Gray

Guest Post By Willis Eschenbach

(Part 5 of the voyage, see also Part 1Part 2 , Part 3, and Part 4) … After going to sleep at sea just outside Cape Flattery, with a clear night, stars, and miles of visibility, I woke up to this …

day six gray dawn

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.

day six birdies

So on into Gray’s Harbor we went. We pulled the trimaran alongside the fishing boat and tied up to the docks.

day six gray 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 …

day six 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.

day seven floats

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.

day seven leaving grays

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.

day seven course

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.

day seven newport bridge

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.

day seven newport bridge II

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.

day last upper river

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.

day last upper river farm

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.

day last upper river noaa buoy

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.

day last upper river trimaran

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.

day last upper river yachts

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.

day last final bridge

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 …

day last final boat and 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.

w.

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44 thoughts on “Gray

    • Oldseadog September 6, 2014 at 1:41 pm

      Great stuff as usual, Willis, and the paragraphs after the final photo are spot on.

      Thanks, my friend. Coming from someone with your experience of the sea, that means a lot.
      w.

  1. I’ve enjoyed reading all of the instalments Willis, but I like your conclusions about the sea best. Running around log booms as a young tugboat deckhand, at 3:00am, was as dangerous as I got. The smell of huge fir trees and salt air will never be forgotten.
    Others should read your paragraphs, especially those arm-chair environmentalists who proclaim that the “ocean is fragile” and other platitudinous nonsense. It is anything but fragile, and it literally defines this planet’s surface.
    Thanks for the journey.

  2. Willis, I’ll bet you wish you had started your autobiography when you were 20. Better late than never, I guess. Thanks for another good instalment.

  3. Too bad you didn’t sail past Deception Pass at North Whidbey Island while you were in San De Fuca. It’s an awesome sight. I drive over the bridge every day.

    • Or there is the land lubbers version by Spike Milligan
      I Must Go Down To The Sea Again
      I must go down to the sea again,
      to the lonely sea and the sky;
      I left my shoes and socks there –
      I wonder if they’re dry?
      James Bull

  4. That brought back a memory. I was day sailing with my father in his 26 ft Westerly Centaur on the Chesapeake Bay. It had an inboard Volvo Penta diesel engine. We were about to turn around and head back home when the boat started handling badly. When we looked over the stern there was a crab trap under the boat next to the rudder. Now this crab trap was made out of chicken wire and rebar about three feet on a side. This was in October and the Chesapeake isn’t anywhere near as cold as where you were, but we didn’t want to go into that water. This was before cell phones and we didn’t have a VHF radio so we could call for help and it was getting dark. We struggled for over an hour trying to get the thing off with a boat hook but had zero luck. It wouldn’t budge an inch. It was getting late and my mother expected us home for dinner. My Dad decided to try to start the engine to see if the trap was clear of the prop. He turned it over by hand with the compression off (a feature that allowed you to hand crank the engine to start it) and we didn’t hear any noises and the engine turned over so he started it up. To my surprise and amazement the trap dropped away from the boat and disappeared! After thinking about it we realized what must have happened. The engine was in neutral while we were sailing and the prop was spinning in the reverse direction. When we ran over the cable the prop caught it and wound it up which dragged the trap up under the boat next to the rudder. Once Dad started the engine the cable, which was wrapped around the propeller shaft, unwound and the trap dropped off! You never know what might bite you when you’re on the water whether it’s from above or below no matter how well you’re prepared. You can just be prepared and hope that you can handle it when it happens.

  5. Willis, Thanks so much for this. While I am not a seaman, I have spent some time in Westport, WA (BTW, that’s the town on the south side of Gray’s Harbor) and Newport, OR volunteering at both the Westport Maritime Museum which runs the Gray’s Harbor lighthouse and at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Newport. Not sure why the Maritime Museum in Westport was closed. This time of year, they close on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, not Sundays. Thanks for the photos. Great memories
    Jerry

  6. A nice run there Willis, and with enough hazards to run afoul of, if you don’t follow the rules. Good thing, you weren’t going into the Columbia.
    I always had a hankering to take the US Coast Guard’s severe weather boat handling course, there at the mouth.
    I think the CG chap I queried on that, at a local boat show, told me, that he wouldn’t even let an old duffer like me, watch a video, of those CG chaps (gals too) doing their thing, there at the Columbia mouth. Seems like you need a 45 footer that you can roll over; and he wasn’t about to let me play with one of his.
    Your Trimaran tow, could have caused you a bunch of headaches, if you had run into the wrong weather.
    As for the red and yellow buoy, I think I would like to have one of those. It would make one hell of a fly fishing platform, parked out in some nice tropical water, with plenty of Mahi mahi, Wahoo, and Tuna around.
    Of course I would be gathering simultaneous ocean water and air temperature data to give to Prof. John Christy.
    Yeah that ocean is sensitive alright ! Knock your teeth out in a moment of carelessness.

  7. Sites all familiar to me and my children. I once made them whine in unison…as in “ewwwwwwww”… when I kissed the smelly lips of a fish head headed for the crab basket for good luck. When we trolled back to pick up the baskets, not a single crab had dined on my offering. Somewhere in one of my many boxes of photos is a picture snapped by my oldest son of that kiss.
    Along the wharf in Newport you will find the best seafood joint EVA. It was always overcrowded to the point that you ate your clam chowder standing up. And somewhere along that same wharf is a little known gambling joint tucked away in a second floor landing little known to outsiders.
    And along the rocky jetty I discovered that ghost shrimp do not adhere well to a hook. I kept losing my bait, which made my Irish nature come out to play. Not realizing that in my stomping mad little dance, I was smashing all the ghost shrimp that had fallen off my hook right there at my feet before I had even cast out.
    Such memories.

  8. A stint at sea followed by a train ride. Life is good.
    Thanks for the travelogue, Willis. I’m enjoying it. I’ll be looking for your take on the train ride in the wrap-up. Your journey’s not over just yet.

  9. Glad you made it there safely – Juan de Fuca can become very lumpy after a big blow. Crab traps and floats? Around here they just get stolen / cleaned out / sunk. No honor.

  10. george e. smith September 6, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Your Trimaran tow, could have caused you a bunch of headaches, if you had run into the wrong weather.

    Yeah, that’s why the Captain and I didn’t want to burn daylight. I was astounded at how good the weather was for the whole trip. We’d planned to put out a sea anchor behind the tri if the weather turned foul.

    As for the red and yellow buoy, I think I would like to have one of those. It would make one hell of a fly fishing platform, parked out in some nice tropical water, with plenty of Mahi mahi, Wahoo, and Tuna around.
    Of course I would be gathering simultaneous ocean water and air temperature data to give to Prof. John Christy.

    Indeed, it would make a good FAD (a “fish aggregation device” in the trade”).

    Yeah that ocean is sensitive alright ! Knock your teeth out in a moment of carelessness.

    As the old saying goes, one hand for the ship, one hand for yourself. It’s dangerous out there.
    All the best,
    w.

  11. Truly enjoyed your diary of your trip. The west coast of our continent is a wonder If not the seventh at least the eight. (but don’t tell anyone else please!).

  12. Few things are scarier than to be out in pea soup fog, with nothing but a compass and dead reckoning to hopefully keep you on the right side of your buoys, when comes a large ship bearing down on your 25 foot sailboat, its blasting foghorn obliterating the relative sqeaks from your little human powered horn (this was when I was a kid, before aerosol horns were pervasive). And what relief when the thrum-thrum-thrum of the massive ship passes to the side. All you have to worry about now is the wake! Yikes. I hope all the modern equipment is making these passings a hell of a lot safer.

  13. Willis,
    excellent and entertaining writing. Thank you. A wonderful anitdote to some of the bad things happening in the world at present

  14. Thanks Willis, I have to admit I never got the sailing bug even after 20 years sailing round the south coast of England and the Channel Islands in our 36′ ketch as First Mate, Chief Cook and Deck Swabber but ‘Himself’ certainly did. I really enjoy reading your travelogues though, enjoying the sailing vicariously at second hand. We’re both a bit long in the tooth now to get about the deck nimbly and have given up sailing and moved to Greece for our next adventure.
    Incidentally I can sympathise with Alec, fog in the shipping lanes in the British Channel is the scariest thing I know! Mind you we did once narrowly avoid hitting the Alderney sea-wall in a pea-souper which was interesting.

  15. Welcome to the Pacific North West! I grew up near Vancouver, BC, and the land that the University of British Columbia is resting on is called “Point Grey”. My first two degrees are from Simon Fraser University on the other side of town, and we’d call UBC ‘Point Grey Community College’ for laughs. Yup, grey is the colour of my childhood. Beautiful country, though. The monochrome prize for Lewis and Clarke when they first viewed the mouth of the Columbia River.

  16. As your previous posts talked about Vancouver Island, I would like to put in a kudo to my brother Scott. He is a co-discoverer of an anchor that was lost in the San Juan Islands from the HMS Chatham, piloted by Capt. George Vancouver when Vancouver and his crew first explored the area. I’m quite proud of my brother for this discovery. http://seattletimes.com/html/localnews/2023808085_anchorrecoveredxml.html I have the inside story on the discovery if anyone wishes me to elaborate.

  17. Boy, this story sure brought back memories. As a teenager I went to sea on a 42 foot double-ender as deckhand off the Northern tip of Vancouver Island. Those years on the Sea pretty much formed my personality and to this day I feel more at home on the water than on land. As I read Willis’ ending words my mind went back to standing in the cockpit, running the gurdies and pulling snubbers off the lines til my hands bled through all the the Perlon cuts. I can clearly recall the terror of running down the back-side of a 60 foot swell in a howling Northwesterly gale, wondering which way she was gonna break, disappearing in the trough so deep you couldn’t see anything but a foaming, dark wall of angry water. So many amazing experiences, so many memories…
    Thanks for the tale Willis. And Godspeed.

  18. W,
    Excellent stuff – as ever. Much appreciated.
    I’m just off to a conference, and would very much like to add your paragraph –
    QUOTE
    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.
    END QUOTE
    as a conclusion of my [death by] PowerPoint on accidents and incidents.
    Properly referenced and credited – may I do so?
    Auto

  19. If you go offshore in anything over 40-45 feet of waterline length, this is invaluable. It is ‘hookah’ gear with an electric air pump. Connect it to the boats batteries, put on a weight belt and face mask (wetsuit if it’s cold) and over you go with a serrated edge diving knife. You can happily saw away for as long as you need without ducking up and down to breathe….saves exhausting yourself too.
    Invaluable for cleaning the barnacles and weed from the hull too. Cruisers – don’t leave port without one. Especially if you are engine driven only.
    http://www.powerdive.com/

    • Hookah gear? Well, ain’t you upmarket.
      Us rude boys used to use the foot-pump for inflating the Zodiac. We’d duct tape a piece of garden hose to the foot-pump, and at the other end of the garden hose we’d duct tape a snorkel. One man up top pumping, one man down below breathing and working … people used to laugh at us, but it worked a treat and was cheap as chips …
      Best move for the propeller tangles, though, I learned when I fished gill nets for salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska. It’s real easy to get your or someone else’s net in the propeller.
      My old skipper, Crocodile, drilled about a 6″ (150mm) hole through the bottom of the boat just forward of the prop. To that we attached a flange with a short piece of 6″ pipe with an inspection plug at the end to cap it off, and with a section of automobile inner tube hose-clamped to the top.
      To use it you reach inside the inner tube and take out the plug, with the inner tube extending up your upper arm to keep the water from leaking into the boat. You can then reach right through the bottom of the boat and cut the rope or net out of the prop.
      Can’t tell you how much time that trick saved us, we used it a number of times. Take out the plug, hold up the inner tube, look through the hole to assess the problem, reach through with the serrated blade, cut the prop clean, and you’re back fishing in ten minutes.
      w.

      • Heck of an idea! I think I get the idea, but any chance of posting a diagram? I am not understanding how the water is kept from flooding into the boat when the plug is removed. Is the inner tube tight enough to form a seal with your arm? Is the set up in the steerage locker? (For those unfamiliar with commercial fishing boats, there is normally a hatch from the hold to where the boat’s steerage mechanism resides).

      • Sure …

        The inner tube is (usually) just to get up above the waterline. However, if you need to get your arm clear down through so your elbow is underwater, one person holds the inner tube tight around your upper arm to keep the leak within limits.
        w.

      • Thanks for the diagram and explanation. Other than the usual problems of putting another hole in the hull and keeping it maintained, I’m kind of surprised this idea hasn’t gone commercial. It is clever. Do you think the sleeve or leg of an old wet suit might do the same thing and be better than the inner tube? The distance to waterline might be better with the inner tube, but the wet suit might give a better seal. Personally I prefer to let one of my diver brothers get cold and wet, while I claim my bad eardrum prevents me from going in. Never miss a chance to abuse a brother. : )

  20. I sailed a 28′ sailboat on Chesapeake Bay for six years. Never spent an overnight in her, just daysailed up and down the Bay. Most of the time I single-handed her, and she and I were a team. I knew that if I ever fell off her, she’d round up into the wind and come to a dead stop for me. If I’d ever fallen off her while taking down sail and she was under power, she’d go hard over on the rudder and make 100′ diameter circles around me until I could crawl up into her open transom.
    But whenever I went out with any passengers, my heart was in my mouth the whole time. Even in the sheltered waters of the Bay, I felt a strain from being responsible for their lives the entire time we were out. Too much imagination? Probably, from the way I saw other skippers sailing and driving their boats around like they were out for a Sunday drive in the country.
    I always thought of Captain Slocum, and his Spray, and how they circumnavigated the world and gave us one of the great sailing stories of all time.. and then how he went out again and disappeared forever.
    The sea is unforgiving, and I found I didn’t enjoy her company — even in the small dose of the Bay — so much that I wanted to keep it up. I sold the boat last year.

  21. Willis, great post… even greater prose. I always recall fond memories of my wind surfing days – prior to kite surfing/sailing that I probably would have enjoyed even more… I love the ocean, sailing, diving, snorkeling,etc… but it occurred to me that some of the same statements can be said about mountain climbing & the risks involved. Mountains are equally unforgiving and they do not judge a climber’s mistakes lightly. Keep on sailing. Richvs

  22. 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 …”

    Sounds a bit like Hemingway in “Midnight in Paris” (Woody Allen, 2011). The advice to most of us should be “don’t feed the rat… it ends badly”. Consider movie stars or rock stars. They have all the money they could ever use to buy anything we would want, but what they often want is to feed their rat. Sometimes the rat kills them, sometimes they kill themselves because they can’t live without the rat. Some rats are worse than others. Take Mann’s for example — he seems to have a wicked one.

    • Toto, I’d beg to differ. I’d say it’s fine to feed the rat with adventure sports and curious travel suggestions, which is what I do. On the other hand, as you point out, feeding the rat by taking speedballs didn’t do John Belushi any good.
      As to “Midnight In Paris”, sorry, never saw it.
      w.

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