Lighter Side

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April 21st, 2003

The Salmon Killers - Part 10
Bob Lawless, Port Ludlow, WA

The Worst

Even getting down the Noyo River was not easy. In fact, where the boats traveled, it was more of an estuary than a river, a mile or so long and fraught with many dangers, the worst of which I will attempt to describe. The whole thing was a matter of tide mostly. At low tide, the river was impassable and if caught outside, you just had to tie up and wait for the flood. Sometimes I quit early (shame on me) and had to do the wait because there would be no water in the river. It was embarrassing and I didn't do it very often, but when I had a belly full of it all and the seas where just miserable, I said to hell with it and came on in. And if you were caught on the inside, that is to say up at camp, then you just couldn't get out to sea, no matter the bite. Frequently, the bite might be furious out there and all you could do was to kick stones and wait for the flood. Shorty, of course, would be out there even if he had to get up in the middle of the night to beat the tide. It might be foggy and cold, miserable and dark of course, but Shorty would be out there. And he would always be very talkative on the radio, about all the fish he had, about the big slugs (fish over twenty pounds) he had taken and about how sorry he was that some fishermen were caught in camp and were missing one of the hottest bites of the season. Damn him and his German discipline!

In addition to the vagaries of the tides, you also had to battle the obstacles and there were many. Right off the bat there was a big rock in the middle of the river. At high tide, this rock would be just under the surface, waiting to grind off a propeller or two or maybe tear the whole lower unit off if someone was moving faster than the required limit of less than 5 mph. You could never go to starboard of the rock because it was always shallow on that side and you were certain to go aground. I was told about this in the very beginning and I never had any trouble. All the boys knew about it as well. One time though, I saw a boat stuck there, waiting for the tide to turn. I gave him a steady stare as I passed with the words, "You dumb dung dingo," written all over my face. He hung his head in shame.

Now you had to be very close to the south bank which was a small rock cliff. Don't touch it! Yet, you had to be close or you would hit the rock out in the center of the river, a rock I named Leo. Each day, after I had successfully negotiated Leo, I would thank him, saying, "Goodbye for now old buddy: I hope to see you later today." I didn't know if I would, but I was hopeful.

Next you had to stay close to the south side, near some nasty rocks, but that was where the channel was. Just a bit to starboard again, and you would be aground on a sand bar. Following another boat as I often did, I was always critical of his navigation, thinking, "you're too close! or watch the hell out! you're over on the bar!" But if he kept going, I stayed right aft of him and forgot my own advice. If he made it, so would I.

Then there was the crossover. If you kept to port, you would run aground again for sure because this barrier held the skinniest water of all the hazards. You made your turn at the launch ramp and headed for the first boat moored on the north side. This would make your crossing on a diagonal and it was very tricky. Many times I could feel the propeller of my girl digging in the sand beneath. At the end of the season there would be no paint on her prop and the blades would be shiny.

Next, you followed the boats moored on the north side as close as you dared. I could reach out of the port and touch them and if the men were in the boat, they would look at me nervously because if I sideswiped them all hell would break loose. Even little commercial boats had so much rigging, what with all the poles and lines and cables and wires aloft, that a collision will another commercial might take all day to unwind everything. There would be curses, threats and the like, moans about all the money being lost and damages of course. It might be several days before you could get out again and this would invariably happen during a hot bite.

Once in the fog, I had misread my radar and I creamed a big troller. Actually I suffered no harm but I broke one of his poles. In the fog, nobody saw me and I tossed a bottle of good scotch aboard and went about my business. It should of been more, but then it could have been less.

Now you were in the lower basin where the water was deep all the way out to the sea. Big boats were here, some massive trawlers with huge nets and two giant steel doors that were rigged to go on the bottom and spread way out with the net in between them and sweep the floor of the ocean clean. They were a nasty lot, taking delight in scaring the hell out of you.

One time when I was returning, a big trawler was leaving, and I hugged the west bank of boats and docks as tight as I could in order to avoid a collision. He was making a turn too wide at the corner of the estuary and he would have been OK except his boat was crabbing sideways and I was certain I would be crushed by him. Yet, he passed without touching me but you could not have slid a credit card between us when he did. I was shaking about this for hours and I thought about it for days. Why had the bastard come so close? What would the court say? Could I have survived the crushing? Would he have even stopped? What kind of business was this anyway?

But it was just one of those things. You could keep doing this for years maybe, but one day, you would get it. It happened to someone every year. One day, that someone would be you.

Now I would continue toward the sea, passed the wharves, the buyers, the cafe, the fuel docks and a miscellany of other things and places. Another danger was that if the word got out that Fort Bragg was having a big bite going on, then "foreign" boats would be in port. Some of them might have come from San Francisco, others from as far away as Washington or Oregon.

One day a huge troller from Washington caught me about a mile from the entrance on his way back home and for some reason unknown to me, he tried to run me down. I was helpless to avoid the eminent collision because I had all my gear set and thus I couldn't move except slowly ahead. A boat that is commercially fishing has the right of way over all other boats, including sailboats, though most of the rag skippers don't know this.

They are playing; we are working. They can move; we can't. It's as simple as that. But certainly it is the burden of a boat under power to give way to a boat that is fishing. Yet this Washington dog seemed oblivious of that fact. I was positive that I would be rammed. My boat would collapse. I would hit the water and his boat would pass over me. There would be no witnesses. I would say little, being dead and all. But at the last second he turned his boat slightly and passed within inches of my bow.

After that incident, I bought a stainless steel .233 semi-automatic rifle and kept it handy. If that were to happen again, I would blow that bastard completely out of his wheelhouse. You see, you couldn't really call the police and complain. It took hours for the coasties to arrive on scene and they would just shrug their shoulders and then search your boat since they had come along side anyway. Any safety gear missing and you got a ticket. All this while you were quivering because you were nearly killed.

Also, when all these foreign boats arrived, there was no place for them to tie up for the night. But an unwritten law said that they could tie along side of another boat and thus start a raft. Some of these rafts might have ten or more boats in it. Such a raft would nearly block the river off for marine use. They didn't give a damn. Probably mostly drunk from many days at sea, they would be below, sleeping it off or getting ready for the day. I had to pass around these rafts and it was often with great difficulty. In heavy fog, my radar would show a picture of a line stretching completely across the estuary. Now what to do?

. I had to stop and feel my way across their transoms until I could find a passage. I carried some rocks for occasions such as these and just before disappearing into the fog bank, I would hurl a rock at them, and, on the crash, I would laugh my ass off. There had to be justice somewhere.

Finally, after making one last turn to the west, toward Japan you might say, I got my first look at the ocean. But before I could see her, I would feel her in my feet. If it was rough in the harbor, it would be hell on wheels outside.

Then she would come into view. I looked for white caps, breaking water, the buffaloes. I tried to judge the height of the waves or the swell. I tested the wind.

Sometimes I knew it was a go. But sometimes, I would just get sick to my stomach. The ocean could be far more dangerous than anything that might happen in the harbor. In the harbor, you could at least swim for it. In the ocean, there is little swimming. ~ BOBLAWLESS

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