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Anchor Off The Bow
Anchor Off The Bow

Anchor Off The Bow

FarmerBrownjim brown

Anchor Off The Bow

There were four in the open boat. Two were there only for the ride. I and the boat owner were there to scuba dive, our first dive since getting PADI dive certifications. When we passed the Newport, Oregon bar, into the big waves of the open ocean, Gerry, along for the ride, asked if the boat was safe. He informed us he didn’t know how to swim. The owner told him to relax, the boat was unsinkable.

An hour later, anchored above a submerged wreck 100 feet below, the boat swamped and rolled over. The owner was correct, barely correct. It was close but a small patch of hull bobbed above water.

Terrified, Gerry wailed hysterically as he clung to the hull. In his laminations we learned his mother warned him to stay away from water. I submerged into the inside of the upside, down boat and retrieved life jackets. Gerry flung his designer dark glasses into the ocean’s depth as he struggled to put one on. In his haste, it was backwards but it kept him afloat. The other diver cut the anchor rope. Freed the hull no longer sank below water line with each wave swell. Gerry and the other joy rider struggled onto the fiberglass hull peeking out of the water.

We divers, tried to stabilize their precarious perch but with nothing to hold on to, larger swells swept them back into the cold water. They then scrambled back to await being swept off again. All four of us were in danger of dying but the two without wet suits would do so first.

Life expectancy, in the cold ocean water off Newport, Oregon is forty-five minutes, at best an hour. With their sweeps off into the sea and scrambles up on to the hull, it’d be an hour for them.

None knew we were out in the ocean. No one would look for us due to a failed return.

In my wet suit, I wondered what the death wait time etiquette was. Stay until they were unconscious, cold dead or should I immediately seek help? The latter seemed best. Dropping my tank and weight belt, I had a reasonable chance to reach the distant shore, two miles away. As my mind prevaricated, the current and a breeze nudged the boat further out. Further out, a fog bank creeped in. If fogged in, my odds of survival dropped precipitously. Even in a wet suit, the chances of surviving the night were dim.

Despite it being my first scuba dive trip, I had extensive diving experience. It started in northern California. You couldn’t use air tanks diving for abalone, it wasn’t kosher, actually illegal. You had to free dive, without scuba gear.

Abalone inhabit the cold coastal waters of Northern California, from Monterey to Eureka. In olden days they were plentiful and could be plucked off exposed rocks during a low tide without getting wet, so they said. The easy pickings were long gone. By the 1970’s few could endure the physical effort of getting abalone. One had to hold one’s breath and dive down in a wet suit to the twenty to thirty-foot depth range to get them.

Even at those depths, it needed to be a coastal spot of difficult access, or go way north to sparsely populated Humboldt County. Our spot, nick named by Craig, my dive partner was abalone beach. It was fifteen miles north of Santa Cruz, near the tidbit coastal community of Davenport. Getting to the beach from coastal US Highway 1 required a steep hike down through broccoli fields then a fifty-foot rappel off a cliff using a climber’s rope. Pounded in the rocky rim was an iron post to tie on for the rappel down, an indicator we were not the only visitors to the secluded beach cove but we never met one.

We lugged our gear down and up in old army duffle bags. Stuffed in them were an air mat, spear gun, fish stringer, fins, snorkel, face mask, wet suit, gloves, boots, lead weight belt and baby powder. The trip down was easy. The return up, took one’s last energy reserve after free diving.

We lugged our gear down and up in old army duffle bags. Stuffed in them were an air mat, spear gun, fish stringer, fins, snorkel, face mask, wet suit, gloves, boots, lead weight belt and baby powder. The trip down was easy. The return up, took one’s last energy reserve after free diving.

On the beach our struggle began. Getting the wet suit on was the first challenge. Ours were homemade, quarter inch neoprene, two-piece suits. The bottom was a Farmer John and covered from the ankles to our shoulder straps. The top overlay re-covered the crotch, torso and added arms and head. The suit had to be snug tight. A wet suit lets cold water seep in, your body warm it and then retains the warmed water. If water sloshes in and out, you will be chilled out of the ocean. We made our two-piece suits without liners or zippers to limit sloshing.

Without baby powder you couldn’t squeeze into the suit. The bottom was a tight fit but with baby power, you could do it yourself. The top required more than baby powder. With the interior dusted heavily in white, you took a deep breath, went in head first while your partner pulled and tugged until your white dusted head popped out the face hole in the hood and your hands broke free. Your partner then blew air in at the hand openings to allow your arm skin to reposition to its neoprene hide. It’s a procedure not recommended for those who suffer from claustrophobia.

Suited, boots, gloves and a weight belt were added. We then bent over and huffed and puffed until our little four-foot canvas air mats were firm. Clutching our air mats, face masks, snorkels, fins and spear guns we waddled to where the waves met the beach.

On the air mat, it was an iffy push through the surf to open water. We waited until a lull in the breakers appeared, rushed into the surf, hopped on the air mat and churned our fins to ride up incoming waves as they crested. It usually took fighting through a couple breakers to the get past the surf. Beyond the breakers, we repositioned gear and stroked our fins to push the air mat out to the kelp beds.

Another reason our dive spot still had abalone was due to its proximity to Ano Nuevo Island. The rocky island was inhabited by elephant seals. When not resting or breeding, they swam and fished the water like us. White sharks kept their population in check. As a consequence, the area was closed to government research divers and few dove the area, actually only Craig and I that I know of but there was the rappel anchor.

While we got spooked seeing an elephant seal down below now and then and once a gray whale up close, the only sharks we ever saw were harmless small leopard sharks.

Amongst a kelp bed, we attached our air mat to a floating golden branch, spat on the interior of our face mask glass to avoid its fogging up, slipped it on and stuck the snorkel through the strap holding the face mask. On the ocean surface, we laid face down and blew out the snorkel to clear it. Looking down into the water, we couldn’t see our goal, the rocky bottom. Visibility was usually about five feet but never more than ten. Murky green was our view, the bottom an unknown entity.

Weight belt buoyant neutral, we hyperventilated through our snorkel until dizzy. In an oxygen high, we tilted feet up and glided down, down, down, mouth clenched, lower teeth in front of uppers. Our ears began to hurt as we descended. We pinched our nose, blew hard out, as if breathing through our ears and pop, re-established their equilibrium pressure to water depth. About the time they popped and the pressure pain eased, boom, the bottom greeted us.

On the bottom, we flitted over the rocky jags seeking our prey, camouflaged red abalone masquerading as rocks. With only up close, visibility, we scoured the irregular dark terrain above, around and below until our oxygen high was depleted. With a last look see, we raced to the surface and enjoyed the sweet elixir of oxygen again. The danger going up was passing out as the lungs expanded to the lesser pressure with depleted, something Craig and I never experienced but heard happened to others.

Abalone start life as free swimmers but settle down and move little thereafter. They’re a giant sea snail, stuck in one area as they dine on kelp and sein the ocean’s lower level turbulence for their place in the food chain. To be legal the shell had to be seven inches across which we determined with a stretched hand. Most of ours were nine inches plus, one even twelve inches.

They can’t detect your presence unless you touch them or disturb the water’s turbulence rhythm. They’re relaxed, holding on to their rocky perch. A quick grab and you can jerk them off. That’s what we did, a quick grab under the shell and pop, off they were, without an abalone iron to pry them off. Snatched from their rock roost, we held their muscle to the wet suit chest area and fast fin stoked to the surface.

Abalone have a row of holes along the perimeter of their shells for breathing. We jammed the fish stringer prong through a larger hole and returned to surface hyperventilating. Once our limit of five was strung on, our air mats stood straight up out of the water with their abalone anchor. After our limit of five, we took our spear gun and hunted fish.

They were rock fish, not free swimmers. The hid in the rock niches and caves. We had a short spear gun, moved up close and shot them as if in a barrel. They thrashed about, we rose to the surface and dragged the spear gun’s line over to the air mat. Once the fish was pulled up to the surface, we put the stringer through the eyes to keep them secured.

Again and again, we hyperventilated, dove, skimmed the bottom and collected the ocean’s bounty. After we called it a day, we fin stroked back to the beach and rode the wave crests in. By the time we struggled out of our wet suits, re-stuffed our duffle bags, re-dressed, climbed up the cliff with the added weight of our catch, hiked up the steep path through the broccoli fields, threw everything in the bed of Craig’s 1953 Chevy truck, opening the door was the final exertion test. Ensconced in the truck cab, no effort exerted as the wheels turned, I light a cigarette and indulged in a nicotine high.

In Craig’s Santa Cruz backyard, we fileted the fish and gutted the abalone under the hose bib. Wives reviewed our catch and checked to ensure there were no bones in the fillets then prepared hot skillets for frying and made salad. With a sharp knife, lots of waste and a pliers to pull out an occasional embedded worm, Craig and I ensured they passed Safeway quality, albeit a lot fresher, even Sushi fresher.

On an old maple table, we used wood mallets to pound thin sliced abalone muscles into large tenderized steaks. We ate a lot of fish and at work, ate abalone sandwiches. Today abalone along the California coast is so limited a tag is required for each. Five big red abalone would fetch two thousand dollars. We were sea royalty diners if not sophisticated ones. No tartar sauce was needed.

I also dove and sea reaped/raped in Hawaii and Sabah, Malaysia, formerly known as North Borneo. Like Hood Canal where our PADI certification dive occurred, these were clear water dives. Only California diving prepared me for Oregon’s murky scuba diving. Now I was clinging to an upside-down boat gunwale, waiting for two to die and perhaps me too.

I’d met the boat’s owner in our PADI certification class. The instructor had a dive shop and gave lessons to expand clientele. The diving experience of the other nine students was limited to swim pool dive boards. His teaching emphasis was, scuba diving is easy, even his mom did it. While good marketing, he was correct. Unlike free diving, scuba diving was similar to walking above ground. The final exam was a dive in Hood Canal, part of Puget Sound. We were instructed not to go below a hundred feet but it was so easy with an air tank and clear visibility, I was soon passed below one hundred and twenty feet chasing a crab, as if walking along the shore. It was so easy, it was dangerous.

I drove up from Salem to the Hood Canal dive site with the owner of the boat. He was a real Oregonian, not a California transplant like me. His name was Charles but he went by CJ. A big guy, without regular employment, he knew how to live off the land. He had a couple of hill country acres, his shack on them, a paid for truck and a boat. With his couple of acres, he never sold a vehicle, just parked them on the acreage when they stopped running to eventual sell to an antique California car restorer. He sold firewood garnered off government logged forests, gathered moss in the woods to sell to nurseries, hunted and fished to fill the freezer larder and used his boat to troll the ocean and sell salmon caught. Sidelines were beef jerky and I suspected pot and food stamp deals.

On the trip back from Hood Cannel, with new PADI cards in our wallets, we agreed to dive off Newport’s, Yaquina Bay using his boat. We rented scuba gear from the instructor’s shop on a Friday, for a Saturday dive. The day, however, started out on a half note. From free diving experience, I knew it’s best to get in the ocean in the early morn before surge builds up. When I arrived early at his place, his truck wouldn’t start. We had to rig up my family station wagon to pull the boat. Then, we had to wait for his friends to show up. He’d invited two for a joy ride out in the ocean while we dived. Tardy, we left for Newport late morning.

The joy riders were quasi, hippies. Gerry was of short stature and I learned on the way to Newport, a professional golf shark. He plied golf courses for gambling suckers. He claimed he held back his ability until a victim’s golf acumen was determined, made his wager and won big money. I figured it was bravado and a cover for possibly pot sales income. The other joy rider, was of taciturn, calm personality. On the plump side with a beard, he was affable, laughed at others jokes but ventured little of himself. I can’t remember his name, maybe it was Bill.

After the two-hour drive pulling the boat, we arrived in Newport’s Yaquina Bay, an honest fishing port, not only touristy. CJ there announced, the boat lacked an anchor because he never needed one when trolling for salmon. We shopped around until we got an anchor and one hundred and fifty feet of rope, another delay.

At the boat launch driveway, I backed in the trailer, the boat floated free and CJ hopped on. He pushed the start button. The battery was dead, sat for a winter dead. I parked the car and retrieved my car battery. With my battery on its last turn, the boat’s outboard started. We all clambered aboard, more crowded than I preferred but there was room enough for our dive gear and four seats. Up the jetty channel we speed, well past noon. As we passed the bar, as expected, the waves were now up. The swells frightened Gerry but he was assured the tri hull fiberglass boat had built in air pockets. It was unsinkable.

CJ and I had agreed on our dive spots. First was an old ship wreck site, two miles out and a mile down the coast at a depth of one hundred feet. The second dive was to be at the lesser depth of fifty feet at a rock shelf. The spots were picked for shooting fish and followed the basic dive rule drilled into us during class, first dive lower, second dive shallower to avoid the bends.

Skimming over the swells on the way out threw back a salty spray but it was not an uncomfortable wetness, just a taste of salt water. The sun was out. Things were finally hitting on a full note.

The boat had some equipment for gauging depth, finding fish and detecting a submerged wreck. Without a lot of searching, we found our intended dive spot. CJ roped up the anchor while I hurried into my wet suit. He did something odd. After he threw the anchor over, he tied the end to the stern, the low rear end of the boat, weighted down by the outboard motor. I didn’t interject. He was the captain. It was his boat, unsinkable he said. Who was I to tell him where to tie the anchor?

It was a big, full down note.

By the time CJ was in his wet suit, my scuba gear and weight belt were secured. I had my spear gun in hand and was on the gunwale ready to roll into the water. Gerry and, Maybe Bill, had lighted fat marijuana joints, opened their coats to let the sun rays warm them and had dark glasses on. They were finally getting the joy ride they came for.

It was when CJ finally had his tank and weight belt on that the anchor caught bottom and the slack rope turned taut. The boat swirled to meet the ocean’s current and swells, stern first.

Like every accident, there is the moment before, the moment of and the moment after, seconds apart, where reality changes too fast to comprehend but then becomes incomprehensible fact.

The joy rider’s high was at first only a little spoiled. A swell swept in from the stern as the anchor rope pulled it down. Their distraught yelps were about wet feet. At the second swell their discomfort caused swearing about being soaked. At the third swell it was mortal distress complaint as they screamed. The boat filled with water and rolled over. From sun basking high to ocean cold water, it was less than a minute. Death’s banshee had leaped up out of the ocean.

We clung to the upside-down boat. It bobbed below the surface with each swell pushing the stern tied anchor down. I retrieved life jackets for the two unfortunates without wet suits. CJ cut the anchor rope. The boat adrift, no longer bobbed under with the swells. As CJ promised it didn’t sink, a small patch of fiberglass peeked out among the waves. JC and I first attempted the impossible, to turn the boat upright. Failing that we helped our joy riders onto the unsubmerged hull.

To, Maybe Bill’s, credit he remained calm in the face of death, if not affable. Gerry was vocal in his changed environment. He wasn’t going to die silently. He sobbed hysterically, babbled about not wanting to be in a boat, about his mother warning him to stay away from water even confessed to a few sins. When a larger swell swept him back into the ocean he screamed.

Despite my dangerous predicament, a sense of superiority swept in my wet suit and I wasn’t sharing. Faced with possible death, I was in survival mode. My mind raced through calculations of obtaining safety, not for the others but for me. Survival instinct, when facing death, is a dark place of mind. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live. It was me first. I could throw in my tale some sops of my concern for the others, compassion even but they would be lies. It was me, only me I was thinking about. If I dropped my weight belt and air tank, I could make it to the shore two miles away.


Even though I’d dropped into survival mentality, social mores lingered before bold moves to save myself could occur. With the current and a breeze nudging the boat further out to sea, a distant fog bank creeping in, however, I could respect civility’s veneer only so long. My first proffered suggestion was my abandoning ship to seek help. It wasn’t received well. CJ commanded we all stay with the boat. Unlike our captain I wasn’t going down with the ship. I had to push the leave to seek help solution. Keeping an eye on the distant fog bank, thinking of how to again broach my seek help agenda, Gerry started a new wave of wailing. To silence his incoherent blabbering, I suggested he take his coat off, wave it in the air and shout to attract attention to our plight.

He hesitated but I explained his coat, soaking wet, provided him no protection. He complied, suddenly enthused with a suggestion which offered hope of rescue but remained disoriented in fear. He asked what he should shout. My cynical reply, still warm and rational in my wet suit, was “Help!”

He was a good help yelper and coat waver. Action was the desperate hope he yearned. His shouting and waving, however, delayed the inevitable. My departure time was being pushed back. I still had a reasonable chance of survival if I abandoned them before we were in the fog bank. If in the fog my odds dropped precipitously. Surviving the night, even in a wet suit, was unlikely. Getting ready to again brooch the subject of my seeking help, a miracle happened.

Suddenly, riding a swell above us, an open boat appeared. A couple with their young daughter, ocean seafarer experienced, came to our rescue. They had taken their daughter out to look at gray whales. In a fluke of luck, they’d seen an orca fin flash on the surface before disappearing among the waves. The husband putted over to give the daughter a closer look. It was Gerry’s waved coat they’d seen.

With a return of civilization and chivalry, CJ and I proffered Gerry and, Maybe Bill, to be hauled in first. CJ then dropped his tank and was hauled in. I selfishly, retrieved my duffle bag from under our boat, argued about its addition and tested the possibility of their abandoning me as I slipped over the rail into the boat with my tank on. Last on, I had everything with me, even my spear gun.

Seven in the rescue boat was an overloaded boat. The father and mother became terrified for the sake of their daughter. They wore life jackets but knew they were of limited help in an ocean which the cold sucks life out. I didn’t blame them. I don’t know if I would have taken me and CJ on. Our rescuer, however, intended our boat occupation to be temporary. As experienced boaters they had a CB radio and immediately called the Coast Guard emergency channel.

“May Day! May Day! I’m two miles out, a mile south of the Newport jetty. Boat’s overloaded. In danger of swamping, Need immediate help. May Day! May Day!”

He repeated it over and over but there was only squawk static response. With water near the gunwales in the swells, he puttered slowly toward the jetty bar on the assumption a closer radio contact would bring a response. He was extra careful to keep the boat straight against the waves and not let it get broadsided. The wife hugged her daughter.

Just outside the bar he repeated over and over his May Day distress call as he kept his boat bow first to the waves. Nary a response was heard. I promised myself, with my wet and tank, I’d at least save the daughter if our rescue boat went under. The swells continued to pick up, our new captain surveyed our predicament, in a rash move, he paced the wave swell, pointed the boat to face the bar, gunned the motor and rode a swell into the calm jetty channel. The moment of group terror was replaced with a sigh of common relief. That bar has a long list of ghosts which didn’t make the ride in.

We were all quiet, recovering individually from our fright. Our rescue captain chugged up to the steel sea ladder of the Newport coast Guard station. In my wet suit, fins on, scuba gear on back, I climbed up the ladder and knocked on the door. With no answer, I rapped and then pounded until a coastguardsman opened the door and exclaimed.

“What do you want?”

I replied.

“I want to be rescued!”

The four of us were allowed up the ladder and into the station. We bid adieu to our saviors but our words failed to match our gratitude, at least mine didn’t. I wasn’t eloquent enough to express my appreciation.

It was dinner time. The Coast Guard sailors, in dark blue scrubs, were busy chowing down steaks. It was evident the Coast Guard crews ate well. Perhaps it was why there was no radio response but that’s only my speculation. They pretty much ignored us but let us have hot showers. We set out our stuff to dry. Gerry and Maybe Bill opened their wallets and hung up hundred-dollar bills. Their laundry gave credulous to perhaps Gerry was a professional golf gambler. Only CJ lost everything, except his wet suit. He claimed there was over a thousand in his gear bag which went to the bottom. The Coast Guard let him have some old pants, a shirt and worn flip flops, donations from among the crew.

An officer interviewed CJ and the Coast Guard at last sprang to action. A crew scrambled down to one of their two rescue boats to retrieve our unsinkable wreck. Its throaty engine zoomed up the jetty then sputtered to a stop, the engine down. We were forgotten as they worked to get it back to its berth for repair. They would not use the remaining rescue boat for a wreck recovery. It was held in reserve in case a human save was necessary, like the one they just missed for us. Instead, they radio alerted the Newport based fishing smacks there was money to be made for hauling in CJ’s boat, a thousand dollars his insurance company allowed after CJ informed his agent of our debacle by phone.

Gerry and I hiked up to the coastal highway and found an auto parts store to get a battery. Gerry had to fork over one of his still soggy C notes due to my lack of funds, the only poor working stiff among hippy wealthy. I toted the battery back to the station wagon and at last we had wheels again. Meanwhile, CJ bought some decent togs and shoes. About nine at night, a fishing boat chugged into the Newport harbor. Strung up and dangling in its rigging was CJ’s boat. Battered up, it was set back on its trailer at the boat landing and tied down. CJ borrowed ten C notes from Gerry and passed them to the fishing boat skipper, pleased with his unexpected catch.

All whole again, we drove back to Salem with a stop at the Sea Hag restaurant in Depot Bay for a quick supper, a repast they treated me to. We were subdued, our minds stuck a few hours back to when in the water but we told each other jokes to get our minds to dry land. It was midnight by the time my station wagon was freed from its boat trailer and I was back home. The wife wanted to know where the fish were. I explained I’d only caught a battery.

The next day, in the front yard, it was time to clean the salt water off the equipment. Spread out on the lawn, I sponged my gear clean to hang and dry. Tom, a neighbor, returning from a Seattle trip, drove past, then stopped by. He was in the fish and oyster business and a stutterer.

“D-jim, what you, you doing.”

“Just cleaning my dive gear, getting the salt water off.’

“Oh, oh d-d-you go, go diving.

“Yup, yesterday, off Newport.”

Oh, oh, I heard, on, on the r-radio there were idiots, there, Ang-chorred off the st-stern, had, had to be rescued!”

I looked up from cleaning, smiled.

“No, noo, no!”

“Yup your looking at one now.”

I never heard it on the radio but we got a good jab in the newspaper, a couple columns. They explained how four guys were dead ducks out in the ocean due to their stupidity of anchoring off the stern. It told how we were saved by a local Newport family looking for whales but endangered them by overloading their boat. They skipped our Coast Guard experience but after listing our names and reiterating our stupidity, the last sentence read.

“They also lost their car battery.”

I didn’t enjoy my fifteen minutes of fame.

Author Notes: Sometimes you get the finger God and sometimes the finger god let's you go.

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About The Author
jim brown
About This Story
3 Feb, 2019
Read Time
24 mins
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