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
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.