Reflections of a life on the water

A photo album shows the early days of fishing in Alaska for Don Mathews. (Photo by Bret Yager)

The Newport waterfront is less rich today for the passing of a man who's determined spirit exemplified the fishing life.

A Springfield native who helped pioneer and innovate the Alaska fisheries in the 1970s, Don Mathews was best known on the central coast for piloting crab boats through winter seas and for launching Marine Discovery Tours to help share his knowledge and love of the ocean. Don died at age 69 on Nov. 9 after a battle with cancer.

His determination to carve a niche in a brutal world, the struggle to balance family with his own craving for the next fishing season, and his sense of humor and willingness to lend his neighbor a hand are stories that go to the very bone of this harbor.

As the surf pounded restlessly in the view from the Mathews home this week, his wife Fran remembered a shared life stretching back three and half decades — to the Alaska port of Kodiak where it all started.

The plunge

Fran had grown up in that island town dedicated to fishing. She witnessed the swell of fishermen coming up from the Lower 48  to make their fortune in the rich surrounding waters. She recollected the massive 1964 tidal wave that broke apart her island and left a fishing boat in the yard where she attended elementary school. Years later as she aspired to be a fisheries journalist, she ran into Don on the Kodiak docks. He was one of the new faces from Oregon, skippering both the Denny Jo and the Bold Contender after getting his start chasing tuna and salmon out of Coos Bay.

Her writing career was proving to be elusive, but Fran had been hired instead to work at the port, and was down there to tell Don he needed to move his boat. One thing led to another.

“It was a boat harbor romance. I went and had a drink with him that night at Solly’s, and we were together from then on,” said Fran, sitting at a table covered with news clips and faded photos showing exhausted but triumphant men hauling in the harvest of crab and halibut.

Don had grown up in a dairy family in Springfield and was handy with welding and things mechanical — traits that helped shape him for his role in the wheelhouse. With an unfulfilled journalism career nagging at her, Fran saw another potential in Don. She approached him about working on the Bold Contender and writing about her experiences.

Don was skeptical, but said he’d run it past the crew. They decided to bring her on board for $50 a day. Fran cooked, watched for whales, cut bait and gradually worked her way to the status of a full deckhand. She watched Don, noticing how he was always checking to make sure the gear was tied safely and that no one would get tangled in line on the deck.

She remembered a blur of cooking, fishing and sleeping. As the summer wore on, her relationship with Don cemented.

An endless mine of energy, Don would come onto the deck when exhaustion set in and morale began to dip. He’d do something lighthearted and ridiculous, like prance out into the biting wind in a pair of shorts and a Hawaiian shirt while the crew snorted with laughter.

It made everyone realize they would survive to the end of the set. It helped Fran to know she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him.

“We had lots of adventures and there was lots of hard work,” Fran said. “But because of Don’s commitment to make things fun, it didn’t seem like work. We ended every day tired, but we were laughing.”

A look inward

Like a man on a dead run, Don charged through a lineup of fishing seasons — tanner, opilio, king and Dungeness crab, halibut, black cod, salmon and herring. His son Brendan was born in 1986. A year later, Don was elbows-deep in a massive conversion project in Louisiana to turn a mud boat into the Fierce Contender, a Bering Sea crabber which he would later use for plying the steep and sudden waves of that sea.

Don tried to keep it light; videos show him beating ice off the boat in his boots and boxer shorts. But the constant grind left little energy for anything else.

If Don had one challenge it was that he lacked a stop button, his wife believes. He didn’t like to take time off; vacations for the couple were few and short and were always under the shadow of a looming fishing season. He strove to be the best. But the four-month stretches in the Bering Sea took a toll on Fran.

“This was before cell phones and Skype,” she said. “It would be radio silence — I’d be so worried about him. It was really so hard on families.”

Joe Rock, a retired Newport fisherman of many years, partnered with Don in the early days up north. In an interview this week, he recollected his fishing buddy setting his crab traps 100 miles out of port, his boat slowly breaking apart on long runs — Don patching it with fiberglass on the fly.

“When you fish for so long, you have tunnel vision,” Rock said. “You have to be zoned in to be a good fisherman. Then, when you stop, you got nowhere to put it. It kinda keeps you hanging.”

At some point Don started to look inward and wasn’t at ease with everything he saw. Fran figures if he hadn’t had a family, Don would have been perfectly happy on a boat for the rest of his days, but the bonds of blood were growing more powerful than the tug of the sea.

When Fran gave birth to their daughter Caitie, it helped Don make up his mind. The Mathews family began to look south for a place where they could remake their lives.

“We said, ‘we’ve had this world and this life following the fisheries, but where are we going to start a family?’ Newport seemed like a no-brainer.”

By the early 1990s, Don and Fran had transplanted their lives to Newport and Don was running the Footloose, a boat in the 44-foot range, a massive step back from the legendary Contender.

But gearing down proved hard for Don despite his best intentions. He’d developed a set of skills and expectations better matched to the tougher fishing grounds up north, and now the smaller boat felt like a handicap.

The weather would come up but Don wanted to cross the Newport bar and get on the gear. At the same time, he knew the boat couldn’t handle the weather, and he’d seeth.

“It drove him crazy,” Fran chuckled. “It wasn’t the relaxing semi-retirement we’d pictured.”

A new venture

In 1994, Don started running the Jo Marie for winter crab, and the boat’s size and capabilities better suited him. The income over four seasons underwrote another venture the Mathews family had launched — plans for marine educations tours inspired by a 1992 visit to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

Don purchased a 65-foot charter boat named the Merry Jane, brought it up from California and began a massive conversion of the vessel. The end product was an enclosed tour boat capable of seating 49 passengers, complete with an elevated observation deck. Marine Discovery Tours was now underway.

Groups of school children, college students, seniors touring by bus and independent visitors to the coast were treated to learning sessions on the water that rolled marine ecology, commercial fishing practices and hands-on activities into a single tapestry that made sense to everyone.

Marine Discovery Tours remains one of the anchoring businesses on the harbor, and Fran said she feels fortunate to find in the ecotourism trade a close-knit group similar to the ties of the fishing community.

A continuing legacy

While they helped youngsters get their hands on sea stars, crabs and jellyfish, the Mathews became involved in numerous community initiatives, including the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center, the port commission, the Bandon Submarine Cable Council and philanthropic efforts to aid groups ranging from the Lincoln County Children’s Advocacy Center to the Pacific Communities Health District Foundation.

But boat engines still needed troubleshooting. Metal needed to be cut, screws driven. Don always had a project, and Brendan was his right-hand man, learning the ropes from an early age. As is so often the case in the maritime industries, the skills of the trade passed down the bloodline.

When Brendan continues the projects he used to share with Don, he feels his father’s absence.

“I don’t really know anyone like him,” the fisherman’s son said. “I know a lot of guys with the skills he had but not so much the love he had, his outward and giving nature...We just did stuff all the time together.

“I was always a call away. I’d tell him, ‘just call me Dad, I’ll be there.’”

A celebration of life for Don Mathews will be held Dec. 15 at 1 p.m. at the Newport Elks Club.

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