored out in the bay and fishermen went from boat to dock by skiff or small dinghy. Luckily for Evanow, his boat was moored at Citizen’s Dock for repairs.
He was no stranger to tsunamis, but the series of waves that began late on Good Friday made the others seem like “ripples in a pond.”
“At first I dismissed it for some reason,” Evanow said of hearing about the Alaska earthquake and its resulting tsunami on TV at his house. “But then the harbormaster called me and told me that it was about to hit.”
Evanow threw some food from his refrigerator in a bag and headed out to try and reach his boat.
After helping his brother gather his wife and three children and get them to high ground, Evanow decided to try one more time to reach his boat.
“When I got to back to the harbor I was able to drive all the way to Citizen’s Dock Road. I could see where the road had been flooded at one time, but there was no water at that moment.”
The road was blocked with heaps of lumber that had been tossed like matchsticks.
“There was a hump of dirt close to the road with willows growing out of it,” Evanow said. “It must have been nearly 12 feet tall.”
Evanow took a run at the mound with his 1957 Chevy half ton.
“I was kind of excited by that time. I got my truck up on that mound and about the same time a chief from the Coast Guard showed up. We were able to walk all the way out to where the Francis E was still tied to the dock.”
As Evanow jumped aboard his boat stuck in the mud, the Coast Guard chief untied the stern line.
“It was at this point that the water started coming back. It was really rushing in so I went straight to the engine room. I usually measured a cap full of starting fluid to get the ‘Jimmy’ diesel started, but this time I took the cap off and gave it about half the can.”
The engine roared to life instantly and as the chief threw the bow line off, Evanow put it in gear and gave it lots of throttle.
“I was facing out to sea so I just let it rip,” Evanow said. “Looking back, I could see that I was a little too soon with that. I had a good rooster tail of mud and water shooting up.”
Evanow left the harbor as the third of the four waves was coming in. Indeed, without that third wave he wasn’t going anywhere.
“I had to power out against that,” Evanow said. “I was full throttle. It was remarkably smooth sailing actually. Much of it thanks to that chief helping me get going when he did. I don’t know where he came from or where he went after, but I know he survived.”
Evanow chuckled, recalling how happy he was to get out of there.
“I felt safe on the boat,” Evanow said. “Even though there were quite a few lumber units and propane tanks floating around in the harbor.”
Right about the time he cleared the harbor the largest wave arrived, not a cresting wave but an enormous swell.
“While the wave was not in the form of a comber, I could feel my boat rising up and up in the dark,” Evanow said. “It put me above the jetty and I could actually look in to the harbor.”
Evanow could see explosions and fire where the Texaco gas tanks were.
“It was like some dark Fourth of July,” Evanow said. “There were sparks and explosions, it seemed like just about everything was on fire.”
As the water rushed back out, Evanow saw everything from mattresses to propane tanks floating in the bay.
“It was at this point that I saw George Lind’s boat drifting around with about 50 crab pots on the deck,” Evanow said. “I pulled up alongside and dropped his anchor so that it would stay right there where it was safe.”
In the morning, Evanow and the Francis E returned to the harbor and he saw many boats had sunk.
As far as he knows, Evanow was the only fishermen to make it to his boat that day despite others trying. And he wasn’t the only lucky one in his family.
“Luckily my dad’s boat, the Christopher, was floating just fine,” Evanow said. “He always had a rope-between-cable that was hooked to the mooring and cleat on the stern of the boat. That saved the Christopher because the bow cable kept the boat swinging in the current no matter what direction it came from.”
Even Evanow’s land vessel was spared.
When he got back to his pickup parked atop the mound, it had a foam line almost to the top of the tires, about an below where you’d put oil into the transmission.
Evanow, who is retired from fishing and no longer has a boat, still marvels at his good fortune that night.
“I came out of this without any damage to speak of, but many people lost their homes, their businesses and even lives. It was a tragic event for Crescent City, I don’t think things have ever been the same.”
More stories from the six part series on the '64 Tsunami:
Part 4 Tsunami at the stairs