Robert “Bobby” Austin is 99 years old and just retired from fishing in San Pedro with his boat “Pisces”.
When Robert “Bobby” Austin was growing up in the 1920s and 1930s, Torrance was an expanse of open acreage.
He also started driving at 10 — walked right into the Torrance police office at the age of 14 asking for a driver’s license. “How did you get here?” the desk officer asked.
“I drove,” Bobby replied, pointing to the Model T Ford outside. Good enough.
Traffic was nonexistent and gas was a nickel a gallon.
Only a couple years later, in 1937, he beat the captain of a fishing boat at arm wrestling to win a spot on his crew for the next trip out.
He quit Torrance High (he was a junior just a year behind famed alumnus Louis Zamperini; they were both on the school’s track team together) and never looked back.
“I was making so much money, why would I want to go back?” he said.
The San Pedro Fishermen’s Cooperative Association opened March 26, 1938. Robert “Bobby” Austin was president in 1955.
For 81 years, Austin’s fishing boats have called San Pedro Bay home. His most recent one, the Pisces, bought in 1958, is tied up to a creaking dock where it gently bobs in San Pedro’s SP (Southern Pacific) Slip just south of Ports O’ Call.
In truth, the 60-foot long boat hasn’t been taken out in a while now. But with his 100th birthday approaching on June 14, Austin plans to finish some work on the Pisces before he sells it and retires.
Whether he’s set some kind of record for years fishing out of the harbor or not isn’t clear, but the Port of Los Angeles in April feted him with a Certificate of Appreciation for being a living connection to the port’s forebearers.
When Tuna Was King
There were once 16 fish canneries on Terminal Island in the commercial fishing heyday.
Long before giant containers and cruise ships populated the Port of Los Angeles, the commercial fishing fleet and the canneries dominated San Pedro’s coastline.
In terms of career timing, Austin hit it just about right. San Pedro already was the nation’s largest fishing port and work to complete Fish Harbor on Terminal Island had just been completed in 1928, according to port records. By the following year, 75 percent of catches in California were being canned in Los Angeles harbor. When the wind was just right – or the cannery workers got off the ferry after a long day’s work – the pungent smell of tuna filled the air in San Pedro’s downtown shopping district.
For Austin, like so many others, fishing was a lucrative job from the start.
The youngest and smallest of five children, Austin grew up learning how to make the most of his physical strength, a skill that served him well at sea.
Maybe more important, though, was his keen eyesight. He’s never worn glasses, still drives (a red 2003 Mercury Sable sedan) and can read the tiny print off a supermarket coupon.
Austin recalled an early fishing trip when he spotted the tell-tale signs of birds over the water just off of San Nicolas Island off of Ventura.
“I said, ‘I think there’s some fish out there,’” Austin said. The captain obliged and they headed that way, loading up 4.5 tons of albacore tuna by the time they were done.
“I made that guy a lot of money,” he said.
Needed A Bigger Boat
Austin bought the Pisces in 1958.
It was around that time that he met his future wife, Frances (“a cute gal”), whom he spotted on the roller skating rink in Culver City in 1938. Austin broke in between the guy she was skating with and managed to find out where she lived – even when she wouldn’t give him the address. They were married in 1940. She was 19 and he was 22.
For a short time, Austin fished off a “rickety boat,’ The Comet, built in 1900 and first owned by his brother-in-law. It lasted until a “Russian kid” crew member beached it in the fog and it fell apart.
Austin’s first real boat was a 27-footer that quickly earned him “10 times” the money his machinist father had made, Austin said, but it was all relative in the early days, he said, when the going wages were $1 an hour.
“Then my wife said to me, ‘They’re building new boats in San Diego, 38 footers.’ That would hold 12 tons of fish,” he said. It cost $7,200 and Austin by then could easily afford to pay cash. “She was always a little bit ahead of me.”
He named that boat “Liny,” after the oldest of the couple’s two children, Linda, 76. Austin’s wife of more than 70 years died at the age of 89 in 2012; their daughter lives in San Diego and Austin’s son, Robert P., 75, lives with his father in Long Beach.
While the early money might not sound like much now, the industry approaching mid-century was booming. He recalls catching $66,000 worth of fish on one trip alone.
“I handed her the check and she paid off our new house,” purchased for $4,200. The two-bedroom home was at 120th and Figueroa streets.
He was 25 when World War II broke out and was given a deferment so he could continue to supply defense forces with the Vitamin A-rich fish that was being caught. At the very end of the war, he served on an oil rig off the coast.
He recalls the displacement of the Japanese fishermen on Terminal Island when the internment camps were set up, saying a few of them were good friends, “good guys.”
Fishing continued to be plentiful after the war and in 1955, the now-defunct San Pedro News-Pilot carried a front-page photo of Austin with a giant shark that they’d caught.
Through the years, Austin fished for mostly tuna and mackerel and squid, sometimes being out at sea for a month at a time. What did he like most about it? “Coming in” to shore, he said..
He remembers the scariest experience in 1974 when he was about 100 miles off the coast Washington state.
It was around noon when: “All of a sudden, here comes this great big wave,” Austin said. “I pull the boat in reverse. The wave was probably 35 feet tall. Then, behind that, comes another higher one. Then another one. I was in reverse at full speed, the bow was under the water. I thought what the … is going on here?”
The boat and crew were unscathed. He never knew what caused the unusual swells but speculates it could have been an undersea earthquake.
His son Robert was on board when a typhoon struck in 1959. They were 85 miles off the coast near Eureka when the 90 mph winds ripped off the boat’s hatch cover. The son managed to put it back on before a 40-foot wave was about to hit. Thirteen boats were sunk that day.
Times — and the fortunes of independent commercial fishermen — eventually changed due to rising competition and fuel costs and industrial-sized nets among so many other factors. Today, only a handful of independent commercial fishing boats remain in the Port of Los Angeles. The once 16 canneries that employed thousands, gone. The Fishermen’s Cooperative, which opened in 1938 and for which Austin was president in 1955, is gone, too, now.
The price of fuel is so high now, Austin said, “there’s no way you can make any kind of a living.”
In his spare time, Austin became something of a horseshoe pitching champ, placing second statewide in 1995 and winning other awards until his right rotator cuff went out.
He’s a believer in science (not religion) and once invented a brine spray and a handy automatic fishing pole set up on his boat. Both were later copied.
His determination throughout his life was something of a family legend.
“I just always found a way to win,” he said, recalling that as a second grader he was already beating the sixth- graders at marbles on the playground.
The plaque given to him in April by the Board of Los Angeles Harbor Commissioners will be donated to Torrance High School.
Austin and his family are planning his 100th birthday party, which will be a simple gathering of neighbors outside to eat a cake from Costco. Austin said his house is worth close to $1 million these days and he still owns an avocado grove near Oceanside.
The secret to his long life?
“Don’t smoke or drink and just keep working,” he said.
And he’s still a force to reckon with at arm wrestling.
As he was about to carry a heavy pump off his boat for repair just the other day, a fisherman across the slip called out to caution him.
“He said, ‘You’re too old and too weak,’ ” Austin said. “I said, ‘How would you like to arm wrestle?’ I put his arm down like it was nothing.”
After that, sure enough, he hauled that pump off his boat. And drove it to Maywood the next day for repair.