No Ocean Bar, But There is a Dolly Dock at Port Orford, Oregon
In October 2010, I visited the Port of Port Orford, Oregon. Port Orford is one of only two "dolly docks" in the U.S., and one of only six in the world. Positioned near the edge of the hardscape are two high capacity hoists. Each can lift and carry fishing vessels up to 25,000 lb.
Timing my visit for late afternoon, I could see two boats awaiting a lift by the dockside crane. As I watched, one of two large hoists lifted the fishing vessel Providence from the water to the dock. As her crew gently adjusted their lines, the hoist operator swung and lowered the stout vessel into position on a transport trailer. Once secured to her trailer, captain, crew and Providence pulled away together, heading for home.
During the summer and fall, an occasional coastal cruising boat will anchor in the protected area provided by the Port Orford jetty. For deeper-draft fishing boats, the harbor area is too shallow for safe mooring. When not on the ocean, many of the fishing boats rest on custom-made “dollies”. These quaint carriages are fitted with axles, wheels and tires salvaged from old trucks. During my afternoon at the dock, I saw a Popeye the Sailor vessel parked on the dock. Its dolly featured ancient white sidewall tires.
For reasons both natural and manmade, the port is unique. For instance, Port Orford is the only deep-water port between Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California. Entering or leaving any other port along that 400-mile stretch of coastline requires crossing an ocean bar. Where the ocean tide meets the flow of a river, a shoal will form. Timing an arrival or departure for high tide guarantees maximum depth beneath the keel. It also assures maximum turbulence, as the two bodies of water meet. Shifting currents and shallow spots can turn crossing a bar into a harrowing experience.
The Port at Port Orford is an open-water dock, with only a riprap breakwater to protect it from southerly storms. Winter waves and storm surge can be unrelenting. A fallen green navigation marker is testament to the power of the Pacific Ocean. Toppled by winter storms, the heavy steel structure looked like a child’s toy tossed upon the rocks. At the center of the breakwater, the riprap has slumped so low that storm waves now threaten the protected area along the dock.
In order to protect the former wooden docks from harsh breaking waves, the Port Orford authority constructed the concrete jetty and breakwater in the late 1960's. Since that time, this crescent-shaped structure has created an even bigger problem. Extreme sand build-up, or shoaling, has plagued the port since then. To combat shoaling, several times each year the Army Corp of Engineers conducts dredging at the port. With allocations of between $250,000 and $500,000 for each dredging project, could this port remain viable without government subsidized dredging?
Despite its deep-water designation, shoaling makes Port Orford as difficult to navigate as any West Coast port with an ocean bar. In Port Orford, the Army Corp of Engineers and the State of Oregon have a beneficial role to play. Unlike other states in the West, cooperation between Oregon and the federal government promises a better day ahead. A study now underway could result in a safer harbor for those who risk their lives each day to catch and deliver our fresh seafood. In March of 2008, Governor Kulongoski designated the Port Orford Marine Economic Development project as an “Oregon Solutions Project”. The focus of this project seeks “to find a sustainable solution for the problem of shoaling” at Port Orford.
As I contemplate the dangers and discomforts associated with commercial fishing off the coast of Southern Oregon, I raise a glass and offer a toast to the captain and crew of Providence, as well as her sister ships at sea.