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Storm survivor: ‘It never escapes me’

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Survivor recalls the freak storm that killed 13, including his grandfather, 50 years ago
Dave Shinkle stands near the monument in Brookings-Harbor that memorializes those who lost their lives in a freak windstorm off the Southern Oregon and Northern California Coast 50 years ago. Shinkle, 16 at the time, survived despite spending nearly 4 hours in the cold ocean. [Breeana Laughlin/Curry Pilot]
Dave Shinkle stands near the monument in Brookings-Harbor that memorializes those who lost their lives in a freak windstorm off the Southern Oregon and Northern California Coast 50 years ago. Shinkle, 16 at the time, survived despite spending nearly 4 hours in the cold ocean. [Breeana Laughlin/Curry Pilot]
The full extent of the tragedy that struck the Southern Oregon Coast Aug. 16, 1972, was not yet known when the Mail Tribune came out the next day.

BROOKINGS — Dave Shinkle can’t shake that moment he bobbed in the Pacific, minutes after his family fishing boat sank out from under the teenager 50 years ago Tuesday.

The 16-year-old Shinkle had breaststroked through almost four hours of hellish waves triggered by a freak and unforeseen storm, pulling his grandfather behind him in search of safety.

When Shinkle sensed his grandfather, 57-year-old Clayton Dooley, was dead, he let the man go, and the pudgy teen in rain gear and a life jacket swam alone toward shore a mile away.

“I thought I could get to land, but that was futility,” Shinkle recalls.

Eventually, one of numerous private boats launched that day from Brookings to help rescue their brethren plucked the teen from the 30-foot seas.

Shinkle did what no one else on the 10 boats sunk that day had managed in the 65-knot winds of this freak storm of Aug. 16, 1972 — he survived.

“Nobody else made it but me,” Shinkle says. “It’s been a serious part of my life ever since.”

Shinkle returned to Brookings Tuesday to pay homage to the 13 seafarers who died in the storm 50 years ago off the Southern Oregon and Northern California coast and to relive his story amid a small cadre of family.

In doing so, he helped keep alive the largely forgotten calamity that helped change how federal agencies deal with maritime storms in the Pacific Northwest.

A National Transportation Safety Board report later chided the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Weather Service for failing to communicate with each other and, in turn, with offshore boaters about the freakishly fast-forming storm.

The strange storm — born in the South Pacific and fed by low pressure and cold water — somehow sidestepped the rudimentary federal forecast capabilities of the time, which had very limited satellite information and little on-sea data.

And the Coast Guard’s inability in 1972 to communicate by CB radios with offshore mariners contributed to creating a tragic window in time that likely won’t ever be replicated, experts say.

“When I look at the technology that they had back then, they were really flying blind,” says Ryan Sandler, a National Weather Service warning coordinator meteorologist in Medford.

“It was a disaster that would have been completely different today,” Sandler says. “Chances of it (going unforecast) now are near zero.”

The morning of Aug. 16, 1972, broke eerily calm, with a light rain and a bizarre lack of birds flying, Shinkle recalls.

He wore his rain gear in the mist, something that likely saved his life, Shinkle says.

He was fishing with Dooley on the family’s 35-foot Dixie Lee and having a good day long-lining salmon near the Point St. George lighthouse just south of the California border.

The Dixie Lee received CB reports of massive winds erupting off Northern California, so Shinkle and Dooley picked up their gear and sped for home. The boat’s speed peaked at just 8 knots, he says.

By then, fishermen were sending CB messages to land seeking help. They found Jayne Gibney, a CB buff who lived on a hill outside of Brookings, and therefore had a good signal.

Gibney radioed fellow Brookings CBer Peggy Georgen about what was happening.

“It really was an oddball storm that came out of nowhere,” Georgen recalls. “It had been so calm.”

Distress calls started to come in to Gibney and were relayed to Georgen, who set up at the Coast Guard doors in Brookings-Harbor to relay which boats were in trouble and where, Georgen says.

“It was horrible,” Georgen recalls. “There were people out there you knew well, and suddenly they weren’t answering. You knew they were in trouble.”

But no one on land knew the dilemma of the Dixie Lee.

Before Dooley could call to shore, a wave fueled by the 65-knot winds blasted through the wheelhouse windows.

Shinkle scrambled to get life jackets that he first fitted on Dooley, then himself.

Seconds later a wave snapped their stabilizing outrigging, and the two were pitched into the Pacific.

Shinkle looked at his trusty Timex wristwatch. It was 10:20 a.m.

Had it been 10:20 a.m. in the 21st century, the Dixie Lee likely wouldn’t have sailed that day.

The Weather Service’s Sandler says this particular storm hit the region in the midst of climate-predicting changes of the early 1970s.

The Weather Service had once relied on Coast Guard ships’ weather reports, but those ships were being transferred out in favor of weather buoys that were not yet functional, according to the NTSB report.

Also, the Coast Guard’s various regions in Oregon and California were slow to communicate about the quickly building storm, according to the NTSB. And the Coast Guard was not using CBs to communicate with seafarers then, the report states.

“Today, if it was calm and they looked at the Point St. George buoy and it said 50-knot winds, they would have all stayed in port,” Sandler says.

If only those on the Dixie Lee had known then what they routinely know now.

“If we had maybe one hour advance (warning), we would have made it,” Shinkle says. “Maybe.”

Instead, Shinkle found himself in the drink, towing Dooley behind as he tried to swim to shore.

Potential rescue boats traveled past, not seeing the pair bob in the heavy seas. Dooley disappeared, his body later recovered.

Shinkle says the same hypothermia that claimed his grandfather could have killed him if not for his self-described “pudgy” build and the rubber rain gear Dooley wasn’t wearing that morning.

A passing ship, the 75-foot Pam Bay out of Brookings, scooped Shinkle up. His trusty Timex said it was 2:10 p.m.

“That’s what saved my life,” Shinkle says. “Being pudgy and the rain gear.”

A hell of a memory for a 16-year-old kid who grew up to be a railroad engineer terrified by the sound of strong winds to this day.

“I see it right in front of me, dude,” Shinkle says. “It never escapes me.”

Mark Freeman covers the outdoors for the Mail Tribune. Reach him at 541-776-4470 or email him at mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.