Guest Post By Willis Eschenbach
Overcast and fog. And calm. The Straits of Juan de Fuca had been a bit bouncy, but off of the coast the winds were almost flat calm, and there was only a small swell. And gray.
That was the theme of the dawn, and that’s how it stayed all day. Hour after hour. Gray, plus crab pot buoys. It’s crab season, and there are thousands of crab pots in the water. Each pot has a rope attached to two floats, and if you get one in the propeller there will be cold swimming in your immediate future. There’s no other way to get rid of rope around the propeller shaft than to dive down with a knife and cut it off … a fate to be enthusiastically avoided.
In the afternoon, we neared our first open ocean port, the aptly named “Gray’s Harbor” on the central Washington coast. All along the beachfront here is a string of what I call “condomaximums”, the huge species of shore-dwelling condominium. In the waters outside the harbor there must have been a huge school of anchovies or some kind of bait fish, because there were thousands of birds feeding. Pelicans, gulls, loons, grebes, all the avian tribes were out there representing in some part of the melee. Some of the birds had eaten so much that they didn’t want to take off, they just ran across the surface of the ocean to get out of the way of the boat, feet churning away, not even bothering to unfold their wings.
So on into Gray’s Harbor we went. We pulled the trimaran alongside the fishing boat and tied up to the docks.
Gray docks. The town has a lot of “For Rent” and “For Sale” signs. Seems like the economic revival hasn’t necessarily reached that far. The Maritime Museum was closed for Sunday, along with most everything else, but the Museum has displays you can see from outside. I was struck by the shoulder, arms, and hands of this baby whale …
We stayed tied up to the docks overnight. I felt right at home. All around the planet, old-timey northern fishing ports all have the same smell. It’s a curious and distinctive odor, made up of maybe a quarter seaweed and ocean smells, a quarter the distinctive fragrance of creosote from the pilings, a quarter diesel, and the final quarter is the attar of unknown fish parts of indeterminate ages … and having spent many a happy night over my lifetime surrounded by just those odors, I slept well indeed.
In the morning we went to the office and paid our dock fees, $24 for the night. In the office they had an amazing display for the identification of lost pots. Crab pots go adrift at times, and when you find them you take them back to the owners … but with so many boats fishing, finding out who owns the pot gets to be a problem. Hence, this board, which is about three times as long as the part shown in the photo. An elegant solution to the problem.
Then we went back to the boat and attended to all the things that showed up in the first open-water crossing. We re-fastened the chafing gear on the tow rope, and turned the rudder of the trimaran a bit to the left see if it would tow better. And then we lit up the engine, drove over to the fuel docks to get fuel, and around noon on an appropriately gray day, we left Gray’s Harbor en route to the destination of the trimaran, Newport, Oregon.
It’s about a 20-hour run or a bit less from Gray’s Harbor to Newport. For the entire afternoon we were in thick crab pots, constantly having to dodge the floats that look so cute in the photo above but are much less cute when wrapped around the propeller. Here is our course from my iPhone, which has turned out to be a major navigation tool.
The red arrow is the boat. The black line is the desired course. The red line is the course steered by the boat at that exact instant. In the middle is the mouth of the mighty Columbia River, with the city of Portland inland.
Once we got past the Columbia, the water was too deep for crab pots. That let us steam all night without problems. I had an early shift and went to bed around midnight. In the morning we came into Newport. I’ve never been to Gray’s Harbor or Newport, it’s all new to me. There is a gorgeous bridge over the mouth of the Yaquina River, appropriately gray at 7 am.
Later … it’s about eleven am, we’re tied up at the docks just upriver of the bridge. This afternoon we’re going to tow the trimaran upriver ten miles, I expect that will be lovely. The sun has come out, here’s the bridge from the other side.
A bunch of kids are out in their dinghies from the local yacht club, the sun is warm. After we get the trimaran upriver to the shipyard in Toledo and come back down my job is done, and I’m on the first train home.
Later … the Customs guy came by and said there was a problem from when we had cleared Customs. It seems the owner of the fishing boat, who never fished it commercially but only used it as a private yacht, never did the paperwork to convert it to a private boat … so it’s still on the Canadian books as a Canadian commercial fishing vessel. Now, to bring a Canadian commercial fishing boat into the US (or the other way around) requires a mountain of paperwork, and a 24-hour notice, an inspection of the boat before leaving Canada, and all kinds of official permissions and such bumpf.
Not only that, but if you don’t fill out the papers and wait 24 hours and get all the permissions and deal with the bumf, the fine for the first offense is no less than $7,000, PLUS $3,000 for each crewmember, total of $22,000 for our vessel. Yikes!
Thankfully, they looked at the boat and realized that where the fish hold used to be, there’s no hold, just an owner’s bedroom, and there’s no fishing gear on board of any kind, no hooks, no bait, no nothing. So they let us go with just a warning. The Captain thanked them for their kindness … and we jumped in the boat and headed up the Yaquina River to Toledo before they could change their minds. Here’s the chart of the river, again from my iPhone.
The Yaquina River (locally pronounced “Ya-queen-uh”) is a difficult river to navigate. The iPhone’s GPS was dead on target, though, which was good because upriver that sucker is very shallow, you can’t wander out of the channel or you’re aground. It’s a skinny channel, but the river is most gorgeous.
The pilings in the photo above form “log pens”, where rafts of logs are (or in many cases used to be) parked before taking them to the mill.
So we get upriver to the boatyard, 10 miles (16 km) from the ocean, and of all things they’re working on a NOAA buoy … what do I know? it’s definitely the strangest looking craft I’ve seen on the voyage. I’ve never seen one of these before, just photos.
So, somewhat sadly, we left the trimaran there for the yard to haul out, with the sunlight sparkling on the water, and started back down the river unencumbered.
The river was just as pastoral and bucolic going the other way as it had been on the way up. When we got back to Newport, a yacht race was on, a most gorgeous sight on a late Wednesday afternoon.
It’s a curious thing to finish a sea voyage. You become attached to the boat and to the crew, it feels like leaving home. So I packed my gear and said my sad goodbyes to the Captain and the crew, and left alone. The Captain and crew were boon companions, I’d go to sea with any of them again, but all voyages have an end … and fortunately, every end is a new beginning. After dumping my luggage at a convenient motel, I walked over in the gathering dusk to see the bridge. It’s obviously from the WPA era or before. Back then it was all about art deco, and the tops of the piers bear the stamp of the period.
The light was fading and the scene was breathtaking, with the odd commercial fishing boat still out, making its way into the harbor under a three-quarter moon …
Midnight finds me here in a motel near the bus station. The bus to the train station in Salem leaves at 5:30 AM, but I can’t sleep, and I find myself writing and reflecting on why I go to sea. It’s been a lifelong addiction, and unless they have rehab centers for recovering seamen, I’ll likely die an addict.
The main thing that keeps drawing me back to sea is that the ocean truly doesn’t care about anyone in the slightest. It doesn’t care if you are rich or poor, male or female, old or young. The rules are the same for everyone. If you put a foot wrong you’re all equally wet … and if you put two feet wrong you’re all equally dead. Step on a rope that you’ve carelessly left on deck, the rope rolls underfoot, your foot slips, and over the side you go, regardless of wealth, education, race, height, weight, or sexual preference … to me, that pitiless egality of the ocean is one of its most endearing qualities. On land if you have a smooth line of patter and a good-looking smile you can go a long way … but the ocean doesn’t care in the slightest if you are a handsome fast-talker. To the ocean, you’re just another fool looking to get soggy.
Next, the ocean takes the measure of a man or a woman, in that either you can get the job at hand done or you can’t. And if you can’t, there’s no one to do it for you. Generally, there are no half-successes at sea. Either the fish is in the fish box or it’s in the ocean. Either I can fix the anchor windlass or I can’t. Either I can navigate and drive a fishing boat around Cape Flattery at midnight or I go on the rocks. I do enjoy having that kind of hard-and-fast threshold to gauge my success or failure. It is the ultimate reality check, made even more important because often lives depend on it.
Next, I go to sea because of the danger. I like being in a place where death is always an option, where my life itself depends on my concentration and my skill. It focuses the mind wonderfully. I enjoy the flat metallic taste of adrenalin. When I was doing a lot of surfing, we used to call it “feeding the rat”. The metaphor is that some of us are either cursed or blessed to have a rat as our lifelong companion, and the rat lives on adrenalin … and that from time to time, it’s necessary to feed the rat or he gets restless and starts biting. So before heading out into big swells, we might say “Well … guess I’d better go feed the rat …”
Finally, I like the ocean because it is so damn big. There’s nothing to make a man feel appropriately small like being on a ship in the wide ocean at the mercy of the waves and wind. It plumb knocks the pomposity out of a person to realize that whatever you or I may be or may own or may do on land, on the ocean we’re just creatures staying alive and dry by our wits, ability, and agility, and the ocean can’t be fooled in any regard.
Up at 4:30 tomorrow, and onwards to the train, the journey continues. As always, my best wishes to you all.