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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.

Rough Days At Sea Series II: Black Tuesday

A weather-window run out of Charleston for albacore nearly turns into disaster when a storm unexpectedly hits 32 miles from safety.

By Jim Pex

never encourage people to take up albacore tuna fishing. All those fish just offshore and easy to catch. If you go one time, you will be hooked for life. Don’t do it! It is what happened to me in 1990 and I have been afflicted ever since.

The following is a story about one of those early trips at the height of my addiction. Here I must note that my friends were not a support group, as they were afflicted too.

WHAT BEGAN AS A GOOD DAY TO FISH OFF OREGON’S SOUTH COAST FOR ALBACORE TURNED BAD ON THE RUN BACK IN FOR SEVERAL BOATS. (JIM PEX)

THE EXPEDITION STARTED WITH PHONE CALLS on the local fishing network, visiting the docks, talking to commercial fishermen, reading the Salty Dog forum and studying the weather reports. It was not like getting the local news and weather; here we look at actual ocean buoy reports and sea surface temperature maps for 60-degree waters inside the 125 line. It might also include walking up to people sitting in their boat fumbling with tuna gear and mumbling under their breath. You just knew a kindred spirit when you saw them.

In longitude, the edge of the continental shelf is at about the 125 degree line west of Charleston, outside Coos Bay, and about 37 nautical miles west. In theory, when underwater currents reach the shelf, upwelling occurs and this is where we often find the fish. This is also close to the limit in miles for many recreational boats based on their onboard fuel supply.

How much boat fuel to use before getting concerned is different than with trucks and cars. With boats we use the rule of thirds: one third to get there, one third to get home. If the seas turn on you, the amount of fuel used returning could be much more than the trip out. For example, if you take a string and label the ends A and B, one can measure the length of the string stretched full length. Now make a series of bends with the string and remeasure the distance between A and B; it will be considerably shorter. Such is the case when ocean conditions worsen while you are out there traveling up and down with the waves. The trip home becomes longer than the trip out.

My friends Cliff and Dale were avid fishermen. We would pursue fish almost every weekend that we could escape our household responsibilities. We all had boats, but mine was a little more seaworthy than theirs were. It was a 1990 Bayliner Trophy with an enclosed cabin area. At 21 feet with a single 5.0-liter engine, it was adequate for getting us to the fishing grounds and back. There was room to fish three comfortably, and it had sufficient fish boxes to stack ice and tuna. My boat had the usual safety equipment that included a VHF radio, a Loran and a GPS – enough stuff that we thought we were prepared for the day.

AUTHOR JIM PEX, HERE ON YAQUINA BAY AT THE WHEEL OF HIS FIRST BOAT, A 20-FOOT FIBERGLASS APOLLO, WAS AMONG THE EARLY ENTRANTS INTO THE NORTHWEST’S RECREATIONAL ALBACORE FISHERY, GETTING HOOKED ON THE “ADDICTION” NEARLY 30 YEARS AGO WITH A HANDFUL OF OTHER SOUTHERN OREGON ANGLERS. “BACK IN THE 1990S, THERE WERE NOT A LOT OF SPORT TUNA FISHERMEN IN OUR AREA. ALL TOTAL, WE HAD FOUR BOATS HEADING OUT THAT MORNING,” HE WRITES. (JIM PEX)

THE WEATHER HAD BEEN BAD FOR SEVERAL DAYS and the ocean conditions were unsuitable for fishing with a boat the size of mine. The three of us were often talking back and forth on the phone, listing every resource possible in our search for a day to get out.

Then it happened, it looked like there was going to be a break in the weather. It was July, and in our area, the wind blows hard and often in July. But it looked like on the following Tuesday that there would a window before the wind started howling again. I normally know better than to trust the weatherman, but when addicted, I only need one positive resource.

The three of us were not the only ones who spotted this chance. Back in the 1990s, there were not a lot of sport tuna fishermen in our area. All total, we had four boats heading out that morning. None of us on my boat could sleep the night before and I was up a dozen times checking stuff that I might have forgotten. At that time of year daylight arrives at about 5:30 a.m. and we were at the dock at 4:00 a.m. with the guys from the other boats. Everyone was excited and the talk was all tuna.

The recent intel suggested the tuna were 17 miles out to the northwest. Tuna are sight hunters and require clear water to find food. Inshore, the water has algae within it and the color is green. When you are out far enough to find the tuna water, the color is blue. Blue is the reflection of the sky in clear water.

My friends John and Lou were already pulling out from the dock when we got there. John was running a 24-foot Osprey, Lou a 24-foot Sea Sport. My friend George and his wife were launching with us and they were in a 23-foot Olympic. They were much older than our crew but still loved the challenge of the sea. Little did we know the day would challenge that love affair.

THE PLAN THAT TUESDAY WAS TO RUN 17 MILES TO THE NORTHWEST OUT OF CHARLESTON WHERE FISH HAD BEEN RECENTLY REPORTED, BUT IT WASN’T UNTIL THE BOATS WERE 40 MILES OUT THAT SCHOOLS WERE FOUND. (NOAA)

WE RAN OUT OF THE BAY BY G.P.S. in the dark hoping not to run into any crab pot lines or logs. It was a little unnerving, as I could hear the bar crashing on the jetties long before we got there. The swell was present well inside the channel, which is usually a warning, but undaunted, we kept going.

Once on the bar we dropped to displacement speed, which is slow, and climbed up and down the waves for the next half mile. If you have not tried this in the dark, there is a certain amount of pucker factor that goes with it; be sure to wear your life jacket. The crossing reminded me of years past when I lived in Medford, when I would run some sections of the Rogue River at night in my drift boat to be the first one to get in a fishing hole. The sound of the rapids by flashlight was intense too. Here we had bigger boats and larger waves. Are some of us a little bit crazy? Probably.

After the crossing we made good time heading northwest behind the other boats. I love to see the sunrise in the east from the ocean side; it is always beautiful. On this day it was spectacular. The waves were tolerable, the wind was up early but we were making about 20 knots heading out.

What was a surprise was the view to the south. In the distance we could see a black wall of weather hanging clear down to the water. Thank goodness we were not going in that direction. I don’t recall ever seeing a cloud pattern like that one. But to the northwest, the sky was clear. As the three of us talked about fishing, the mood was great.

In an hour we reached the GPS coordinates at 17 miles, but the water was still green, so we kept running. John and Lou were into fish about 40 miles out in 60-degree water, so that was our destination too. George agreed, as he was still running in my prop wash.

When we arrived at 40 miles out, we were in blue water. We set the hand lines and had fish on immediately. The fishing was good, the skies were clear and blue but the wind and waves had picked up and were making the troll uncomfortable. Cliff is a tall guy and the gunnels on my boat were not high enough for him to brace himself, so he was on his hands and knees getting to the lines, while Dale was hanging on the best he could. But the fish were there, and we were catching them. In a little over an hour we had 27 albacore on board. The rear deck was covered in fish blood and the two of them were so bloodied they looked like they had lost a bar fight.

I stayed up front and ran the boat, watching for schools of fish on the surface, what we call jumpers. I talked to George on the VHF and said it was getting a little too lumpy and probably time to head for the barn. He and his wife had all the fish he wanted and agreed. The “sheep was on the water” out there and I knew we were cutting it thin on this trip. John and Lou decided to hang in there a little longer. The fishing was too good to give up just yet.

I LOOKED SOUTH AND THAT BLACK WALL OF CLOUD had moved north and was now getting between us and shore. It is not unusual to be able to see all the way across a squall line and this was no exception. I could still see blue sky nearby. I took off with George behind me, making good speed under the current conditions. It did not take long to see what was happening ahead. Some of the waves were out of the west and the wind had shifted from the northwest to out of the south. Some larger waves were coming out of the south, causing mixed seas. Weather fronts always have a good wind before the actual storm hits and this was no exception. The seas were about 6 feet when I set a course for Charleston due southeast.

At 32 miles out, we hit the storm. Visibility dropped in the driving rain and the seas doubled in size. To consider them at 12 feet was certainly in the ballpark, but I was never sure. How do you judge from inside a small boat? It was unusual in that we did not hit this storm gradually. We were doing OK, then we were in it in minutes. I dropped into a trough between waves so low I could not see anything but the surrounding water. Then the first wave broke over the bow and up the windshield. To starboard, I was momentarily looking underwater. The boat rocked hard as the wave pushed the bow off course to port. Just as we cleared that wave, we were struck again. The skies were dark gray and the surrounding seas were also gray and angry.

Our course kept changing to east instead of southeast. I attempted to steer into the waves to get back on course but that was stupid. We were in trouble. The only thing I knew to do was quarter the seas and continue east as best I could at a slow pace. I kept watching for the waves that break over like you see in surfer movies. They are especially bad as they are full of air. Air does not float a boat. When I would reach a wave top, we would look around for George and reassess the seas. Here I had a brief moment to talk with him on the radio. George and his wife were frightened out of their wits. The next time we hit a wave top, I tried to reach the Coast Guard to advise them of our position and sea conditions, but I got no response.

ALBACORE FISHING HAS TAKEN OFF IN RECENT YEARS, WITH THIS SEASON’S RECREATIONAL HAUL SETTING A NEW RECORD. (MIKE CAMPION)

WE’D CLOSED THE CABIN DOOR WHEN WE started back, and Dale had pinned himself between the table and the forward bulkhead. Cliff was on the other side of table and tight to the door with his long legs. Dale’s eyes told it all: He was sure we were going to die. You could see his fear as he looked around at the churning seas. Then he said it.

“Well, Jim, do you think we are going to make it?”

“I don’t know, Dale,” was my response.

Cliff was silent, which if you knew the guy was a statement in itself. As the captain, I was in uncharted territory; nothing like this had ever happened to me. I don’t think I was scared, just intent.

VHF radio transmits along line of sight and the 8-foot antenna mounted to the side of the boat was too low to send a signal above the wave tops. At some point I looked past Dale out the window only to see a part of my antenna shattered like a wet noodle strike the window. Now that radio was useless. I grabbed my ditch bag, found the handheld VHF and turned it on. These only have 5 watts of transmitting power, limiting the distance it could send and receive.

We were still making headway with the wipers going in the rain and the high seas, but at some point had lost visual on George. I tried to reach him on the portable but got no response. Cliff and I both thought we had to go back, while Dale was silent. So I waited a few minutes trying to decide just how I was going to reverse direction. I had plenty of power, just no place to use it.

Finally, I decided to do the snow ski trick. As we started up a huge wave, I cut the wheel and hit the throttle doing a 180-degree turn. One look at Dale and he was sure it was the wrong move. We accomplished the turn just ahead of a following wave that was rolling off the transom and lapping at the swim platform. We hit the bottom of the trough hard and plowed the next wave. I dropped the throttle and the bow lifted us to safety. We found George putting along making some headway, but just not able to keep up with me. We spoke words of encouragement over the portable and I did another fancy turn into the churning seas. Then Dale spoke:

“Well, Jim, do you think we are going to make it?”

“I don’t know, Dale,” I said.

AS SEAS GOT LUMPIER, PEX AND CREW DECIDED TO HEAD BACK TO SHORE WITH ANOTHER BOAT, BUT RAN INTO THE STORM. “IT WAS UNUSUAL IN THAT WE DID NOT HIT THIS STORM GRADUALLY. WE WERE DOING OK, THEN WE WERE IN IT IN MINUTES,” HE WRITES. (JIM PEX)

BY THIS TIME, JOHN AND LOU, WHO HAD stayed behind to fish a while longer, were in the storm. John got on the radio and said he had standing waves running down the walkways on both sides of his hardtop boat. Lou and his crew were in an open windshield boat and were not up for talking. They were bailing instead. Lou told me later that the waves were coming over the side of the boat. The water would hit the shift lever causing a short that would shock him if he was slow to remove his hand. The crew was bailing with 5-gallon buckets to stay afloat.

The only way I could tell we were making progress was watching the distance meter on the GPS to the waypoint I had laid for the Coos Bay Bar. The going was slow, green water was still running over my windshield and I was often looking underwater out the starboard side. It was wearing all of us out with the bracing for impact, the rocking of the boat and the worry. Then we lost George again. Cliff could not get a visual and I could not raise him on the VHF.

A few moments later we did hear George on his VHF and we heard him contact the Coast Guard trying to explain our dire circumstances. Cliff kept looking back each time we reached a wave peak, then suddenly he saw George about 100 yards off our port side. Fear had him applying a little more throttle to keep up with us. I could hear him but not the Coast Guard. He had a top-mounted VHF antenna that was still intact, which gave him the ability to reach out even in these seas. What I did hear was that no one was coming if we were still underway.

Dale had that look again.

At one point, I was sure the oncoming waves were larger and were going to break the windshield. We held our breath as they struck hard, rocked the boat and passed over the hard top.

“Well, Jim, do you think we are going to make it?”

“I don’t know, Dale,” I said as I kept quartering the seas.

By this time our progress was taking me north of my intended destination and I was worried that if we made it, we would end up at Winchester Bay but under impossible conditions for a bar crossing. Hours went by, I was getting tired, Cliff was getting banged around in the boat as he tried to brace himself and then there was Dale and his question.

We were still in the thick of it and had not seen George for at least a half hour. Attempts to raise him on the radio were negative, so I made another power turn like a skier would do on a mogul and we headed back out to sea. We found George again: He just could not keep up with me, was bone tired and his voice was weak on the radio. There was nothing I could do but try to keep him close. I could see the water pass over his bow in the troughs, but it would lift just in time to wash it away and clear his windshield . I told him to raise his outdrive a little and it would give his bow more lift. He did but it did not help much when the headway was limited.

I LOOKED BACK AT MY REAR DECK AND THERE would be no need for cleanup at the dock. It was as clean as a whistle from the seawater. I had been so intent on watching the surrounding seas that I did not immediately see the bilge pump light come on. That meant there was water in the bilge and the pump was working on it. To do an inspection, I would have to get on the back deck and raise the engine cover for a look. There was no way I was going to let go of the steering wheel and it was clear that the other two were not venturing past the closed door either. We would just have to continue not knowing.

Ever try to not think about something important? Ever try not thinking about the water building up inside your boat in rough seas? It just does not work. We discussed tossing out the 27 tuna on board to lighten up the boat, but again we would have to go outside the secure cabin to open up the fish holds. None of us were willing.

I tried to reach the Coast Guard on my portable VHF but got no response. As the hours passed, I lost sight of George but could hear him talking to the other boats. I wondered how his wife was taking all of this. None of us had ever been in seas like this and it was a fright.

We did have one thing going for us and that was the design of modern-day fiberglass sport boats. Unlike commercial boats, the sport boats sit on top of the water like a cork, which lets most of the seas pass under the hull. Commercial fishing boats have displacement hulls and displace a lot more water when underway. Turning around like I did would be nearly impossible in a displacement boat and they seldom are capable of running faster than 10 knots.

I kept telling myself how well the boat was performing under the conditions. We would climb a wave, reach the top, then cascade down the other side like a surfer to the bottom of the trough, then turn up to meet the next wave. The wind was blowing the tops off the waves, creating a white foam that could be seen on the water and on my boat. We refer to this as the sheep were on the water. In time, I could feel there was hope that we would make it, provided the bilge did not fill with water and kill the engine under the deck.

“Well, Jim, do you think we are going to make it?”

“I don’t know, Dale.”

HOW SERIOUS WERE THINGS BECOMING? AT ONE POINT ON THE WAVE-WRACKED RUN IN, WITH WATER SEEPING INTO THE MOTOR COMPARTMENT AND THE BILGE PUMPING, THE MEN MULLED TOSSING THEIR 27 ALBACORE OVERBOARD TO LIGHTEN THE LOAD. BUT NONE WANTED TO RISK GOING OUT ON THE SEA-SLOSHED DECKS. (DAVE ANDERSON)

LATE THAT AFTERNOON THE WAVES STARTED TO subside, and the skies began to clear. We were about halfway between Charleston and Winchester Bay for latitude and still about 10 miles out. We had passed out of the weather cell and I was able to pick up speed with the changing conditions. Soon we were on the bar at the entrance to Coos Bay.

Here we go again, the swell from the storm had kicked up the bar. The Coast Guard had not closed it, but I thought they probably should – right after I got in.

We sat outside watching the pattern of the incoming swell, waiting for the right wave. I hit the throttle hard and jumped on the back of one. From this position I was high enough in the air that I could see across both jetties. The situation was intense: I was at full throttle doing close to 30 knots trying to stay on the back of the swell and in front of the one lapping off my transom. I didn’t look back to see how the other two were doing. I don’t think I took a breath for several minutes.

Then we were across and in the safety of the inner bay under blue skies. When we got to the dock, Dale got out of the boat, laid on the dock and gave it a kiss, seagull poop and all. Cliff had been banged around so much he could hardly walk. In time we got the boat on the trailer, iced down the fish and called it a day.

I turned to Dale and said, “We made it.”

EVENTUALLY THE STORM AND SEAS BEGAN TO LAY DOWN, BUT THE ENTRY TO COOS BAY POSED ANOTHER PROBLEM. “THE SWELL FROM THE STORM HAD KICKED UP THE BAR. THE COAST GUARD HAD NOT CLOSED IT, BUT I THOUGHT THEY PROBABLY SHOULD – RIGHT AFTER I GOT IN,” PEX WROTES. (JIM PEX)

I slept hard that night after telling the family about our adventure. I don’t think I could verbally express the circumstances well enough for them to appreciate the danger, so I went to bed.

The next morning I called Cliff. He said he was stiff and had several bruises from being banged around in the boat.

I called Dale in midmorning. He had just gotten up to get a drink of water and was going back to bed. Dale loved the ocean and the fishing to be found out there. In our conversation he admitted on the way in he prayed to our Lord that if he survived this experience, he would never go back to sea.

He never did.

I keep a St. Christopher medal pinned to my boat headliner and reference it in times of worry. I am sure, in my heart, He was looking out for us that day.

WE WERE LUCKY, AND NOT JUST US THREE. All the boats made it in that day. As we learned, ocean conditions can change at a moment’s notice, going from the fantastically beautiful to deadly. We all discovered that one can never be totally prepared for events like this but if one survives, the experience is priceless.

When our group occasionally meets for a beer and to reminisce about old fishing adventures, it is clear that none of us will ever forget that day. NS

Author’s note: My dear friend Dale Reiber passed away this spring. This story is the combined memories of Cliff Lance and I in remembrance of Dale.

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.

Rough Days At Sea Series I: High Pressure At The High Spot

A run out to the South Coast halibut grounds in an open-bow boat nearly turns disastrous for Oregon anglers when a storm hits.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories from Coos Bay-area angler Jim Pex.

By Jim Pex

Going out on the ocean in a small boat is not much different than hiking into a wilderness area. You never know what you might see or what unique experiences await you. Like the wilderness, one does not go to sea unprepared, nor does one venture forth without a guide or some personal experience. When things go wrong and you’re not ready for them, it can be lonely out there, putting your life and those with you in danger. Ancient mariners were well aware of the dangers and risked their lives based on their personal skills.

The ocean is mysterious in that conditions change from day to day, sometimes from moment to moment. There is a thrill in going out there and dealing with the unknowns that come your way. But beware, your primary resource, the weatherman, may not be your friend.

THE WEATHER CAN TURN FAST ON THE OREGON COAST, HITTING HARDER AND WITH MORE INTENSITY THAN FORECASTERS SOMETIMES PREDICT. (JIM PEX)

About 10 years back, I had a friend named Jim who was running a guide service on the ocean. It usually was for rockfish and he only ran out a few miles from the safety of the bar and the inner bay. He had a 22-foot aluminum boat with an open bow that was not built for rough ocean conditions, but on a good day was certainly adequate. The boat had a large motor as the main and a smaller one for trolling or just backup.

My friend had taken the Coast Guard classes and had what we call a six-pack license to take up to six people fishing. Getting the license requires passing an exam, so the expectation is that the licensed captain knows what he or she is doing. Jim had been out on the pond on a number of occasions, so we thought he was capable. In talking to him, you could tell he was confident of his skills out there.

JIM GOT A CALL FROM A CLIENT who wanted to catch a halibut. The best place to do so in our area is called the Bandon High Spot. This is an underwater plateau located between Bandon and Port Orford and about 15 miles west from shore. The bottom rises from 700 to 800 feet deep to 400 to 500 feet deep. It is a hangout for large halibut and a great spot to fish, if you can get there.

The downside is that it is distant from any support such as the Coast Guard or a safe harbor. Unlike on land, there are no roads, no tow trucks and no immediate help if things go wrong at sea. If you capsize out there, it is unlikely anyone is going to find you until much later.

The front of the high spot from the Coos Bay bar is south, 27 miles distant. It is 15 miles south of Bandon and about the same distance from Port Orford. Bandon is not much of a refuge if things go wrong since it is difficult to get across the bar most of the time. Port Orford is OK but there is no trailer boat launch; you need to have your boat lifted on and off the water with a large crane, provided you have the appropriate straps.

THE BANDON HIGH SPOT CAN BE REACHED FROM COOS BAY, BANDON AND PORT ORFORD, TWO OF WHICH ARE SUBJECT TO SUMMER AFTERNOON NORTHWESTERLIES. (NOAA)

CHECKING THE WEATHER, IT LOOKED TO BE sunny with a light wind out of the north when Jim started for the Bandon High Spot. Waves were forecast to be 3 to 4 feet, not a bad day to go fishing. Actually, it was about as good as it ever gets out there. Another friend named Leonard was also on board for this trip as a deckhand. The rest of this story is based on what Leonard told me weeks later.

Jim left the Charleston harbor at daylight and made the 27-mile run downwind to the High Spot. Since he was running with the wind and waves, the trip was comfortable and made at good speed. They arrived about an hour and a half later and there were a few other boats around. It is good to have a little company when you are this far from home.

Fishing 500 feet down with a hand-crank reel is a test of one’s endurance. To get to the bottom requires 2 pounds of weight off the end of a stiff rod. Herring is usually the bait of choice. Leonard said fishing was slow that day but they managed to get their limit of three halibut over several hours.

By that time the other boats were gone. As Jim, Leonard and their client had fished, the wind had increased and the waves doubled in size. In nautical slang, “The sheep was on the water” by the time they wanted to leave. This means there were whitecaps on the waves from the wind. In this case, the wind was straight out of the north, the waves from the northwest. Getting back to Charleston meant heading north into the seas and wind.

Jim finally shipped the rods and tackle and told the others to sit tight for the trip back home. He said it looked like it might be lumpy and slow; four to five hours of running was a possibility. He turned the boat into the seas, pushed the throttle but could make very little headway at displacement speed without shipping water over the bow. Keep in mind this boat had an open bow that was very slow to drain when taking water. It seems they never make the bow scuppers large enough in these boats; I think they were designed for rain, not waves.

A STORM LASHES THE PACIFIC OFF THE CAPE ARAGO LIGHTHOUSE NEAR CHARLESTON. (JIM PEX)

GETTING ON PLANE DID NOT SEEM LIKE A possibility and a long trip home was becoming more realistic. However, there is a technique in which one can put the power to the throttle and get up on top of the waves and basically run from wave top to wave top, but the conditions must be just right. Jim knew this and decided to give it more gas.

He hit the throttle and got on top of the first wave – and immediately launched the boat into the air like a water skier flying off a jump. The boat came down hard, knocking the other two to the floor. Undaunted, he kept on and plowed the center of the next wave instead of going over it. That wave came over the bow and filled the open bow with water, making the boat front heavy.

Jim apparently panicked and pushed the throttle harder and took another wave head on. This wave was higher than the windshield and passed over the heavy bow. It struck the windshield with such force that it knocked the glass out of the frames. Then as the green water passed through, water and windshield took out all of his dash electronics. Finally, as the moving wall of water passed along the boat, it struck the three people on board. Jim was hit first, by the glass and water, and was momentarily dazed. He had a hold of the steering wheel but the other two were less prepared and were carried by the water. The client nearly went over the side but managed to grasp a seat back with one hand while balancing on the gunnel. He hung on well enough to get back in the boat. Leonard was carried by the wave to the rear engines and did a face plant into the main motor. He was momentarily knocked senseless and the engine was all that kept him in the boat. He said he probably had “130” imprinted on his forehead from the emblem on the motor. All three were now soaked and frightened. None had experienced anything like this.

Jim backed off on the throttle as the wave passed through. Now they were at idle with a load of water sloshing back and forth inside the boat. Everything was floating and other waves were lapping at the sides as they tried to regroup. On the boat, the distance between the waves and the top of the boat sides is called the freeboard. Freeboard went from a couple feet to just inches with all that water on board. Fortunately, a few buckets were floating around and so they started to bail. The boat was now sideways to the oncoming waves and rocking violently as the crew gathered themselves. The vessel did have a bilge pump, but this was way beyond what the small unit could handle.

Since there were no longer any other boats in the vicinity, Jim quickly grabbed the VHF mic and tried to hail the Coast Guard, shouting “Mayday, mayday!” But there was no response as the radio was dead and the antenna was gone. Their cell phones were also wet, and out of range anyway.

Using buckets, the client and Leonard bailed water as Jim turned the boat south for a slight reprieve from the rising seas. They were alone, sea conditions were worsening, they had no radio to obtain help and their navigation instruments were dead also. There was not so much as a hand-held compass on board for guidance. If they took on any more water, they could capsize. And with land at least 15 miles away, no one would consider them missing for several hours. A life jacket was of little value when hypothermia in these cold waters was the Devil. Imminent death by drowning was racing through their minds. Was this it? Were they going to die? In this moment of terror, there was an upside: the engine was still running, and they were still afloat.

THE SIGHT OF THE ROCKY ISLANDS OFF PORT ORFORD AND THE AUTHOR’S BOAT FISHING THE REEF NEARBY WERE GODSENDS THAT SAFETY WAS NEAR FOR THE MEN. (ANDY WALGAMOTT)

TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, THOUGH, THE FOG was beginning to set in up north, so the decision was made to run for Port Orford. They could see Humbug Mountain and Orford Rocks to the east and knew Port Orford was over there somewhere. Jim had never been there from the seaward side, so he pointed the boat in that direction, thus making some headway in the wind while the waves lapped at the boat’s port side. At least they were underway despite not knowing for sure where they were going or if conditions might change before they got there.

As Jim steered, the other two continued to bail water. They were all cold, wet and fearful as the seas continued to whitecap. Yet their situation slowly improved as they continued to bail water. The trip in seemed impossibly slow.

When they got closer to shore, the sea conditions improved, and they recognized what they though must be Orford Rocks and knew the port was somewhere around there. Everyone got excited when they spotted a boat fishing the reef near the rocks. They approached while making the emergency signal, raising both hands above their head and crossing them back and forth. I was in that boat fishing the reef. I saw the signal and recognized their boat.

“This is weird,” I thought. “Where did they come from?”

I hadn’t seen their rig at the dock when we’d launched.

Jim came close enough to me that I could shout directions for getting to Port Orford. I also made eye contact with Leonard. I would bet that if he thought there was any way he could have gotten off that boat and onto mine, he would have jumped. I did not know the client but he looked like he had literally escaped death. His clothes were soaked and disheveled, his hat was gone and his expression was grim.

Jim and his crew made it to the port. It was what we seafarers call a “kiss the dock moment.” They had to tie up until they could reach Jim’s wife, who retrieved the truck and trailer in Charleston and brought it the 50 miles down  to Port Orford.

Again, the port doesn’t have a regular boat launch. Vessels have to be lifted in and out with a crane. By the time Jim’s wife arrived, it was dark and someone lent them some straps to get their boat out of the water.

For all the effort and terrifying moments at sea, they were no longer in possession of the halibut, as the ice chest with the fish had gone overboard when the wave had passed through the boat.

PORT ORFORD IS THE ONE HARBOR ON THE OREGON COAST WHERE BOATS HAVE TO BE LIFTED IN AND OUT OF THE WATER. WHEN THE CREW ARRIVED THERE, IT WAS A “KISS THE DOCK MOMENT,” THE AUTHOR WRITES. THEY’D LOST THEIR HALIBUT, WERE SOAKED AND SHIVERING, BUT THE SKIPPER HAD BROUGHT THEM IN ALIVE. (RAY GILDEN, PFMC)

THE OCEAN IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO FISH on a good day. But conditions can change in a hurry. It is up to the captain to recognize the changes and respond based on the kind of boat and his boating skills. Despite the conditions, Jim was successful in getting himself, his crew and his boat to safety. He eventually got his boat fixed and had enough wisdom to never go back to the Bandon High Spot again with it.

One thing is for certain: If you survive these kinds of wilderness experiences, it makes you a whole bunch smarter. The upside from the events of this trip was that it caused the rest of us to put together ditch bags that included portable communications, compass, GPS and flares. You never wish for a day like Jim had, but if it comes someday, we hope to be better prepared.

Then, one day the ocean turned on me, as it can happen with very little notice. That’s another story to be told. NS

Editor’s note: Jim Pex is an avid angler based out of Coos Bay and 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.