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Keepers of the Last Kelp Forest

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In issue 24.2 of TSJ, I wrote a profile of of Ealey, whom I first met while researching my book Ghost Wave. After the book was published, even more folks contacted me with stories about Cortes. One of the most interesting people I met as a result was a guy named Brad Mongeau. Brad lives in Long Beach. He’s a retired aerospace engineer whose life revolves around the islands, kelp forests, and reefs of the outer California Bight. San Nicolas and San Clemente islands are his playgrounds. But to Brad, nowhere is more special than the Cortes Bank. To date, he’s spent 40 nights solo atop the Bank, aboard a 21-foot skiff that he built by hand. He freedives out there, over the wreck of the SS Jalisco—which was sunk in 1966 as part of an ill-conceived attempt to turn the Bank back into an island. Mongeau’s spirit of adventure and love of Cortes carried obvious parallels to Ealey, which came through in this interview.

So tell me a little about your history.

I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My family moved to Fountain Valley during my early high school years, and my dad had a boat—an old wooden Fellows & Stewart. We’d go a couple of miles out, off the harbor, and that got me hooked. Then, when I got out of the service, I went out on a couple of sportfishing boats, and said, “I gotta do this on my own.” That’s when I bought my first boat—a 16-foot skiff. Then five years later, in 1991, I designed the boat that I still have now.

How’d you get into freediving?

Years ago, when I’d go out on my first skiff, I figured, as long as I was out there, what the hell? So I bought a mask, fins, and a wetsuit. A couple of years after that, my wife Jenny bought me a camera for Christmas and I just started swimming around with that camera. Up till about ’99, I fished—in fact that was the purpose of the boat. But I gave up fishing and have just done underwater photography since then.

What made you decide to build your own skiff—and how did you go about it?

My old skiff —the first one—I just endured these godforsaken afternoons pounding back from the islands. I didn’t even have enough sense to put on waterproof clothes. After those windswept afternoons, I thought, “How would I have built this thing differently?” The floor started to get soft on the other boat, so I designed a new one in my head. I got some cardboard, scotch tape, and made a model. Then I drew up a set of plans, but just put ’em away in a closet. Then I just went out and cut my wood and built the boat. I didn’t use my plans. I just knew what to do. I used marine plywood, mahogany, stainless steel, and fiberglassed just over the bottom portion of it.

“I built my boat like an airplane,” Mongeau says of the backyard-designed skiff. “I made every component as big as can be—and with as few components as possible. Photo: Brad Mongeau

Just working by sight.

Yeah. I just knew exactly what I wanted. When I worked in aerospace, I got to witness some of the greatest examples of structural engineering imaginable. C-17 airplanes have stringers inside the wings. They actually transport these quarter-inch-thick, 2″ x 2″ x 90-foot-long angles. They go through all the hassle to get that one 90-foot-long piece because they know they can’t splice it and maintain that strength. So I built my boat like an airplane: I made every component as big as can be—and with as few components as possible. Seams are where boats fall apart, so I scarf-spliced every piece except the side panels—and applied those as one single piece of wood.

What were your other criteria for these offshore runs?

Well it had to be very strong, obviously, but it also had to have a tiller engine. A tiller affords you instant lock-to-lock steering should you need it in rough seas, and articulate throttle control. I can drop my engine 3,000 rpms instantly and have that bow go down over a swell rather than have it bang over the surface.

Also, I made it wider at the impact point, one-third of the way back from the bow. That’s the widest point. I decided to put a lifting strike on the transom. I actually have two lifting points—one in the forward end and one in the back.

So I have a conflicting lift on the boat, with a flat bottom in between. That keeps the hull sucked to the water. It works really well. I’ve never seen it in another boat, but that’s the secret that makes a flat bottom work in heavy seas.

If you set my boat on the ground, the hull is flat, but about six feet from the front, it makes a parabolic curve up six inches, then three inches up to the transom as well. The one single feature on every boat that makes it capsize is water accumulating at the transom while the boat’s at rest. If water comes into my boat at rest, it accumulates in the belly of the boat, so if my boat sinks, it sinks level. But in the center, I also have a 2,000-gallon-an-hour bilge pump and then a self-priming bilge in the transom for when the boat’s underway. At night, when I go to sleep, I arm the bilge in the belly of the boat with a buzzer—and that lets me know if the pump goes off at night.

You also put little windows in the sides and on the hull looking down into the water.

Yeah, I have a half-tent that I sleep under to keep the dew off. I put those in because I was in a little dark hole up there. Then the window to the undersea is in the cockpit—in the floor. I did that in the late ’90’s. Engineered it on vellum, then took it to a machine shop. I paid $1,400 bucks for it. But it works awesome. I’ve seen blue sharks, blue whales, Bluefin tuna, orca, yellowtail, giant sea bass, dolphins, and gray whales through it.

How about communications gear?

A new generation EPIRB—I started using one of those five years ago. A satphone, cellphone, three VHF radios—two waterproof handheld and one built in, and a really nice stereo. It’s powered by a big glass-pack Group 31 battery. Oh, then I also have GPS and autopilot for tiller arm with a remote I can use when I’m, say, following a school of dolphins. Sometimes it’s just a lot of fun to have that on. I’ll just go to the islands with the autopilot on and just stand there and look around.

When you first built it did you think you’d be taking it to San Clemente and Cortes? Or has the boat evolved into a beast that will take you out for that?

I knew exactly where I wanted to go. With my 16-foot skiff, I touched San Clemente about five times. I was very familiar with being offshore in a small boat. I needed a boat I could get back in rough weather with and not worry about anything. I’m on my seventh engine on this boat. I don’t wear anything out.

A lesson from aerospace. Replace it before you have to worry it’s gonna screw up.

Right, then I sell the used motor for a good price too.

“I love the desolation [of Cortes],” says Mongeau, “When I’m out there, I’m thinking anything could happen.” Above: Mongeau’s sleeping quarters aboard his skiff; the Cortes buoy; a view of the skiff’s undersea window. Photo: Brad Mongeau

What do you remember from your first trip to Cortes?

We got GPS in 1993—a TrackStar handheld unit. I went to San Clemente Island one day, then the next day, the weather was beautiful. So I just headed out then followed my numbers. It was all digital. I get out there, and see the red buoy out there and the turbulence coming off the wreck. I’m thinking that turbulence must be Bishop Rock. I’d been out to Cortes in a sport boat once or twice, but I didn’t even know there was a wreck out there. I had no idea. So I get over there, anchor and swim over to it and realize, wait, there’s a wreck—right down there. I’ve been swimming on it ever since.

It’s right where that first wave breaks when it’s small, right? When Greg Long went back out there last year—he was sitting right over the top of it?

Absolutely. I’ve been out there many times when the wave lops over. That circle you see—that boil. That’s the turbulence coming off the wreck itself. It’s amazing to me that it lays undisturbed as the swell goes by.

I guess that speaks to its hull being made out of concrete and it being built so tough.

Those big swells. That high spot where the ship rests is where the swell heaps up but I don’t think it usually crashes right on the wreck itself.

Unless it’s really, really big and then breaks outside of it.

Right. It’s now in three pieces—close together, right where it first went down. The center hulk of the fuselage is there and it’s all lined up.

Have you ever seen the bottom actually appear in the troughs of waves?

No, but on a very low tide, the ship is only 12 or 14 feet down. It sits up high off the bottom.

How much did you know about the wreck?

At first nothing. Then I read a little about it on the Internet several years ago.

I was so surprised to learn what actually went down out there when I met the engineer for that project—that the ship was deliberately sunk to create a new nation. I think the main assumption for a long time was that it had just shipwrecked. That they came really close to actually succeeding—then a big west swell came and ruined their dreams. It just always amazes me.

Yeah it’s all just so fascinating. I show friends the picture of the guy out there on the front of the boat before that wave hit him. And he made it. It’s incredible. Cortes is definitely the wild place in my life.

You’ve probably spent more nights on Cortes than almost anyone.

Yeah, 40 nights.

What first fired your fascination—and what keeps you coming back?

Well, first, I hate to say this, but it’s been kind of worked over by fishermen. But in my imagination—in my heart of hearts, it’s the last place before Hawaii—the last kelp forest. The last physical feature of the West Coast. And when I’m out there, I’m thinking anything could happen. Any creature from anywhere could come through here and you could just see anything. It still has the greatest potential for seeing something wild of any place in the California Bight. I go to see pelagics like barracuda and bonita swimming in and out of the kelp. It’s the farthest feature out. I just love that. I love the desolation. I love being there. I love accomplishing that. It’s just an absolutely incredible feeling, being there. Then at night, in the dark, you hear buzzing, hissing, wings flapping, breathing, snorting, coughing, splashes. It’s amazing particularly on those absolutely dead calm nights. It’s a wonderland.

Any particularly superlative moments?

One night. Just this completely calm night. I hear huge breathing out in the pitch black. I’m lying in my bed and hear it coming a little closer. Shine my light and then I hear it again. And then pretty soon, this thing comes right up and breathes this huge breath right next to my skiff. I jump up and see this just huge swirl. I don’t know what it was. Could have been anything.

Another time coming to the Bank, I’m hearing all these ships, planes, and helos.

Then I hear the sonar ping of a submarine—really close. Then I’m going back towards San Clemente Island and see a fleet of nine ships and a carrier—a total full fleet escort. I had 17 helicopters and four jet fighters and a C130 swoop down on me. Then, three of the big ships just make a big opening and I drive right through the fleet. I just kind of waved at everyone.

The last time I came off the Bank, I look up ahead and see a couple of boats bobbing in the distance. There’s two Navy helos cutting close to me. I’m making a line toward these boats. My glasses are all watered up, and I go to clean them, then about 30 yards away I see that the boat has no steering wheel. It’s a drone and it’s towing a target. So I came straight into their live-fire target exercise. I did a little hand over my neck then turned 90 degrees away from them, then hightailed it back to Catalina.

Mongeau’s dive shots of the sunken SS Jalisco—the shipwreck that causes the massive boil in the face of the wave at Cortes.
Photo: Brad Mongeau

I guess Cortes is kind of hard to police because it’s so far out. Therefore, fishermen plunder it.

Yeah, but six or eight years ago, I was watching these guys just putting their nets right in the kelp. It was right before white seabass season. I called a buddy about it—a big time spear-fisherman. He calls the Department of Fish and Game. They immediately send an interdiction vessel out 100 miles, and they flat busted them. They had 21 tons of white seabass the day before the season opener. So maybe that’s a cautionary tale for these guys. Not all fishermen are slobs, but I’m really down on these guys who ravage a place like it’s their camping spot for the weekend and they can just do whatever they want.

I know of a diver who got swept away out there by the tidal currents and had to climb onto the buoy or he would have just disappeared. Do the currents out there worry you swimming alone?

I’m very reluctant to get more than 100 yards from my boat in open water. I’ve had to really kick back to the boat more than one time out there. I’m always on visual alert for the kelp. As soon as that kelp lays down, I’m out of there. I’ve been to San Nicolas anchored up and the tidal current. It’ll be heaping up on your hand if you put it in the water.

You have to watch out for swells too I suppose.

Once Cortes hits eight, nine feet, it’ll start to break. One time I swam out there at night in the 90s. It was just absolutely pitch black. The swells were so big coming through that I had to go to the surface and hang out to see my boat lights in between the swells. That was hairy. Another time, I did one last dive before turning to come back. And I’d just moved my boat to take off my wetsuit. A wave came and broke right where my boat had been.

What about your wife. Does she have any trepidation with you doing this stuff?

Well, she’s right here. I’ll put her on the phone.

Jenny Mongeau:  Who’d have thought that something we made in the backyard 20 years ago with hand tools and nothing special would still be going? I can remember him bending the wood for the sides with a couple of weights over a hole in the backyard. There was nothing high-tech about that boat except his knowledge.

Do you worry about him out there on his own?

Jenny:  Well, he has a good sense of self-respect and self-reliance. He knows what he’s doing. As long as the life insurance is paid up, I’m okay with it.

Chris Dixon’s profile of Cortes Bank adventurer Harrison Ealey is featured in issue 24.2 of TSJ.