Commercial Fishing in Alaska: Fair Seas and Following Winds

The 4runner stutters to a stop in the turning lane of Greenbriar road in Madison, Alabama. I continue stomping the gas pedal in hopes of some miraculous resurrection but alas, no dove shall descend today. I manage to push the dead beast onto the shoulder of the road. I close my eyes for a moment, lean my head against the truck and exhale slowly. I  grab the gas can out of the back. Tomorrow is payday, but that doesn’t help me much at the moment. I’m on a journey to overdraft my already negative balance bank account for 1 gallon of gas. I curse, loudly and bitterly and start walking towards the nearest gas station. I’ve allowed my mind to revel over the sights, sounds and memory of Alaska all morning so I decide to continue the trend into the afternoon. Step after step down a 2 lane road in North Alabama.

Rough seas make for interesting body functions.  I reenact a scene as old as the sea itself, that of the green faced land-lover clutching the rail and vomiting into the turbulent waters beneath. I stand on the stern of the ship and feel my stomach rise and fall with the bucking sway of the Cachalot. With hands resting on a rail and looking out towards some distant port in Seattle, I take a couple deep breaths and straighten up.  Staggering up the walkway to the galley, I swing open the door and wait. Lean with it… Rock with it on the corresponding sway. I plunge inside to see the Head Engineer, Ed, sitting at a table bolted to the floor, reading the New York Times. He looks veritably relaxed in our current washing machine world and is amused by my green-ness. Ed is 67 or 76, I can’t remember, and has a calm composure that will slowly degrade into constant frustration over the rest of the season. At the moment, he is cool as a cucumber and seems at ease. I suspect he has just taken a couple rips off a fresh packed bowl but can’t be certain. I learn later there is rarely a time when Ed is not stoned and imagining he is somewhere other than this boat. We’ve been sailing for about 3 days now and are somewhere in between Kodiak and Sand Point in the Aleutian Islands. Our goal is Bristol Bay, where we’ll spend 36 days working as a middleman for the fishermen of Bristol Bay and the processors of Trident Seafoods.

The skipper, Hugh , figures it will take us 7-8 days to sail to False pass, slip through the brief respite of the peninsula and into the Bering Sea where we’ll continue North to the fishing community of Naknek. The boat is slow and bobs along like a cork floating on the crests of the waves. She’s 89 feet long and goes back to World War II. A classic. Really more of a rustbucket held together with shoelace and bubblegum with more mechanical problems than your Landrover, but I digress. A classic. We take 4-5 hour shifts at the wheel as we make our way through the waters of the Pacific. Green islands share their landmass with mountains as dark as obsidian. I imagine the highlands of Scotland would appear similar. Puffins dot the sea and rise up and over the waves as we approach them, the cartoon looking little birds keep me entertained with their bright orange beaks and black and white bodies. They often eat so much that they are unable to lift their bodies into flight, leaving them to be some awkward fishbird that floats on top of the water until proper digestion takes place. Convinced we are the sign of the apocalypse, they wait until we near their bloated bellies to escape, frantically flapping and splashing through the water to avoid the industrial sea monster crashing through the waves.

The night shifts are always my least favorite as I really don’t have an abundance of confidence behind the wheel. My crash course was less than exhaustive, “See this blue line on the GPS, keep the boat on that line. This is your auto pilot, it keeps you on a straight trajectory. Those are your engine RPM’s and that screen tells you which boats are in the general vicinity and their name. Let me know if you need anything.” I think to myself, “Kind of brief given the fact that a rookie mistake could sink $500,000.00 and lead us to a watery grave, but yeah, alright.” We chug along with surprisingly good weather for the rest of the day until about 11:45 PM. The winds start picking up in steady gusts with the waves responding to match the tempo. “Keep her on the blue line” I mutter and look to The Avett Brothers to break up the monotony as the midnight sun wavers on the horizon. Darkness arrives and before I realize it, the waves have shifted from the bow of the boat to the port side and have risen to 9 or 10 feet. The waves that were manageably slapping the square bow of the vessel are now ramming their shoulders into the side of the boat turning the vessel into a bucking bronco. I disengage the autopilot and wrap my fingers around the smooth wood of the helm for a few minutes so I feel like I’m doing something. I assume we just have to ride it out until the wind shifts again so I re-engage the auto-pilot. Or so I thought.

Things begin moving in the wheelhouse, so I scramble to mitigate the avalanche of charts, tools and other random items that have taken flight. I tie, tape and store things so they won’t crash through the wheelhouse like a wrecking ball. I assume we continue on a straight line despite the waves. I stumble down the stairs of the wheelhouse and store some more junk in the small closet beneath the removable staircase. I hear calamity ensuing in the galley, the trash can has flipped over and is rolling around the floor, books are flying off the bordered shelves and most sickeningly of all, I hear the coffee pot break loose of it’s bungee cord and go crashing into a cabinet. I hop back into the wheelhouse to see a spinning world of waves and the compass whirling like a possessed Ouija board. The auto-pilot has apparently slipped, or is broken, or I didn’t do it right or shit, I can’t make it stop spinning. I re-engage the auto-pilot but hear the whirring strain on some hidden cable and immediately disengage it again. I take to the helm again, putting my shoulders against the wheel just trying to stop the tail spin that we’ve descended into. It’s dark and I’m convinced I’m in over my head. We’re getting slammed port to starboard and I’m really not sure what to do, I decide to use my phone a friend card when Ed comes careening into the wheelhouse,

“WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON UP HERE?!”

“Shit, don’t know man, waves picked up. I think the auto pilot is broken…”

Ed grabs the wheel and I step back, glad to be relieved of my duties for the moment. We flip the light on to illuminate the points of the compass situated in the center of the dash but the bulb is burned out. He rushes out of the wheelhouse and returns with a headlamp. We fight with the wheel under the sickly glow of a Petzl headlamp in the dim wheelhouse under spinning constellations above. My mind lapses for a moment and I wonder what my brother is up to. I wonder what it would look like if I could look into this moment from a third party perspective. We struggle, strain and curse until we straighten the boat and return to the ebb and flow of waves crashing against the bow with a slight shift in our trajectory and a massive increase in blood pressure. Ed is cool about it, way cooler than I expected him to be. The auto pilot isn’t broken, I just didn’t fully engage it and it popped back out into free wheel anarchy. He says the same thing happened to him once. I feel like an idiot but I’m grateful for the anecdotal reassurance. Our dearest coffee pot, Proctor Silex as he was fondly called, is the casualty of my foolishness and I feel supreme survivor’s guilt looking at his shattered remains. The night shifts are really gonna suck without him. Ed gives me a slightly more in depth course on not sinking the boat and I finish out my shift

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May your spirit fly free Proctor Silex.

Steer, read, listen to music, write, sleep. Over and over again. There are instances that make things interesting.We almost crash into another vessel whose wheel man has fallen asleep. His vessel swings back and forth across the low waves until I realize he is directly in our path. I search the AIS screen for the name of his vessel and call him multiple times on the radio. No response. It appears to be a medium sized Gillnetter. High blood pressure again. He plows ahead, directly toward us, and I spin the wheel to the starboard side hard and ramp up the throttle. The old scow responds slowly but surely and we slide to the side as he continues forward. I  honestly think I could have hopped off the Cachalot onto the deck of that gillnetter if I had wanted to catch a ride back to land. We were that close to the bastard. Deep breath and nervous laughter. We refuel at Sand Point the next day and push on towards False Pass. Waves, wind, and sky over and over again.

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We sail through False Pass and emerge in the Bering Sea to unimaginably good weather for the remainder of our journey. The waves are practically ripples and the sun shines bright on my shirtless back. I can’t remember what the date is and I decide it isn’t relevant at the moment. The seasickness is a memory by now and I am once again on the stern, looking out to where I assume Russia is lurking in the distance. “This adventure”, I think to myself, “is kind of unnecessary.” It feels like a betrayal to let the thought form and pass over my lips after I’ve fantasized over this moment for so long. I know I came out here to prove something to myself, to prove that I could hack it at one of the toughest and most dangerous professions around. Tenacity is the word I’m looking for, and I find it. “I came out here to show myself that I have the same tenacity as Norman Maclean, Robyn Davidson, Percy Fawcett … a well of grit.” Silence falls for a few minutes as my mind continues chewing on the amorphous problem. “Look at where you are and what you’re doing… You already have it man.” It’s a weird thought and hits me in a correspondingly weird way. I’m satisfied with the simple answer though.

We’ll be in Naknek tomorrow to start the Bristol Bay season. I make my way back to my shared room, go to my bunk and tape a dollar bill on the wall at the foot of the cot. I’m here for one reason now.

‘Til Next Time,

Mike

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