A swordfishing pioneer remembered

Approximately 20 local boats traveled out to Longboat Pass to participate in Warren Cannon’s memorial ceremony on Saturday morning. - Cannon family | Submitted

CORTEZ – Legendary swordfish and tuna boat captain Warren Cannon passed away recently after a body surfing accident in St. Augustine.

On Saturday, Sept. 29, Cannon’s ashes were scattered in the water off Longboat Pass and his adventurous life was then celebrated at the Swordfish Grill in Cortez.

Cannon, 65, was body surfing at Vilano Beach on Sunday, Sept. 9, when his fatal accident occurred.

“On that beach there’s quite a deep drop. We think what happened was he caught a wave wrong and hit his head on the sand where it rose steeply,” his daughter Chana Cannon said on Sunday.

“He fractured his C5, C4 and C3 vertebrae. The neurosurgeon said he was probably instantly paralyzed and the cause of death was blunt force trauma and drowning. The following day, at 5:25 p.m., he was declared brain dead. He was kept on life support for a few days because he was an organ donor, and he successfully donated his kidneys and liver.”

In addition to Chana, Warren is survived by his partner of 37 years, Katarina Cannon, their daughters, Charlotte Huntley and Johanna Cannon, and their son, Jonathan Cannon. Chana is an attorney in St. Petersburg. Charlotte is a commercial crabber in Cortez. Jon is a firefighter and fishing guide and lives in Palmetto and Hanna owns an Aveda Salon and lives in Parrish.

On Saturday morning, about 50 family members and friends boarded the Eddy Lee Z, captained by Lance Plowman, and headed out to Longboat Pass joined by about 20 other boats.

“We used to live on Anna Maria, and my dad would take trips out into the Gulf out of Cortez,” Chana said. “Mostly he fished out of Gloucester (Massachusetts) and Hawaii, but his roots were in Cortez. That’s why we did the service there. He told Jon he wanted his ashes placed in an outgoing tide. People flew in from Hawaii and Gloucester to honor him. We had a procession of boats that was so beautiful. People wore bright colors, and we threw hundreds of orchids into the water after his ashes, which were in a salt urn. He wouldn’t have wanted a serious, solemn farewell.”

A life at sea

“My dad started when he was about 17 in Cortez with Walter Bell, who gave him his first break running the Rachel Belle. He met my mother when he was 29. They started their swordfish empire, and he quickly became, arguably, the best swordfish captain ever,” Chana said.

“When I was seven, we moved out to Hawaii. He fished there for years and built up the longlining industry there. In Gloucester and Honolulu, he was considered ‘the guy’ when it came to swordfishing. He was a pioneer in the industry. Longlining did not exist when he started. Using hydraulics and gears, he and a few other guys known as highliners created this industry.

“My dad thought it was the last frontier for men in America, and he likened it to the wild west. This was before the Magnuson-Stevens Act (adopted in 1976), so there were no rules and regulations at the time, even in international waters.

“When I was in college, I started writing a book about my dad’s life. Because swordfish and tuna are migratory, my dad likened them to buffalo herds, so the title of my book is ‘The Last Buffalo Hunter.’ I never finished it, because his story wasn’t done, but I intend to now.

“Sebastian Junger, the author of ‘The Perfect Storm,’ used my dad for a lot of the technical information in his book because Billy Tyne, the captain of the Andrea Gail, was my dad’s best friend and first-mate for many years,” Chana recalled. “We were living in Hawaii, and my parents went to the movie premier and met the actors and Sebastian.

“In the first 63 years of his life, my dad was focused on being the best captain he could be, and he wasn’t around much. Fishermen make a hard choice. It doesn’t come without consequences, and there is a void left in their absences. He was a man’s man, and that was hard to turn off when he came home – going from being a captain in life threatening conditions to coming home and playing dad,” she said.

“When my dad retired, he started to let his guard down, and he became a totally different person. In the last six months, he was the dad I’d been waiting for my whole life. He was the first person at the hospital when Jon’s second son was born, and he walked me down the aisle in March. He finally figured out how to live on land. I thought I’d have 20 more years with my dad, and this was a complete shock.”

Son of a sailor

“I was not only his son, but I was one of his employees in a high-risk environment working 20-hour days. I had a different relationship with him than my sisters did,” Jon said. “Him and I were thick as thieves. We had a common bond and that was a love of the water he instilled in me. He had me on the boat before I could walk.”

Jon was 12 when he made his first swordfishing trip.

“I had been offshore several times but going out for multiple days was one of the most amazing things I ever experienced,” he said. “And it just so happened that we caught the second biggest swordfish he ever caught. It was 650-700 pounds.

“He didn’t just target the swordfish. At certain times he would switch to tuna and swordfish would become the by-catch. When my dad first started fishing, they threw yellow tuna and big-eyed tuna overboard because there was no market for them. Now they’re $9-$10 a pound, and that’s what you see in every sushi bar.

“Fishing is a feast-or-famine lifestyle, and that’s what drove him – being the tip of the spear, being the best. This led to some struggles at home. Mom realized she was going to come second because the boat had to come first. And as the brother of three girls, the burden was placed on me at an early age to be the man of the house.”

Jon later spent his summers fishing with his dad, and after high school he went full-time.

“I thought I wanted to be a longline fisherman and take that business over, but after doing it from when I was 18 until I was 23 I realized that one day I wanted to have a family of my own – and I’d seen the stress and strain that put on our family. Some years he would be gone 300 days a year. I realized it wasn’t for me. I was always going to fish, but I wanted to be present in my future family’s life.”

Regarding his father’s now-famous first mate, Jon said, “My dad was in his late 20s and he brought Billy on when he was 19. He fished with him for about 10 years and showed him everything he knew. Then Billy got a spot on the Andrea Gail up in Gloucester, and that tragedy took the wind out of my dad’s sails for a while.”

Regarding Warren’s transition to retirement, Jon said, “You can’t go that hard in that industry for so many years and then just stop because that’s all you know. He closed on some property in north Florida a couple days before his accident and he was happy about that. He wanted to have a nice plot of land and be in nature.”

Jon also saw his dad’s softer side recently.

“My wife, Dana, was giving our two-year old son a bath, and I was giving our newborn a bath in the sink at the same time. He was right over my shoulder the whole time and he said, ‘I missed so much of this.’ His eyes welled up, but he was trying not to show it. He walked away for a minute and then came back. My wife saw it too. It was a really cool moment.”

The Cannon family supports the red tide research taking place at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and encourages others to make memorial donations in Warren Cannon’s honor. Donations can be made online or by mail via check that includes Warren’s name in the memo section.