Lighter Side

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March 10th, 2003

The Salmon Killers - Part 4
Bob Lawless, Port Ludlow, WA

His name was Rocky. Not the kind of guy you might suspect with a name like that; no, he was not a cheap boxer touring the farm cities of the Central Valley, CA. like some character out of the movie, "Fat City."

He was called Rocky because he was nearly killed on a wash rock in the middle of the "Jaws."

Let me try to describe these jaws and how Rocky nearly met his match. The Eastern Pacific shore of North America has a poverty of harbors. You can count them almost on one hand.

Noyo Harbor is too shallow to take on an ocean going freighter even at high tide. But the Coast Guard does bring in and out a cutter of over a 100 feet. Forty to sixty footers are the rule here, and of course, you have the mosquito fleet. The Pacific is a very mighty, little understood body of water. Sometimes, in the summer, when it would be winter in the Southern Hemisphere, there would be enormous storms originating in the Tasmanian Sea, south of Australia. Huge waves would be generated and they would march clear across the ocean until they struck land on the West Coast of North America. For some, it was surf's up, and for others, it was balls to the walls, white knuckle time.

Not only did these waves threaten Noyo Harbor but you also the swell coming in from the northwest originating in the Bearing Sea, west and north of Alaska. These swells were often made much larger by the relentless push of the northwesterly. In short, this was a bit of a hell hole most of the time.

There is this crack, one of several, in the high bluffs along the coast of California, and it is into this crack, made by the Noyo River over eons of time, that boats must enter to take shelter from the nasty seas outside. The problem is that this crack is long and very narrow, surrounded as it is by ugly, huge rocks, raising their heads as they do, challenging any boat to come anywhere near them. This narrow entrance is called the "Jaws" as if it were part of a large animal ready to devour someone.

Once through the jaws, you have to navigate through a narrow jetty, the other side of which is the estuary to the Noyo River, and then about a mile up the river, which can only be navigated at high tide, you have a small harbor. Now you are safe until you go down to the sea again.

Rocky, who was generally regarded as being crazy, used to fish in these jaws because the jaws often were full of fish. He was hated by the big boats because not only did they have to pay close attention to the rocks on leaving, but they also had to swerve around Rocky who didn't give much of a damn if he were rammed.

You see, Rocky had cancer. A smoker all his life, he had this hole in his throat, out of which he had to breathe and through which he had to talk. You were never very sure of what he said, but you nodded yes, even though the answer might be no. His voice could be better understood over the "mickey," a name given for the CB radio, because he would be amplified.

His voice, though, was pretty much a series of croaking sounds.

What he lacked in his ability to speak, Rocky made up for in bravery, or for some, it was not bravery, but stupidity. In addition to all of the other problems associated with the jaws, there was often thick fog; so thick, it would be called "barking dog fog." This alluded to the fact that fishermen would often tie up their dog to the bow cleat where the dog would listen and then bark. If he heard another dog barking, he would set up a furious howl and the captain would pay close attention in fear that a collision might be eminent. It was in such a fog that Rocky got completely lost and a huge wave lifted him up and then dropped him on top of the infamous rock described earlier. Such an accident would normally cause any boat to break up into small pieces and kill the crew, either as a result of the impact or by drowning.

Neither of these things happened to Rocky nor his boat. But it was witnessed, and thus he was given the name Rocky which he wore with pride. He had been a butcher I guess. And he fished equally hard. His wife, in fear of him getting killed, would drive the boat for him while he tended to the gear in the stern. Some days he had a huge score and would be "highliner," that is the top boat for the day. I fished alone because I didn't catch enough to share the money with a crew so I was very jealous of Rocky. If only I had someone to pay attention to the helm while I worked aft on catching the fish, I would have been so happy, so secure, so efficient. Well, at least I would have been more so, I am sure of that. My own wife was petrified of the ocean and could not bear to stay in camp and worry about my return. She would have no part in driving the boat. She was so upset by it all that she stayed in Stockton, some 200 miles distant and tried not to think of her husband. I called her every evening to assure her that I was safe.

Rocky was a lonely man and everyday, on returning which was often late, he would dine, shower up, have a few belts of whiskey, and then he would walk to this spot on the dock where the mosquito men would gather to discuss the fishing. They were always very tolerant and respectful of Rocky, partly because of his handicap and partly because of his balls.

He was not the only fisherman who was so handicapped. One of the others, John had a leg blown off during the Big One. More of him later. ~ BOBLAWLESS

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