My phone rang at 10:38 pm, Tuesday, January 8th. Ordinarily, I’m in bed by then, but my partner and I were enjoying our hot tub. It was a crisp, cold, starry night. I glanced at the phone. It was my sister-in-law Denise. I picked up.
“Where’s Justin?” she asked, and I could tell by her voice that something was the matter. I put her on speaker and walked outside with the phone, holding it near the hot tub. “What’s up Denise?” Justin said. Words spilled out of her … Josh, and the bar, and the Coast Guard …
She tried again. “Josh called me to come down to watch the boat come in tonight. The captain was being stupid, and he said he was scared. He put on his life jacket. The Coast Guard was there to escort them over the bar, and I watched them make it through, but now there’s all these lights and the helicopter!” She was frantic, and despite my own concern, my training kicked in.
“Denise, it’s going to be fine.” I walked back in the house, away from Justin, who was saying words to the effect that Josh could already be dead. It scared me to hear him say that, but he habitually jumps to the worst possible conclusion, in order to prepare for contingencies, and I didn’t think that’s what Denise needed to hear right then. Instead I said, “He’s wearing his life jacket. It’s Josh. He’s going to be okay. Think how big and strong he is.” I continued my attempts to be comforting, adding, “he’s going to come home to you tonight and have such a story to tell you and he’s going to be so pissed at that captain!!” We both laughed a little, knowing how Josh is, and how he would be angry, and how he would tell her that story. And then be done with it (although never take a job with that captain again.) He had forgiven tattooed on his knuckles, and he did his best to live like everyone else was worthy of forgiveness, too.
I wanted to believe my own words as much as Denise did. And I always hold onto hope until I can’t anymore. But Justin knew first hand how dangerous the Newport Bar can be in a storm, and he was more realistic. He toweled off, put on his clothes and came inside.
The Yaquina Bay Bar in Newport, Oregon is the area where the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean meet with the shallower waters near the mouth of the Yaquina river.
According to the Oregon State Marine Board safety publication, “most accidents and deaths that occur on coastal bars are from capsizing. Improper loading and/or overloading are major causes of capsizing. Improper/overloaded boats have less stability and less freeboard, which can allow seas to break into the vessel, causing the boat to become even less stable. Boats are more likely to capsize when crossing the bar from the ocean because the seas are on the stern and the boater may have less control over the vessel. Boaters must make sure the bar is safe prior to crossing.”
I stayed on the phone with Denise that night off and on for over an hour as she drove back and forth across the bridge, desperately trying to find out more information. I was worried for her safety too, all alone with that news, and driving … but the last time she called me she found some friends and was going to go try to talk to the cops to see if she could get more information from them.
Meanwhile, we were continually checking the Newport breaking news. And I prayed, & talked to Josh in my head urging him to hold on, & even called upon Poseidon & his wife Amphritite (one of the goddesses from last summer’s Greece retreat) to help him get to shore.
We learned at one point that a person had been found and taken to the hospital. “See, that’s got to be Josh,” I said to Justin. “And he’s going to be okay! The coast guard was right there!” But it wasn’t Josh. And the person wasn’t okay.
After a while, we saw that another person had been found, and again we had hope.
Justin called the Coast Guard twice, telling them he was Josh Porter’s next of kin, but they couldn’t –or wouldn’t—give out any information because they were in the middle of the rescue.
Then finally, around midnight, we got word that Josh’s body had been found. That he didn’t make it. Writing these sentences still makes me cry.
According to the Coast Guard report, the boat hit the tip of the North Jetty and a 20’ wave capsized it. Two of the crew were washed overboard, and the captain was still on the boat, even though it was upside down. Josh’s body was found on Nye Beach, which is about 3 miles north of the north jetty.
My heart still breaks.
Josh was an experienced, hard-working and sought-after fisherman, who fished various fisheries (salmon, crab, tuna, halibut, squid) from the Bering Sea to Southern California. He started fishing with his mom and dad when he was quite young. In later life, he was often hired to be captain, but if a captain’s position wasn’t available, he was always willing to work as crew. He was only filling in on the Mary B II for one trip before his next official crew job began. Josh’s boat, the Fearless II, was harbored in Crescent City. It wasn’t licensed for crab.
This video is footage from The Deadliest Catch, talking about the dangers of the Newport Bar: https://youtu.be/h0dR8V7hIJs
Vincent Van Gogh said, “The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”
It’s impossible to explain the life of a commercial fisherman to one who has never been out there. It is hard work. Dangerous. And yet the fishermen and women I’ve known also have an amazing eye for beauty, have an adventurous spirit, and an unconventional lifestyle that modern hipsters can only dream about. And many are as erudite as a college professor.
As for Josh, he was larger than life. I looked up that phrase to make sure it was an accurate description. The internet says someone who is larger-than-life has a very strong or lively personality that impresses people very much. For sure, that was Josh in all phases of his life.
I first met Josh in grade school. He was a couple years behind me, but we were in band together. One memory that stands out is a moment after band, when we bumped into one another in the doorway. He was reaching for the Silmarillion, (the book J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that goes into more depth about the land and the people that the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were based upon.) I grew up in an area where most of the guys didn’t read much at all, and definitely not for pleasure, so to find him reading the story behind the story that was one of my favorite series was remarkable. He read and collected volumes upon volumes of books, stored in his gear shed, in his home, and on his boats. One of his dreams upon retiring was to open a used book store.
Josh was also a great musician …. Our high school band went caroling one Christmas. We lived in a very rural location, so rather than walking around city blocks, this meant we piled into pickups and cars and vans and drove to people’s houses. I ended up in the back of a truck with Josh and some others. Josh started playing Stairway to Heaven on the guitar; to me he sounded as good as Led Zeppelin.
Flash forward to present time. Josh loved to play the guitar, which is another instrument you often find on commercial fishing boats.
[Here’s a video of him playing guitar for an original and unpretentious young singer: https://www.facebook.com/denise.barrettramirez/videos/974847182525318/ ]
Josh and Denise lived on the family property with us for a few months last spring between fishing seasons, harvesting trees for a little extra money. Most mornings, Josh came in to use the bathroom and then sat down on the couch, picked up the guitar and played a few tunes before starting his day.
Family outings with the Porters always included music, whether we were outdoors camping, or inside in the living room.
Two Christmases ago, right after Justin’s dad died, Justin and I hosted a joint family gathering on Christmas Eve, and requested that everyone bring their instruments. It was a magical moment to look around and see our two families united through music.
Josh had a great laugh: full throated, head back, eyes closed. He loved silliness and puns and plays on words. One time when we all went down to Newport to spend a few days together as a family, Josh was in the middle of a challenge to make up hundreds of puns about Oreos. One example: What do they call a Tuna that eats Oreos? Albacoreo. I know, right? Imagine hundreds of puns about Oreos, all in one day.
In the Fall of 2016, Josh and I flew together to visit Justin in Alaska. Josh was looking to buy a boat, and Justin found a 49’ wooden sailboat / fishing vessel in Petersburg. My family gifted me with an Alaskan trip to visit Justin for my 50th birthday, and it happened to coincide with Josh’s visit to look the boat over before buying it. While we were in the airport waiting for a taxi to take us down to the harbor and Justin’s boat, Josh saw a little kid wearing a bright yellow Pokémon outfit.
“I want one of those!” he said. We laughed, and someone asked him where he would wear it. “In the captain’s chair,” he said, without missing a beat. It wasn’t a stretch to picture him sitting in that chair wearing the Pokémon outfit.
In the days after his death, I cyber stalked his page, reading all the hundreds of comments from people who knew him. A few examples stood out to me because they seem to capture so many pieces of him at once: generous, kind, open-hearted, unconventional, loving ….
The first was from a woman named Olivia. She said, “I hadn’t spoken to Josh Porter since the week we met, but I want to share my memory of him. I was hitchhiking in March of 2011 and was severely ill with bronchitis, or possibly pneumonia from being outside in the Washington rainy and freezing nights. Someone named Sarah and her dog were with me. It was dark out, no idea what time, near Newport, Oregon in the rain on a small road. Josh drove by and picked us up when no one else would. He brought us to his houseboat on the dock: pink and called The Grumpy Dragon and insisted that we stay the night. He introduced us to his wife, Denise. They stayed on a separate boat on the dock. The two of them showed me so much kindness, insisting we stay for several days to recover and renting us movies. Denise gave me these little gold colored metal butterfly wings that I still have. I’ve stayed Facebook friends with Josh for almost eight years and have always thought well of him, and I was really sad to hear about his loss. Rest in peace <3.”
After the memorial service, another friend, a college professor, wrote this:
“SAYING GOOD-BYE, JOSH PORTER
How did a former drug addict and hardworking fisherman with little [formal] education get 4,369 Facebook friends? Why did over 200 people come to an unpretentious church in a steel-clad warehouse to celebrate his life? Why did the Siletz Tribe send their best singers and drummers to honor this white man?
Because everyone there knew of the lives he had changed forever among fishermen, criminals, drug addicts, and many more. Because he had never been known to boast of any special ability, no less of saving lives. Yet when the program turned to Stories and Memories the first two volunteer speakers were a boy from middle school to say how Josh always made him feel good, and a young man with Down’s syndrome who said how his giant friend always made him feel warm. Then followed many men and women who said, “He saved my life.” They meant it in the most literal sense.
After the service everyone stacked and cleared the chairs, rolled out tables and sat down for a sumptuous supper. I ate with a woman and her 15-year-old daughter and with a 40ish couple. All three adults told me how important Josh had been in saving them and their families from addiction. The man who had spent half his life in prison for burglary, robbery and car theft to get drug money is now a licensed contractor and just bought a house for his family. The mother of the teenage girl is about to get her diploma in social work.
No newspaper wrote about Josh except three weeks ago when they ran the story that a 20 ft wave had overturned the FV Mary B II as it tried to cross the bar coming home with a load of crab at night and one of the dead was a crewman named Josh Porter. Several newspapers and TV stations ran stories three more lives lost at sea. I saw no news media at today’s service. Perhaps they don’t think they might find stories in an evangelical church in a warehouse. They missed story after story about a quiet hero.
Has America ever been more in need of such heroes?
In the lines below, the “Master” whose hand plays the violin and touches lives is probably God, but today the hand that men and women and children in South Beach Church felt in their lives was Josh Porter’s.
The Touch of the Master’s Hand
—Myra “Brooks” Welch
’Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
But held it up with a smile:
“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried,
“Who’ll start the bidding for me?”
“A dollar, a dollar”; then, “Two!” “Only two?
Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?
Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;
Going for three—” But no,
From the room, far back, a gray-haired man
Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then, wiping the dust from the old violin,
And tightening the loose strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet
As a caroling angel sings.
The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: “What am I bid for the old violin?”
And he held it up with the bow.
“A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?
Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?
Three thousand, once, three thousand, twice,
And going, and gone,” said he.
The people cheered, but some of them cried,
“We do not quite understand
What changed its worth.” Swift came the reply:
“The touch of a master’s hand.”
And many a man with life out of tune,
And battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd,
Much like the old violin.
A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine;
A game—and he travels on.
He is “going” once, and “going” twice,
He’s “going” and almost “gone.”
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that’s wrought
By the touch of the Master’s hand.”
And finally, the last post I’ll share was from another guy who met Josh only briefly. He said, “Josh Porter … We met thru the Facebook Page Commercial Salmon Albacore and Crab … We came to know each other … I will never forget the day we met for coffee in Newport down on the Bay Front. A day that changed my life forever …. You inspired me from the day we met not only as a Fisherman but a Winner in the World of Recovery …. You are and always will be a True Miracle … the name of your fishing vessel so much described your outlook on Life “Fearless.” May you Rest in Peace my Friend ….”
And then he quoted this poem:
Not, How Did He Die, But How Did He Live?
Not how did he die, but how did he live?
Not what did he gain, but what did he give?
These are the units to measure the worth
Of a man as a man, regardless of birth.
Not, what was his church, nor what was his creed?
But had he befriended those really in need?
Was he ever ready, with word of good cheer
To bring back a smile, to banish a tear?
Not what did the sketch in the newspaper say,
But how many were sorry when he passed away.
There are other stories I could share: of Josh’s wide open heart, his generosity, his sense of humor, adventurous spirit, wit & intelligence, friendliness, love for his family, as well as the battles he fought with nightmares and depression. I am so incredibly sorry these stories and this life came to an end so soon.
Rest in peace Joshua James Kahlil Porter. You are so missed. ❤