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Widow asks friends to recover abalone diver's body from Sonoma Coast


One week ago today, Linda Willes of seaside Timber Cove stood on the rocky shoreline a few miles from home and saw her husband dive below the surface on his third descent for abalone and not come back up.

Two days of anguish later, state and county emergency personnel had not found the body of 56-year-old Craig Willes through the thick kelp in Salt Point Park's Fisk Mill Cove, a popular but often perilous place to free-dive — without air tanks — for abalone.

By then desperate, Linda Willes knocked on the door of fellow Timber Cove resident and avid diver Jason O'Donnell.

"She asked me if I could help bring her husband home," he said. He told her he would try.

"To be honest," he said, "I didn't want to give her false hope."

At 41, O'Donnell is a general contractor who has switched to diving on the Sonoma Coast. Last year, he went in on 204 days.

A member of a small and tight community of free-divers who savor the rugged stretch of coast north of Jenner, O'Donnell works as an abalone and spear-fishing guide and mentor. He felt that he had to try to find Craig Willes.

As O'Donnell made preparations to go into Fisk Mill Cove the following morning, Thursday, his wife, Amanda, suggested that he make a plea for assistance on one of his favorite websites. He went onto the Nor Cal Underwater Hunters site and asked if any fellow divers would go with him to look for the lost diver's body.

He chokes up as he recounts that four men dropped whatever they were doing and headed for the northern Sonoma Coast.

The four were Heath Blackwell of Healdsburg, Jack Johnson of Richmond, Ken Butler of Benicia and Robert Winn of Colusa.

O'Donnell informed State Parks lifeguards and a buddy who's a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy that he and the other civilian divers were going into Fisk Mill Cove to look for the lost man.

About 10 Thursday morning, Linda Willes accompanied the divers up Highway 1 to Fisk Mill Cove and pointed out where her husband, an experienced abalone diver, had failed to resurface.

Though they'd brought along scuba tanks, the five men agreed free-diving with just the air in their lungs is what they know best, so at least to start they would not use the tanks. The water was milky and the surges strong as they entered the water

O'Donnell said it was toughest dive of his life, in part because of trying to breathe with a lump in his throat.

He and the others swam about 300 yards, around two great rocks, to get to the area where Willes had been diving. They'd been in the water about two hours when Johnson men found a face mask.

A short time later, Winn surfaced and called to O'Donnell. Winn led him to a small cave about 20 feet down.

Craig Willes' body was stuck in the opening, one arm extended into the cave. Winn cut free his weight belt and they started back up.

It was a bit past noon when Linda Willes spotted O'Donnell and Winn with her husband's body. Three days had passed since she'd watched him diving and surfacing in one of his favorite pursuits.

The five divers' swim back to the shore was a long one. O'Donnell said they were perhaps 100 feet out when the state lifeguard who was present jumped into the water, swam out and said he'd take over from there.

Winn responded politely but firmly that they would bring the diver in.

O'Donnell said the lifeguard didn't persist right then, but when the divers were in only about six feet of water he said again that he would take over.

This time, O'Donnell told him something close to, "He's done being in the cold water. We're bringing him in."

Amanda O'Donnell hurried off to tell Salt Point Park rangers that the lost diver's body had just been recovered. Authorities converged on the cove.

Linda Willes has since struggled for words adequate to thank Jason O'Donnell and the other divers.

Though the experience left them physically and emotionally drained, O'Donnell said they could not have declined to go in for Craig Willes.

O'Donnell said, "It was more of a last swim, with love and respect, than a recovery."

(Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.)