Going Green: Training New Longline Crew, Part 2

28 08 2011

[This series on May’s halibut fishing was originally published on Alaska Waypoints.  Feels like an eternity ago, but I just realized I never finished sharing them here on Hooked. You can re-read Part 1 here, and the concluding Part 3 post should be up within a few weeks.]


The first fish to slap the deck is small, a 24-pounder. With Martin stationed at the hauler, I’ve taken the lead on training Ross how to handle and clean halibut, and class is now in session.

“Grab the gangion to hold the head steady, and bleed it like this.”  I slice an X below the cheek, and a crimson sheet billows across the deck. “Keep each fish flipped belly side up, like this, so they don’t bruise.”

We admire the glow of the fish’s underside, and I feel a flicker of self-doubt. It’s been a year since I cleaned a halibut; will I remember enough to teach someone new?  But as it turns out, memory is not the problem; verbally deconstructing a subconscious process is.

My hands move with Ouija-board confidence, the knife dancing through skin, muscle and membrane with a certainty that’s absent from my words. This lesson isn’t as simple as “Cut here,” but a more intricate puzzle of, “Cut here, slice that muscle, make a cut that flows with the gill plate. Bring your knife all the way through up there, but just a shallow cut along here through the top layer of tissue.” As if guiding a child’s first Crayoned alphabet-writing efforts, I place my gloved hands over his to re-direct the blade.


Before hauling, Martin and I gave Ross our final words of wisdom – or a last lecture, depending on your perspective – on what to expect. It’s hard to convey the perpetual motion intensity of longlining, when someone’s only comparative experience is the mental grind and long-term endurance test of trolling.

“Take care of all your bodily needs before we set or haul. Go to the head, get something to eat, stash a snack or something to drink on deck somewhere it won’t get slimed. Longlining is all about speed, and once we start, we don’t stop until everything’s done.”

Internally, I rolled my eyes. Longlining is hard work, sure, but with trips under a week long, it’s only a few days of hard. You focus, go wherever you need to go within yourself to do what needs to be done, and don’t stop moving until the captain says it’s time to stop. And for that, hopefully you make some good money, stay safe, and learn what your body and mind can endure when necessary.

Non-fishing friends shake their heads, wonder aloud why anyone would voluntarily put themselves through these demands, but it’s this pushing through and beyond my perceived limits that is precisely what I love about our work. New deckhands have to make the mental leap that fishing is a job where the harder you push yourself and the faster you work, the greater rewards you see. I’m hopeful that my work partner will understand that the faster we have everything cleaned, iced, re-baited, and scrubbed, the sooner we’ll be off our boots.


But right now, we’re in the midst of it, midway through our second set. Still an ocean away from being done. I slice, gut, and scrape my way through the pile, surreptitiously monitoring Ross’s process all the while. Cringing at the knife clutched in his hand as he awkwardly wrestles one wildly-thrashing halibut after another, I wonder how to explain the power of a fish that’s one massive muscle contorted with rage, fear, and survival instinct, and the urgency of handling halibut in the least disaster-prone manner possible. Whatever I’ve said so far doesn’t seem to have worked.

Sure enough, it’s not long before an angry 55-pounder thwacks him on the wrist. He jumps back, cradling right hand in left.

“Are you okay?” These three words have been bursting from my mouth several times a day.

He nods, looking at the fish with respectful eyes. “It’s like being hit with a baseball bat.”

The 2008 all-female crew, late night up to our armpits cleaning halibut.

When Ross and I begin baiting hooks in preparation for the next morning, the day’s end is close enough that I allow myself to start fantasizing about my bunk. We’ve soaked and hauled 2 sets. No major smash on either, we’ve chipped away perhaps a quarter of our quota today, a good training opportunity without ever being overwhelmed.

I’m quietly pleased with my crewmate’s work. His cleaning motions are slow but consistent, and he’s never stopped working. One moment’s stretch, gloved fists pressed into the small of his back, was the only indicator of the day’s demands. True to my Norwegian ancestors, stoicism impresses me.

I’m piercing a circle hook through a chunk of pollock, one eye on the fiery sun sinking into the horizon, when a new smell forces its way on deck. Unlike the usual looming odors of longlining, this one makes my mouth water immediately. “Oh my god, what are you making?” I call to the cabin.

In answer, Martin hollers out the galley window. “We don’t have any bay leaf or cardamom?”

Exasperated by his first venture into the spice cupboard, he grumbles adaptations to his recipe. Even in meal-making, a captain’s plans are constantly in flux.

It’s 10:00 when I study the deck. “That’s good, Ross.” All of the halibut, ling cod and yelloweye have been iced, 16 skates’ worth of baited hooks are draped over the cockpit, and the deck has been scrubbed. After 9 ½ hours on deck in constant motion, we’re done for the day. Tofu curry over rice, Extra-Strength Advil, and the bunks are calling us home, if only for a brief respite.

At the end of a long halibut day.


Second Wind: Taking the Marathon to Sea

21 08 2011

Commercial fishing is a manic endeavor, boots-on-deck busy when we’re in ‘em, and plenty of book devouring downtime when we’re not. “You should post some reviews of what you’re reading,” Cap’n J’s mom urged. Sounded like a good idea. There’s an abundance of beautifully-written Alaskana and nautical tales, genres that might appeal to Hooked’s audience, that I’d like to share with you all. But this inaugural review is devoted to something different, a memoir especially close to my heart.

Second Wind: One Woman’s Midlife Quest to Run Seven Marathons on Seven Continents is summarized thusly: “The story of an unlikely athlete and an unlikely heroine, a woman edging toward midlife who decides to take on a challenge that stretches her way outside of her comfort zone. That challenge presents itself when an old friend suggests she go for a run to distract her from the grief of her recent divorce. Excited by the clarity of mind and breathing space running offers her, she keeps it up — albeit slowly — and she decides to run seven marathons on seven continents; this becomes her vision quest, the thing she turns to during the ups and downs of a new romance and during the hard months and years of redefining herself in the aftermath of the very restrictive, religious-based marriage and life she led up until her divorce.”

Let me be very clear: I am not a runner.  Uneasy with my body and unwilling to exert it in front of others, I was the kid who spent all of middle school forging notes to get out of gym class. If you’d suggested a book about marathons, I’d have shrugged indifferently. Meh… Not my thing. Then I glanced at a reading schedule for the local bookstore last November, and saw that Second Wind was authored by Cami Ostman. Her name jumped off the page, and I made immediate plans to attend the reading.

A decade earlier, Cami and I had worked together in Seattle’s homeless youth scene. I gained a quick admiration for her, a trained therapist who significantly enhanced our services and encircled kids and coworkers alike with compassion. She left the neighborhood a few years before me, leaving a deep absence.

So I went to the reading. It was a packed house, an evening that showcased her gifts: funny, reflective, absolutely present with her audience. I bought a book and stood in the long line for her autograph, figuring that even if I wasn’t into “the running thing,” it was cool to support an old colleague.

Turned out, I couldn’t put Second Wind down. Told with Cami’s signature blend of self-effacing humor and naked honesty, I marveled that the narrative voice was so recognizably that of the woman I’d known. As welcoming in the written word as in person, she shared a journey uniquely hers, yet made it completely relatable – even to a slothful non-runner like me.

There were life parallels I hadn’t considered. “Training for the marathon gives a person the opportunity to learn things about the self that, I would argue, can be learned only through hard physical training. How much pain can you take? Can you tolerate being alone? How long can you entertain your own thoughts and really be with just yourself? How many times can you repeat the same motion with your body, the same mundane activity, and still find value in it?”

These are some of the very questions I’ve posed to aspiring deckhands. It’s no coincidence that boats here boast names like Endurance, Perseverance, Tenacious, Constance. Worn smooth as a tideline pebble by our complete vulnerability to nature’s whimsy and anxious dependence upon our bodies’ continued allegiance, my faith is woven from commercial fishing’s sleep deprived haze. I keep my head down and trudge on to the season’s finish line, carried forth on the conviction that the work will set you free. Not so unlike the faith of the marathon, I learned.

As I found a unique point of connection with Cami’s story, others will, too. Fitness enthusiasts will enjoy the race reports, the struggles and triumphs each marathon presents. Travelers will connect with the global adventures and cross-cultural friendships. Those examining their belief systems will relate to her quest to craft a spiritual identity that empowers, rather than restricts, personal growth.

Cami wrote, “ These pages hold not only tales of the races and the travels, but stories of inspiring, interesting people around our globe. I hope that once you are done reading, you will want to take a look at the ‘shoulds’ that may hold you captive and that wherever you have gotten stuck in your life, you will see a way to break free and find your second wind.”

And that’s precisely the lasting gift I got from Second Wind. In awe of my friend’s courage to re-create herself, then expose that vulnerable journey on paper for others to learn from, I thought of the years I’d surrendered, too frozen by fear, self-doubt, and laziness to write the stories that were increasingly insistent about being shared.

Beyond a book recommendation, this is a post of gratitude. Thank you, Cami, for your story, and for being such a powerful mentor and advocate of mine. I wouldn’t have had the courage or commitment to finally dive into this blog or the memoir without your example and unyielding encouragement.

(You can find Second Wind through your local bookseller, and learn more about Cami Ostman’s continuing adventures through her blog, http://7marathons7continents.com/.)

From Fish-able to Festivity: The Changing Face of the Fleet

19 08 2011

Any fisherman worth his or her salt water knows there are no guarantees in this business. From beached loved ones craving a stone-solid return date, to green deckhands already calculating the crewshare on fish not yet caught, how often have we explained inherent uncertainties? But years of experiencing the same maddening pattern has taught us that one thing is a take-it-to-the-bank given: After weeks of Variable 10’s, glassy June seas, you can count on the weather turning to shit just in time for the July 1st Chinook troll opening.

Our first few days were those grimly known as “fish-able.” Wind with teeth, Easterly 25, and a sharp-stacked Southeast lump that kept us perpetually clenched in its trough. Stuff stored on the roof launched overboard. I buckled into a rarely-called-into-duty life vest. Wedged into a corner of the bunk, Bear the Boat Cat glared balefully, surely wishing she’d been left in her kennel at the Sitka pound all those years ago. Not fun, but definitely fish-able for a young couple who’d overdone it with a winter of dinero-devouring boat projects.

Bear isn't a fan of "fish-able" days.

We’re motivated to fish tougher this season, sure, but let’s be real: this is the Southeast troll fleet, not Deadliest Catch. So when the forecast deteriorated to two days of gales, Cap’n J and I made a beeline for Lituya Bay. (If that bee’s line was a spray-saturated UpDownSLAMcrash-ridden trek, that is.) The last boat across the bar before the tidal-dictated door closed for the night, we fell into frazzled sleep minutes after the anchor was dogged.

Chaos on the ocean, peaceful oasis in Lituya Bay.

Over the next day, the bay filled with trollers who’d fled every corner of the Fairweather Grounds, including one of the fleet’s elite. An iconic steel beauty, she was on her final trip with the highliner couple who’ve treasured her for over twenty years. Another fisherman had put his money down and the paperwork was complete, but their negotiation was firm: They would fish their baby for one last king opening.

These folks spent their career as reluctant parade masters. Couldn’t shift their tack three degrees without a cavalcade of tag-alongs immediately adjusting course to match. The final trip of beloved community members would require equal attention and hoopla.

“A day like this calls for a beach party,” declared one of our partners. His eldest daughter set off in their skiff, the official taxi service for the festivities. Chronically underestimated by those who don’t see the tough spirit within petite, Swede-pretty packaging, she cranked the Johnson from idle to wide open, rocketing around the harbor with quiet control that belied the outboard’s roar.

One skiff-full at a time, it wasn’t long before the bay’s pristine shoreline was hosting a rager. Four code groups represented, members mingled amiably over a 5 gallon bucket full of Rainier, freshly-caught shrimp, and a fifth of Jose Cuervo direct from one captain’s winter in Mexico. A vat of seafood chowder balanced over the beach fire. As the number of partygoers exceeded the available bowls and spoons, the few we had became communal, scraped clean and passed on to the next person. We ate smoked black cod dripping with oil and gooey-frosted chocolate cake from our fingers, then licked them clean.

It was hard to believe folks could be so casual, forced to take a day off at the start of our time-limited, high-stakes opening, but as one fisherman observed, “Crap weather, crap fishin’…Might as well enjoy our lifestyle.”

Just a quarter of the Sitka sneakers ashore that day. (Photo by Angela Amos)

An intense transition is happening within the Southeast troll fleet right now, as one generation phases out and another steps up. Fishermen I grew up viewing as extended family, pseudo-uncles and aunts who kept a watchful eye on dock rat boat kids, are placing hand-lettered “For Sale” signs in their cabin windows. I’ve rarely seen the changing of the fleet as clearly evidenced as it was on the beach that day. Young skippers joked with the deckhands from whose ranks they were only recently removed, while old timers circled together, marked by the wide-legged stance of men who’ve spent decades urging their bodies to hold fast against the sea. Watching our elders reminisce, knowing gatherings like this would become leaner each season and we would never regain their history and knowledge, I wished the force of their shared memories could stop the relentless passage of time.

History you can't replace, among this bunch.

But when the beer bucket contained only empties and the glacial silt-heavy shore had been reworked into boot-sucking quick mud, the clock began ticking again. The taxi service fired back up. Boats who’d rafted together peeled apart, and trolling poles unfurled like wings. With the forecast giving the go-ahead, rejuvenated trollers streamed back to work the next morning. After all, as Joel and I jokingly remind each other, “We are here to catch fish and make money.”

Midway into the afternoon, we realized we hadn’t seen that legendary boat back on the drag. Turned out her owners had headed back to town. They’d caught enough to fill their freezer for the winter, and truly, how do you follow up the biggest retirement beach party in recent history? So this one’s for you two – you know who you are – with gratitude for your years, from the protective eye you kept on the boat kids of yesteryear, to waving a friendly hand on the tack to the new skippers of today. Enjoy the novelty of a summer ashore, until we see you again. A spot on the drag is waiting, yours to rightfully reclaim, aboard whatever vessel brings you back.

The party over, taking the taxi home.

A Fishing Love Story: Tribute to Cap’n J

11 08 2011

Fair warning, readers – this is an unapologetic love story. Today is a special day that requires some sappy reflection. Those of you stopping by for a hot fish report or our latest wildlife encounter, please come back later and Hooked will be back to the more usual fare.

I was crewing for my friend Martin in 2004. A clipping from The Stranger, Seattle’s weekly paper, rode in my wallet: I will take a reprieve from dating drunks, junkies, and emotional cripples. When Martin saw me eyeing boys on the dock, he was quick to chide, “Remember what’s in your wallet!”

The Charity came back to Sitka when the July king season closed. Responding to the same autopilot driving other deckhands’ feet, my route from the harbor paused at the public showers, then set a course for the Pioneer Bar. The P Bar’s attendance reflected that of the full harbor, with fishermen wedged five deep like boats rafted together.

When the young man on the neighboring stool smiled at me, I did a double-take. I recognized him as a fellow boat kid, five years my junior and just legal to be there. When I was nosing into an adolescence of blacked-out stumbles through Sitka, he was a life-jacketed sentinel on the docks, blissed out with a fishin’ pole glued to his hand. My memories of other kids from that time are silent, matte stills, but the glossy image of young Joel is accompanied by a soundtrack, his excitement bellowing across the water. “Poppa, Poppa! Come see what I caught!”

The origins of Cap'n J. (With big thanks to Mama MJ for the photo!)

But this wasn’t a little kid sitting next to me. I studied his clear green eyes and guileless smile, and thought of the clipping in my pocket. I was prowling for a summer fling and he appeared to have grown up well, surely didn’t fall under my restricted categories… No.  Hoping this fishing vacation would fend off my increasing tremors of social service burn-out, I was back in Alaska to work. Cute as this boy was, after my previous dating mishaps I didn’t need any further complications.

Of course, sweet reader, you know how those kinds of self-assured proclamations go. The next night we walked through Totem Park, submitting ourselves to a voracious darkness, and spent hours talking on the shore. Discovering a kindred spirit in the Southeast Alaskan rainforest, gently holding each other’s shared history under the chaperoning eye of moonlight as the surf’s faint chuckling approval echoed our words…My guarded heart didn’t have a chance.

The universe was working overtime on Joel that summer, ladling up a full plate of transition. As our relationship developed, he wrangled a winter job in the California crab fishery, crewing for a legendary captain who would become a life-changing mentor. And midway through the season, his dad announced, “I don’t think I want to do this anymore… How about you take over the boat next year?”

And so, at the age of 22, Joel became Cap’n J. The transition was less-than-seamless. The old man had a nose for when to get out, and handed the helm over just as every essential system on board gave up the fight. Joel would have to author his own blog to share the stories from that first season; I still get the willies remembering the mountainous series of mishaps.

Had I staggered free of a season like Joel’s first, that might’ve been it for my fishing career. But to his immense credit, his love for fishing was stronger than the suffering he’d endured. Blessed with a herculean selective memory, fueling his commitment with the recollections of good days, Cap’n J set about reviving the Nerka.  Six years and an exhaustive, expensive undertaking later, he’s resurrected her to a seaworthy vessel, a fishy boat that responds eagerly to our requests.

And now, today is Cap’n J’s birthday. He’s turning 29, on the cusp of finally exiting his twenties.   His birthday falls in the midst of our season’s annual closure, and in his early years as skipper, this break meant massive boat projects, trying to fend off disaster enough to make it through the season’s remaining 6 weeks. There were several consecutive birthdays that he spent upside down in the bilge, saturated in engine unmentionables and despair. Not this year. Our projects minimal and mostly done, we’re going to celebrate with the luxury of sleeping in – not as in, “I’ll set the clock for 4:45 instead of 4:30,” but “What clock?” – and mosey through the day from there. The harbor’s full of friends to visit, and there’s some snuggling to do while we’re town-clean and still smelling fish-free.  About as relaxed as you can hope for mid-season, 4 days before a 72-hour king salmon opening.

I couldn’t ask for a better life than this, working for my best friend in the wild temple where we both worship. Please join me in sending your good thoughts to Cap’n J for a wonderful day – or, as he’s hoping, for a delayed birthday present of giant king salmon and plenty of them, with clear skies and fair seas to boot.

Still as fish-crazed as he was 25 years ago.

(Happy birthday, Buddy.  I’m thankful to have had this decade with you, and am looking forward to many more. Love you.)

%d bloggers like this: