Rough Days At Sea Series III: First Trips Offshore

The author’s an old salt now, but his initial trips onto Oregon’s briny blue were memorable in their own ways.

By Jim Pex

When I was of elementary-school age, my father brought me from our hometown in Central Oregon to Winchester Bay to go fishing. Winchester Bay used to be called the salmon capital of the West Coast. In those days there were lots of fish and charters often came in with limits of coho.

Dad got us both seats on a charter boat and I was so excited. Getting to go out on a boat in the ocean was an experience by itself, a thrill beyond all thrills. My father and I were the first to get on board and he quickly selected the seats closest to the transom. No one challenged us for them, as the other fishermen jockeyed for the seats up near the middle of the boat. We just knew these were the best seats.

THE OCEAN WAS AND WASN’T LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT FOR AUTHOR JIM PEX, WHOSE FIRST TRIP WAS MARRED BY VOLUMINOUS SEASICKNESS AND HIS SECOND WITH WHITE-KNUCKLE SKIPPERING, BUT HE HASN’T LOOKED BACK EITHER. (JIM PEX)

The deckhand gave us fishing rods and we placed them in the pole holders next to us. Every fisherman had his own pole, including me. Once everyone was seated, the captain gave us some safety instructions and we were underway.

I STILL REMEMBER THE WAVES AS WE headed out. The boat would climb up the tall waves and come crashing down the other side, sending water spraying over the cabin and onto those of us seated in the back of the boat. Each time the water came aboard, my father and I got the worst of it, and it was cold. Now I knew why no one had been seeking the transom seats.

The up and down motion of the boat was constant, and my father was not talking, just trying to keep it together. I doubt we were underway more than 15 minutes before he tossed up breakfast. I saw it coming and quickly looked the other way and covered my ears. I was doing OK, but his unmistakable sounds were soon joined by others on the boat. Dad was able to tip his head over the gunnel and cast his stomach contents into the deep without me seeing all the action.

But a woman sitting behind me had totally lost control. I turned and looked at her at times and she appeared unconscious while her partner held her in her seat. To this day I can still see her. She would awaken, roll around in her seat as the boat moved in the waves, then cast more stomach contents in my direction and lose consciousness again. As if it were a signal, Dad would spew more fluids beside me every time he heard the woman belch forth.

RICHARD PEX, JIM’S DAD, “LOVED TO FISH” – HERE HE IS WITH A SALMON CAUGHT IN THE 1980S – BUT HE ONLY MADE ONLY ONE TRIP ONTO THE OCEAN WITH HIS SON, A MEMORABLE BONDING EXPERIENCE. (JIM PEX)

By the time we reached the first can, some others were joining in on the action. Even at my young age, I could not believe people paid good money for this experience. I would cover my ears, close my eyes and turn away from anyone making the guttural sounds and calling out to someone named “Huey!”

Despite the cacophony on deck, I did see a few people catch fish. Even my father’s rod went down, but the deckhand had to bring it in as he was having another conversation with the cold, green waters of the Pacific Ocean.

In spite of it all, I had held up and kept breakfast down for quite some time. Then it happened, my father vomited before I could close my eyes and turn my head. I saw it, and that was all that it took. I heaved up everything.

By now, Dad and I were huddled together trying to cope with the conditions, but sharing the moment each time one of us let go. First, there were the initial tones from the woman behind us, then father and son would join in on the chorus. I was on the inside seat, so I just puked on the floor. The sight of it added to the aroma and I continued to lose control of everything. By this time, neither of us wanted to be on that boat. We were miserable and the seas were not letting up.

My parents were divorced, and I think we made this trip so dad and I could do some bonding. We did.

It seemed like an eternity, but we finally got back to the dock. There the deckhand smiled and handed us our fish. We took them to the cleaning table, but the sight of guts gave both of us the dry heaves. We were weak and exhausted, and there was nothing left to come up. I don’t recall what we did with the fish, but I know that was the last time my father set foot on a boat going onto the ocean.

In later years my father would tell us about the end of World War II and his return to the United States. His company made the trip back to America on the Queen Mary, one of the largest vessels afloat at that time. He related that he puked every day of the crossing, and all he could do was lie on his back in a bunk. If he got up, he puked. I have no idea why he thought he could do a charter fishing trip, but for purposes of bonding, it was memorable.

AS AN ADULT, I OBTAINED EMPLOYMENT IN Eugene and that put me within a couple hours of the ocean. I did not know anyone who had an ocean boat but I just could not get past the call of the sea either. I would take the family to Newport or Winchester Bay and wander the beaches, watching the waves and the sea life that passed by. Then we would always stop by the fish-cleaning station to see what people were catching. It was clear in my mind that I needed a boat.

For weeks I studied the want ads, Craigslist and the Boat Trader looking for something trailerable and affordable. I did not have much of a budget, considering I had a house, four children and a wife. I finally came upon a fiberglass boat that had not been used in a long time. Stored in a barn, it was for sale at a good price and needed some work, which I was willing to do.

THE CALL OF THE SEA WAS STRONG WITH PEX, WHO RECALLS WANDERING THE BEACHES ON THE OREGON COAST AND NEEDING A BOAT. EVENTUALLY HE ACQUIRED A 20-FOOT FIBERGLASS APOLLO, BACKGROUND, WHICH NEEDED A WEE BIT OF WORK TO MAKE SEAWORTHY. (JIM PEX)

I purchased the 20-foot fiberglass Apollo boat and took it home. It was equipped with a V8 engine and an outdrive. There was a slight problem in that we lived in town and did not have much room to store a boat. So I parked it in the driveway and was very proud of my new purchase, a potential dream come true. I don’t think my neighbors were as excited about this apparent eyesore, as they did mention it a few times.

But I shined up the hull, and worked on the engine and got it running. Just one problem: The wooden stringers under the motor mounts were rotten and the boat could not be used until I fixed this problem. The motor needed to be attached to something solid, so I spent hours upside down in the hold with a chisel and hammer cleaning out the old wood and opening up the fiberglass. I was finally able to insert some pressure treated wood and fiber-glassed it in to support the engine. Later I found a cheap depth finder and Loran and installed them as well. I was ready to fish. I just needed a place to go and some brave fishermen to go along.

There was another slight problem: I had never taken a sport boat on the ocean. In fact, I had not been on the ocean since my childhood experience with my father. Checking around with my friends I found two, Hugh and Jim, who said they had ocean experience and would go with me. So on a Friday afternoon, we loaded all our fishing poles and other gear into the boat and left Eugene for Winchester Bay, where we’d heard the bite was on for coho.

A couple hours later we pulled into the parking lot at Winchester and could hardly contain our excitement for the next day’s fishing adventure. The afternoon wind was up but we figured we would be out early and back before it picked up the next day.

None of us had much money, so we slept on the boat that night. The three of us told stories while in our sleeping bags. There wasn’t much room, but it was doable. I found it difficult to sleep because the wind was blowing so hard that it was rocking the boat while it was still on the trailer. We ended up talking most of the night and finally dozed off in the early hours of the morning.

BEFORE DAYLIGHT WE WERE UP AND READY TO GO. One look outside found the fog as thick as pea soup, so we launched and just tied up in the boat basin in anticipation of the fog clearing. Not long after daylight, the wind picked up and blew off the fog.

We three musketeers motored out into the bay and headed for the bar. I saw a few boats go out, so I thought it must be OK. I had no idea what to look for, so I followed the south jetty out. A Coast Guard vessel was sitting on the bar and with an incoming tide, the passage to the ocean did not look too bad. They honked their horn at us, and we honked back, not sure at the time what that meant; heck, maybe they were just being friendly. Hugh and Jim did not say anything, so I just continued out.

As I reflect back on that moment, I’m not sure their silence was from confidence or fear. When we got to the bar, the waves seemed pretty high but they were just rollers, not breaking. Once past the bar, we got our gear in the water and fished for a couple hours without so much as a bite. By this time the tide had changed to outgoing, the wind picked up and the fog rolled back in. I got disoriented in the fog and it took all three of us following a deck compass and moving north to find a jetty.

There was another small problem: Which jetty were we looking at? There is a north jetty and a south jetty. It’s hard to tell which one you are facing when you can’t see the other one in the fog. The Loran worked, but we did not know how to interpret the data.

About this time, the Coast Guard got on the radio to tell boaters they were going to close the bar. If you were out on the ocean, you had best get back in. I looked at my two experts and realized they did not know any more about what to do than I did. It was time for panic with this sudden revelation and my heart rate was doing mach ten. Going in on the wrong side of the jetty could put me on the beach.

The swell was getting tall with the outgoing tide and we were running out of time as we waited outside the jetties. I did not know what to do. Suddenly a charter boat appeared out of the fog, turned around and went back in. I am sure it was divine intervention; the good Lord was pointing the way back home. I quickly lost sight of the charter in the fog, but I now knew which side of the jetty to follow upriver. I hit the throttle just as the Coast Guard was closing the bar to all recreational boats.

The wind was whistling by now and I was trying to get on the back of a swell to ride it in; at least that is what I thought I was supposed to do. Problem was, these were standing waves and the current was running out. I managed to get up enough speed to top a swell, fly down the inside and then jump onto another standing wave.

After what seemed like hours, we reached the inner bay where it made a turn to port. We all breathed a big sigh; we were going to make it. The fog had thinned as we’d run inland and we could see the Coast Guard station now and they were flying two flags. I knew enough to know that meant gale force winds. The three of us were glad to be inside and slowly made our way to the boat landing a few more hundred yards up the river. We had no fish, but were happy to be there.

WITH TWO FRIENDS CLAIMING EXPERIENCE ON THE OCEAN, PEX AND PALS HEADED FOR WINCHESTER BAY FOR WHAT WOULD BE ANOTHER MEMORABLE TRIP ON THE OCEAN – TWO FOR TWO! (JIM PEX)

THERE WERE SEVERAL PEOPLE AROUND THE LANDING, but nobody was volunteering to catch our boat at the dock. I told Hugh and Jim I would motor up easy to the dock into the wind. They could then jump out and hold the boat while I went and got the pickup and trailer.

All went as planned as I inched my way to the dock, where they jumped out and grabbed the railing. I was about to shut off the engine when they shouted that they could not hold the boat in the wind. I went back to the helm and immediately put the boat in reverse. I would simply back up, go around the dock and let the wind push the boat up to the dock. The solution to the wind was that simple.

I put the boat in reverse and started backing up. But there was a problem: As I was looking back toward the transom, I could not get the boat to respond to the wheel. We were not turning as I expected.

Then I heard a loud voice up front and turned around to see Jim hanging from the bow railing at the front of the boat. Both of his hands gripped the rail and his feet were in the water. His head was just high enough over the bow that I could see the fear in his wide eyes. Apparently he had failed to let go of the boat in time and lost his balance. Grabbing the rail on the boat was all that prevented him from doing a swan dive into the water.

“Hang on, Jim,” I yelled, “and I will get you back to the dock.”

For the dock to hold its position, there are steel pilings every 10 feet. When I hit the throttle, the boat jumped forward. In the attempt to get Jim to the dock, I scraped him off on one of the pilings and in a splash, he was in the water. I backed up this time to sounds of more yelling. It was probably better that I could not hear the words in the wind.

Hugh reached out and grabbed Jim by the back of the life jacket and pulled him out of the water and onto the dock. I was doing my best not to laugh, but you can only bite your lip for so long. Somewhere there must be a word for a hilarious disaster. It would be appropriate here – maybe calamity?

The folks around the dock had stopped to watch the show but made no attempt to assist. From shoreside, it had to be funny.

The boat responded now when I shifted in reverse and I went around the dock and let the wind push me in. As I tied off, Jim sloshed up to me and said he was physically OK, but in front of several laughing people, his feelings were a little hurt. I apologized profusely but could not help but laugh too as I watched the water drain from his clothing as he sloshed back up the dock making that “swish, swish” sound on his way to dry land.

We got the boat out of the water, Jim put on some dry clothes and we finally had a good laugh together on the way home.

We had no fish to our credit, but we had had a lifetime of memories from a weekend with more thrills than three guys could have imagined. It all could have ended differently, but it didn’t. NS

Editor’s note: Author Jim Pex is an avid angler based out of Coos Bay and who enjoys fishing for albacore, salmon and rockfish. He is retired and was previously CEO of International Forensic Experts LLC and a lieutenant with the Oregon State Police at its crime laboratory. Pex is the author of CSI: Moments from a Career in Forensic Science, available through Amazon.

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