Bill Monroe draws from decades of experience so we don’t have to learn the hard way
Did your boat survive the Valentines Day freeze?
Are you sure?
We’re all antsy to get out there and crank up the old engine, but before taking advantage of the spring chinook season, or any boating coming up…THINK.
I mention this because I’ve lost close friends…careful, cautious friends who simply mis-judged or were caught by surprise on the water.
Denny Hannah earned his chops guiding clients safely down rivers in southwest Oregon, finally following a dream to live aboard a converted fishing boat in Alaska. But unknown to him, a hole in the exhaust of a diesel generator filled the boat with enough caustic air to irreparably damage his lungs and, ultimately, cost him his life.
David Boys, an eternal optimist who often mixed the unexpected into his largely successful outdoor adventures, made a fatal error on a brant hunt on Tillamook Bay, believing he could chase down a wounded bird on a strong ebb tide by paddling in a small, but stable, duck skiff. The tide swept him toward the breaking bar and he apparently bailed out and made it to the jetty, too hypothermic, however, to pull himself from the frigid water.
Jim Erickson, a guide who lived on the North Fork Nehalem River, didn’t always wear a flotation device on the river he knew inside and out. And he wasn’t wearing one the day he rounded a bend and didn’t see a newly downed tree, obscured by dense fog. The raft upended and only his passenger survived – barely.
All three memorial services were testaments to treasured friends gone far too soon.
But this can’t happen to you, right? Your boat is ready; your flotation devices all have fresh CO2 cartridges and you always make the correct decisions – right?
Even after an extended stint on a US Navy destroyer (Vietnam and 12 typhoons in three and half years), 1,100 hours flight time as aircrew in a technically demanding and potentially dangerous atmosphere and more than half a century experience with sport boats, I still find myself occasionally derelict.
If none of the following scenarios sound familiar, crawl into the darkest recesses of your memory and find a weakness. Save your family and friends unnecessary agony.
Judgment – As an indestructible youth in Puget Sound, more than once I challenged vicious riptides, where under-currents suddenly explode into standing waves and the only small outboard on your too-small boat struggles to escape. My uncle and his girlfriend were passengers once (only) and broke the front seat as grandpa’s lapstrake slammed down off a cresting wave.
Judgment – I’ve soloed a driftboat onto the ocean over bars at Bandon and Newport just to say I did it. Yes, I picked soft tides and calm weather. And yes, Neptune allowed me to get away with it. But yes, it was foolish.
Judgment – Ahh, Buoy 10, where the river meets the sea at “The Graveyard of the Pacific.” We were fishing in the fleet on the Megler side of the bridge the day an Ilwaco charter boat mis-judged his turn in the crowd and lost its upper superstructure to the immovable concrete and steel span. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured.
Judgment – Remember when anchor balls and pulley systems were new? The Columbia River below Bonneville Dam is not a good place to learn how to use them. Just ask a couple of outdoor writer friends about the first time I tried to anchor my sled there to fish for sturgeon. The boat swung madly from side to side when I didn’t even come close to getting it right. Fortunately, we didn’t quite swamp. At least they each got to write stories about the adventure and include their own spin about my attempt to do them in.
Know before you go – More ignorant than foolish was a decision to take the family up Cunningham Slough on Sauvie Island’s north unit in a 19-foot inboard/outboard. Had I asked, I’d have been forewarned the slough is studded with sunken tree trunks. We hit one and limped slowly back to Bayport, praying the heavy vibrations from a bent shaft wouldn’t toss the propeller. It cost me $1,500 at a time when we were already on a Kraft Dinner diet. But, fortunately, it also prompted me to buy insurance, which paid off years later when we struck a sunken deadhead on the Willamette River.
Know before you go – Pat Wray talked a group of outdoor writers into a canoe trip during an annual conference in Kalispell, Montana, in early June. We launched on the Flathead River with coolers of wine and cheese, not really noticing at first rafts ahead of us pulled over, passengers with cameras waiting. We swamped in each of three rapids. Finally an influential publisher of outdoor books, looked up at me as I pulled her to safety on a ledge: “You people call this fun!?” Only after an emergency retreat to a nearby highway did we learn this section of river was the location of an annual canoeing contest – but only in August when the water was lower.
Know before you go – Good friend Pat Wray was trusting (this one was on me) enough to go to Pittsburg Landing, Idaho, on the Snake River for a spring bear hunt on the Oregon side. Did I mention spring? And the runoff? And my first time with a boat on the Snake? With us was photographer Steve Nehl as we made our way down the steep grade (burned up my brakes with that heavy sled, leading to the later addition of surge brakes for the trailer). We launched the next day and worked our way up to Kirby rapids. I negotiated up the side, out of the current, then sped over to the fast moving tongue for momentum into the next pool. In the middle, however, the boat wasn’t moving against the shoreline. My speedometer read 21 miles an hour. I finally eased closer to shore and found a spot where we made meager progress and finally into the calm pool as Steve and Pat compared underwear.
Equipment – The late David Boys joined my brother and I in the early 80s on a fishing trip at the buoy deadline. As the tide began to turn, the boat’s electrical system died, leaving us at the mercy of a 10 horse kicker fighting a six or seven-knot current intent on carrying us backwards into large, nastily cresting swells and an angry ocean beyond. The kicker was fed by a small portable gas tank that grew lighter and lighter every time I picked it up. Inch by inch, we oh…so…slow…ly made our way into the Ilwaco channel and had the boat repaired (corroded wiring) so we could cross the bay back to Hammond. Boys never let me forget I should have had an anchor and a long line.
Equipment – How many anchors have you left in a river? My first was at the head of a hole in the Santiam River just above the Interstate 5 bridge and rest area. The current was too swift for my drift boat, which waffled its way toward the bridge until I cut the line with my pocket knife. Now I always have one handy…A sharp knife near the anchor, that is.
Be alert – I booked a halibut charter on an opening day, but we crossed a bar into a snarly wind chop and the skipper bowed to a majority vote of his passengers to return to port. However, I noticed someone had forgotten to close the hatch in the bow and the captain sent me up into the bow to close it. If it had remained open as we turned across the chop, the bow may have filled with water and, well…
Expect the unexpected – Roger Neufeldt of Luhr Jensen once borrowed Buzz Ramsey’s company sled to take us up the lower Deschutes River. He hesitated below the aptly named Rattlesnake Rapids then headed up into it. But near the top, the boat hesitated on the first curl. Roger looked back at his crew and asked “Has anyone ever been up here before?” It was his first trip up the Deschutes. At that very moment, a door under the console opened and a roll of toilet paper tumbled back to the stern. Yes, we made it in good shape without squeezing the Charmin.
So live and learn, right? Especially “live.”
By the way, did you all lower your tilted engines for the winter to prevent that Valentine freeze from forming ice in the propeller housing and cracking it? Don’t ask how I learned that.
Wear it – And have you checked your automatic inflatables lately? CO2 needs to be changed periodically. I changed mine the last time I looked in the boat and found them all prematurely inflated. should’ve done it sooner, probably and shoulda protected them better from moisture.
WEAR IT! – It will never go without saying: Wear your lifejacket. If I were king, all guides and charter operators and crews would be required to wear flotation devices at all times on the water. They owe to their clients to survive.
Cemeteries have their fair share of headstones that might read: “Coulda, shoulda, woulda…didn’t.”
(PS…My loving wife proof read this, then sternly announced: “There are some things in here I didn’t want to know.”)
3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned And Common Sense”
Thank You Bill
Thank you so much for writing this thoughtful article. I go out fishing by myself on the Willamette very often. After a three-year stint as a sniper in the paratroopers I sometimes forget that I’m not invincible and this is a great reminder to play it safe and always wear my life jacket
Thank you for your service Dan…And for chiming in…every little bit helps.
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