Teenagers and the Sea: Fisher Poet Tales (with Video!)

7 12 2012

National Fisherman did a nice write-up on last week’s Fisher Poets “On the Road” performance at Fish Expo, where Dano Quinn, Patrick Dixon, Abigail Culkin and I each had 20 minutes to perform. For the second post in a row: thanks, NF!

I swear Pat and I didn’t plan this, but with back-to-back readings, you couldn’t miss our shared theme: adolescence. Rough for any parent/spawn relationship, this is a particularly rocky period for those trapped together aboard a small fishing boat. Forced not only to co-exist, but to cooperate – the family’s livelihood depends on it. So does physical safety. As their parents’ crew, boat kids develop a ferocious work ethic, endurance, and responsibility. Transferable skills, whether they continue fishing or not. And it seems to be about a fifty-fifty split: of the boat kids I grew up with, maybe half are like Joel and me – salt-stained lifers who aren’t fully themselves away from the sea. The other half couldn’t jump ship fast enough.

Photo thanks to F/V Kathleen Jo

Photo thanks to F/V Kathleen Jo

The story Pat read, “The Connection,” is one of my favorites. It’s how I met Pat, and first learned about Fisher Poets, at Fish Expo four or five years ago. The audience packed the room – it was right next the beer garden – and I wedged into the back. When this tall gillnetter took the stage, I didn’t know what to expect – but it surely wasn’t this tear-jerking story of a reluctant killer, reflecting on what it meant to build one’s life by taking life. I’d never heard another fisherman so perfectly express my own inner conflict. Watch “The Connection” here.

And the story I read? Years ago, one of our fleet elders said something that stuck with me. He said, “Everybody has a rock up here with their name on it. If you fish long enough, you’ll find it.” As it happened, six years was all it took for this sleepy mariner. A story of drama, danger, romance, and triumph, watch “The Rock With My Name ” here.

This is a great warm-up, friends… Mark your calendars: the 16th annual Fisher Poets Gathering is less than three months away! This year’s dates are February 22-24, hosted in Astoria, Oregon. Check out their brand-new website – which includes a sneak peek at the performers signing up! (Between the veteran and first-time names, it’s already a great line-up, with many more yet to come.) I’d love to see you there.

Thanks again to National Fisherman for supporting this Fisher Poets “On the Road” performance, and to Pat Dixon for making it happen. Also, thanks to the delightful Betsy Delph, whose video may not have turned out as well, but her efforts were much appreciated. 





Hooked on National Fisherman

6 12 2012

I’ve been mostly on an internet hiatus this week, friends, working on a deadline, but want to quickly share a bit of news. Some of you have asked about the piece that I read at Sitka’s maritime-themed Monthly Grind. I didn’t post it here because I submitted it to a magazine. Happy news: National Fisherman bought that essay, “After the Man in the Tote.” Thanks, NF!

Many Hooked readers are familiar with September 11’s post, “Lost at Sea: The Man in the Tote.” Minutes after watching the Coast Guard’s amazing rescue, I scribbled madly, convinced that this miraculous survival story needed to be shared. But at the same time, a second story tapped my shoulder. “There’s a different way to look at this,” it urged. “Even with the unexpected happy ending, what did this scare bring up for other fishermen?”

It certainly triggered some long-buried trauma for Joel and me.

Tele Having a Bad Time

You can read an excerpt of “After the Man in the Tote” in National Fisherman’s January print issue, available now, or read the whole thing on their website, where it’ll be posted for the rest of December. I’m grateful for their support.

Gratitude is a fast-growing creature. Since Hooked launched in March 2011, I’ve been fortunate to receive so much support from commercial fishermen and our industry advocates. Pacific Fishing linked to Hooked almost from the beginning, publishing a generous introduction article in their June 2011 issue. Alaska Waypoints offered a column upon their own web-launch, and has been a vocal promoter and good friend since. So I’m further honored that National Fisherman has added Hooked to their blogroll, a sweet spot between iconic photographer/fisherman Corey Arnold and gillnetter/direct marketer Matt’s Fresh Fish.

Over the 28 years that I’ve been fishing, there have definitely been times I didn’t feel like I “fit.” Times when my gender or left-listing values seemed to set me firmly apart from my shipmates. As I’ve observed more young people and more women enter our fleet, more fishermen identifying environmental advocacy as a necessary extension of our profession, and heard from folks who’ve found their own life experiences reflected on Hooked, that sense of other-ness has lessened. The publications listed above have helped me see our vast oceans as small, interdependent communities. They provide valuable information and advocacy, reminding us that we’re in this together – dependent on each other, regardless of our various regions or fisheries – and that there’s room at this table for all.

I’m thankful to be offered a chair.

 

(January is also National Fisherman’s popular “Crew Shots” issue, and you can look forward to seeing some familiar faces. Fellow fishing blogger Jen Karuza Schile’s husband is pictured with his longtime crew, proudly representing the F/V Vis. The Tammy Lin and Lady Linda honor multiple generations of Sitka trollers. You’ll see Cap’n J and me soaking up the rays as we cut halibut cheeks on a sunny June day. I’m delighted that we’re sharing the back page with Jen Pickett, Cordova gillnetter, blogger, Fisher Poet and friend.)





Fisher-Readers, Please Meet Fisher-Writer Rich Bard

17 11 2012

The Fisher Poets have been on my mind lately. Less than two weeks until a performance at Seattle’s Fish Expo (Thursday the 29th, 11:30 – 1:00), and organizing’s already underway for the main event festivities in Astoria, Oregon. (Mark your calendars: Feb 22 – 24, 2013!) A phone conversation with fisherman writer/photographer Pat Dixon got me all sentimental for the men and women who’ve turned our profession into art. So many of us have picked up pens, guitars, paintbrushes, anything to externalize our conflicted love/hate/fear/craving for boats and the sea. More of us than you’d think: there’s a tremendous wealth of artistic talent in the fleet, of every fishery and region. During night wheel watches, while the halibut sets soak, when the fish aren’t biting… We have some excellent opportunities for venturing into our creative selves, and are surrounded by a treasure trove of characters.

With all this on my mind, last week was the perfect time to receive an unexpected email from Rich Bard. A Southeast Alaskan troller in the 1980’s and 90’s, Rich stands out in my childhood memories as a kind man who exuded thoughtful confidence, a comfort with himself, others, and going his own path. Rich was also one of my earliest role models of a fisherman who sought the grace of written words. When carbon monoxide killed one of our fleet’s most beloved members, Rich memorialized him with a poem that turned our collective grief into something heartbreakingly beautiful. (My friend Marlin and I, teenagers at the time, carefully cut the poem from the pages of the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal. Years later, we could still recite it.)

Rich’s boat stood out, too. The Anna was a lovely forest green sailboat, a sleek aft-house ketch rigged as a salmon troller. Though the Anna is still trolling out of Sitka, Rich is not. He sold her about ten years ago, leaving the troll fishery to deliver boats throughout the Pacific and Caribbean instead. The troll fleet has something of a revolving door (says she who had her own walk-away period) and I’m always fascinated to see how folks who’ve left will deal with their new, non-fishing life. Apparently Hooked has provided Rich both vicarious thrills and mixed feelings. In his email, he wrote, “The trolling addiction remains strong, and your engaging view of the all-encompassing joys and frustrations of a lifestyle that’s very hard to replicate in any other profession also dangerously reinforce the ever present urge that I should get back in.”

(You’d be welcome back on the drag, Rich. Many thanks for the kind words.)

Though we were both at last year’s Fisher Poets Gathering, I didn’t get a chance to thank Rich for his great reading – an excerpt from a novel he was working on. I’m thrilled to share that he’s finished that novel, West of Spencer, and has published it as an e-book, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Here’s the overview:

Bo, a salmon troller in Sitka, has been drinking steadily through the long dark Alaska winter trying to get over a broken heart. The tactic’s not working out too well. Spring and the need to get his boat ready for a new season offer some distraction, and Bo’s love for women keeps him above the poverty level on that front, but he just can’t put the past behind him. The only time Bo feels really free of regret is when he’s out on the water, wholly involved in his work, trolling for salmon. After some radical swings of fortune during the short spring openings, the main king salmon season starts out west, and a weird chain of events puts Bo in jeopardy of losing everything.

West of Spencer nails the hard-working, hard-playing lives of fishermen who ply the Gulf of Alaska waters. The novel doesn’t shrink from the grit of the fishing life: in the stinging spray and the blood on the deck, we get the true feel of life onboard, from a wild ride in a near-gale to the pensive calm of the quiet coves. The nature of a tight-knit community comes through on the boat radios, on the docks, and at the Quixote Club, a favorite watering hole. Throughout, Bo and his friends look, however erratically, for a deeper understanding: who is God, really…what are we supposed to be doing here…why is love so elusive…and, where the hell have the fish gotten off to now?

Trollers happily spend every spare moment talking about gear – what we’re running, what we’re catching on, what worked last season but isn’t doing shit this year. That’s the fun part of our obsession, but the bottom line remains: you can’t catch fish if your hooks aren’t in the water. There’s a similar hunger among writers to fill up on workshops, retreats, exercises, groups, any opportunity to compare literary practices. As trollers talk hoochies, writers tirelessly discuss our latest work in progress, how it’s going, what’s working, what’s not. And just like keeping one’s hooks in the water, in the end the only thing that will result in a finished book is the sheer discipline of keeping your butt in the chair. I get that, but still couldn’t resist asking Rich how West of Spencer came to fruition.

“I’d had a rather vague idea of a novel I could write about Sitka for some time, but like many (most?) writers, motivation’s the big issue,” he explained. “Journalism, with its deadlines, can be relatively easy, but a long speculative work needs its own motivation. I finally got started through a desperate urge to produce something (anything!) out of a particularly gloomy Northwest mid-winter. Continuing it provided an outlet when I was hired as captain to help an owner who didn’t handle the tropic heat very well get his boat from Florida through the Canal and north (as one of my crew remarked after a temper flare-up, “Yep, every day the boat gets a foot shorter.”) By the time I finished that trip, the book had gathered its own momentum and it was a comparative coast to the finish. Not sure if the urge to get outside oneself during time of frustration is the best source of motivation, but it’s worked for me.”

As delighted as I am by my fellow troller’s accomplishment, I’m less delighted to admit that I haven’t yet ventured into e-reader territory. (E-reader? Please. I’m still clinging to my dumb flip phone, no matter how overtly the Verizon staff sneer.) So I’m turning to you, sweet Hooked friends. Those more technologically advanced among you who crave a well crafted, utterly authentic nautical tale, please do check out West of Spencer. Thanks for showing your support for a fellow fisher-writer, friends, and many congratulations on your work, Rich!

Longtime Hooked readers may remember last year’s poetry competition, challenging Fisher Poets to use the line “work is our joy.” Rich’s piece, shared in the video below, was one of my favorite entries for sheer cleverness. 





FISH!

18 10 2012

Friends! Are any of you in Oklahoma? Or do you have extended communities that reach into the Sooner State?

If so, please don’t miss the chance to check out FISH, a multimedia art exhibition presented by the University of Oklahoma School of Art & Art History and the Lightwell Gallery. The exhibition will be open from Tuesday, October 23 through Wednesday, November 7. (Visit UOSAA for more location/time details.)

What’s the connection between a landlocked university and an examination of global fisheries? With their rich farming history, Oklahomans know about the long, arduous road of getting food from its point of origin to people. So do fishermen. Curator Cedar Marie took a “stream to plate” approach with FISH, inviting viewers to “consider how we tend to our relationships with the food we grow, harvest, and consume,” while also shining a light on one of our planet’s most diminishing food sources.

Longtime readers may recall this summer’s call for submissions. Thanks to an enthusiastic response, FISH presents “a compelling range of perspectives on the culture of fishing. Interpreted broadly, the artworks in the exhibition include sculpture, painting, video, and good old-fashioned storytelling, among other media, from both U.S. and international artists.” That range of fish-related perspectives includes water management, environmental/habitat concerns, historical depictions, sustainability, gender, safety, community awareness, and education.

(You’ll see some of Hooked favorite people/groups exhibited in FISH: Fisher Poet/Xtra Tuf ‘zine author Moe Bowstern, the Sitka Conservation Society’s Fish to Schools program, Rebecca Poulson, and Cap’n J. View a complete list of artists.)

I have to tell you, I seriously considered hopping on a Greyhound to be able to stroll through this show. Studied the calendar and everything, but it wasn’t meant to be this time. So, sweeties, if any of you are in the Norman, Oklahoma, vicinity, I’d love to hear your report. And if you’re in the area AND you’re free at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday, October 30, give yourself a treat and attend the legendary Ray Troll’s public lecture.

FISH’s curatorial statement says this: “Visiting Guggenheim Fellowship artist Ray Troll’s quirky images based on the latest scientific discoveries bring a street-smart sensibility to the worlds of ichthyology and paleontology. His drawings and paintings are also a delightful commentary on the fishy behavior of humans.” That’s all spot-on. Ray is an Alaskan icon, forever immortalized as the artist behind “Spawn Till You Die.”

(Ray’s also to be credited for keeping Joel and I clothed. We recently figured about 80% of our T-shirts and hoodies are Troll-isms. Case in point: writing this, I’m wearing his salmon yin-yang sweatshirt. The man’s cornered the market for the Southeast Alaskan uniform.)

As much as I’m a fan of FISH’s artists, it’s the story that really gets me. On the heels of World Food Day, FISH promotes a critical message of being connected to our food sources. As a fisherman, I’m grateful for all of the time, labor, and passion that Cedar Marie has devoted to our industry and our stories. Many thanks, Cedar, and big congratulations on seeing your vision to fruition. I’ll be cheering FISH from afar, hoping that some of Hooked’s friends will share their impressions with us.





From Greenhorn to Graduate: Celebrating Amanda’s First Fishing Season

1 10 2012

Exciting news, friends – Hooked’s guest writer Amanda has completed her first season in the commercial fishing industry! New readers, I urge you to take the time to catch up on Amanda’s journey. From an April morning when I overheard a young woman  say she wanted to go fishing, her pre-season anticipation, the first challenges and triumphs, a mid-season struggle, to these concluding reflections, she’s got a wonderful story and it’s been an honor to have her with us. A green deckhand’s experience is never easy; many newcomers don’t stick it out. Please join me in congratulating Amanda on a successful first season!

*****

Dear Hooked,

My contract is officially over. The weather has turned and the salmon in Chatham Strait are few and far between. I am back to life as a land dweller, grateful for regular access to news and local produce. Tender life feels very distant, especially being down in the Lower 48. By the time I stepped off the Nichawak, I couldn’t wait to talk about something other fishing. Anything other than fishing. Out on the water and tied up at the harbor, it seemed that all talk was of fishing hot spots and the latest boat project.  Now, down South, I find myself looking for opportunities to talk about fishing and feel giddy when given the opportunity to explain the difference between seining and gillnetting, or how to operate the Nichawak’s hydraulic booms.

Some mornings I wake up with phantom pains in my thumbs, as if I’ve just spent a long day “slingin’ cohos.”  My hands are a bit more scarred and my calluses are rougher, as I had hoped they would be.  My upbringing in the suburbs is something that I think is reflected in the look and feel of my hands.  They are mostly smooth and clean, a dead giveaway.

When I was a kid, my dad would assign me yard work chores. I spent more time complaining about them than actually doing them. This truth, embarrassing as it may be, brings me to one of the biggest challenges that I faced this summer: my attitude.

A week into the troll opener in August, we were on our third straight day of work without sleep. In these three days we bought over 90,000 pounds of fish, Skipper Sal, Gerald the deckhand, and me.  I think it’s fair to say that these are difficult working conditions.  That third morning, I remember the sun rising, the sky must have been bright and beautiful.  But I don’t really remember that beauty.  Mostly, I remember being vaguely aware of the colors around me and being pissed off.  I felt the scowl on my face and I heard myself snap at Gerald, “I’ve got this, back off!”

I was tired and sore, I was hungry and overworked, and I had yet to realize that this did not entitle me to be grouchy, nor did it entitle me to snap at my crew. Times like these (yes, this happened more than once) I had to tell myself, sometimes even out loud, to change my attitude, relax the muscles in my brow, get rid of that snarl on my face and get over myself.

Suffice to say, in the beginning I had idealized this experience.  Parts of the dream were realized.  I watched whales breech 30 feet from the boat. I learned everything I could, from telling apart a coho and a sockeye to operating hydraulic cranes. I conquered ratchet straps, I tied clove hitches, I navigated an 80-foot boat around Chatham Strait. I experienced glory and pride and accomplishment.

But there is no getting around it; parts of this experience were just shitty. They weren’t fun, they were hard. I learned a lot about myself this summer and some of these things were difficult to face, severe realities.  I let “grouchy” get the best of me. I have opinions and nothing to back them up. I have too much pride.

Pride.  Such a stimulant, such a barrier.  How did I get to be a person with so much pride? Why is it that I hated asking for help? Why did I balk so much at the idea of someone correcting or compensating for my mistakes? Why could I push myself to work harder and be better only to prove that I could? As busy as the tender life is, there was plenty of idle time to consider these questions.  Yet I never seemed to figure it out: where does pride come from?

This winter I will work in the high desert of Washington State, tending to horses and learning about life as a ranch hand. As of now, I will return to the Nichawak, possibly working for Sitka herring (the fishery where I first discovered fishing!) and probably for another season as a Southeast seine, gillnet, and troll tenderwoman.

I think about why I want to return. I try to remind myself that it is because of certain privileges in my life that I even have an option. I have the privilege of being able to choose what I will do next and make a choice based on a desire for personal growth.  For me, a bit of guilt is inherent in this fact, but I won’t be constrained by this.

So, I think I will choose to go fishing again.  There is still self-reflection to be done, there are skills left to learn, and then there’s good old fashioned pride, a nagging reminder that next year I can be better.

- Amanda





Lost at Sea: The Man in the Fish Tote

11 09 2012

Friday, September 7th, is a bad day on the ocean.

With the forecast calling for Southeast winds of 35 knots and 11-foot seas, the Nerka spends the morning trolling in the mouth of Gilmer Bay. We hadn’t expected to be fishing at all today. If we catch anything, we reason, they’ll be bonus fish, and we’ll already be safe in the harbor’s arms when the wind comes up. On Day 13 of a grueling trip, a relaxing afternoon on anchor sounds good.

We eat lunch on the pick shortly after the wind bares its teeth, but any further thought of relaxing whooshes overboard with the building gusts. By early afternoon, eight trollers cluster on the bay’s southern shelf, straining taut anchor lines. Our companions are 48-foot fiberglass and steel rigs, sturdy, seaworthy vessels. As seaworthy as any of us can be. With September’s onslaught of fall weather, no one wants to push their luck. Winner of the tough guy award, the final arrival drops his anchor at 3:00.

Whitecaps slam-dance between boats as the wind holds steady at 39 knots. The gusts are dragon’s breath, visibly rip-snorting through the bay. An elderly wooden troller, located several hours away behind St. Lazaria Island, begins taking on water, and one of our harbor mates drags anchor. As the captain naps, his boat shoots clear across the anchorage as if sail-powered, pausing a quarter-mile from the rocks. Another troller is charging over to alert him, when he wakes in time to avert disaster.

Darkness brings a rare pardon. The man taking on water reports that he’s safe for the night. The gusts let up and the whitecaps come down. The dragon goes to sleep, and so do Joel and I. Deep in relieved dreams, neither of us hear the Coast Guard’s midnight call to any vessels anchored in Gilmer Bay.

*****

Saturday begins at 4:30, when Joel pulls the anchor and we run into the pitch black. Out Gilmer Bay, past Point Amelia, on to Beaver Point. Though dawn is an hour away, so is the spot we want to drop our hooks. After the previous day’s frenzied conditions, the sea’s remaining bounce feels gentle.

When our fishing partner Marlin joins us on the drag, his voice is grave. “There’s a boat missing. That’s why they were calling all of us in the anchorage last night, to see if they’d made it in there.”

He describes a 28-foot troller, “landing craft style” – an open vessel rigged with a couple fishing davits and outboard motors. “I’ve passed it in the straits,” he says. “Can’t remember the name, but they always wave as they go by.”

Fishermen are never a stronger community than in situations like this. When tragedy cuts one of us down, we all bleed. We throw judgment to staunch the flow of fear; our anxiety turns hot, acrid. Envisioning the worst as foregone conclusions, our anger is that of parents waiting for a teenager out long past curfew. We talk about the “big boats” that holed up tight or headed for town, and curse, “What the fuck were they doing out there?”

All morning, the Coast Guard’s orange bird buzzes Kruzof Island. The usual fishing chatter is eerily absent from the VHF. Throughout the fleet, we all turn up the volume, lean in to follow the helicopter’s search updates as they’re broadcast across channel 16.

Midday, the Sitka Mountain Rescue reports debris at Shoal Point. Hearts seize. “Debris” is code for an oil slick on the water, drifting buckets, maritime tombstones marking the site where a boat went down. But the helicopter quickly disputes this sighting. “The debris is tsunami-related, we can see the Japanese writing.” The search goes on.

At 1:40, the State Trooper patrol vessel Courage calls the Coast Guard. “We’ve got one survivor in sight on the beach at Point Amelia. He’s waving, ambulatory, and appears to be okay. If you’ve got a helo you can send, landing’s gonna be tough.”

The response is immediate. “We’re about four minutes out, eight miles away.”

“It’s a very steep, cliff-y area,” the Trooper warns. “You’re gonna have to use a hoist.”

“Roger that. Thanks for the help.”

*****

Though Joel and I are alone on the Nerka, I swear the cabin rings with every other trollers’ cries of relief when the pilot’s voice comes through the speakers. “We’ve got one survivor on board.”

Thanks to the alert man’s explanations, the pilot relays previously unknown details. At 2:30 on Friday afternoon, they went down off Beaver Point. The last troller came into Gilmer at 3:00, I remember. An hour’s run… He would’ve been right in front of them. 

Joel interrupts my pensive thoughts with his own. “Dude. When we smelled gas earlier…”

Trolling along Beaver Point several hours earlier, we’d gotten a sudden whiff of gas. Marlin had, too, asking his deckhand to check that their skiff motor wasn’t leaking. But there’d been no rainbow sheen on the water. The ghostly vapors were gone almost as soon as we’d smelled them.

Now we stare at each other in too-late dawning horror. “Holy shit… That was their boat we were smelling.”

“Shit. I didn’t even think… We should’ve let them know, gotten them on the scene a few hours earlier.”

Guilt is a cold shroud, and I shudder. It’s too horrifying to realize that we’d thoughtlessly puttered over a shipwreck less than a day old, its people vanished.

*****

 Now, thanks to the located survivor, the Coast Guard issues a Pan Pan radio call with additional information.

“The Coast Guard has received a report of zero-one persons in the water in the vicinity of Gilmer Bay. The person is described as a male wearing an olive green float coat, dark blue fishing pants, located in or near a light blue fish tote. All vessels in the vicinity are requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if possible, and report all sightings. This is Coast Guard Sector Juneau, out.”

Not a survival suit – a float coat. I glance at the clock. It’s been almost 24 hours since they went down. Fear again spits forth as frustration. Oh, for god’s sake – an olive green float coat? Wear stuff that allows you to be found! Ahead, the coastline lurks through Southeast Alaska’s omnipresent ocean mist. Dense dark forest meets a charcoal shore. I glance down at myself – black fleece pants, black thermal shirt – and make a mental note. From here on out, I will select fish clothes as if my life depends on them.

*****

By 2:00, forecasted “light winds” have escalated to a snarling 27 knots. With the wind comes sideways rain. The fish stopped biting after a few good tacks; now Joel and I loiter in the cabin’s warmth, ignoring our empty lines. “This is stupid,” he finally says. “We’ve had a good trip. Let’s stack ‘em and get going to town.”

The logical route back to Sitka is to run south, around Cape Edgecumbe and into Sitka Sound. But it’s gotten shitty, and we’d be bucking right into it. We opt to run up the coast instead, tacking an extra 10 miles onto the journey, to duck into Salisbury Sound and double back down to Sitka by way of Neva and Olga Straits’ blissfully calm embrace.

The Nerka charges along at 6.5 knots as Joel and I follow the radio conversation between the Coast Guard and the Trooper patrol vessel. They’ve combed the entirety of Gilmer Bay and the surrounding area. “Have you looked off-shore?” one asks the other. They haven’t yet, but will run five miles out and begin tacking up.

“If he went off-shore…. That’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Joel turns to me. “You know, we’re running this way, anyway. Let’s duck out and keep an eye out.”

I nod. “Sounds good.”

But “keeping an eye out” is easier said than done. With dense cloud cover sitting heavily on the water, visibility has deteriorated to less than a half-mile. The seas are battleship gray, punctuated with white curlers that smack the Nerka’s port hindquarter as we angle off-shore. We take a couple nasty rolls, traveling in the trough. I’m ashamed of my relief when Joel clicks the autopilot to the starboard.

He studies the chart on the computer screen. “The helicopter said they already flew at two miles and didn’t see anything. We’re at two miles now, so let’s angle in and run the one-and-a-half mile line up to Salisbury.”

I perch at the starboard windows while Joel surveys the area to our port, binoculars snug against his eyes. The glasses twitch at every paddling seabird. We simultaneously gasp at a head bobbing towards us. It disappears under the surface, then slowly pops up for a closer look – a head of bull kelp.

He shakes his head. “Amazing how something like this makes the ocean seem like such a huge, lonely place.”

For the next 35 minutes, we stare into the sea. Loud silence settles in the cabin, until Joel breaks it. “Can you imagine what that guy must be going through? Bobbing around in this weather, no idea where he is or if anyone’ll find him…”

I don’t voice my terrible thought: I don’t expect he’s going through anything anymore. Adrift in these conditions all night and all day, no survival suit, totally dependent on a plastic tote that may or may not still be afloat?

Moments later, Joel says what I didn’t. “If they haven’t found him by now… I think that guy’s a goner.”

“Yeah.”

Still we look. Everyone does.

*****

When I leave the window, it feels like kneeling to defeat. I cut an apple, slice some cheese. Neither of us is hungry. The food sits on the table like an accusation.

“THERE!” Joel leaps up from the pilot seat, pointing out the window with one suddenly shaky hand, yanking the throttle down with the other. “What’s that?”

Immediately ahead, sixty feet to our port, a blue tote wallows among the waves like an apparition. The opening faces away from us, listing heavily to one side. A dreadful thought pops into my mind. Is a body weighing it down?

Joel fumbles for the radio mic. “Coast Guard Juneau, this is the Nerka. We’ve got a blue tote in front of us. I can’t see anyone in it, but – “

Our shrieks mingle. “There’s another one!”

Several hundred yards ahead bobs a second sky-blue vessel. This one sits upright – and a tiny dark spot peeks out of the top.

“He’s in that one!” Words shrill with disbelief. “He’s waving – he’s alive!”

While Joel relays our position to the Coast Guard, I run up to the bow. The man in the tote stretches his arms wide overhead, raising and lowering them without pause. I mirror his movements, waving wildly. Holy shit, man – you’re alive!

Adrenaline makes me foolish. I’m scrambling for buoys, lines, wondering how we’ll pull him out of the water, when Joel sticks his head out of the helm window. “The helo’s already almost here; they’ll pick him up.”

Even as he says the words, the enormous thrum of helicopter blades reverberates through our bodies. Suddenly we’re inside a blender; the waves flare up in dense rotor wash as the helicopter descends through the heavy cloud ceiling and hovers above.

We aren’t close enough to shout to the man in the tote. Even if the sea didn’t yawn between us, the wind and helicopter noise would drown our voices. So I stand on the bow and continue to wave madly, hoping he’ll be able to translate the prayer-full thoughts in these frantic gestures. You made it through, sweetie, they’ve got you. You’re gonna be okay, they’ve got you. They’ve got you.

Joel puts the boat back into gear and runs away from the scene, wanting to be out of the way. Then, like good products of a youtube/Facebook culture, we stand in the Nerka’s cockpit and film the rescue. I hold my breath as the rescue swimmer descends into the water – so fast! – and watch him lean into the tote. What does that first moment of physical human contact feel like, I wonder. Had the man in the tote wondered if he’d never again feel touch other than the ocean’s assault, the wind and rain’s stinging slap? Or had he maintained hope through the night’s darkest hours?

Forty-three seconds. That’s how quickly the Coast Guard has the basket down to the water, the man fastened in, and back into the helicopter. They hoist the rescue swimmer back up next, and the helo rises. The abandoned tote shudders in the rotor wash.

Joel climbs out of the cockpit. “Okay… Let’s get going.”

He ducks out of the sideways rain, back into the warmth of the Nerka’s cabin, and the engine revs back up to traveling speed. I stay on deck for a moment longer. Tears I wasn’t aware of mingle with the rain on my cheeks, and my arms open once more in that wide windmilling motion. Slow with gratitude now, I wave to the helicopter, wishing again that body language translated.

You guys are amazing. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

*****

At 4:07, the helo pilot calls the Sitka Air Station. “Be advised, we’ve got the survivor on board.” Asked if they’d need medical services on scene upon their arrival, the pilot replies that it’d be a good precaution, “but his vitals are good.”

The man in the tote lands in Sitka at 4:31 p.m., Saturday, September 8.

*****

Why did the F/V Kaitlin Rai go down? The Sitka Sentinel got the story.  

Visit Alaska Waypoints to view videos of the rescue, taken from the Nerka’s back deck.

Written with the greatest joy for both survivors and their families, and heartfelt gratitude and awe for the Sitka  & Juneau Coast Guard, Alaska State Troopers, Sitka Mountain Rescue, and all of the individuals who respond as if a stranger in need is a loved one. I’ve never been more thankful to be a part of this ocean family.     





Scenes of King Salmon Trolling (Part 1)

25 08 2012

Hi friends. We’re in the midst of Southeast Alaska’s second (and last) king salmon opening, trudging through Day 14. It’s been a rough one – beautiful weather negated by coast-wide poor catch rates, far from the season’s salvation that so many fishermen had hoped for. I’ve been looking back to July’s first king opening with nostalgia.

*****

Late June. I am lingering over a cup of coffee at the Backdoor Café, exchanging goodbyes and good wishes to local friends. Yep, leaving in the morning for the king opening, see you in a few weeks. A nearby woman overhears. She asks me to watch her science fiction paperback for a moment, then heads out the door.

When she returns a few minutes later, she plucks a small golden icon from her dress pocket, extends her hand to mine. “This is for you. Saint Nicholas keeps women and men at sea safe. Be careful out there, and come back to us.”

*****

Cap’n J and I always imagine we’ll leave town a few days before the July 1 opening. We fantasize a leisurely idle out to the fishing grounds, breaking the 18-hour run into several days, even sparing time to do something fun along the way. Between last-minute mechanical gremlins and the greedy distractions of town, it never happens that way.

Until this year. The Nerka eases into mist-shrouded Bertha Bay on the evening of the 28th, joining one of our favorite boats, the Kathleen Jo. Jeff is another young captain, a fellow boat kid who grew up to take the reins of his childhood summer home. Arriving a few hours ahead of us, “Captain Picnic” and his deckhand have already started blissfully pruning in White Sulphur Hot Springs, but skiff-master Derak jumps out to ferry us in. We sink into the scalding bath carved out of stone and gaze through the layers of rain, wondering aloud whether the coming days will bring glory or despair.

*****

On the 30th, we run all day to reach our destination, charging 40 miles off-shore straight into the Gulf of Alaska. The sea is quiet. Scanning with the binoculars, we see flocks of sea birds paddling serenely along the glassy surface. “Damn, there’s a lot of birds here!” Joel says. Fulmers, storm petrels, shearwaters, albatross… It’s as if they’re anticipating tomorrow’s opening day as anxiously as we are, eager for salmon entrails flung to waiting beaks. We trade hopeful grins; this visible link of the food chain bodes well for us.

Joel throttles back in a spot of ocean that, on the surface, appears no different from any of the surrounding blue. The differences lie beneath, and he is acutely aware of them all. He shuts the main engine off, but the auxiliary, running our fish hold freezer, growls without pause. Except for brief reprieves in town after the fish are safely delivered, this diesel drone is a relentless soundtrack to every freezer troller’s season.

*****

Day One. The alarm sounds at 2:30. We roll straight out of the bunk and into the fish clothes laid out the night before – scrubby sweatpants and thrift store hoodies, sleeves rigid with multiple seasons of salt and slime. As if no time has passed since we last did this, our bodies immediately slip into the repetitive steps of a bloody ballet.

The day doesn’t live up to my sweetheart’s fantasy, but it’s good all the same. We take turns running into the cabin to shovel spoonfuls of pasta salad into our mouths, then find a school of night biters – kings that climb onto our gear until sunset’s lingering echo is long silent. Flipping on the deck lights, I fumble through the final scrub-down, erasing every gory crime scene splash to begin fresh the next day.

It’s 11:30 when we peel off our boots and fall back into the bunk. Reaching for the clock, Joel mumbles, “Gonna sleep in tomorrow.”

“Three o’clock?”

“Three fifteen.”

*****

Day Two. With less than a four hour nap, we wake to find the Nerka lolling in almost the same spot of ocean we’d shut down in. No need to run to a fishing spot, our hooks are in the water by 3:30. The first king salmon hits the deck before 4:00, and the day officially begins.

Despite the extra 15 minutes of sleep, we’re zombies today. By mid-morning, Joel retrieves pints of Ben & Jerry’s from the fish hold. “We’re gonna crash so hard from this,” he says around a spoonful of Bonnaroo Buzz.

I swallow a -38 degree shard of New York Super Fudge Chunk. “Sleep deprivation, adrenaline, and massive sugar overload… We are fuuuucked up, buddy.”

Loose stuff on a boat is a bad idea, and ordinarily I’m a stickler for keeping things in their right home. But by the end of the day, I stop putting the Ibuprofen away between doses. The Costco-sized bottle squats on the table, as familiar a centerpiece as the fists in my back. Petulant at being forgotten over these past eight months, old aches and pains demand attention. Oh yes, I remember you…

*****

Day Three. Joel spends most of the day in the cabin, fingers of his right hand taped together, a bag of frozen peas and carrots slowly melting on swollen knuckles.

This is a sudden, startling turn of events. Midway through the previous day, as we’d stood side-by-side in the cockpit, gutting kings in unison, Cap’n J began inhaling sharply with each slice and scrape. “It feels like there’s ground-up glass in my knuckles.”

Today he can’t wield a knife without lightning bolts of pain shooting through his right hand. Thanks to a few lucky decisions, this is one of the best king salmon days Cap’n J and I have had together. Of course it is. I handle the deck, dashing between running the lines, landing fish, cleaning fish, preparing them for the fish hold, while frustration and fear stain my sweetheart’s face. What kind of rebellion is his body staging? And what kind of future does a fisherman have, without his hands?

*****

Day Four. Team Nerka is a mess.

The 3:15 alarm drags me out of dreams – nightmares – that I haven’t yet fallen asleep. Joel’s hands continue to shriek in protest. Mine do, too, after hours of hauling giant ling cod to the surface. Aquatic dragons with fanged five-gallon buckets for mouths, they grimace and snarl as I struggle to release their hooks, then dive back to the depths with a thankless smack of the tail.

When I duck into the cabin for a cup of tea, Joel shakes his head at me from the pilot seat. “This sucks, dude. I’ve never wished for a gale during the king opening before, but I sure could use a harbor day.”

Only Bear seems unfazed. She spends all day in the fo’c’sle, curled in a tight ball beneath our sleeping bags. This is out of character, and by mid-afternoon we’re anxious – is our cat okay? When she finally bounds up the stairs and stretches leisurely in the cabin, Joel and I have been up and working for 12 hours, with another seven yet to go. I swear that’s a smug smile under her whiskers.

*****

Stand by, friends – to be continued whenever we’re next in town. Until then, best wishes to you all.








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