PAT NEAL: By chance, spared the savage sea

SOME SAY THERE is no such thing as a coincidence.

They say it’s luck, fate or God working in some mysterious way.

Coincidence becomes legend soon lost in a world that only cares about late-breaking news.

Still, I will never forget my own coincidence on Saturday, May 5, 1990, the opening day of halibut season.

Mother’s Day was coming up.

We all wanted to get some fresh halibut for all the mothers.

I was all set to go halibut fishing, but by a strange coincidence, a buddy called to remind me I had promised to help roof his house that Saturday.

I didn’t go fishing.

It was no problem.

There was plenty of time to catch a Mother’s Day halibut.

And besides, it was a good job roofing the house with old-growth cedar shakes.

In fact, the whole house was made of cedar.

It had what real estate agents called a territorial view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and beyond, all the way across to Canada.

It was just a coincidence that I wasn’t fishing in what would become one of the most terrifying disasters in the history of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

We were working all morning, then along about lunch, the wind kicked up.

The shakes that weren’t nailed down were blowing off the roof.

The Strait was suddenly whipped into 10-foot swells by a 61 mph wind.

My friends were out there!

The people who survived this storm all said the same thing: The water was flat as a pond one minute and deadly the next.

People ran out of fuel trying to fight the wind and waves to shore in a desperate attempt to land through the surf.

The Coast Guard started rescuing people at about noon.

A helicopter airlifted two people off a sailboat just east of Port Angeles in a rescue that seems miraculous in the wind, waves and broken rigging of the vessel.

Clallam County Search and Rescue pulled fishermen from the surf at Crescent Beach.

Coast Guard helicopters searched the shoreline through the night in hopes they might spot more boaters at sea or stranded on the beach, but they didn’t.

The search, which included three Coast Guard Cutters, resumed the next morning.

No one else was rescued.

The bodies of four fishermen were found between Morse Creek and Discovery Bay.

My friend Don Well was never found.

The search was called off the following Monday.

That Saturday’s near-hurricane-force wind had been predicted by the National Weather Service at 3:27 a.m., but not many folks checked the weather report before heading out onto the water.

At the time, few mariners had the safety equipment that might have aided in their rescue attempts.

One fisherman described in a Peninsula Daily News article how he tried to bail water out of his boat with an old coffee can, but the bottom of the can had rusted out.

Since then, the Coast Guard has a set list of safety gear requirements for mariners that include flares.

These could really come in handy in an emergency at sea.

May 5, 1990, is a date that has become much more relevant lately as the state of Washington sets the proposed halibut season for 2018.

Our halibut season seems to be carved in stone by a bureaucracy with no regard for human safety.

People would like to be able to choose the weather in which they venture out to fish for halibut.

Since Coast Guard personnel are the ones risking their lives making these hazardous rescue attempts, let the Coasties set the halibut season.

_________

Pat Neal is a fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected].

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