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Chasing the Horizon with the Dory Fleet

by Charisma Madarang


DEAD red snapper glisten like ripe fruit in the bright morning sky. Cabazon, abalone, lobster, sweet shrimp, butter fish, rock cod, pungent smell of open flesh, metallic jingle of scales and pocket change, fragrant smell of tobacco—thin swirls of smoke lingering in open air, deep laughter, low confidential murmurs, weathered faces with eyes crinkled into smiles, frantic scramble of stone crabs red as beets, ancient wooden boats brimming with the day’s catch. The infinite pale morning sky above and the endless ocean ahead. This is the Dory Fleet Market.
            Marco smokes Marlboro Reds. The stark white- and- red cigarette pack and large green Bic lighter sit on the slick counter he leans against, its surface wet with the fresh juices of slaughtered sea animals. The cigarette hangs from his dry, chapped lips, pink and raw from years of the sea’s harsh winds. He wears a blue baseball cap and his long straw-like hair protrudes from beneath it, almost reaching the small of his back. Like most of the other fishermen, Marco has a lean, leathery face tanned from years of sun. Once, a customer told him he would be perfect for scuba diving, since his tall, muscular build could well handle the pressure of being under 100 feet of water. On the left side of his jaw a tooth is missing, while the rest of his teeth are straight and solid. He went out on a rough day once, took his dory to sea. Everyone said he was crazy but he told them that he had to do it. No one had braved the waters in weeks because of the turbulent weather, so he had no choice; it was the way they made a living. When he returned in one piece, the local newspaper wrote about it.
            Marco’s voice is deep and full of certainty, each syllable pronounced with a round clarity. In the midst of the market, his father chats with one of the regular customers, his black newsboy cap and snowy beard visible from a distance. 
            A friend of Marco’s stops by with a small package of smoked albacore wrapped in air-tight plastic. Marco grins and says that his friend likes to brag and sets the albacore on the counter. Marco drinks up to ten cups of coffee a day, as customers keep buying him lattes and ice cappuccinos. Although, since he can’t drink them all, they pile up on the slick counters and grow cold in the morning air.
            His father points to several photos hanging on the wooden lockers behind each counter. In one photo a group of men push a tiny yellow dory out to sea. That’s how they set sail, from the sands of the shore and up and over the angry waves. One of the men in the photo, slightly heavy-set in a yellow sweater, later died while out alone in the ocean. His dory flipped and he was never found. The boat washed up to shore empty.
           Marco says that when you’re out there you get away from all the bullshit on land. Just you and the ocean, the sky that is almost white. There is nothing for miles in either direction, a landscape of seamless blue. Out there nothing is definite, yet its waters offer a reassuring certainty: here is man’s greatest freedom, endless escape. 


            Many of the fishermen tell you that the trout, cod, and red snapper are disappearing. They say it matter-of-factly, void of any sense of mythology or legend. Their eyes shift past the moving bodies in the market and instead search the waters, watching the waves scintillate and dance beneath the sunshine. They seem to be studying the depths of the sea, as if somewhere deep inside its belly, there is an answer.
             Some say the ice-caps in the North Pole are melting, that blank, icy desert above the warm shores of California. Up there, global warming faithfully does its duty, ripping a hole in the ozone layer wider and wider.  The heat from Earth’s star pours through, blazing by the corroded barrier no longer able to absorb the menacing ultraviolet light. The ice melts faster, faster, faster—seeping into the Pacific and dropping its temperatures. The fish, ruefully acknowledging this fateful change to their homes, move quickly south toward Mexico. There, the fish are still abundant and alive, coming in droves and breaking the nets with their weight.
            Here, they are disappearing. This is no legend or myth, but fact. The depths of the sea offer no answer, and the fishermen turn their eyes back to shore.
            This was never a problem in 1891, when the Newport Pier was still
McFadden Wharf and the market consisted of wooden dory boats lugged by horses right out to the shoreline. Men and women throughout California flocked to the market, arriving in a train that carried them to the pier. The smoke from the churning engines painted the sky a hazy gray as a metallic shriek of giant gears sounded.  Women in long petticoats and men in tailored trousers stepped off the train onto the sandy beach of McFadden Wharf. The pungent smell of fresh fish filled their noses. With petticoats lifted and trousers hiked up, these visitors ambled across the grainy floor toward hardy fishermen and their wives leaning against tiny dories filled with the day’s catch.  The scaly skin of their prey gleamed as the customers bargained and peered at the women gutting red snapper, the fish’s bloated eyes flailing with each swift stroke.
            With smooth adroitness, the wives of the fishermen shucked the thin scales of snapper, smelt, and cod and sliced opened their necks; the victims so fresh that their bodies twitched in protest. Red flecks spattered onto their aprons as they proceeded to rip out the feathery gills and slice open the slimy bellies, setting aside the eggs and heads for soup.
            Seagulls squawked eagerly above the thriving business. Then, the fleet consisted of thirty men and their families. Children grew up there, progressing from baiting lines to gutting fish to working as deck hands to replacing their fathers as captains of ships or their mothers at the market. Like the remaining fishermen today, these children came to know the market as a second home and the comforting winds of the ocean breeze. Then, the Dory Fleet was alive.


            The fleet dwindled to twenty- four fishermen in 1988. While that same year, a new West Coast quota on black cod began to take its toll on their livelihood. According to the Orange County Register, only 10.7 million tons of the prized fish were allowed to be caught until January 1st    of the following year, reducing the standard amount of black cod caught by a third. A Doryman named Louis Marberry, who had been in the business for 20 years, lamented that the news hit them like a bomb. He was outraged and in disbelief, arguing that “we can’t keep them off our lines and the ones we have to throw back probably die anyway.”
            A 13-member Pacific Fishery Management Council passed the restrictions in
reaction to growing conservation concerns. While the quota for independent fishermen was restricted to 10.7 million tons, the quota for commercial fishing businesses was set at 13.4 million tons. And while the independent fishermen reached their limit on August 26 of 1988, the commercial businesses still had considerable room to operate.
             The men who relied on the mild-flavored fish to bring in 90 percent of their income brooded over the possibility of being forced out of business well before January. A creeping uneasiness began to seep into the livelihood of the men. Families that had been there for decades slowly left the fleet as they were forced to vacate homes they could not mortgage.
            The looming presence of restrictive quotas and cod-hoarding commercial boats continued well into 1991. Flourishing markets such as Little Saigon in nearby Westminster began gaining popularity, drawing long-time customers from the Dory Fleet Market. Big-name companies raced the small-time 18-foot dories, their competing lines and hooks desperately thrown into the murky abyss, their cages pulled and emptied with frantic energy. Yet the days of hauling in crates spilling with the trademark black cod peppered with red snapper and trout were gone. Instead, many fishermen had to throw their coveted fish back into the watery abyss, returning to shore with only bloated red snapper.
            “I would say there aren’t five years left in this business,” predicted Janice Baker, who ran a dory with her husband Jim in 1994.
            Four years before, bad publicity from a tanker spill off of Huntington Beach and a growing fear of poisoned seafood had threatened the fleet once again. As fishermen and wives untangled bait lines and unloaded fish into the dories, potential customers warily eyed the fresh catch for any outward signs of the oil spill. Every squirming cod was a feasible carrier of petroleum and seemed to move with less enthusiasm than the others. Every King crab appeared paler, not as crimson as its comrades; the snapper glistened with less luster; the sweet shrimp lay limp.                                                 A man walking by a heap of cod peered over the rim of his sunglasses, scrutinizing the suspicious trout. When a fisherman’s wife asked him if he would like to buy any, he replied, “just looking.” On the shore, closer to the ocean, tourists and Newport locals gathered to watch the work crew clean up the oil that had made its way to land. The more curious wandered into the market but passed the dories brimming with fish, crab, and shrimp as if they were rotting graveyards. The tiny boats, normally empty by 10 am, remained full until 3 in the afternoon.
            Mark Hendricks, a veteran shallow-water fisherman, contemplated what he thought to be impending doom. Hendricks, who at the time was 29 and supporting a wife and two children, only made $60 that day compared to $500 on re-spill days. As the crews attempted to skim the oil off the ocean’s surface, the husband and father mourned that “the place I go to make money fishing, I can’t go.”
             By 2000, the number of dory men was down to 14. 


            Marco isn’t here today. The Saturday morning rush of eager customers is over and his father muses about the beautiful windy day. Past the ancient hollowed out Dory boats, the deep blue ocean undulates towards the fleet. The few remaining stone crabs click their pincers together. Marco’s wife quietly sits underneath the shade of the wooden lockers, her pink knitted hat snug on her head. Her tight lipped smile surveys the people around her.
            Eddy, the fisherman with the ashy skin and shy smile, dons a florescent orange hoodie. He says that Marco is out at sea but will be back tomorrow.
Marco’s 7-year-old nephew Dimi waddles around the market chasing Eddy with a plastic squirt gun. His cries of joy when he manages to strike his orange enemy are barely audible against the hum of fishermen jargon. A few weeks ago, when they took the kid out to sea for a 3-day excursion, Marco plucked a wriggling lobster out of a cage. He cooked it on the ship’s fire pit and peeled back its steaming shell to reveal plump juicy flesh, then handed it to his nephew. Dimi ate his benthic meal, then announced, “Lobster is my favorite.” When they returned to shore he told his little sister of his fine feast, to which she responded by declaring to the rest of the family that “Lobster is my favorite, too!” Even though she was not quite sure what a lobster actually looked like, having never eaten one herself.
           Dimi’s father Coco, a man in his mid thirties, speaks with a drawl. His words melt together, the letters dripping like honey into the next. He bears the same bone structure as his brother. He has the same arched nosed and high cheeks, but he is slightly shorter, with hair cropped close to his skull rather than hanging in a ropy mane. His cigarette juts from his lips in a similar way, at a defiant angle; the ashes build up and hang precariously at the end.

           If you ask him what sports his son plays, Coco grins,
           “My son plays hockey.”
           Dimi was named after Marco and Coco’s brother, who passed away at the age of 19 when he was fatally shot. Coco hangs all of his son’s old jerseys on the wall of their home, each one chronologically bigger than the last, as Dimi outgrows them. They are a visual timeline of cloth; a tangible reminder of his son’s fleeting youth. Coco worries that his son might follow in his footsteps and enter the family business, like his father, his uncles, and his grandfather. He worries because he recognizes the familiar seafaring lust in his son’s eyes, the eagerness to dutifully thrust the heavy cages into the ocean air and watch them smack the water. Perhaps Dimi’s love for hockey won’t be enough to keep him away from the sea. Maybe, he’ll be just like his father, working seven days a week, the ocean spray bitter cold against his face as he launches his dory. Working a hard labor job where the bait lines and sharp scales of fish dig into his skin, leaving bloody cuts and thick calluses, working where death and missing friends at sea are an accepted risk, working where one’s livelihood is dependent on the temperament and will of the ocean, working where going without sleep for three days straight—watching the sun rise and set without pause— is the norm, working where land becomes foreign and only at sea is one at peace.
           At 5:30 in the morning, silence drapes the market. No movement behind the counters wiped clean, no lingering smell of smoke and raw meat, no bantering old fishermen, no nets filled with squirming cod scraping against the wooden floors, no curious whispers of passersby, no jingling pocket change. Only the crashing waves echoing in the distance offer any disturbance.
           Suddenly a large Ford pick up pulling a 22-foot white- and- blue dory lumbers forward, momentarily flooding the market with the harsh glare of its headlights, coming to a halt at the entrance. The rumbling engine cuts out and the night engulfs everything once again. The doors of the Ford swing open and Coco and Eddy step out from either side. Coco dons the usual grin, his voice wide awake and alert. Eddy‘s face hides beneath an orange baseball cap and his small dark eyes are weary. They stride towards the lockers, flicking on the lampshades, creating caves of tawny light against the dark winter cold. From the locker farthest back, the two men begin heaving buckets of lines baited with the reeking bodies of decapitated anchovies. Eddy lifts them off the ground in one swift motion and hands them to Coco, who, waiting in the dory, snuggly fits them into wooden slots at the hull of the boat.
            When they secure the last of the bait lines, the night melts away to radiant violet and indigo skies. Eddy tugs orange rubber overalls across his shoulders and collapses onto a lawn chair behind a counter as he waits for Coco to pull on his own bright yellow pair. The overalls themselves are so heavy that by the end of the day, the men’s backs ache from their weight. When Coco is suited, he brews a batch of coffee on top of a freezer and the robust aroma escapes into the early morning air. He hands a cup to Eddy and leans against the locker door frame, clutching his warm coffee between his hands. The two take a break to contemplate the changing heavens: the violets disappear and the indigo begins to swirl with salmon pinks.
            Eddy shakes his head as if waking from a reverie and on cue, Coco nods and hops into the driver’s seat of the pick up, while Eddy stands in the white foam of the shoreline. The truck climbs onto the beach, crunching grains of sand under its massive tires, and reverses until the trailer is halfway in the water beside Eddy, who releases the dory. Coco parks and joins his deckhand. Together they shove the tiny boat against the surge. The dory keels sideways, nearly vertical in the air and Eddy yells that they need to wait for a break in the waves. The sea rushes forward and the boat pitches violently as they struggle to keep it flat. It goes like this for several moments, the crash of waves, the wooden boat shaking and keeling, the two men steeling themselves against the impact.
             Then there is a lull. They plunge the dory forward until their bodies are almost fully immersed in the water, and pull themselves up and into the boat. Eddy tugs at the engine cord; Coco flicks on the radio, static fuzzy voices shout out weather predictions; a light flips on, illuminating the wet floor partly filled with surf; tiny green maps with longitudes and latitudes glow on the control board by the steering wheel; the anticipatory sound of the engine roars and the boat jets off into the ocean.
             The sleeping town of Newport grows smaller and smaller behind them, until it resembles a miniature city, a town model at a museum with mock, candy-colored houses and tidy streets. Southward, the sun peeks above the horizon, burning crimson and gold into the atmosphere.  To the north, the looming shadows of Catalina Island. To the west ahead, the boundless Pacific Ocean.
            Coco grips the steering wheel with one hand and pushes the gas pedal down with the other. The helm of the boat barrels over the ocean swells at 41 rpm.
            “It’s a good day to come out, bitchin’ weather,” beams Coco, his black sunglasses are pulled over his eyes to avoid the sun’s glare as it continues to ascend. Yet although the waters gleam like a metallic sheet of cobalt, the dory swerves through the sea as if encountering a bed of rocks every other second— the curvaceous swells deceiving the eye—and the dory continually rises and falls with a heavy thud.
            Eddy leans over the port, the wind whipping against his copper cheeks, his eyes squinting at the destination before them: 10 miles off the shores of San Clemente Island, a navy base where the smoke of an occasional missile can be seen from behind its mountains.
            Suddenly, the sleek backs of dolphins emerge a few feet from the boat. Coco laughs and says they always swim this close to them. Then, as quick as they came, their pearly bodies disappear back into the sea.
            “The first time I went out to fish with my dad and grandpa I was 12,” reminisces Coco
           “They had me sit at the front of the boat and told me that way I could see everything. I got soaked, because that’s the part that gets the most spray. So I had to spend the entire day pulling lines in wet clothes, I was miserable and they got a laugh...My dad was a sculptor back in Greece. He would carve beautiful things for museums and art collectors. His best was a flower, the petals so detailed. A museum bought it. I can’t imagine how you can make something so smooth out of a rock. We came here when I was 5 and Marco was 11 and Dimitri was 8. Our mother used to tell us stories about how we would stand in long lines just for a piece of bread and how paper money lost its value. We came here with only 1000 dollars in cash and D ad began working right away with another fisherman at the fleet who was from Greece. And then, pretty soon we all started working there. Those were the good old days.”
           Coco often talks about the past. How he, Eddy, Marco, Nikki, and their friends used to go to Mexico, before the kidnappings.
           “They’ve ruined it with the drug war,” Eddy frowns.
They would pack into a car and drive hundreds of miles into the desert, searching for untouched beaches to explore. Back then, they were all young and in their 20’s and only the blank dusty mountains and azure skies were their concern. In Mexico, the days were spent drinking and fishing on the empty beaches, swimming in the warm sea, and sleeping on the floor of their dories beneath the celestial night, the age- old constellations scintillating above them.
           “It used to be so hot in Mexico that we would fish, sweat, then jump in the water to cool off. You would be dry in seconds,” sighs Eddy.
            “That was 15 years ago,” says Coco.
           “Life is hard now.”
            Now the men only have memories of the good old days. Now there are eight fishermen left; Marco, Coco, and Eddy are the youngest. Now the market is open just on Saturdays and Sundays, customers clearing by 9 a.m. Now there is not enough business to stay open all week long, late into the afternoon, like they used to a decade ago. At times, the market seems more like a novelty than a tangible livelihood.
            An hour and a half into sea at 8 a.m., the dory reaches the shore of San Clemente Island . The dory slows down to a stop and immediately the ocean swells begin to rock it to nauseating degrees.
            “Ready?” Coco says, turning to Eddy.
            They throw five -foot fluorescent buoys into the water, small metal weights attached to anchor them. Coco creates a noose with one of the bait lines from a bucket and loops it to the end of an anchor. With Eddy at the wheel and Coco’s hand on the gas, the other clutching the bait bucket over the starboard, the dory takes flight. Going at 30 rpm, Coco keeps a strict vigil over the lines as they spit out into the water. Any loose rope or tangle could jeopardize the entire catch. Salt and anchovy bits flick onto the stern as miles of bait line are released into the sea, each bucket containing two miles’ worth of potential cod. After 6 minutes, Coco eases off the gas and comes to a stop, the other end of the bait line in his hand. Eddy grabs the next bucket and hands it to him and within seconds Coco fastens a new line to the one before and the dory continues on its path, zipping through the ocean, another two miles of floating anchovies in its wake. This continues three more times, until Coco holds the end of the last line and ties it to another set of buoys and anchors. Finally, he throws the lot into the ocean.
            They sit upon the wooden slats and take a smoke break. The tiny boat is so far at sea that not even San Clemente Island can be seen. There is simply ocean and sky. Coco inhales the smoke slowly, the embers on his cigarette glow red and inch toward his fingers. Eddy, who doesn't smoke, rests his chin against his palms and begins another story from their past, t his one about when they were out on Marco's ship and all the deckhands were scared to work with him and Coco because they had a reputation for pulling pranks on newcomers. Eddy catches his friend's eye and they both chuckle.
            It is 9 a.m. Behind them the town of Newport waits, where men and women are already sitting behind desks, answering phones and photocopying endless reams of paperwork. At a safe distance to their right is San Clemente Island and its missile testing site. To their left is Mexico, beautiful deserted beaches where the water stays warm and fish still come in droves. Ahead is escape, where for miles and miles the ocean seamlessly meets the horizon. For now, Eddy and Coco are here, floating in the middle of an uncertain future as the swells of the sea rock them back and forth.k letter

Sources & Reporting

“Search For Fisherman Proves Fruitless-- Dory fleet mourns loss at sea”The Orange County Register: Tuesday, December 22, 1998. Author: Jeff Collins

“Fisherman Finds Success At Sea”” The OC Register: Thursday, August 9, 2001
Author: Erika I. Ritchie

“Our Legacy: Millenium Moments” The OC Register: Saturday, January 1, 2000
Author: Jonathan Volzke

“Dreams Going Under” The OC Register: Tuesday, February 15, 1994
Author: Paul Kriner

“Murky Waters” The OC Register: Thursday, August 9, 1991

“Dory Fleet 'Hurting' From Lower Quota” The OC Register: Tuesday, September 13, 1988
Author: Donna Davis

“Hooked On The Sea” The OC Register: Tuesday, December 1, 1987

“Timeline: History Of The Dory Fleet” The OC Register: Thursday, June 5, 2003
Author: N/A, taken from The OC Nautical Museaum

“The Origin Of The Dory” The OC Register: Thursday, June 5, 2003
Author: N/A, although I noted that is was printed the same day as the previous article, perhaps it was a bit of “history” nostalgia The Register was covering at the time.

“Dorymen View Fishing Quotas As Threat To Fleet's Century Long Existence” The OC Register: Thursday, June 5, 2003 (Was the fleet a focus this day?)
Author: Brian Martinez

“Wave Of Restrictions Sinking O.C. Dorymen” The OC Register: Saturday, July 13, 2002
Author: Chantal Lamers & Laylan Connelly

“Our Legacy: Millennium Moments” The OC Register: Saturday, January 1, 2000
Author: Jonathan Volzke

“Friends Fear Ocean Hero Now A Victim”The OC Register: Friday, April 9, 1999
  Author: Gil Hopenstand

“Friends And Family Bid Fisherman Adieu” The OC Register: Saturday, January 9, 1999

“Search For Fisherman Proves Fruitless” The OC Register: Tuesday, December 22, 1998
Author: Jeff Collins

“Dory Fisherman Presumed Dead At Sea” The OC Register: Monday, December 21, 1998
Author: Tiffany Horan

“Next Door Neighbor—The Glory Of Dory” The OC Register: Saturday, January 31, 1998
Author: Linda Fimland

“Old Man And The Sea” The OC Register: Thursday, August 28, 1997
Author: John Westcott

“Fisherman Has Lived Many A Fish Tale” The OC Register: Saturday, August 23, 1997
Author: John Westcott

“Dory Fishermen Find Business Ebbing” The OC Register: Sunday, February 11. 1990
Author: Nicole Brodeur

“Life With Newport Fishing Fleet Isn't Always Hunky Dory” The OC Register: Monday, January 30, 1989 Author: John Westcott

“Burial At Sea: Many OC Residents' Ashes Are Scattered At Sea” The OC Register: Sunday, October 16, 1988 Author: Rene Tawa

“Hooked On The Sea” The OC Register: Tuesday, December 1, 1987
Author: Erin Kelly

“Fisherman's Farewell” The OC Register: Tuesday, November 3, 1987
Author: Erin Kelly

“Dory Fleet Fisherman Carl Marberry, 31, of Newport Beach” The OC Register (Obituary): Thursday, October 29, 1987 Author: The Register