California crab-boat captain powers through tsunami to safety

by Matt Jenkins

Alan Mello got a call at 3 a.m. last Friday about the tsunami on its way from Japan. The 57-year-old started fishing from Crescent City, on California's northern coast, in 1973. He's had to motor out to sea three times to keep his commercial fishing boat from being damaged by tsunamis. Crescent City has the unfortunate distinction of being especially vulnerable to the destructive waves: In 1964, a tsunami caused by the largest earthquake ever recorded in North America killed 11 people there and destroyed much of the town.

This time, Mello had given his two adult sons, who normally crew his boat, the weekend off. "I was by myself," he says, so he decided he'd keep his boat tied in the harbor and take his chances. Nonetheless, after he checked the news early that morning, Mello drove his pickup down to the harbor, just to keep an eye on things. A sizeable contingent of rubberneckers had already assembled there, and in short order, four helicopters took up position overhead.

The first set of waves boiled in at around 7 a.m., jostling boats against their moorings. Then, Mello says, "the harbor completely emptied." His boat, the Amanda B, settled into the mud. So did every other boat. A few rolled over onto their sides. Minutes later, when the sea surged back into the harbor, the violently churning water began to disintegrate the docks. Boats smashed into each other. The boat next to Mello's sank, and its self-deploying life raft popped open, inflated --  and got stuck on the bow of the Amanda B. The news images from Japan began creeping to the front of Mello's mind. "It was not good," he says.

Suddenly, Mello decided to go with Plan B. He ran down the ramp to the Amanda B, yelled to a friend to untie the boat, and hoped like hell that the engine would start on the first try. "It was a mad dash," he says. "I ran in the wheelhouse and hit the key, and boom!" --  the engine roared to life.

If Mello was going to keep the Amanda B in one piece, he had to time things right to make it out of the boat basin before the water receded again. "I realized I had one shot," he says. "I had about 60 seconds."

Mello hurriedly backed the Amanda B out of its slip and then slammed the throttle forward to break through the massive wave of garbage pushing against the docks. "I just firewalled it," he says. "I didn't care what I was hitting." From there, Mello says, the details are a little unclear. He distinctly remembers the camera-wielding rubberneckers -- "it looked like the paparazzi there, all the flashes going off" -- and the pilot of a Coast Guard helicopter frantically hailing him on the radio in an attempt to turn him back.

But by that point he couldn't have, even if he had wanted to: The current had begun surging back out of the harbor, pulling all the water and the Amanda B with it. The channel turned into a churning, muddy trough, and Mello's dash to freedom looked more like a run through Grand Canyon whitewater than a scramble to the sea. He skidded the boat past a 30-foot-high gauntlet of pier pilings, only to find himself aimed straight for a steel channel marker sticking out of the water. If he hit it, the Amanda B would either rip open or capsize. "I knew it was gonna be close," Mello says. He cranked the rudder hard left and pushed the throttle as far forward as it would go. "There was nothing left -- believe me -- and I was still pushin' on it."

Mello squeaked by with just a couple of feet to spare, then nosed the boat through a series of thick, muddy waves and finally broke out into open water. When the adrenaline subsided, he stopped to consider the small cloud of helicopters that had been tailing his escape. They must have been filming him, Mello surmised, and imagined the footage would be made into a training video. The take-home message? "‘If there's a tsunami warning, whatever you do, don't do what this guy did.'"

Sure enough, later that day, a video of Mello's getaway, shot by a Coast Guard petty officer aboard one of the helicopters, appeared on YouTube. Reckless as the escape may have been, it certainly saved the Amanda B: 16 boats sank in Crescent City that day, and 47 more were damaged.

Mello spent the rest of the day making the eight-hour steam down the coast to Eureka, where he tied up with an hour to spare before the bar closed -- only to discover that, because of the tsunami warning, the bar had never even opened that day. So Mello went back to the Amanda B, had a can of Campbell's soup, and went to bed.

View the Coast Guard YouTube video of the escape. (The best stuff happens after the seven-minute mark.)

Matt Jenkins is a contributing editor at High Country News.

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