His boat, a 50-foot-long steel-hulled trawler named the Relentless, had navigated much rougher seas countless times.
Pennisi had considered not going to the ocean for another reason. Sunday was Father's Day, a time usually spent with his son, Joey, now 11. But there was a boat payment due and Pennisi felt he needed to fish. And so he rounded up deckhand Michael Odom, 24, who had gone to work for him six months earlier and whose dream had been to own a commercial fishing boat of his own. The men left in the wee hours of Saturday from the tiny port of Moss Landing, north of Monterey.
With the customary handshake, Pennisi had committed to deliver a catch to Caito Fish Co., on San Francisco's Pier 45, the following Monday and he didn't intend to disappoint.
But no one ever saw the men again.
Sometime after 2 a.m. that Monday, as the Relentless, having caught its limit of sole, chugged through a busy shipping channel about 25 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge on its way to Fisherman's Wharf, the boat disappeared without so much as issuing a Mayday distress call. A search team from the U.S. Coast Guard found no trace of the men and never located the wreckage. Among the handful of items from the boat found floating at sea was a life raft that never inflated and a surfboard that had belonged to Odom.
"They just vanished; that's the hardest thing," says Patti Pennisi, the captain's widow. "There's no one to bury, no closure, and worst of all, no answers to any of our questions."
Haunted by the disappearance, she and other relatives, who are critical of a Coast Guard investigation that produced little more than speculation, have their own theory about what happened, centered on a South Korean-owned tanker. The relatives, and others within California's close-knit community of trawler fishermen, insist that there is little to explain why a steel-hulled vessel like the Relentless, which had passed a safety inspection barely a month before its disappearance, would have sank suddenly of its own accord.
"Whatever happened to my brother's boat was something sudden and catastrophic," says veteran commercial fisherman John Pennisi. He is convinced that a large ship ran over the Relentless in the shipping lane that funnels traffic in and out of the ports of San Francisco and Oakland without bothering to stop. "I know my brother, and the only way he wouldn't have been on that radio with a Mayday is if he'd been rammed before he knew what hit him."
The Relentless isn't the first trawler to disappear without a trace off San Francisco's coast, and veteran fishermen citing the heavy flow of ship traffic in and out of the Golden Gate suspect it won't be the last. "Whenever these things happen, the No. 1 suspicion involves hit-and-run," says Mark Russo, whose fishing boat, the Reliance, was rammed by a Japanese freighter near the shipping channel 12 miles off Point Reyes in 2002, tearing it to pieces. He considers himself lucky to be alive.
Relatives of three men who perished aboard the fishing boat Marian Ann in Humboldt Bay three months after Pennisi's boat went down also suspected a collision at sea. The men's remains were never recovered, but a Navy robot vessel later found the Marian Ann upright and intact on the ocean floor some 2,100 feet deep, suggesting that something else caused the boat to sink. As with the Relentless, the Coast Guard labeled the cause of its sinking as "unknown."
Commercial fishing is among the deadliest occupations in America, with a fatality rate quadruple that of police officers and firefighters. Veteran fishermen say no aspect of the job causes more fear than the prospect of being struck by large ocean-going vessels whose crews, they say, are often recklessly inattentive when cruising near smaller boats with their heavy loads of fish or with nets anchoring them in the water providing little mobility to get out of the way. Fishermen, especially the die-hard breed of trawler operators of which Pennisi was a part, complain that "near misses" involving tankers and freighters are a common occurrence and that little is done to police them or prevent accidents.
Two years later, the tragedy of the Relentless continues to resonate in commercial fishing circles, not only because its captain was from a prominent Bay Area fishing family, but because of lingering disenchantment with the Coast Guard's official inquiry into the sinking. "The feeling is that the Coast Guard seemed to go out of its way to criticize the crew without giving enough weight to what a lot of fishermen think really happened out there," says Jed Favalora, who fished with Rowdy Pennisi for three years in the 1980s and knew him well.
Favalora is one person who can identify with the Pennisi and Odom families' anguish. His cousin, the late Jack Favalora, died along with two crew members aboard the fishing boat Jack Junior in 1986 after it was rammed by a tanker not far from the same shipping lanes, near the Farallon Islands. In that tragedy, the skipper's last words, captured in an emergency radio transmission later replayed on news broadcasts, were, "Oh, my God, you're going to hit us!"
Like other hard-pressed trawler owners who've seen their incomes decline amid decreased fishing stocks and increased government regulation in recent years, Pennisi operated on the premise that he had to fish whenever he could, relatives say. Even his choice of ports reflected how driven he was.