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Waves crushed a Morro Bay tour boat and tossed 23 kids into the sea. How did they survive?

Surfer Tom Laurie captured a sequence of photos as the whale-watching boat San Mateo was destroyed in the Morro Bay harbor mouth and 32 passengers were thrown into the water.
Surfer Tom Laurie captured a sequence of photos as the whale-watching boat San Mateo was destroyed in the Morro Bay harbor mouth and 32 passengers were thrown into the water. Telegram-Tribune

The sky was crystal blue and the air unseasonably warm, the staccato thunder of waves pounding the breakwater.

The Morro Bay Harbor mouth has a reputation for danger in high surf. The Tribune once called it “death’s doormat.”

Thrown in the water of the harbor mouth, odds were 50-50 for survival, according to an experienced first responder.

Thirty-five years ago on Feb. 16, 1983, the 44-foot whale-watching boat San Mateo headed out shortly before 10 a.m. on an adventure.

Aboard were 23 Flamson Middle School students and nine adults. (Initial reports had various numbers; these are based on the 10-year anniversary story.)

No one wore a life jacket.

Front page of the Telegram-Tribune on Feb. 16, 1983, was taken up fully by news of the wreck of the San Mateo in Morro Bay.

The first wave threw the lunch of turkey sandwiches into the water, but the kids shouted with excitement.

The second destroyed the San Mateo’s wheelhouse.

The third wave flipped the now-helpless boat, tossing 32 people into the foaming brine.

Two deaths are attributed to the tragedy, but both occurred after the capsizing.

A hero who rescued almost 20 said he wouldn’t do it again.

Sued by insurance companies and survivors, the city of Morro Bay settled, saying it would save money, but former Harbormaster Jim Funk thought they should have defended his and the city’s honor in court.

He wondered, “ I still don’t understand that one. How do you sue somebody that saves your kids?”

Funk had tried to prevent the shipwreck before spearheading the rescue. Alienated by the lawsuits, he later moved out of state.

The Coast Guard report said: “Due to the instant response and competency of the Morro Bay Harbor Patrol and the Coast Guard, everyone was rescued within 20 minutes of capsizing.”

Students shared memories a decade later.

“The first wave was exciting. But then the second wave hit. Everything was underwater for an instant. I looked back and the teacher was gone. By that time it was panic,” said Terry Gidcumb.

“I looked straight up and there was this wall of water 25 feet high, I couldn’t believe how big it was. I just remember the wave forced me to the floor of the ocean. I remember following the bubbles back up.”

Gidcumb came out of the water with sand in his pockets.

1983 02-16 San Mateo accide_1
Ten-year-old Stephen O’Neal listens to his sister Barbara, 13, talk about how she reacted once she hit the water after the San Mateo flipped. Ken Chen Telegram-Tribune

“We were in the ocean and I don’t know if we were going up or down,” said Denise Schinbine. “It was that fast. It was like being in a washing machine.”

Telegram-Tribune reporter David Eddy wrote a series of stories for the anniversary, including the following published Feb. 13, 1993:

Rescuer still amazed that all the kids were saved

What still amazes Jerry Mendes about the San Mateo incident is that none of the schoolchildren died.

“With that many kids, with the conditions we had …” the then-harbor patrolman slowly shook his head.

On Feb. 16, 1983, the San Mateo capsized just outside the mouth of Morro Bay Harbor. All 32 on board were tossed into the sea, including 23 children from 10 to 14 years old.

Only the captain, Gerald Weaver, died officially as a result of injuries from the accident. But another man, 67-year-old Albert Mast, suffered a heart attack that night, and died two years later. He never fully recovered, say his family, and they consider him a casualty of the San Mateo.

At any rate, Mendes said the odds certainly weren’t with the San Mateo’s passengers. In his 12 years of patrolling the harbor, about half of the people on boats that capsized ended up drowning.

“I saw an average of an accident a year,” he said. “And I lost a number of people I tried to rescue.”

What was different about the San Mateo is that Mendes and Harbormaster Jim Funk were trailing it so closely.

Each morning, the Harbor Patrol assesses conditions at the harbor entrance. That morning conditions were hazardous, and the patrol put out the word.

“Experienced people knew it was hopeless,” he said.

But at about 9:50 a.m. Funk and Mendes were sitting in the Harbor Patrol office when Funk spotted the San Mateo chugging through the channel.

1983 02-16 san mateo_1
Surfers watch from Morro Bay breakwater as the broken prow of the San Mateo bobs in the ocean after the boat capsized on Feb. 16, 1983. Ken Chen Telegram-Tribune

Funk and Mendes hopped into the patrol boat and followed the San Mateo. They pulled alongside and tried to signal Weaver to stop. They wanted to try to persuade Weaver to turn around, said Mendes, because they had no authority at the time to keep him from leaving the harbor.

Mendes also called Weaver on the radio, but there was no response. Weaver’s deckhand, Pete Evans, later testified that they heard the transmission, but Weaver was too busy maneuvering the boat for a run through the swells to answer.

Though Evans waved to them, Mendes and Weaver never acknowledged their presence. He just stood at the wheel, his eyes fixed on the waves.

“That’s what I’ll never forget,” said Mendes. “It was like he was in a trance.”

At about 10 a.m. the first in the set of breaking waves hit the San Mateo.

Weaver met the wave head-on at full throttle, according to the Coast Guard report on the incident, and as it broke underneath, the boat shot down the wave’s backside bringing Weaver to his knees.

Evans helped Weaver to his feet just before the second wave hit. About 20 feet high, the wave broke over the bow. Evans and Weaver were tossed around, and the wheelhouse — including the control panel — was wrecked.

The second wave also catapulted two children into the ocean, according to some reports.

When the first wave hit the boat, Mendes wheeled the patrol boat around and raced back in the direction of the harbor to avoid the waves. Otherwise the rescuers would have to have been rescued.

After the boat capsized, Mendes had to wait through two more waves before he could risk going in. Even then he only went in because he knew another patrolman, Dick Rodgers, was readying a boat, and the Coast Guard was also available.

As they went in they found many of the people had found pieces of the boat and other things to hang on to. Because they could fit only about a dozen people on the boat, Mendes said they left the people who where hanging on and went after those in the open sea.

“Jim just started grabbing people and tossing them in,” he said.

When they had a full load they headed to the beach near Morro Rock where there were lots of people in the parking lot.

“People just jumped in the water to help. That was a godsend.”

Because of the help, they could just drop the people and head back for another load.

Along with Rogers and Coastguardsman Jose Hernandez, who had spotted the accident from the roof of the Coast Guard cutter and headed out to help in an inflatable boat, the rest of the people were rescued.

Though Evans said he tossed life preservers to the children in the water, none of those rescued was wearing one. One boy was found clinging to one.

Even after all the people were rescued, the search continued because those responding didn’t know how many people were on board. Evans, who had done a head count as the passengers boarded, confirmed that all were accounted for about an hour later.

“What a great feeling,” said Mendes. “It was the most successful experience.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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