|The Man and the Moon
2017 by Joni Bour
Used with permission from the Bandon Historical Society Museum.
I fumbled with my new digital voice recorder and forgot half my questions, before Thad Potter climbed out of his truck. He was thin, almost bowing in the midsection, and had a noticeable limp, proof that carrying the worries of a fish captain could crush the bones and spirit of a man, if he let it. He was friendly, and pleased to share photos of the Moon, the boat he had once owned and captained, and sold, some four years before. He seemed unaware that I had searched high and low for six months to locate him; phone calls, and web searches, even craigslist ads, had all failed me, until a Facebook request changed everything.
We lingered in the small, dimly lit sea port restaurant in Charleston, Oregon. His scarred, weather-beaten hands loosely circled the white stoneware cup, and every so often twirling his lukewarm coffee around, before taking a sip. Our conversation would occasionally drift off, and my eyes wandered about the room. The walls were covered in photos; Generations of ships run aground or cracked apart and sinking. Grinning fishing crews posing with their catch, or tuna boats, loaded with bounty, and being battered by the sea. I scanned each photo, shocked, lost in the past, hoping to catch one glimpse of the Moon as she had once been.
The Moon brought Thad Potter and me together. An enigma for months, whether walking past her, or staring down at her from the railing, inevitably my mind wandered to her. Some dismiss the Moon as a scow, or a floating lost cause. But I am moonstruck. One evening on my usual walk, something caught my attention, stopping me in my tracks just short of the memorial for those lost at sea. Mist clung to my hair, the chill bit at my bones, and the sound of the wind jumbled with the rhythmic sounds of boats and their gear, bumping and clanking, with the ups and downs and lapping of the waves. The fog was thick, obscuring everything but her silhouette, and I could hear the relentless Pacific, crashing against the rock barrier of Point Adams. That is when I heard her. I know you will say it was only the fog and the wind playing tricks. But I heard her, she called to me to tell her story.
Thad Potter is a direct sort of man, who looked me straight in the eyes, and tugged at his moustache while he spoke. He had graying, short hair under a well-worn, ball cap pulled low over his eyes, the way all the boat captains wear theirs; concealing worry lines, and shading their eyes from the glare off the sea. While we talked, Thad absently lifted his cap and placed it squarely back on his head, glancing around the room, or out the window at the weather. I joked he seemed nervous, like a cowboy, never turning his back on the door. It wasn’t so much a nervous gunfighter thing, he told me absently glancing once again out the window glazed by wind, and salt, and sand. It was more like a leftover worry, or maybe you could call it a respectful concern about the weather, and fuel gauges, and the location of the sun. The kind of things you can’t get wrong, and think they’ll still go right. The kind of things that sink a boat, create fatherless children, or change a life forever. Those are the hard habits to shake even when you have no crab pots to drop, or a boat to fish.
As he handed me a 17-year-old photo of the beautiful F/V Moon, there was a fragile second, just a flash, when Thad’s smile failed to mask an undeniable sadness in his eyes, "You’d think it would be easy to let go of 23 tons of wood and mast and rigging, wouldn’t you? Owning a boat in the best times is hard, and in the worst? She feels like a 46,000-pound cannon ball, dragging you to the deep.”
Thad hunched forward setting his cold coffee aside with one hand, and re-positioning his glasses with the other,” You know, I am 61-years-old, but I feel like 82. My guts hurt all the time. I only eat once a day. My back kills me, and I have almost nothing to show for forty-five years fishing.” Motioning with his left arm, he turned and pointed towards D-Dock, "That old scow out there? Me and her are the same; Used up. But we gave it everything we had. The Moon survived mother nature, regulations, stupid people, and fucking time. If you really want to know what killed her, I’ll tell you. But it’s gonna make you cry.”
The Moon is a Clydesdale in a field of sheep, neither iron, nor aluminum, nor fiberglass, nor cement. She has a wheelhouse built from a salvaged ways office, and her deck came from the abandoned Crosline Ferry. She is heavy in the water, rigged like a sailboat and built like a tug because she is.
Before the Moon became a boat, she was a stand of old growth timber in the Siuslaw National Forest, logged by lean men, whose hands were rough, and talk was rougher. She floated down the river in a raft of logs, like those she would eventually tug down the same Coquille River, to the same lumbermill that made the lumber she’d been made of. She was built in 1923 in Prosper, Oregon, and given the heart of a lion, and 6-inch thick timbers all around. Her fan tail was rounded and she had alligator teeth down her bow, withstanding many a wallop in her day. Weighing in at over 4-tons, her Atlas engine was so big, it was placed in her skeleton and the rest of her built around it. On the Coquille, she worked the tides in storm and in calm, in daylight or darkness, pushing log rafts to the mill, for lumber that would later build homes, boats, and businesses in the communities of Bandon, Coquille, Coos Bay, and North Bend, and point unknown. In the great flood of 1955, in the same river she had once been nothing more than logs herself, She’d stood her ground, when none could be found, and held fast against surging water, logs and debris, until the smaller Zeta Mae could snatch families from their drowning farms on Johnson Mill Pond road.
In her 94 years, there have been other phases of the Moon; In the Mosquito Fleet, she ferried goods, mail, and school children across the Coos River. She was once a halibut schooner, been sunk once, scrapped twice, and a live-aboard home for a fisherman and his family. She’d lost part of her stern, and her wheel house twice, and had all her windows blown out in a violent storm, long before Thad Potter had purchased her in 1999 to fish and crab.
Potter has owned five fishing vessels in his lifetime on the sea, his first when he was only seventeen, the last was the Moon. He has likely been in nearly every possible predicament that a fisherman can be, and learned to navigate by sight and sound, and luck, and prayer. He has seen both life and death at the hands of the sea, witnessing both the beauty of the mighty Pacific, and her fury. He’s learned many lessons some he will never share, about calm and fear and storms and life. He’s missed moments and years of hot meals, birthdays, and baby’s first steps. Just like the Moon, Potter has held fast in dangerous waters.
The aging captain, tapped the table top and stood up, “C’mon let’s go see her.” We left the restaurant, and took a short walk to D-Dock where the near-motionless Moon stood. Thad leaned over, running a fingernail across her peeling rail, and quietly said, “I hope you write this part down. Her life ain’t been easy in these 100 years. When I owned her, I spent more time with her than I did my own wife, I’d still be running her now, if I could.” He paused, shifting his weight uncomfortably and giving her a pat,” I can’t say how many times she’s been re-fitted. Once off Tillamook, she lost her mast in a storm, and I thought me and my son were dead. She had a 6- foot hole in her, and I pumped her from dawn till dark till dawn again. She would have sunk if she’d been a lesser boat. Another time I woke up and she and I were both in flames, but we made it out of that one too.” He shook his head, “Hell I remember once she lost the forward drive, so I drove her in reverse for 50 goddamn miles back to port, and hell if we didn’t make it. We sure as hell did our share of fishing, that’s the truth.”
She had been loved by Thad, in fact, he had been the one who had replaced her mast, rebuilt her engine, repaired her decks and rails, and replaced her stolen bell. He’d wrenched on her engine, and tightened her steering, more often than he had mowed his lawn, or changed a light bulb at home. Her ending began when Thad, who had fished for months hunched over in pain, grew too ill to fish. Rather than see her flounder in port, he had sold her to a buyer whose promises would later be broken. In fact, for reasons unclear, she had never gone to sea again, her moorage fees soon lapsed, and Thad never received full payment.
Today, she has been nearly scuttled, and looted of almost everything but her accomplishments. Abandoned, battered, and derelict, she has been seized by the port for non-payment, hobbled and chained by her cleat to the dock as if she were a criminal. She may pay with her life, for a broken promise. The Port of Coos Bay now holds 47 feet of Oregon history, her bail being the highest acceptable bid by any interested party. If no one steps forward to purchase her, she will likely be lifted from the water and eventually scrapped.
What happened to the man and the Moon is the collision of our distorted values history in a throw-away world. A man can work 45-years, earning no easy life after, and a builder of our history can be left to rot, having no more value than her salvage weight. Maybe it is the way things turn out these days, but Thad Potter was right, the truth of that should make you cry.
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