by Annie Sutter
This story was first published in the Marin Scope in 1985.
Some years ago, as I relaxed on board a sailboat anchored off Gate 3, two large crabs suddenly flew into the cockpit, splattered across the deck, and fetched up in a corner, legs waving in outrage. That was my first meeting with Cass Gidley, a cheery looking fellow in a dinghy full of crab pots, nets and fishing gear. “Enjoy!” he shouted as he rowed off to his cutter, the Yo Ho Ho, anchored nearby. Cass, strong, competent and looking just as if he’d spent his life at sea, which he has, has been described by one man as “the strongest man I ever saw — he can pick up Yo Ho Ho’s mains’l and just walk off with it,” and by another: “When you shake hands with Cass Gidley, you know you’ve shaken hands.”
Today Cass, fisherman, sailor, sailing instructor, charter skipper and local legend, has Yo Ho Ho docked at the Napa Street pier near the location of his retail fish market of the ’60s, and the sailing school and marina that still bear his name. He’s lived on the 54-foot cutter for 18 years and raised three kids on board while anchored off Gate 3. He’s been around Sausalito since the 1920s, when fishermen kept Montereys in Hurricane Gulch, and when four crabs sold for $1. “I started commercial fishing in 1941 — got bit by the bug. Me with no experience, but I liked the sea. I leased a 40-foot double ender, the Nina, and fished crab, salmon and albacore. We didn’t travel far offshore in those days, but we worked hard for very little money. Salmon brought 12 cents a pound, but money wasn’t the real thing, it was the adventure we had out there.”
At first Cass sold his catch at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, “but finally I got away from it and made my headquarters in Sausalito, in the mid ’40s. I sold all my fish through Lefty Sturiales, down at Gate 3. Lefty, he was a famous character, known up and down the coast. I fished out of Pt. Reyes and brought them back to Sausalito.”
In the early ’50s, Cass set up a shop next to the ferry dock and sold fresh fish directly off his boat to the locals. “The city gave us a float right where the ferry is now, and we sold tons and tons of fish. We’d fish for a week and come in on Thursday and sell on Friday. The people came right down to the dock; we had so many people we had to give out numbers!” Then, in 1957, Cass started his own crab company, the Lighthouse Crab Co. “We had seven trucks running around and sold from 12,000 to 15,000 pounds a weekend from locations at San Rafael, Black Point, Petaluma. Each crab van pulled a 50-gallon cooker and had its assigned spot along the highway, and sometimes people were lined up even before the van arrived. I never heard of a frozen crab,” said Cass. “We cooked ’em right on the spot. They stayed alive in the refrigerated truck and came out fighting.
“Then I set up as a fish buyer at the Napa Street pier.” The Casserino Fish Co. was to grow into a large retail operation, a headquarters for fishermen, and had a little lunch place featuring fish and chips. “We had a big room for the fishermen and they could go out and get all ploughed up, you know, and there were never any tickets or trips to jail then. The police in Sausalito were tops then — they helped everybody — they’d call and say, ‘Hey! Your car’s down here, come and get it’ — and maybe a salmon sailed their way the next day. Sometimes when the fleet was ‘blown in,’ with a raftup of big trawlers side by side at the pier, we’d have a barbecue with fresh bottom fish and salmon on the charcoal, a van full of French bread and the usual free beer. And the smells of garlic bread drifted far out into the bay and even the seagulls stopped to watch.”
What’s in store now for Cass? “I’m going back fishing. I’ve got a small 32-foot hard chine ketch I’m going to make into a fishing boat and go out and get some fish myself and bring them back to the Napa Street pier and sell right off the boat. That’s my plan. Take the fish out of the stores — everybody’s happy and you’ve all got fresh fish.”
Cass Gidley passed away in 1998, but his memory is being preserved by The Sausalito Community Boating Center, a non-profit organization established to create a Community place at Gidley’s old marina near Dunphy Park to provide affordable access to boats and the water, preserve maritime history through education and skill building, promote environmental stewardship of our bay, and to maintain a place in Sausalito for locals and maritime groups to hold classes, access the waterfront and build community.
Learn more about this organization and its fundraising progress at http://cassgidley.org.