The Man Who Would Be King…of Abalonia
I think having a drink with someone is important and should be done frequently. Sometimes you need to have 3 (I haven’t forgotten you Nelson), but the number is only important when you consider who is across the table from you. Good stories usually dribble out – sometimes tales of bad behavior, sometimes delicate dreams that held sway in longing hearts that were then torn asunder. Perhaps a combination of truth and lies from the hidden caves of misery or the joyful fountains of happiness. Or it could mean being drowned in a torrent of repeated endless jabber by one who is over-served and your only wish is for some terrible medical emergency to envelope this person or at worst, envelope yourself.
I want to have a drink with Joe Kirkwood, Jr. Not because Joe and his Dad (Joe Sr.) became the first father / son to make the cut at the US
Open Golf Championship in 1948. Not because Joe starred in eleven “Joe Palooka” films and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I want to have a drink with Joe Kirkwood because he tried to build his own country on top of a shallow seamount 100 miles directly west of San Diego called Cortes Bank. The Bank rises from a depth of more
than a mile, up to the shallowest peak, called Bishop Rock, a mere 3-6 feet from the surface depending on the tide. It is here where some of the biggest waves on earth, some 60′, 70′, 100′ high, rise from the depths and it is here where Joe wanted to sink a 334 ft. concrete ship weighing five thousand tons, surround it with huge boulders from a quarry in Ensenada, and become King of the country of Abalonia. Joe and his pals were nation builders and what is amazing is not that these Founding Fathers of Abalonia failed, but how close they came to succeeding. Sit down Joe, I’m buying.
Joe and his confederates assembled at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach on Nov.13th, 1966 and were ready to shove off. Joe showed up in pressed pleated khaki trousers, a cashmere sweater, and a pair of fur apres-ski boots. Perfect wear for sinking a ship, placing boulders in the middle of the ocean, and declaring your throne. There were 3 ships involved: the concrete 334 ft. Jalisco which was being towed by tug to Cortes Bank from San Francisco after being purchased for $80,000, the Rainbow’s End which was the center of communication control, and the Polaris which was given the job of coordinating the five barges of large boulders being brought up from Ensenada. The general plan was to scuttle the Jalisco atop Bishops Rock in shallow water and surround the ship with ever expanding rings of boulders so she could be used as a seafood processing factory. Joe and his crew figured that international maritime law would allow them to become the rulers of their own nation because Cortes Bank was in international waters.
As the strange flotilla was trying to gather, Kirkwood’s plan hit the news and drew the attention of the city San Diego, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Attorney Edwin Miller. Was Joe a commie sympathizer who wanted to set up his own private Cuba with missiles pointed at the Hotel Del Coronado? What if the Abalonians decided to restrict fishing in their newly claimed territorial waters? What if Joe got together with the Mob Guys in Vegas and set up a casino? Many questions and no answers. It was calm as a pond, glassy, with no swell as the boys started to move the Jalisco in position on Bishops Rock. No one seemed to notice that the horizon to the west had started a see-saw motion very slow and at a great distance.
A marine layer now encircled the process adding a ghostly pale to the proceedings. The Jalisco was in position and the sinking had started. What had also started was that the Jalisco was being enveloped by long, low-frequency forerunners that formed the leading edge of a huge North Pacific swell. As the outer edge of the swell swept past the Jalisco the waves encountered something they hadn’t encountered since they felt Hawaii – an immovable object that is Cortes Bank. The wave’s energy now was compressed and could go nowhere but up. The Jalisco now climbed and sharply dropped with her hull banging like a deafening gong. The sets continued with the waves increasing in size. The men on the Jalisco had to leave and they had to leave now. Their only hope would be a lull in the giant sets. The men dove overboard and were yanked out of the water by the crew of the Rainbow’s End. Everyone left the Jalisco, that is, everyone except Joe Kirkwood who clutched the forward mast. The men on the Rainbow’s End watched as the water below the bow of the stricken Jalisco was drawn down and then gathered into a beautiful blue green nightmare that loomed above the Jalisco some 50 feet in the air with fish inside
the wave plainly visible. It exploded on the Jalisco and sent poor Joe flying off the ship still wearing his fur after-ski boots. Kirkwood tumbled some 200 yards down the trough of the wave and miraculously ended up just feet from the tug boat and was successfully plucked from the sea. After more waves, the entire superstructure was torn completely off the Jalisco with a mingling of water and steel. The Jalisco was gone and so were the dreams of the Nation of Abalonia.
The Jalisco split into 3 pieces of sharp jagged steel which makes surfing this inhospitable place that much more dangerous. Surfer Mike Parsons in January 2008 caught a documented 80 foot wave at Cortes Bank with the skeleton of the Jalisco below him. In 1985 the gigantic aircraft carrier USS Enterprise wandered to close to
Cortes Bank putting a 60 foot gash in her outer hull, ripped-off her port keel, and
severely deformed her outboard port propellers. She continued operations and her captain was relieved of his duties.
By my calculations Joe Kirkwood Jr., whose whereabouts are unknown, is about 93 years old. But Joe, if you are out there, let me buy you a couple and you can tell me about being the King of Abalonia. Do you still have those boots?
If you get a chance please read the book “Ghost Wave” by Chris Dixon. A wonderful book about Cortes Bank which I borrowed and stole from. Thanks Chris. Groove.
Wow, who would have known…in my own back yard even! Thanks for the share Nick, I think Huell would be most proud of this 🙂
Such kind words Lora. Thank you very much.
Love this! Love the thought of Abalonia too. Is the name yours or his?
Abalonia was Joe’s name for the place. Originally he wanted the name Lemuria , but settled with Abalonia. Thanks Nanya
Love it. We should try something similar in the Santa Monica bay. Maybe sink a tugboat. We could call our country, SammoAbalonia. We’ll work out the details over a few cocktails at Chez Jay. I think this would be time well spent, don’t you?
Fur apres-ski boots . . . the only footwear fit for Abalonian royalty.
So true Miguel. Thank you for the comment
Dang Nick, how flattering that you dug my tale enough for a most excellent summation. I too would love to have a drink with Joe. I have this lingering vision of him perched out on that bow, frozen with fear-looking exactly like George Clooney in the last instant before the great flood in Oh Brother Where Art Thou? He is a great, unsung, and wholly American icon. And I agree- he was imminently Huell-worthy.
Cheers-and thanks. Chris Dixon
Chris, I know you are a Carolina guy now, but if ever close to Santa Monica please let me buy you a beer. Ghost Wave is the best book I’ve read in a long time and I am glad you enjoyed my take. I’ve looked , but can’t find out much about what happened to Joe Kirkwood. Any ideas?
Thanks heaps Nick.
Alas – I have it on fairly good authority that Joe died a few years ago. Jim Houtz – the project engineer – still lives in Laguna, and is a super cool guy who would, I’m sure, happily share a beer with you. Hit me up if you’re ever out Charleston way.
Thanks Chris and thanks for enjoying the blog