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Pacific City dory fleet still rules the beach

"It looks ugly out there," shouts the fisherman standing on the beach. He is gazing warily at a fog bank lurking offshore — out beyond the monolithic sea rock known as Haystack.

His complaint falls upon the unsympathetic ears of his buddy, sitting behind the wheel of his pick-up truck. "Someone woke up cranky this morning," chides the driver, who's impatient to get out on the ocean and start catching fish.

It's 6:30 a.m. in Pacific City, the more heavily used of two beaches on the Oregon Coast where fishermen launch small, flat-bottomed boats called dories right from the sand. (Cannon Beach, about 65 miles north of here, is the other site.)

Already 20 or so pickups with empty boat trailers are parked in a row on the beach. These two guys need to get going if they hope to catch up with the early birds.

So, putting their differences in mood aside, they swing into action.

The one worried about the fog stands thigh-deep in the Pacific, while the other backs the trailer into the water and then gives the truck some gas so the boat slides into the surf. As soon as the boat splashes down, the driver shifts his Ford out of reverse, zips away from the wet sand and parks alongside the last truck in line on the beach. Then he hurries back to the water and helps his partner turn the boat seaward. At the right moment, they both hop aboard, one guy taking the wheel and the other stoking the engine.

With the sandstone cliffs of Cape Kiwanda as backdrop, it's a pretty performance — and the men make the launch look as easy as placing a toy boat in a bathtub. But dories have been known to capsize on days when the surf is not as placid as it is on this August morning.

Pacific City (population 1,072) was a fishing town long before it became a surfing hub and vacation destination — especially for Portlanders and Salemites — that it is today. And it proudly clings to that heritage.

Colorful banners lining the main drag to the beach declare: "Pacific City — Home of the Dory Fleet." You can buy a house in the Dory Pointe subdivision or have dinner at Doryland Pizza.

The local Dorymen's Association has erected a wall of honor by the public parking lot, listing the names of the boats in the fleet. Along with the inevitable Hunky Dory, you'll find such clever monikers as Cod Father, Big Thumper and Fog Cutter.

The story of the dorymen, engraved on a plaque on the wall, begins: "For more than a century, boats have gone to sea from this sandy beach and shelter of Cape Kiwanda."

In those early days, the fishermen sold salmon to a cannery, established in 1887, near the mouth of the Nestucca River. Salmon is still the prized catch these days, followed by tuna, crab and various rockfish.

The original boats, pointed at both ends, were called "double enders." Crews used two sets of oars to steer the vessels through the surf and out to sea. When outboard motors came into vogue, the "square stern" dory was born.

If not for the variations in color, it would probably be hard to tell one of today's flat-bottomed, open-cabin fishing boats from another. They are all made of plywood, measure 22 feet in length and are similarly powered with a motor ranging from 70 to 90 horsepower. A line of fishing rods, waiting like cue sticks, is positioned up front by the steering wheel. Some boats carry crab pots, as well.

While the fishermen work the waters beyond Pacific City, the beach draws crowds of people who have the day off. Kids and dogs frolic in the sand, while the grown-ups lounge on chairs and blankets. A group on horseback rides close to the water's edge.

Fun seekers of a wacky kind trudge to the top of the steep dune at the north end of the beach so that they can slide, roll, tumble and/or somersault to the bottom.

Out on the water, surfers size up the waves, waiting to catch a big one.

In the midst of all this play, the dory fleet will come home, starting in the late afternoon. Getting the boats out of the water will demand as much agility and teamwork as putting them in.

Some of the dorymen will drive across the road, behind the Inn at Cape Kiwanda, to the cleaning stations located inside the county campground and two private RV parks. There, they will fillet their catch — mostly salmon on this day — while hungry seagulls look on.

Later, as the daylight fades, the last fisherman will drive away from the beach with the headlights of his truck turned on. By then, revelers will have started small fires on the beach — the logs of which will still be smoldering when the first fishermen arrive the next morning, hauling their durable dories, for another day of work.

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.

Dory boat designs have changed over time, but the unique Oregon Coast fishing fleet continues on. Local dory aficionados say the best way to launch a dory is to back up and stop fast enough that the boat slides off the trailer into the surf. - Paul Hadella