“You’ll be lucky to come home alive, I just know it,” Susan glumly said to me as I was about ready to head out the door.
“We’ll be fine,” I assured her, picking up the thermos and grabbing my lunch out of the fridge. “Just fine.”
“It’s, Brian,” she replied, “and a boat.”
She had a point.
Still, it had been years since Brian and I had a chance to go fishing out at the ocean together, and I wasn’t going to miss it. “Just fine,” I repeated. That’s all I could really get away with. “I’ll call you when we’re back on shore.”
Before I get too far into this story, I should tell you that my brother is the Master of Disaster. With Brian, if it can crash, sink, erupt into flames, have parts fly off, roll over, or explode into bits, it probably will. Especially if “it” is a boat or a car.
But we were just fine, until we got to the Westport boat ramp. “Bar’s closed,” said the Coast Guard newbie who flagged us down, “to craft under twenty feet.”
Brian was crestfallen. His boat was 18 feet. “I just called down,” he said, “and you said it was open.”
“It’s kicked up again,” replied the Guardsman, who was used to this reaction. “You might hang around for the tide change in a couple hours when they check it again.”
Now, you have to understand that the Coast Guard doesn’t let anyone screw around trying to cross the fickle bar at Westport. Things can change in a flash, and when they do the 1000 yards or so of the bar becomes extremely rough and deadly. It can be practically calm on either side, but over the bar the waves will rise like mountains that, having come loose of their footing, careen in every direction. The big CG schooner patrols the shore side, reports on bar conditions, and turns everything not bar-worthy back. It doesn’t matter how far you have come, or how many fish are on the other side. They don’t want to lose their own lives trying to save your sorry ass just because you were too stupid to listen or have to haul your soaked corpus back to shore to add to the bar’s body count. Fish aren’t really worth it — but for some reason fishermen often don’t see it that way.
So, we decided that, since we’d come down for the first time together in years and the weather looked promising, to stick it out and see if things would open up. We put the boat in, tied up to a berth, and went to have some breakfast at one of the few remaining cafes on Westport’s dying dock street. After breakfast we went back down to the boat and settled in for what fishermen do best, which is wait.
Then, the bar opened. You didn’t have to be told. Fishermen suddenly poured out of the caffes, clomping down the ramps like zombies drawn to the kill. Boat engines revved and roared. Blue exhaust mixed with the rising mist and hung just over the early morning water like a thin layer of toxic cotton candy. The previously calm inner harbor danced with competing boat wakes. We got in line and raced for the bar.
Things were still pretty rough. The swells were running 10-12 feet, but on the bar they piled up to more like a steep 15-20. But, in time, we made it over and out onto the relatively placid Pacific. We ran up the coast a few miles and threw our lines in, rolling along with the commercial trawlers, crab boats, charters, and other sport fishing craft.
We landed three big Silvers, and had a few more on the line. We talked fishing and life. We drank scotch and beer. We ate. It was a great day.
About 2:00 or so, we decided to head back. We were about 10 miles out from port, but we trolled with the current back towards the bay, picking up nothing until I hung up on a crab pot line about three miles out.
Before I continue, I should say something about Brian’s boat. It’s 18 feet, open bow, and has some godawful large engine dropped in it. Brian likes to go fast, and this baby will get up to about 70 mph. But it means that the transom (the back wall) of the boat rides, shall we say, a bit low. So water easily slops into the engine well and under the floor, where it is pumped out automatically by two independent bilge pumps. Brian was telling me how he had wired them independently so that one of them would always work. And I believed him.
Anyway, when I hung up on the commercial crab pot line we had to circle back and try to get my line untangled. As we were both standing there in the back of the boat, I noticed something odd.
My feet were wet.
“Hey,” I said, as water danced around my shoe laces, “You better get the pumps going. There’s water coming in.”
“They’re not going?” Brian asked (this was not a good sign). He frowned, went forward, and clicked different switches up and down. “Shit,” he said (this was also not a good sign), “They’re not working.”
Like I said, at that point we were three miles out and now taking on water over the stern. I cut the line, while Brian laid into the throttle. The massive engine groaned with the weight of the water, but thrust the bow up out of the water and into the air, like the head of an emerging sea lion. That emptied some of the unwanted water back out the stern. Once we got up onto a plane, water began to drain bit by bit. We held steady. We were going to be alright.
Until we got to the bar.
There the swells were just as steep as when we left, but this time we were going with, instead of against, them. We surfed down the front side of swells, with me standing up to see how far we were getting into the trough (Brian couldn’t see a thing with the boat nose so far up in the air). When we just about reached the bottom I would call out “Now!” and he cut back the throttle so that we wouldn’t plow into the preceding swell. But when he did, water from the wave behind us poured surge over the stern. Then he would floor it again, and the boat would growl and grumble its way back onto a plane and up the next swell. It was a delicate balance between maintaining the forward momentum that we needed to keep water from coming in the back, and ramming and capsizing the boat on the wave in front.
Eventually, we got over the bar and into the choppy water of Gray’s Harbor. We had taken on a bit more water, and so, even though it beat the crap out of us, Brian kept up the best speed he could. Then, as we approached the entrance to the marina, we faced a combination of elation for making it this far, and dread because we would have to slow the boat to a crawl. When we reached port we would no longer be able to outrun the water.
“Well,” said Brian, keeping his best “Gee, isn’t this fun?” face on, “Here we go.” He slowly pulled back the throttle as we rounded the opening in the breakwater pilings, and the boat sank into a lethargic — and low — crawl.
But we could now see the dock. It was lined with other boats and fishermen, all blissfully unaware that they were witnessing another unfolding Nelson drama.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Brian was muttering as the engine began to cough, sputter, and choke. The water was now far up enough to be spilling into the gas tank vent.
“Come on, come on, come on,” I was muttering along with him. I leaned over the side as far as I could, as if that would draw us to a quicker berth.
Then the engine quit. Brian lost his fun face. I leaned farther.
As we slowly coasted to the dock, I grabbed a dock cleat and tied on. Brian jumped out. “Sit on the front! Sit on the front!” he half commanded, half pleaded, as he ran up the ramp and disappeared, arms flailing, over the rim into the parking lot. I hoped he didn’t have to pee on the way.
I sat on the bow to raise the stern up. After a couple of minutes I wondered, “Is this really necessary?” and got off and walked back to the stern.
It was. Water was pouring into the engine well. I ran back, leapt on the tip of the bow, and sat down. I tried to be heavy, bearing down like some kind of poor soul with terrible constipation, one haggard eye on the boat and one on the ramp. “Come on, come on, come on …” I muttered.
Fortunately the ramp was clear, because Brian would have bulldozed anyone on it right down into the water. The Suburban and boat trailer came flying over the rim of the ramp backwards, like an action movie in fast reverse. The trailer (not the truck this time) plunged into the water. And lo, we managed to get the boat on it before it sank. All-in-all, it was a great team effort, a resourceful meeting of challenges, and a damn fine adventure.
Even the Suburban had a tough time getting that load up the ramp. But once we were out of the water and in the parking lot, and as water poured out of the bung hole in a steady stream that lasted practically until we got back home, I gave Susan a call.
“Hey!” I said cheerfully when she answered, “We made it back!”
“You’re alive?” she asked suspiciously. Something, she sensed, was not right.
“Yep,” I continued, ignoring her tone “And we caught some fish!”