Did you ever sing along to Gordon Lightfoot’s rendition of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or read Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”? Or watch in horror as Shelly Winters fatally attempted to save the Poseidon or didn’t look away when Leo and Kate said good-bye in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic after the Great Ship went down? Many a timber has shivered through shipwrecks and seafaring misadventures for centuries—and guess what? We love these stories, it seems.
Because being lost at sea, drowned, attacked by sharks, or trapped below decks in a sinking ship isn’t imaginable to most people, these stories bring those visions alive—dreadful yet can’t-look-away gripping narratives. So goes the Titanic ditty, “So they put them down below and they were the first to go” that schoolchildren once sang. No wonder then that a recent arrival in this genre, Dead Reckoning, co-written by local authors Michael Corbin Ray and Therese Vannier,
provides another captivating read along the lines of ships and lives lost at sea as this description evidences: “One after another, in a span of just minutes, the destroyers jammed themselves to the rugged rocks that would be their fate. It was one of the worst peacetime disasters in Navy history.”
Therese, always looking for a good story, found inspiration for this tale during a fortuitous stop at Jalama Beach Store in Lompoc some 20 years ago where shipwreck photos on the wall caught her eye. The pictures held special interest as the high-seas tragedy involving U.S. naval ships occurred right off the coast of Central California and sparked her curiosity. “It’s interesting how many people in this area are unaware of this historic event right in their own waters; it was actually a pretty big deal when it happened,” she said.
Time went by, she said. “Something kept bugging me to write this story together with Mike, my screenplay writing, and business partner. I always thought it was a good idea but we’d been working on other mutual projects and so it just took a while.”
Dead Reckoning is a result of their investigation, intrigue, and work: weaving fact with imagination, a work inspired by actual events through a storyteller’s lens. This swift but solid page-turner will keep you up late learning what likely happened as the flotilla of U.S. Navy ships and their crews met with misfortune crashing upon the unseen rocks and ramming into each other doomed by a confluence of human error, dense fog, pressure to make speedy passage to San Diego (from San Francisco), seismic tidal activity and a bit of alleged alcohol use tossed in. (Though later evidence places the blame mostly on The USS Delphy’s Captain Edward H. Watson relying on dead reckoning over more advanced navigational measures.) The accounts of follow-up trials and court-martials are equally compelling.
Fortunately for the Santa Ynez Valley-based writers Ray and Vannier, they had convenient access to nearby resources for their research such as the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, the Lompoc Valley Historical Society, and permission to visit Honda Point, where in September 1923, seven ships sank and 23 persons lost their lives in the cold waters near the current site of Vandenberg AFB. Visiting the site and local museums and talking with people with recall of long-ago memories of the event definitely helped to provide depth to their story. “You used to be able to dive the wrecks and salvage junk, but that’s pretty much closed up now,” Mike said. “Fortunately there’s lots of information on the internet that helped our research, especially learning about the ships, their layouts, and life aboard naval vessels, particularly below decks. Therese added, “The research is always fascinating. We were so curious: What did people eat and what did they wear? What was a sailor’s life like? What were the women like?” Both agreed that re-
search also helps to trigger the story plot-wise. “We also realized that although we initially thought this would be a great idea for a screenplay, it ultimately needed to be a book.”
They already had one book under their belt, The Long Way, (that has a tiny tie-in with their newest project), and had experienced the learning curve with regard to producing and self-publishing. “It was a pretty smooth process,” Therese said. “We did the research and had a good feeling of what the story was going to say. And,” she laughed, “we knew what the ending would be!” It wasn’t all flowers and rainbows though. “We did fight over the cover a lot,” Mike said, though they both agreed in the end, the photo of high, scary waves made more sense than anything else they could come up with, and they’re happy with how it turned out.
Both Therese and Mike agreed the first act (when the idea was still in screenplay mode) was where they ran into trouble. “A friend read it and hated the early pages,” Mike said, “We ended up reordering some of the scenes and making some big cuts, and that’s when we decided it would work better as a book.” Once that decision was made they got a first draft underway. Then, “All hell breaks loose,” Therese said. “We knew we had to tie everything up, print it, mark it up. In the end, the timeline turned out to be more linear than the back-and-forth-in-time method we envisioned.” And sometimes they had to step away, talk, and think and give up an idea they were attached to.
“It’s called ‘killing your babies,’” Therese said. “A lot of writers suffer letting go of an idea that ultimately doesn’t work for the story. It’s really hard.” Mike said, “I need to take some distance from a project before I come back and look at it. It’s hard to be objective about your own work when it’s too fresh in your mind.” Mike, a Cal Poly graduate with a degree in Ecology and Systematic Biology worked part-time as a staff writer at the then Telegram-Tribune where he met Therese who worked on Vintages magazine. They formed a working partnership, Fish Lips Creative, providing graphic
design and creative services to businesses in the San Luis Obispo area.
After a move to SOCAL in the early 2000s to be closer to the film mecca where they worked on screenplays, had some success in film festivals, and had access to opportunities and personalities that could help them, they realized there’s no place like home. In the past few years, they’ve slowly moved further north; SLO is only an hour away now. Meantime, Therese and Mike are busy promoting their new book and raising Chesapeake Bay Retrievers Claire, Jeter, Kynsi and Hooper. Visit their website at baaapress.com. Oh, and if you’re heading out to sea, you might want to take Dead Reckoning along as a cautionary tale.
What does Dead Reckoning mean?
In navigation, dead reckoning is the process of calculating one’s current position by using a previously determined position, or fix, by using estimations of speed and course over elapsed time.
Where is Honda Point?
Now known as Point Pedernales, it’s located on the seacoast at Vandenberg Air Force Base, where a memorial plaque marks the disaster site. A propeller and a propeller shaft from Delphy are on display outside the Veterans’ Memorial Building in Lompoc.
What were the names and types of ships lost?
The fourteen ships of DesRon 11 were steaming south in column from San Francisco Bay to San Diego Bay on September 8, 1923. All were Clemson-class destroyers, less than five years old. Of those ships, the following were sunk: The USS Delphy, The USS S.P. Lee, The USS Young, The USS Woodbury, The USS Nicholas, The USS Fuller, the USS Chauncey.
Is there a Honda Point Mural?
Yes! Leroy Fulton Washington, formerly an inmate at the federal prison in Lompoc, developed his amazing artistic talent while incarcerated for 21 years. He painted three murals for the Veterans Hall in Lompoc, including a lifelike three-panel mural of the Honda Point shipwreck. Washington won a pardon from President Barack Obama in 2016. A documentary, Mr. Wash, can be viewed online.
What’s the hardest part of self-publishing?
Therese: Marketing the product—especially during a pandemic when book signings and in-person promotions are difficult. We’ve been going to bookstores and doing interviews for media outlets but it’s a little harder right now.
Where can one purchase the book?
“Dead Reckoning” is available on Amazon and online bookstores; and local book sellers like Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara, the Book Loft in Solvang and Coalesce in Morro Bay can order copies if they are not in stock—they’ve been selling out. Copies are also sold in maritime museums, gift shops and Jalama Beach Café.
One final note: Ruby, the main female character in the story, is named after Therese’s grandmother.
Heather Young is a freelance writer specializing in travel, wine, food and feel-good stories about people doing good in their communities and world. Find her on Instagram @travelswithheatheryoung