This is really Tom's story; his blue grey eyes twinkled as he told it over dinner at the Portside Restaurant in Charleston Harbor, Oregon one long ago summer evening.
Tom is a commercial fisherman. He's a big guy and strong; when he shakes your hand you check for broken bones and to see if blood is spurting out the ends of your fingers. He has been fishing all his life and like his father before him, he knew the ocean well.
As Tom told it: a couple years ago, all those 'cute little sailboats' from seaports up and down the Oregon coast got together and played on the ocean for a day or so. He recalls watching them at dawn, milling around just outside the whistle buoy that marks the Umpqua River Bar at the entrance to Charleston and Coos Bay/North Bend.
Tom headed south past Cape Arago and had been trolling for Chinook salmon in six to ten fathoms for most of the day, picking up three or four fish an hour. He stayed for the 'evening bite' that happens just before the sun goes down and the fish quit taking bait for the night.
The wind dropped off as the afternoon waned and a haze, then a mist, began to rise off the sleek blue-green swells that soon turned grey-green. Tom had his radar working and the Loran Chart Plotter keeping a continuous wavering track displayed on the small screen.
The mist became wispy fog that closed in to where visibility was about a hundred yards had there been anything to see, but there wasn't until the proximity alarm on the radar bleeped and showed a contact between his boat and the beach.
The six to eight fathom line, (about 36 to 48 feet) runs about a quarter mile off the beach and Tom had 50 fathoms of fishing gear dragging behind him. He was surprised enough to utter a curse when, ghostly outlined in the fog, heading right for his fishing lines he saw a small sailboat moving slowly and wallowing in the swells.
Calling on the VHF radio produced no response as the sailboat came closer, somehow passing through the fishing lines without tangling. He couldn't stop; all his gear would sink and snag on the rocky bottom. As the small boat came close alongside, Tom could see a niftily dressed young woman clinging to the shrouds of the sailboat, her face blank with fear.
From the cockpit of the sailboat, a nautically correct man with a Captain's hat and flowing silk scarf, blue blazer and cute little shorts called out: "Say there? Can you tell me where we are? Our radio stopped working and I don't have radar. About where are we?"
Tom glanced again at the woman who looked as if she were about to walk on the water between the two boats. "Yeah, Skipper, you're about halfway between the Umpqua and the Siuslaw rivers, but aren't you a little close into the beach?"
The woman's head turned to the cockpit of the sailboat as the man spoke and then back to Tom's face; her eyes were wide, the man remained silent.
Tom crinkled his mouth and glanced at the woman. 'Too damned proud to ask...' he thought. After a long moment as the boats began to drift apart, Tom called out: "Do you have a depth finder?"
The man nodded vigorously. "Yes, yes we do; it's the only damned thing still working!"
The woman's eyes remained fixed on Tom. "Well, Skipper, just Head out thataway," Tom pointed, "till you read about fifteen fathoms and then hang a right. You should run right into the entrance buoy 'bout six miles up. You have running lights?"
The woman flashed a wan smile and lowered her eyes. The sailboat Skipper nodded and raised his arm in a mock salute. "Yes, we have lights. Thank you very much, Captain. Our lead boat has radar and we were supposed to stay together but the wind died and the fog came up. Sure glad you were here! Thanks again!"
Tom raised his arm and waggled a hand. Good luck, Skipper!"
The 'evening bite' produced eight more salmon, each one a few pounds heavier than the days average. Tom smiled to himself and hummed as he stowed the fishing gear and headed in.
The fog was even thicker than before as he set course on the auto-pilot. Even with the radar and the chart plotter working, he followed his own advice; reached the fifteen fathom line and then turned north toward the buoy. As he came closer he noticed the radar screen speckled with more than a dozen small contacts on various courses about a half mile off the entrance.
Channel 16 on the VHF radio blared out: "This is the United States Coast Guard base at Charleston Harbor. We have reports on several overdue 'day-sailors' in the area. Does any station have information? Over!"
Tom frowned as he picked up the microphone and thought to himself: 'The Coast Guard used to be a good bunch of kids that risked their lives in any kind of weather to help those in distress at sea. Then they made them Cops, enforcing drug laws and fish laws. It changed the whole outfit and not for the better...'
"Yeah, Coast Guard; this is the Brandy, 'bout a mile south of the whistle...you got a bunch of them, west of the buoy, goin' in all directions. They ain't got no radar; I figure they're wet 'n cold and scared 'n lost. Over."
"Ahh...Roger that Brandy. Thanks Tom. We're on the way. Coast Guard out!"
Thirty seven fish to the buyers meant that Tom could splurge on a platter of fried clams at the Portside back in Charleston. He was slowly sipping a Canadian mist when the lounge filled up with the Yachties and their ladies, all decked out in Yachty gear. Tom leaned back, drank and smiled as he eavesdropped on their great adventure of the day.
It was over a year later, nearly a year and a half when Tom walked into the divorce lawyers office and sat looking at the pictures on the wall. A little sailboat with a single mast; a silver cup graced the large magazine rack and with other nautical baubles, decorated the small waiting room.
The lawyer showed interest in Tom's profession and asked several questions about the fishing industry; he then pointed to the sailboat picture and spoke about his hobby of sailing small boats.
Tom smiled and related his encounter with a sailboat in shallow water and explained how the ocean was a place to work for him, not a place for pleasure. Then he went on to say that he hoped that, 'silly sumbitch', that was lost in the fog had made it back to port.
Tom paused and looked at the lawyer. The man's face was pink; he was twiddling his tie and studying the carpet. He looked up with a sheepish grin. "That silly son of a bitch, was me, Tom, and my wife, ah, ex wife, never sailed with me again.
Now...about your divorce...?