David Morgan, heroic deckhand in deadly 1986 Bodega Bay shipwreck, dies at 62

David Morgan (Courtesy photo)


Nine people out for a day of ocean fishing perished in the sudden tragedy that struck the Merry Jane party boat just outside of Bodega Harbor in 1986, but more might have died had deckhand David Morgan not responded as he did.

Moments after the impact of a great wave threw 19 people overboard, Morgan grabbed every life jacket and ring and floating device he could find and flung them into the water. He broadcast a call for help from the nearby Coast Guard station and, to calculate how many people were overboard, he asked two passengers to count everyone still on the boat.

His wife, Kathie Morgan, recalls, “He woke up screaming in the night for a month after that, night after night.”

David Morgan, who fished commercially until 1996 and then changed to work on solid ground and in his free time fished the Napa River with his wife for fun and dinner, died Sept. 8 at his home just north of Santa Rosa. He was 62.

He was born in Spokane, grew up Sacramento and in 1979 moved to Bodega Bay to become a commercial fisherman. Two years later, he married the former Kathie Just, a future newspaper reporter and outdoors writer who worked then at the Tides Wharf fish market.

On Feb. 7, 1986, the couple took advantage of a day of party-boat fishing that Kathie Morgan had won, and they and several friends and relatives enjoyed an outing aboard skipper Rich Tiesso’s 30-ton, Bodega Bay-berthed Merry Jane. That evening, Kathie Morgan said, Tiesso asked her husband if he would help crew the boat the following day.

Morgan, who’d worked on a number of Bodega Bay boats but not the Merry Jane, declined, saying he was too tired to go out the next morning. But Tiesso was insistent, Kathie Morgan said, and ultimately David Morgan agreed to act as a deckhand the next day, a Saturday.

It was by many accounts a splendid and calm day outside of Bodega Bay. “David described it as a postcard-perfect day,” his wife said.

Tiesso and David Morgan and another deckhand took out 48 passengers, several of them children. They headed north and dropped lines off Fort Ross.

At 4:17 p.m., the Merry Jane was returning to Bodega Harbor and was passing between Bodega Head and Bodega Rock when a great wave slammed it from behind, tossing the boat violently. At least two more large waves struck in rapid succession.

Faith Recio, a Sacramento teacher onboard, told The Press Democrat she’d been watching her catch of rock cod being filleted when the first wave hit.

“It turned the boat sideways and then took us over to, it seemed, 90 degrees,” Recio said. She was hurled into the water.

David Morgan told the Marine Board of Investigations that the first wave knocked him down, then he got up, hit the deck again upon the second impact, then went in search of anything that the passengers who’d been hurled overboard might cling to.

“I started getting life jackets out,” he told the inquiry board, which met the week after the tragedy at the Coast Guard Training Station at Two Rock, near Petaluma.

“I made the ‘mayday’ call,” he said. “I helped Rich get life rafts out. And I got two passengers to start counting who was left on board.”

“We started throwing life jackets, ice chests, bumper balls — anything that would float, we threw.”

Of the 19 people thrust overboard, nine could not be saved. Kathie Morgan said she’s certain that on that day, her husband’s “quick thinking and sound actions saved countless lives.”

For another decade, David Morgan continued to work on fishing boats out of Bodega Bay. In 1996, he and his wife left the coast and settled in a mobile home park off of Old Redwood Highway, between Santa Rosa and Windsor. He worked in construction until hiring on as a maintenance worker at the mobile park.

“He worked long, hard and responsibly,” his wife said. “In his spare time, he loved to grow giant pumpkins and to fish, especially to fish for striped bass on the Napa River.”

Morgan enjoyed sharing his catch and his vegetables with neighbors and friends.

“He was sweet,” his wife said. “His sweetness came through everything he did.”

Morgan was helping to paint the mobile home park’s recreation room on Sept. 8 when he collapsed, possibly from a heart attack. Attempts to revive him failed.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his mother, Barbara Gianopulos of Placerville, and his father, Q.E. Morgan of Yuba City.

There will be a memorial at 2 p.m. Sept. 30 in the rec room at Mobile Home Estates, 5761 Old Redwood Highway.