The Tragedy of Tillamook Bay

On June 14, 2003, the Taki-Tooo, a 35-foot charter boat, left for a day of fishing with 19 people aboard. Only eight would make it back alive.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Sharon Davis had a stomachache that morning. She'd felt queasy for days, actually, so when her husband, Doug, got up as usual at 4:30, he packed his own lunch: two turkey sandwiches, a cookie, and a soda. Then he came back into the bedroom and gave his wife a quick hug. They'd been married 45 years. "If you're still sick this afternoon, honey," he said, "I think I'll take you to the doctor."

Doug Davis threw on his green windbreaker and drove down into the center of Garibaldi, Oregon, toward Tillamook Bay, whose brackish waters drain, a little over 2 miles north, into the Pacific Ocean. The skies were overcast that June morning and the winds, blowing south at three knots, were fairly gentle. Davis, a 66-year-old sea captain, was eager to get out onto the water; semiretired now, he had been out only once all season. So when he stepped into the office of Garibaldi Charters, he was a chipper employee. "If anyone has a bet going on who'll catch the first fish," he often said to clients in such moments, "I can be bribed. I'll cut your friend's line, for a price."

The humor-jabbing but gentle-was pure Garibaldi. With a population of 1,000 scattered in modest homes on a hill overlooking the bay, Garibaldi is a bona fide fishing village-a place where the bars are rife with thick-bellied guys, unshaven and walleyed after three days at sea. It's also a tourist town, the nearest port to landlocked Portland, 70 miles east, and home to five charter-boat companies. Thousands of landlubbers come every year to catch fish, and these folks want a captain who's a bit of a salty dog but not a raving, peg-legged Ahab.

Davis was perfect. A longtime store manager for F.W. Woolworth, he'd skippered boats for Garibaldi Charters for the past 17 years. He'd navigated the Northwest's most treacherous waters, at the mouth of the Columbia River, scores of times without incident. His fellow captain Tron Buell fondly recalls, "Doug couldn't catch fish worth a damn, but he knew where to find them." Still, it may be that his primary skills were interpersonal. Here was a sea captain who moonlighted as a real estate agent and managed somehow to sell homes to the passengers on his 35-foot boat, a well-maintained fiberglass inboard called the Taki-Tooo.

Davis charmed them, always, with that warm, gibey wit, and he did his best gags in tandem with his favorite deckhand, Chuck Allen, a 71-year-old South Carolina native.

But Allen felt sick that morning, too. At the dock he told Davis, "I'm just going to stay home and play with some fishing tackle," and he even made vain attempts to convince one paying customer to stay ashore. "It's rough out there," he said.

It was. Outside the harbor, a fast ebbing tide-one of the year's lowest-was confronting waves that were inexplicably high, rising to 15 feet as they rolled toward the beach. These waves stacked up against the tide, and this made them exceedingly steep. Davis' colleague, Capt. Joe Ockenfels, would not even start his engine that day.

But there were 17 passengers signed up to ride the Taki-Tooo, and at least one of them, Ed Loll, had a bet going. Sixty-six years old, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Loll had never once been out on saltwater. But as the Taki-Tooo idled in the harbor, he elbowed his son Brian, a 34-year-old surveyor who weighs an imposing 300 pounds, and he spoke with mock gravity, into cupped hands. "I need everybody's attention," he said. "Whatever happens today, I'm catching a bigger fish than my son."

Davis gave a quick safety lecture, telling the passengers he'd let them know if they needed a life jacket, and then the Taki-Tooo went out toward the sea.

The Deadly Bar
At the edge of nearly any ocean harbor, there is a bar where freshwater meets saltwater and the waves chop against an ocean floor made shallow by the piles of dirt and sand kicked seaward by the freshwater. The nger zone outside Garibaldi's harbor is called the Tillamook Bar. It's small as bars go, covering about a square mile, and it affords sea pilots little room to maneuver against the turbulent waters that surge out of the bay, through a relatively narrow, quarter-mile-wide channel formed by two long, slim jetties.

The Tillamook Bar has claimed more than 200 lives in recorded history. It was most dangerous before the 1920s, when the adjacent channel was first dredged, but a recent trend, perhaps spurred by global warming, has wrought a new threat. "The winter storm season is getting longer and longer off the Oregon coast," says Paul Komar, professor emeritus of oceanography at Oregon State University. "It's extending into June, and the waves are getting bigger and bigger." The largest winter waves were 33 feet high a quarter century ago. Now they can reach 39 feet. They've been known to sweep up onto the north jetty of Tillamook Bay, onto the road there, and throw cars off the ground. Last year, a particularly bad wave pinned a woman under a truck, putting her into a coma for weeks.

Doug Davis first saw the big swells when the Taki-Tooo _cut into the slot between the jetties. There is a 40-foot-high Coast Guard tower on the north jetty, topped by an orange sign reading Rough Bar. Deckhand Tamara Buell-the sister of Tron Buell, and Chuck Allen's 22-year-old replacement on the _Taki-Tooo that morning-didn't set the fishing rods out on the deck, as she usually would have. She waited.

Meanwhile, passenger Mark Hamlett, 52, tried to put a moment of doubt behind him. A Portland contractor and a competitive bass fisherman, Hamlett was the leader of an angling party that included his two grown sons; his son-in-law, Brian Loll; and Brian's dad, Ed. "When we got to the docks that morning," Hamlett recalls, "my first thought was, ¿¿¿That boat's awful small.'" Hamlett considered calling off the trip, but he didn't. He knew that 3 or 4 miles off the Oregon coast, 100 feet down, the reefs are rife with fish every spring: 5-pound black sea bass, seatrout, ling cod, canary rockfish, and yelloweye. "I went against my better judgment," Hamlett says. "Ed really wanted to go out."

As the boat cruised to sea, Hamlett stood on deck telling Doug Davis how, on a recent fishing trip, he'd caught five sturgeon that were "7, 8, 9, and 10 feet long." Davis didn't say much. He was concentrating: squinting at the bar, studying the waves, as he held the Taki-Tooo inside the slot, deliberating for nearly an hour. Three charter boats crossed successfully. When one of the captains, Tron Buell, reached the open ocean, he radioed back, "That was hardly worth it. Don't tell my mom."

Davis laughed, but he knew enough to hold a certain awe of the ocean. "Doug and I had a running joke," remembers another Garibaldi boat captain, Jim Weisberg. "We'd sit out there by the jetty and we'd say, ¿¿¿Who's gonna turn around first, you or me?' Over the years, we probably turned back 50 or 60 times."

Going Down
Davis hit the throttle and went outside the jetty, onto the bar. Then the big waves came on. There were two 10-footers, Hamlett recalls, and at the top of the next one, Davis paused and shifted into reverse, possibly to avoid slamming into one of the two logs bobbing loose by the north jetty that morning.

"He lost all his momentum," Hamlett says, and the next wave was the biggest yet-perhaps 25 feet high. Tron Buell had encountered monsters like this while crossing the bar, too, and he'd dodged them, skirting left or right toward their edges to avoid a deluge over the bow. Maybe Davis had this tactic in mind, or maybe, as Hamlett suggests, "He just panicked the way a driver on an icy hill hits the brakes."

Davis turned right, broadside to the wave.

"Right then," Hamlett says, "I thought, ¿¿¿My wife and daughter just lost their whole family.'" He took cover below deck. Then the wave hit and the boat rolled. It turned one and a half times, and the six men down below slammed against the ceiling and walls. Igloo coolers ricocheted through the air, smacking heads, and all 13 people up on the deck, including the captain, were thrown, without life vests, into the 51-degree water of the Pacific Ocean.

Tamara Buell remembers hitting the bottom with her shoulder. "I kind of stopped down there, underwater, to look for the surface. I saw some light green and I swam up." She was about 300 yards offshore. "I knew I was going to die," she says, "but I thought about my family and everybody close to me and how sad it would be for them if I died. I just got pissed off and I swam toward the shore."

Meanwhile, down in the hull the water was 3 feet high and the light oddly tranquil. "It was like dusk in there," remembers one passenger, Richard Forsman. "The windows were underwater." The men were trapped by them, and by the closed hatch. Hamlett passed out life jackets. The men stood on the ceiling, now the floor, and wondered how they might crack the thick window. Would too much water gush in before they could escape? And what would they use to shatter the window?

"Brian," said Ed Loll, "what are we gonna do?"

Ed Loll was a big man. In his youth, he'd been, like his son, a college football player, a lineman. He'd taught Brian how to pass a football in the backyard back in Cedar Rapids and he'd taught him how to fish in Minnesota. But now he had a new hip, and he'd suffered two heart attacks. He was a retired computer programmer who drove a yellow school bus each morning, and yet he still tried to retain a certain alpha-like authority over his son. "On the way out to Garibaldi," Brian remembers, "I said, ¿¿¿I'm paying for the fishing. This is a Father's Day present.' He was like, ¿¿¿I'm not going to let you pay. I'm your father. I'm here to support you.' We argued all the way to the harbor. Then he paid."

Brian wanted to reciprocate on this visit-to pay his father back, to take care of him somehow-but now, in the semidarkness, he couldn't even see his dad. He just kept calling his name: "Dad, are you okay?" "I'm fine," Ed Loll said hoarsely.

Suddenly, the boat rolled again. A window broke, and the water went from Brian Loll's waist to his neck within half a minute. "I feel like I should have been able to do something," he says, "like get my dad to the window: push him out toward safety. I'm a big guy. I've been able to bully stuff around my whole life."

But in the deep water Brian lost contact with his dad, and a certain voice in his head, sent from God, he believes, told him, "Either you drown here in the boat, or you go out and fight in the ocean."

Loll took off his life jacket and held it over his head, and then he squeezed througily.'" He took cover below deck. Then the wave hit and the boat rolled. It turned one and a half times, and the six men down below slammed against the ceiling and walls. Igloo coolers ricocheted through the air, smacking heads, and all 13 people up on the deck, including the captain, were thrown, without life vests, into the 51-degree water of the Pacific Ocean.

Tamara Buell remembers hitting the bottom with her shoulder. "I kind of stopped down there, underwater, to look for the surface. I saw some light green and I swam up." She was about 300 yards offshore. "I knew I was going to die," she says, "but I thought about my family and everybody close to me and how sad it would be for them if I died. I just got pissed off and I swam toward the shore."

Meanwhile, down in the hull the water was 3 feet high and the light oddly tranquil. "It was like dusk in there," remembers one passenger, Richard Forsman. "The windows were underwater." The men were trapped by them, and by the closed hatch. Hamlett passed out life jackets. The men stood on the ceiling, now the floor, and wondered how they might crack the thick window. Would too much water gush in before they could escape? And what would they use to shatter the window?

"Brian," said Ed Loll, "what are we gonna do?"

Ed Loll was a big man. In his youth, he'd been, like his son, a college football player, a lineman. He'd taught Brian how to pass a football in the backyard back in Cedar Rapids and he'd taught him how to fish in Minnesota. But now he had a new hip, and he'd suffered two heart attacks. He was a retired computer programmer who drove a yellow school bus each morning, and yet he still tried to retain a certain alpha-like authority over his son. "On the way out to Garibaldi," Brian remembers, "I said, ¿¿¿I'm paying for the fishing. This is a Father's Day present.' He was like, ¿¿¿I'm not going to let you pay. I'm your father. I'm here to support you.' We argued all the way to the harbor. Then he paid."

Brian wanted to reciprocate on this visit-to pay his father back, to take care of him somehow-but now, in the semidarkness, he couldn't even see his dad. He just kept calling his name: "Dad, are you okay?" "I'm fine," Ed Loll said hoarsely.

Suddenly, the boat rolled again. A window broke, and the water went from Brian Loll's waist to his neck within half a minute. "I feel like I should have been able to do something," he says, "like get my dad to the window: push him out toward safety. I'm a big guy. I've been able to bully stuff around my whole life."

But in the deep water Brian lost contact with his dad, and a certain voice in his head, sent from God, he believes, told him, "Either you drown here in the boat, or you go out and fight in the ocean."

Loll took off his life jacket and held it over his head, and then he squeezed throug