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Weather Bound

November 3, 2012

October 10

All the next day and into that night the storm blew from the south with a will. Then before dawn the rain stopped and the song in the rigging changed in tone but not intensity. From my bunk I could feel that the tug of Murre at her dock lines had shifted its rhythm, and I rose to a wind blowing strongly from the west. A sailable wind. My heart beat faster until the radio reported that the Grays Harbor bar continued to throw fourteen-foot seas and the Coast Guard had closed it to all but commercial traffic.

In port now, having arrived overnight from the up-bay town of Aberdeen, was the Lady Washington. She was a heavily built, 100 foot square rigger, a replica of the ship used by Captain Robert Gray, discoverer of this eponymous harbor in 1792, to explore the Pacific coast. Years ago in San Francisco I had spent an afternoon aboard the Lady while she maneuvered in mock battle with another replica, the Hawaiian Chieftain, and remembering her home port was part of what attracted me here. That she had been absent when Murre and I arrived failed to surprise (exhibition ships usually winter in warmer, dryer climes where they can continue to exhibit comfortably), but it had been disappointing, as it was now to learn that she was at the fuel dock this early morning, engine running, crew on deck, the captain in the master’s shack paying for his load of diesel.

“Departing so soon?” I asked as he passed, a bear of a man whose thick, red beard failed to hide his youth; when he smiled, he looked all of twenty-five.

“Got a weather window for San Francisco,” he said without stopping. His crew donned foulies and harnesses. The Captain moved quickly to the large tiller on the poop and began shouting orders. I hustled to the bar observation tower at the end of town to watch her pass. The sky had cleared but now a wave-born haze lay over the water. The Lady tracked directly out the bay’s center without incident, but at the outer jetty, where the open ocean meets the bar for the first time, she shook violently, appeared no more substantial than a box of matches. Twice she dove clear out of sight, falling over the back of a big growler as if toppling off the edge of the world, but always she rose again, appearing to have taken no water over the bow.

No water over the bow, I thought, waves are not breaking. Murre could depart today too.

***

That the Oregon and Washington coast carries danger to new heights is a truth universally recognized by those who cruise the east Pacific. During summer months, prevailing winds come strongly from the northwest and west and create, between Cape Flattery and Cape Mendocino, 700 miles of cliffy, boulder-strewn lee shore. In the winter, the flow is reversed but is equally as pressing. Sheltered bays with all-weather access are non existent, and the difficulty of its widely-separated river harbors serve to cloak this piece of water in a mystique approaching the evil. To those who have sailed it, surviving its violent seas was managed by the skin of teeth and the grace of god; those who have been spared the pleasure seem always to know someone who nearly bought the farm. One sailor I spoke with in Victoria said he’d made two passages between Seattle and San Francisco. “Both were stormy–unbelievable waves, everyone sick; never again!” Now he flies to the north in summers and charters from a company in Puget Sound.

Knowing its reputation I have been monitoring this coast since Hawaii. Day after day for months weather maps have shown winds sweeping down, colliding with large Cape Blanco and Cape Mendocino, larger still, causing regular accelerations in excess of thirty knots; seas to fifteen feet are usual. And since Alaska I have been asking cruisers I meet the same question: Should I head out or harbor hop for this final leg? Surprisingly responses split evenly between those who advocated pushing a couple hundred miles offshore–reaching for sea room beyond the clutter of crab pots, the fishing fleet and the coast’s extensive shipping–and those who argued for the slower, safer jaunts between ports. The former run is faster, though it risks capture in one of the area’s frequent gales, but the latter is not without its challenges.

Among cruisers who have harbor hopped, the conversation invariably turns to the negotiation of harbor bars. Rain shed by the near mountains flows westwards in rivers that often converge in lowlands before breaking into the sea. Thusly the delta of Grays Harbor is a confluence of the Chehalis and Wynoochee rivers, the Hoquiam, and the Elk, each feeding into and feeding the typical “D” shaped network of marshes and sloughs with their silt. But during winter deluges in particular, the delta is overmatched; it cannot absorb the gift, and much of its deposit is pushed outwards beyond the harbor mouth to settle in the nearby ocean, raising depths over the millennia from an in-shore average of 200 feet to 40 at the entrance. And it is on these bars of sand and mud that the long ocean swells pile heavy and white during stormy weather.

Stories of disaster are common-place. Here’s but one: on April 5, 1933 the Gray’s Harbor fishing fleet, trolling just off the coast, was caught by surprise when a calm, sunny afternoon turned to gale winds in the night. Some of the fifty boats chose to ride out the storm at sea, but others ran for shelter and were chewed up by the bar. By morning, trollers littered the beaches like driftwood. Thirteen boats foundered and the lives of 18 fishermen were lost.

My preference had always been to head offshore, to avoid the complications of a coast-wise run, but the change in weather had removed that option.

***

The afternoon the Lady departed I wandered over to the Coast Guard station to make my case for departure. I summarized my blue-water experience and argued that the seaworthiness of my vessel exceeded many of the fishing boats in the harbor (that, being commercial, could come and go at will); I noted the passing rarity of the sailable, westerly wind; I cited my hours on the observation tower and I traced on a chart that hung from their wall the course I intended. The officer, in plain Coast Guard blues, clean cut and smelling of after shave, smiled politely, seemed even to be engaged. “It is good to see you are planning this out,” he said. I left after an hour of pleasant conversation and the bar was still closed.

***

On the morning of our fifth day in Grays Harbor an engine fired up at dawn. Its thrumming rose through my pillow as I lay in my bunk. A peak out the window showed rain falling from a low sky, but otherwise the morning was still. Down the dock running lights shown from a large cabin cruiser whose high white sides, stacked like a wedding cake, gave the impression of a showy precariousness next to the collection of heavy-bottomed fishing boats. When I rose an hour later it had departed.

Coffee was just pouring when a Coast Guard cutter nosed into the slip one-over from Murre. She was followed closely by the same cabin cruiser, one of its tall antennas dangling to the side like a broken wing and its fenders, never retrieved, all ahoo.

“Had no business being out there,” said the stocky Coast Guardman in answer to my query. Stitched to his immersion suit was the name “Burns”. He called himself the “Boat Driver.”

“Bar’s closed, and the cruiser was wallowing dangerously near the south shoal when we got there. Swell is still 12 feet and very steep. Stupid to try in a boat like that…I mean, not prudent.”

Asked why the Lady Washington was allowed to leave, he said, “She’s a state-owned ship and beyond our jurisdiction. And she’s full-bellied, not a…” He looked toward the cruiser still attempting to make a windward landing in the now stiff breeze.

Asked if his crew had been involved in any emergencies during the storm, he said, “Yes, in the night and at the height of it we received a distress call from a large fish carrier on delivery to southern California. One of those eastern-style trawlers with the cabin aft. She was thirty miles north and thirty miles out to sea when she began to take on water. Her crew of two couldn’t find the source of the leak; pumps weren’t keeping up. We had two cutters out there including this one (he points to his boat) with water extractors and had another dropped from a helicopter, but the bilge had turned to a greasy sludge; even our extractors clogged. My men were aboard for two hours when she began listing. Nothing more we could do. We took the crew off and let her sink.”

Asked if he thought the bar would open for the likes of Murre any time soon, he shrugged. “It can go like this for days.”

“I’m beginning to think I might be stuck here the winter.”

“You just might,” he said, laughing.

Next day the Pacific Dove, a large steel-hulled shrimper, churned its way over the bar heading west out to sea. I watched from the observation tower until she was out of sight. On the day after that the entire, non-resident fishing fleet departed at high slack. Boats hailing from Seattle, from Astoria, Newport, Coos Bay, Crescent City, from Fort Bragg and even San Diego, pushed toward the green buoys in a staggered line before fanning north and south. Sun shown. Wind remained west, still brisk, still sailable, and the bar, closed to boats like Murre due to swell. This was our fifth day in Grays Harbor, and the last fair one for a week.

***

October 16

Heavy wind and rain such that even the gulls were grounded, squatting in rows along the docks and silent under a sky never brightening beyond dusk. The waterfront shops, an assortment of fishing charter offices, restaurants and candy stores, kept haphazard hours, sometimes opening late and other times failing to open at all. In the window of one restaurant hung a sign, “Closed for the winter–see you next March.” Intrepid tourists there were if few. On the wetter days they wore full rain gear and ate their ice cream under cascading parlor eaves. They carried away bags of saltwater taffy, tiny models of light houses, t-shirts reading “Got hooked in Westport” with the grim satisfaction of a people fulfilling duty and not much else.

Salmon fishing, I found, was the town’s major pastime. Every day of my stay men lined the marina berms and stood casting from its ramps. Even on the darkest of these they wore polarized sunglasses to see past the water’s surface glare to where the fish schooled below. The old men picked a spot and stuck to it while the younger ones, spying a passing fish, would chase it–running and casting, running and casting–from one end of the parking lot to the other.

“They’re all Pinks,” said a wiry, gray-haired fisherman. His sat aside watching, his rod put away–its lure clipped to one of the eyes. The rain had muddied the water, reducing visibility, and the high tide had brought in weed, which fouled hooks. The former couldn’t be helped, but an ebb would clear the latter: this man was waiting.

“We get the fry from a hatchery up the way,” he said, “and release them here once a year. They grow in this basin, leave for the ocean and then return here as spawn-age adults. Poor buggers–the marina’s too deep for egg laying. So they just swim round and round and we try to catch them. During the last storm surge waves crested the jetty and flowed in, and I saw salmon trying to jump the white water as if it were a stream. One made it! Put himself right back into the ocean! I laughed all afternoon.

“Irony is,” he continued, “with the restrictions we can’t catch them all before they belly up. By regulation I have to use a single, barbless hook and I can’t keep fin-caught fish–they must be mouth caught–so as to give the fish a ‘sporting chance’ says Fish and Game. But a sporting chance to do what, die of old age? Sea lions are protected too. They’ll strip a fish right off your line, but it’s illegal to throw rocks at them. I got two fish yesterday–sea lions got them both. The young kids throw rocks, and they catch more fish. But today we’ll only catch this weed until the tide turns.”

***

October 18

“Hey Frisco, you still here?”

Where once the entire fishing fleet had piled like scree at the transient dock, now only a tuna boat named Alliance remained. She was shut up and dark during the storm and the windy days that followed. Her crew of four young men, only in it for the summer, had moved to a motel in town to dry out, warm up, and unwind after weeks in cramped quarters. When weather moderated, they returned and got right to work. They took Alliance to the fuel dock and then the bait pens for her respective loads. Next day they filled with ice, hauled groceries, and then they cleaned. They scrubbed the decks, pressure washed the hull, and paper-toweled the windows of the bridge until they gleamed. Now Alliance had returned to her berth near Murre. She was ready to return to the grounds, had been ready for two days, and the crew, out of jobs and bored, lounged on the dock smoking and telling stories. This is where I met the man who called me Frisco.

He was brown skinned, round of belly and jocular; white teeth flashed when he laughed, which he did easily and often. He wore jeans, a white t-shirt and a crisp Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap, and he contrasted so sharply with his peers–northwest fishermen are invariably pale and thin, deliberate tending toward severe–that early I had mistaken him for a visitor, not crew.

“Still here, Jose,” I said.

“But man, the sky is nice. You gotta get a move on.”

We had met the previous day. As I passed he’d asked, “You with that little boat?”, and when I described my voyage in brief he’d exclaimed, “You did that–Frisco? That’s crazy stuff!”

My name, which I gave as usual, hadn’t impressed as much as my origin. But when I tried returning the compliment by calling him LA, I stood corrected.

“No, man, you can’t call me that. I am a beaner from the barrio, sure man, but this other guy is LA,” he said, indicating a mate. “He’s from San Bernardino. And this other guy is Lead because he’s so heavy–right Lead?”

“Least I ain’t fat,” said Lead, a tall man with serious face.

“And this other one is Ken. Just Ken. My name’s Jose, but they call me Paco. Man, it gets confusing.”

“When are you going fishing?” I asked.

“We don’t know. We’re just deck hands; they never tell us anything, but we think maybe the season is over. Maybe the weather outside is too bad for tuna, or maybe the water is colder and they’ve gone…see ya…outa here, you know? They like it warmer. But I hope not. Last two weeks we had tuna every day. Crazy-good fishing.”

I ask him how they fish. To the uneducated eye this area’s Tuna boats look like larger versions of the Alaska Salmon troller. They carry a set of tall outriggers and aft is the typical crewman’s well, bordered by bronze gurdies. But other kit is unfamiliar. Amidships is a large tank, for bait, I learn, and hung over the stern are standing cages and within reach of these, racks of poles the size of billiard cues whose ends carry a six foot length of line terminating in a large hook.

“We go for Albacore,” says Jose, “and in the first part of the season we jig (troll) using these hoochies.” He points to cigar sized lures made of squid-shaped translucent rubber. “But after a while the tuna don’t like hoochies; they won’t bite. Don’t know why–maybe they figure us out–maybe they get smart to us. So later in the season we switch. We throw in this live bait from the tank, these little anchovies, and that makes the tuna crazy. They school up to the surface and start hitting the anchovies, and then we stand in those cages on the rail, and with those short poles we whip the hooks into the water until a tuna takes it. No bait, just hooks and the anchovy as chum. When we get a tuna, we flip the pole up over our head; fish comes flying out of the water and into the hold, a little jerk releases the hook–really man, just a little pop and it comes out cause there ain’t no barb–and then back in the water for another fish. And we can make our load in two days.”

In the morning the captain returned and ALLIANCE departed at high slack, but even as they pulled away, Jose had no idea the destination.

***

October 20

Day ten in Grays Harbor. For the previous twenty four hours the bar had been open and unrestricted. Coastguardman Burns came down the dock to let me know.

“Thank you, but now the wind is 25 southwest and gusting 30,” I said.

He shrugged and smiled. We talked of other things.

Next day winds turned northwest and eased. At eleven in the morning the bar suddenly closed to all traffic due to an inexplicable increase in swell, but in the evening, the restriction was lowered, allowing vessels over forty feet to cross. I prepared to depart for the Columbia River in the morning, thinking a night of calms would lower it the more.

I departed just after dawn. Five minutes outside the breakwater a Coast Guard cutter powered alongside.

“The bar is closed to small craft,” yelled a man from the bow.

“But I checked,” I said.

The man shook his head. “I was just out there. Swell is rolling in 10 and very steep. Maybe tomorrow.”

I returned to the marina.

Next day the bar was, in fact, open, and the forecast called for some hours of calms in advance of another front. Murre and I departed under power in the late evening and motored overnight on a flat sea, crossing the Columbia River bar before daybreak at low slack and docking in Astoria at seven o’clock, a jump of 65 miles. I noted in the log, “WE HAVE ESCAPED Grays Harbor!” But to what end? By reputation the Columbia River bar was far worse.

end

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