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A changing tide
for the
Dory Fleet

Story by Sara Gray
W
ITH A SPLASH of salt water, the small dory boat leaps off the back of a crashing wave, becoming airborne for a moment. Then it crashes back down and prepares to mount another incoming wave, this one bigger than the last.

It’s a thrill that’s intensely familiar to members of Pacific City’s commercial dory fleet, some of whom have been battling the surf their whole lives in these small fishing boats. The fleet navigates through uncertain waters and changing tides, both in and out of the water. But that doesn’t mean the historic boats are in danger of disappearing.

Croy on the beach

Danny Hernandez launching the Fish Hunter.

Left: Dory boats on the beach near Cape Kiwanda.
Above: Danny Hernandez launching the Fish Hunter.

The flat-bottomed dories, originally built from spruce planks in a design that is unique to Oregon, are legendary for their fresh catch and their trademark launchings and landings—taking off through the waves right from the beach near Cape Kiwanda and returning with a slide up onto the sand with a day’s catch. Commercial dory fishermen have been fishing out of Pacific City since the early 1900s, although they began to rule the area as the primary fishermen in the ’60s and ’70s. There were hundreds of boats in the dory fleet then, and by the mid-’70s, Pacific City was the second largest salmon-fishing port on the Oregon Coast. The boats were first powered with oars, but most of them are now under motor power. However, all dory fish are still caught with a hook and line.

Gary Horton and crew heading out for a day of fishing.
Gary Horton and crew heading out for a day of fishing.

These days, the commercial fleet has thinned out considerably. Fishery regulations have lowered the amount of fish that can be caught, and that means many former members of the fleet have had to look for a new way to make a living. “Fishery regulations have cut drastically into our salmon and groundfish,” says Paul Hanneman, a dory fisherman and co-chair of the Pacific City Dorymen’s Association. Hanneman was also an Oregon legislator from 1965 until 1990.

Many of the boats that can be spotted launching from the beach in Pacific City these days are owned by sport fisherman. “In the ’60s and ’70s, sport fishing in dories was a vast minority,” Hanneman said. “Now those sport fishers are the majority.”

It’s easy to see the draw to dory fishing. Each voyage begins with the thrilling challenge of mounting crashing waves, and once away from the beach, fishermen enjoy the open ocean as they speed by stunning Haystack Rock. This moment, when the ocean opens up, saltwater droplets hitting your face and the wind blowing past the boat, is the moment when commercial dory fisherman Craig Wenrick says he feels most alive. “This is why we do it,” Wenrick says. “Once you’re out here, it’s totally different.”

Wenrick keeps his business afloat during the winter months by crabbing and takes his boat out whenever the high swells and severe ocean conditions abate. Once salmon season opens, however, he will share the beach with many other dories, although few of them are fishing commercially. “Thirty years ago, I was one of the youngest guys in the fleet,” Wenrick says. “Now, I still am.”

Each boat, depending on size and intricacy of the design, can take from six
to eight weeks to complete. Although the boats are of historic design, there’s nothing frail about them.

Those who still choose to earn their living through commercial dory fishing do it for varied reasons, but money isn’t usually much of a factor. “We have people that really believe in it,” Wenrick said. “Unless the state kicks us out of here, there will always be a commercial fleet.”

The fleet keeps its hat in the political ring through the Dorymen’s Association, which remains active in negotiating fish management issues. “Dory fishing absolutely has a future,” Hanneman says, “as long as the association is active.”

The association now has more than 400 members from all over the state, many of whom are sport fishermen or people who aren’t fishermen themselves but want to support the presence of the dory fleet in Pacific City. The association produced a film last year to educate people about the history of the fleet and the challenges it faces today. Each year in June, the community holds a “Blessing of the Fleet,” and in July, Pacific City hosts “Dory Days,” where visitors can learn about dories and compete in beach games and activities while enjoying a (usually) sunny summer day on the Oregon Coast.
The association has a local headquarters in Pacific City, which raises the fleet’s visibility to all who enter the town. Pacific City Sporting Goods and Marina is the place to visit for all things dory—from a Dorymen’s Association decal to information about going for a ride in a dory.

Untangling the line.
Untangling the line.

 

Although many dory boats sit unused, there are still people buying new boats or having them built. Pacific City resident and dory fisherman Terry Learned has been building dory boats from quality wood since 1975, and he still has enough orders for new boats to keep him busy all year. “The demand goes up and down, but I’ve been pretty busy,” Learned says. “Mostly I’m building boats for sport fishermen.”

Hauling in Dungeness crab

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: Hauling in Dungeness crab
Below: Sliding up onto the sand.

 

Sliding up onto the sand. Each boat, depending on size and intricacy of the design, can take from six to eight weeks to complete. Although the boats are of historic design, he said, there’s nothing frail about them. “It’s a strong boat,” he said. “I’ve seen the roughest there is in one of these.”

Learned’s custom-made boats, constructed in an old dairy barn on his property, sell for about $8500. He has built 73 wooden dories in the past 32 years.

The boats continue to be a beloved tradition in Pacific City. The Pelican Pub & Brewery even makes a Dory-man’s Dark Ale. Visitors to the area take time to scope out the boats and watch them glide up on the beach, often bombarding the fisherman with inquiries about the day’s catch and what it’s like out there beyond iconic Haystack Rock.

Although there are no longer major fish buyers located in Pacific City, that doesn’t mean that local dory-caught fish isn’t available. Many commercial fishermen have developed niche markets with local restaurants and make their catch available to them. As Pelican Pub’s menu says, “If the weather and fish are cooperating, we buy fabulous fish from the local Dory fisherman.”

So while the waters are sometimes rough and the future of the commercial dory fleet may sometimes seem uncertain, dory boating is a Pacific City tradition that’s sure to live on. This is one unique and rugged Oregon tradition that’s prepared to fight for its survival.

Author’s Note: For more information about the dory fleet or the Dorymen’s Association in Pacific City, contact Pacific City Sporting Goods and Marina (503-965-6410).

Oregon Coast July/August 2007

 
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