“When the waves turn minutes to hours” Yes that’s exactly how it felt trying to stand on the bow of the boat, as it wildly thrashed thru the monstrous waves in the dark. I was “leashed” to the boat to prevent me from being washed overboard, and also to prevent me from being slammed into some of the equipment on the deck. I check for the millionth time, making sure I still had my knife, in case I need to cut my safety line. I catch a glimpse backward, I see the lighted wheelhouse with the captain hanging on to the wheel, spinning it one way and the other, trying to keep some sort of control. The first mate is hanging on with one hand next to him, some how holding a cup of coffee in his other hand. I imagined that I can even see the steam coming off the hot cup. He sees me looking, smiles, and points to his cup, laughing and then taking a sip, just as we slam into another wave. The power of the water smashing me down onto the deck and just keeps pounding me, I fight for a breath but can’t breathe, I can feel the boat tilting downward, I’m totally submerged under water, for a moment I feel like I’m floating, the boat keeps heading down. Thoughts run thru my head in micro seconds, when is it going to stop? Come on boat, come back up! Should I cut my line? Amazing thru all this chaos, I can hear and feel the boat groaning as it twists and fights the weight of the water. There, I feel the downward plunge slowing down and the vessel fights back to the surface, I can breath again! I scramble to get back up as I have a job to do, I try to fight my way just the few feet to the bow rail, but it’s difficult as now we are climbing up the side of the wave, I feel like we are almost pointing straight up in the air, I can’t make it, the deck is too slippery and it’s too steep! I’m just inches short, but it feels like miles. As the boat reaches the crest and levels out I can now grab the rail and look over it, down into the gloom of the other side. No boat is in our way, I quickly flash the “thumbs up” to the captain and first mate that tells them our course is clear. then it feels like the boat just holds on the edge of the wave, not wanting to go down, it hesitates then down we go, this time I’m going to duck before we crash into the bottom and into the next wave. I try to sit and brace myself and wait. I know it’s only a few seconds, but it seems like forever. Then we hit, I grab my breath and wave crashes over me. slaps me even thought I’m braced. Thankfully my safety rope is short so I don’t go very far. When I reach the end of the rope it jerks me hard, but I’m so numb from the cold water, I can’t feel it. How did I get here? How did I get this job? How am I living out this adventure that I longed for, and end up fighting for our very existence?
Just a few weeks ago I was unemployed, getting down to my last few dollars. I was living in a tent outside of the Charleston Port. I had been laid off from the “Golden Nugget Casino” in Reno Nevada. The summer tourist visits were off that year and I was the last one hired in the kitchen there, so I was one of the first 150 people they let go. Which was fine with me. I didn’t really care for the job, although some aspects of the job was neat. I can say, I cooked for some then famous people the short time i was there. I cooked for the Oakridge Boys, Sigifried and Roy, Susan Anton, and my favorite, the old comedian Red Skelton (I hope you know who he is) All the other performers just hid away in their suites until it was time for thier show and their food was served to them via “room service” Red would eat the in casino’s coffee shop. I just happened to be filling in that day at the coffee shop. He would come down and put his name on the waiting list for the next available table. The hostess would always tell him that she would put him at the top of the list and that he would get the very next available table, and he would tell them “No, you put my name at the bottom of the list, just like everyone else” then he waited, pestered by the people, hounding him for autographs, and pictures. But he loved it! He had the biggest smile, and said so many “God Bless You’s.” I don’t know how he ever got any food eaten, but he didn’t seem to mind. I didn’t get his autograph, as I felt he was already hounded so much. Today, I wish I had, I would have loved to give that autograph to my father, as Red was his favorite comedian.
Oops sorry got carried away there by memories. Anyway the casino laid me off I decided it was time to leave Reno, I wasn’t really enjoying it, I wanted to go to the Pacific northwest somewhere, hopefully finding a job somewhere. So I stuffed all my belonging’s into my Volkswagen bug and headed out, with only about 120 dollars in my pocket. I stopped in towns looking for work, but not finding any. I will never forget when I stopped in at a Sambo’s Restaurant, in North Bend Oregon, and asked for an application, the gal just looked at me kind a funny and said “Sure, I can give you an app, but I’ll tell you we haven’t hired anyone here in two years.” I told her that I was just applying for dishwasher or a cooking position. She just smiled and said she was sorry. I caught a glimpse in to the kitchen thru the swinging doors and saw the dishwasher, he looked 30 or 40 years old. I thought to myself, he been washing dishes for two or more years. the gal went on to explain, there just aren’t any job as all the lumber mills were shut down, so from running three shifts a day, seven days a week, to nothing. There was one rumor that one mill was going to open one shift a day, but it was just a rumor. She smiled again and said she was sorry, and maybe I should head to Portland. I didn’t have enough money for gas to get to Portand. Frustrated, angry, scared, I didn’t know what to do. So I headed back to go walk the docks at the Charleston Port, I really enjoyed doing that, it gave me peace when I would walk the docks, or the beach. So I went there and thought I would at least walk it one more time before heading out and go as far as my money would go. I walked the docks, by all the parked fishing boats, wishing someone would see me and offer me a job. Some of the boats there were fisherman working, fixing things, but no one offered me a job. Dejected, with my shoulders slumped I climbed into my packed bug, to head out. As I was driving around the block to leave, I sort of ran a stop sign, and this guy in a truck honked and yelled at me, and he kept hooking waving for me to pull over. Man, I must have really pissed him off! I pulled over, got out expecting a fight. he climbs out of his truck, and I remember thinking shesh, he’s big! I’m in trouble, he walks across the street, I clench my hands preparing for the onslaught. He comes up to me, looks at my packed Volkswagen Bug, and looks back at me and says “Are you looking for a job?” (really, I’m not making this up!) It was how I met Joe, the first mate on the El Mirage. Fast forward back the storm.
I’m slammed to deck for what felt like the millionth time. How long have I been out here? It feels like forever, it was supposed to be 45 minutes shifts, they must have forgotten about that as I’m sure I’ve been out here for hours. Again, slammed by yet another wave and again it feels like we are sinking, but some how the El Mirage fights it’s way back to the surface, I fight yet again back to the rail and look into the abyss. Wearily waving the thumbs up again just before getting smashed by yet another wave. Suddenly in all the chaos, Joe is fighting to stand next to me, relieving me from my duty. He yells into my ear to be very careful going back to the wheel house. I timed it so we were again on top of a wave and I dash to the safety of the galley. Once inside, I see the chaos the has caused, utensils, once hanging on walls are all over the floor, other pots and pans have managed to get out their storage places, and well as most the pantry items. What a mess, but not to worry about it now. I head to the captain to help him if I can. I’m worn out, no strength left, should hurt but I’m still numb from the cold. But I reflect, I’m not as cold as I was when I was sent over the side to check the propeller one morning. Probably cause this time I’m numb, when I went overboard to check the propeller, I was in shock.
I’ll never forget that morning. During the night we just let the boat drift and that morning we found a length of rope had gone under the boat on one side and coming out from under the boat on the other side. The thing we didn’t know is, was it tangled up in the propeller shaft? The captain was afraid to fire up the engine, and possibly tangle it up some more, and cause some expensive damage. So someone had to go down under and check. They are saying this as they are all looking at me. They told me it’s quite simple, just jump off the stern of the boat, get down as deep as you can, and go under the boat to the propeller, check it and the shaft. Cut the rope if necessary and come back up. That’s all! Then the captain mentioned the water temp is only 42 degrees and we have no wet suit or scuba gear, but we did have some swim fins and goggles! So dummy me I said “Ok, I’ll do it” We went to the stern, they gave me some last minute instructions that I have to go down about 8 feet or so, then under the boat about another 10 feet or so, and they would be watching me if I had any trouble. So I stood on the stern rail, made sure my knife was firmly strapped to my side. (I should say the knife was clenched between my teeth, and seems so much more manly that way, but I would be lying, it was strapped to my side) I jumped! I hit the water! Have you ever watched a cartoon where the cartoon character jumps in the water but never touches it cause they are out of it so fast? I swear that’s what happened! I hit the water and the shock of the cold water was so intense that all I could think of is getting out of the water as fast as I could. I was out of that water and up hanging on the railing so fast, that the captain and the 1st mate were still looking overboard at the bubbles looking for me. And here I was already out of the water, my arm over the railing looking at them. I’ll never forget the look on their faces when I startled them by saying “it’s sooooo cold!” They turned from looking down to looking at me with disbelief! Then the 1st mate said “what the …….(heck)are you doing there? Your supposed to be down under the boat!” “itttt’sssss soo ccccccolddd” I responded. “Well, do it again!” They replied. So I did, this time I stayed in the water, I remember grabbing the back of the boat to pull me down far enough then under I went. By this time I was already out of breath, in that cold your body uses all it’s oxygen rapidly, and my lungs were already feeling like bursting. As the boat would slowly rock in the water, at times it was pushing me even deeper, like it was hell bent on drowning me. I swam as quick as I could towards the propeller, by now my lungs feel like they are going to explode, there it is and I grab the propeller to a quick check. No rope!!! Yea!! But by now my mind and body are panicking, my lungs hurt, I want to breath but can’t, I got to get out of here as fast as I can, things are going gray, I remember literally clawing on bottom of the boat which is covered with barnacles, (which I found out are really sharp) I didn’t care, I need air!!! I burst out from under the boat and shot up through the water to air! Wonderful air!! but my arms are so weak and numb I can’t grab to climb up the side of the boat, I’m choking and gasping, then I hear a splash, and am suddenly lifted out of the water to the captains arms who grabs me and throws my over the railing onto the deck. Joe had jumped in after me, and somehow lifted me high enough for the captain to get a hold of me. They wrapped me up in a blanket and guided me into the galley, I’ve never shook and shivered so hard in my life. It took me hours to warm up, and then I was so worn out. Later I counted over 150 small cuts (like cat scratches) on my hands where the barnacles had cut thru my thin gloves, by me scrambling against the bottom of the boat to get out. I told them there wasn’t any rope tangled up, but they weren’t sure whether or not to believe me. Finally the captain decided to take a chance and fire the engine up. No problems. But I also will never forget that once we were back in port, he hired a scuba diver, to go down the “make sure” I was a bit pissed that he didn’t believe me, although looking back I would have done the same thing. Back to the present.
I manage to get the wheelhouse and stand next the captain, getting my turn to watch Joe get bashed around by the waves. I’m amazed by the pounding he’s taking. Fred the captain tells me I was only out there 30 minutes, not the full 45. And here I thought I had been out there for hours! It’s only 2am, daylight is still hours away. I quickly calculate how many more times I’ll have to go back out. Three more times! I don’t know if I’ll have the strength to do it, but I’ll try. Then Fred says the storm should be weakening and we are getting further away so maybe it won’t be so crowded and the chance of coming across another boat is lessening. So he thinks I won’t have to go back out.! Music to my ears!
After a few more hours, daylight begins to creep in, never gets very bright, but hey, I wasn’t complaining. We are heading back to the port now, our radar is still out, but at least we can see. The waves are definitely getting calmer. The Coast is still escorting ships in past the jetty, so we wait our turn. Finally it’s our turn, just 14 hours since my “shift” on the bow of the boat, we are escorted into calm waters. The captain guides the El Mirage into it’s slip. We’re home! Safe and sound! I remember climbing down the rope ladder and stepping back on dock. My chest was puffed out, I had survived a severe storm on the ocean! I turned to follow the Captain and the 1st mate up the dock, tried to copy their cocky jaunt, but promptly fell over, I didn’t have my land legs back yet, I swear that dock was moving just as much as the boat was out on the ocean. That was one of the hardest walks up a dock I’ve ever done! I was stumbling and tripping just as bad as my first time trying to get a cup of coffee to the captain.
- I helped paint the “El Mirage” black, when I started work on it, the vessel was white, with black letters? I did the white letters you see here.
I helped paint the “El Mirage” black, when I started work on it, the vessel was white, with black letters. I did the white letters you see here.
I had many more adventures on the El Mirage, and my time in Oregon. Maybe someday, I’ll put it all in a book. But all good things have to come to an end. The captain was going broke, as the shrimping industry in that area was collapsing. He eventually had the El Mirage re-rigged to bottom fish, instead of shrimping. He let Joe and I go, while he was doing this. We didn’t make enough money in the season, so I had to go back to Colorado, where I could find work. Some day, I want and need to go back, with my camera, to photograph where all this happened, where I lived at the time, from the campground to the trailer with no electricity or plumbing. Plus of course, to capture all the other beaches and scenery the Northwest Pacific Coast has to offer.
My next blog, I think I’ll tell the story of how I started a cattle stampede, all by myself, an excerpt from my adventures in Manitoba Canada, it’s another one of my wonderful wife’s favorite stories of my adventures when I was younger.