Dory fleet of Pacific City
In 2003, when Shawn Farstad tracked down the dory boat his father sold in 1988, the boat was rotted and the owner was asking “a fortune.”
But it had been built by Farstad’s grandfather, skippered by his dad and named for his sister, Susann, and mom, Janet. So, Farstad and his wife, Crystal, paid the price. Then, Farstad took the Su-Jan home, stripped it down to the bones and built it all over again.
In this coastal home of the Pacific City dory fleet, the bond between fisher and boat runs deep.
“You put so much love and care into them,” Farstad said. “Oiling and sanding and painting and just maintaining wood — you live with the boat all summer.”
Today, Farstad builds dories and helps maintain the fleet. The demand for his work is growing as the dories grow older and need more care. “We’re cutting the rot out and putting in new wood,” Farstad said. “A lot of people, their boat was their dad’s, and they have some connection to them and hang on to them forever. It’s not very often that people buy and sell boats.”
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The flat-bottomed dory boats have been part of the fishing scene in Pacific City since the early 1900s, evolved from the Nestucca Bay gill net fleet, according to the Pacific City Dorymen’s Association. Today, about 300 boaters launch their dories in the Cape Kiwanda surf to take part in the fishery said to be unlike any other in the world.
“This is a really unique place, a unique fishery,” Farstad said. “For one thing, the experience of going off the beach is just incredible. It’s not like going out of a harbor. In Pacific City, you can catch halibut, Dungeness crab, sea bass, ling cod and salmon within a mile of your pickup.”
Farstad, 46, started going out in his dad’s dory when he was just 2 years old. Back then, recreational dory fishers were few and the winter population of Pacific City barely 50, he said. But in the summer, that number grew tenfold, every field a tent city of sorts as fishers — many of them schoolteachers on summer break — came from all over Oregon to land their share of the commercial fishery.
As a commercial dory fisher, Farstad’s in the minority. Sport fishers now outnumber commercial, the fleet growing right along with the population of Pacific City. They’re lured by nostalgia for tradition, the quick access to an abundance of seafood and the thrill of the ride.
For Cedar Johnston, formerly a commercial crabber in Alaska and Oregon, it was all that and then some.
Johnston had heard of dories, but he’d never been on one. Then, 28 years ago, he met his future wife, Shelli, who grew up dory fishing with her dad, Toledo schoolteacher Lee Parks. He fell hard, both for Shelli and, after a few lessons with her dad, dories.
“I was hooked right off the bat,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the excitement, the adrenaline.”
The launch of a dory boat is not a simple act, but one that calls for an impeccably timed choreography of mariner, boat, vehicle and tide. It’s not rocket science, Johnston says, but it is a matter of timing and experience.
“First thing, you have to know your tide, know your drift,” Johnston said. “Is it going to suck your boat out, push you south, push you north? If there is a strong rip, you better think of getting some help.”
Hesitate, or move too slow and you might find your truck and trailer stuck in the wet sand as your dory floats away.
Next, you have to clear the surf, being careful not to go at the swells faster than they are coming at you. Hit the wave too fast, and you’ll fly over the top and come down hard.
“You just want to be able to float over it, engage at the top of the break and just keep going forward after that,” Johnston said.
Then, it’s time to fish.
Lee Parks died in 1998, but Johnston kept learning, taking tips from other experienced dory boaters. Today, Johnston fishes the Kiawanda Jr., a wood dory built for Parks in 1979 by noted local boat builder Terry Learned.
Traditional dories like the Kiawanda Jr. and Farstad’s Su-Jan are a standard design, one that hasn’t changed all that much over recent decades.
But change is coming, prompted by a wave of fishers who see the future not in wood, but in “space age” materials.
Leading that wave is Tony Butkovich, who learned of the dory culture from his mother, Geraldine “Gerry” Butkovich. Now 90, Gerry fished with her dad in the 1930s and ‘40s, when dories were double-ended boats pushed out to sea on foot, bow first.
“They didn’t have the motor in the back,” she recalled. “You put the motor in the well, then rowed out through the waves, then put the motor on.”
Fishing, she said, was an all-day outing for weekends from the Fourth of July to Labor Day.
Ten years ago, eyeing retirement from his job as an iron worker, Tony Butkovich decided it was time for a new dory. He didn’t want a wood hull — too much work. So, when he met a tool maker for a former boat manufacturer, he hired him to build a mold for a new kind of dory boat.
In 2014, Butkovich and his wife, Janet, launched Breaker Dory, a boat building company based in Pacific City, its slogans “Where the past meets the present,” and “The no rot dory evolution.”
Breaker Dory boats are built one at a time from lightweight, durable resins and fiberglass with a Kevlar reinforced bottom. Known for their bright colors, the dories have been dubbed the “Skittle Fleet” for the similarly colorful candy. Butkovich made some modifications to the standard dory form – “lengthened it, opened the beam and kicked the corners out about 6 inches on either side.”
The company builds about three dories a year. While Butkovich’s boats are popular with fishers who like the ease of the maintenance and the sharp looks, they’ve earned him some ribbing among the traditional fishers.
But at the end of the day, regardless of the boat, dorymen and women here know they can and must count on one another.
“Pacific City is probably one of the only ports on the coast that does not have a Coast Guard,” Farstad said. “We kind of maintain our own little fleet. If someone breaks down out there, they don’t call the Coast Guard. They call someone at home, and we’ll make several calls until we find someone who can get their boat out and tow them back in. Everybody sticks together.”
— Lori Tobias, for The Oregonian/OregonLive
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Dory fleet of Pacific City