On Storms: “Bootlegger Cove” Author Rob Tillitz tells the story of “John Dory and the Wicked Storm”

DAYLIGHT ARRIVED WITH twenty knots of southwest wind. Already the ocean was littered with white caps, and these were on top of the monster swells. I had arrived at the readings that indicated I was over the head of the sea canyon. The chromoscope depth finder showed that indeed the bottom had dropped off sharply from 100 fathoms to 300 fathoms in just a very short distance. Other than the jumbled seas, the ocean was lifeless. Normally there would be an abundance of bird life — seagulls, pelicans, murres — working for their breakfasts. But this day there were no birds. It gave me a dreadful feeling in the pit of an already queasy stomach. The marine weather radio had forecasted the 20-foot swells, but it had predicted only light wind.

I slowed the boat to an idle, and set a course that would run along one side of the sea canyon. It was a course that had the my salmon troller, the Pescadero, broadside to the towering seas, and within seconds it had drawers dumped out on the floor — drawer locks that had never ever come loose before, had failed with the sharp rolls the boat was taking. At once, the two cupboard locks also failed and their contents were flung out, adding to the confusion already on the cabin floor. The boat cabin was only a twelve by twelve area but smaller with the cabinets, a bunk, a stove, and the electronics and running seat at the forward end. Clyde, my golden retriever, had found a spot under the tiny galley table and lay there whimpering.

I changed to a better course, “I don’t think we’re going to get to fish today Clyde,” I said, and Clyde stopped whimpering as if that were the first good news he’d heard on what had so far been a portentous morning.

The better course had the boat idling directly into the wind and sea; however this was the opposite direction of home. And home is where I wanted more than ever to go now.

But I knew I must remain on this course, at least for the moment, in order to could get the situation back under control: The whole thing was slipping quickly away.

I picked up arm loads of stuff off of the floor, and dumped it in whatever drawer was handy. Larger stuff was shoved into the two cabinets, and all of the compartments were then nailed closed. I had a hammer and a coffee can full of assorted nails wedged in a cubby-hole beside the stove; and used a bag of bread, lunch meat, and fruit as a wedge.

And the churning seas tossed and heaved the tiny Pescadero mercilessly.

Clyde could not get any further into the corner under the table, and he was shivering now uncontrollably.

I took a handful of 16-penny nails out on the deck and proceeded to nail the several hatch covers on tight. Spit was blown right out of my mouth; eyelids were curled back by the velocity of the wind, and pellets of saltwater pelted like bullets from a gun: it was blowing 50 knots, all of a sudden, and the sea no longer had just white caps for it was one solid mass of white water, and the swells had grown to telephone-pole-size — about 30 feet tall.

I had never been on the ocean in conditions this bad, and wished to not be thhere now. But I had to get the boat, and myself, back home. This was a must do.

“I should have listened to everyone,” I said to Clyde on the way back in the back door and into the relative safety of the cabin. And none too soon — a mountainous comber, the size of a battleship, dumped so much green water onto the back deck that if I had been out there, I would surely now be washed overboard.

* *

I ALWAYS FELT like an intelligent man. Not complex, and nearly always stable. But on the trip back in, my thick eyebrows were raised, and a normally relaxed face was at a hard stare; tension obvious in my lower lids. The corners of my lower face were drawn back, and normally full lips were stretched taut.

“I’m sorry Clyde!” I was scared shitless, and Clyde was actually crying real tears; the pathetic dog had become too afraid to whimper any longer. I had given him a piece of lunch meat, which was still there on the floor uneaten. And every time I put a small bowl of water under Clyde’s nose, he ignored that too.

The Pescadero pitched from one side to the other in the following sea. I rode the throttle looking, meanwhile, out the back window at what was coming up on my stern. When another big mountain would loom, I’d slow down and grab the wheel — taking the boat off auto-pilot for a moment — so I could hand-steer while literally surfing down the face of the tremendous swells.

One towering monster picked up the stern then buried the nose of the boat, then spun the boat around so fast that I was sure that this was it. I said to Clyde, “This is a wicked storm, Clyde, and we’ll be damn lucky if we can get us home.”

The situation was out of control and I, sweating profusely, was hanging on by a thread. My heart pounded every time the boat tipped and rolled, and breath came in gasps; I was dizzy and claustrophobic — I suffer from fear of heights, besides close spaces — and I’d puked in the small sink several times when the boat rose to the crest of a giant swell. Normally the boat’s cabin would not trigger my close-space phobia, but today, with the back door nailed tightly shut the familiar symptoms were on me like a bad flu.

And I was dead tired from bracing for every pitch of the boat: this was like a wild and demented carnival ride…

—A modified excerpt from “John Dory and the Wicked Storm” by Rob Tillitz, author of “Bootlegger’s Cove” and “Eyes like Half Dollars”