Boat-Hopping (& a Request of Hooked Readers)

3 06 2011

I launched Hooked under the grim oversight of the Pacific Northwest’s lingering winter.  Between relentlessly gray days and our “off” season’s luxury of personal time, it seemed the ideal opportunity to start this long-procrastinated conversation.  To spend hours crafting thoughtful tributes to our unique industry, deliberate over the perfect photo to accompany the text, and, when the words weren’t flowing, toss peanuts to the increasingly well-fed jays and squirrels lurking outside my writing window… Add in the unexpected encouragement of supportive readers, and this venture has been even more rewarding than I’d imagined it would be.  I’m thankful to you all for making it such a good time.

Bear keeps a close eye on the Bobs (our Stellar's Jay collective)

As it turns out, my leisurely saunter-through-syntax approach doesn’t work so well in conjunction with our “real” working life.  I’ve learned there’s an ocean of difference between the posts I’d like to share with you, and the ones that actually make it up. Hours spent scraping halibut bellies were surprisingly conducive to composing stories in my head, but the ensuing tasks – icing those fish, baiting up for the next set, scrubbing the deck, unloading, a whirlwind of shower/laundry/groceries before heading back out on the next trip – didn’t allow for much personal reflection. This business of actually being a fisherman has made it tougher to write about what it means to be a fisherman.

The Charity celebrated a safe, successful longline season. Against our initial predictions, we were blessed with beautiful weather, reasonably calm seas and sunny skies the whole way through.  Caught our halibut and black cod quota in two trips, a couple weeks of long hours, good food and music, and much laughter.  By the time we hauled all of the longline gear off the boat and set her up for salmon trolling, the work’s physical demands were a fast-fading memory, evidenced only by some impressive bruises and accentuated biceps.  When Martin handed over my crew share, I marveled at getting paid to spend time with friends in the shadow of the ferociously glorious Fairweather Range, coastline I’d never have known without this profession. Truly, our time couldn’t have gone any smoother or more enjoyably.

The top of a halibut set, flagpole bobbing beneath the Fairweather Range.

(Alaska Waypoints is getting the exclusive dish on my halibut stories, but I’ll post them here 2 weeks after their initial publication.)

I signed off from Team Charity a week ago.  Flew back to the concrete chaos of Seattle, to clenching Joel’s Subaru’s “oh, shit” handle, because zooming 70 miles per hour up I-5 is terrifying after a month of sliding through the scenery at 7 knots.

We didn’t waste any time in shifting over to Team Nerka. Up early on my first morning back, we took her out for a sea trial with the diesel mechanic on board. That went well, and Cap’n J was obviously busy over the past month. There’s a strong new handrail on the port side of the cabin, excess air’s been bled from the throttle and clutch, and the varnished rails are shimmering.  The fuel truck came down to the dock, and 529 gallons later, all four tanks are topped off. Made a quick run up to Canada, to pick up some hot hoochies and other secret weapon gear from their fishing supply stores. And with only a minimal amount of fiasco that was mostly due to a way-too-late lunchtime, we lowered our trolling poles and attached all-new stabilizer lines and chain, hopefully ensuring that the Nerka will have as smooth of a trip north as the Charity did 5 weeks earlier.

With an intended departure date of next Wednesday, the remaining tasks are pretty slim. There’ll be some big grocery trips this weekend, hitting up Costco and Trader Joe’s.  Some final family visits, including moving our houseplants to my mom’s for the next 4 months. (They do better under her care, anyway – this seasonal transfer is an extended spa treatment for them.)  Bear’s been following the piles of salmon-scented clothes, books, and groceries going out the door with an increasingly suspicious gaze, and will know what’s up after Monday’s visit to the vet for a health certificate to travel through Canada.

The salmon season brings a tremendous amount of pressure, as we try to make our year’s livelihood in 3 months, and Cap’n J and I are a pretty driven team. If I’m honest with myself and you, I can already guarantee that the internal conflict between those dream posts in my head and the sparse, sporadic ones that will appear here will only increase over the season. I wonder, what’s most valuable to you, sweet reader?  If Hooked updates are fewer and farther between, what would you most like to read about?  Any fishing/Alaska questions you’d like addressed?  Let me know, and I’ll do my best to put them at the top of the list.

The sun setting on the Charity's longline season, on our final run back into Sitka.


Heading North

27 05 2011

“Heading North” is a story from May 2, 2011, and was originally published on, in my column, “Southeast, Variable.”  This post has been slightly expanded from the original.

A low southwest swell urges the Charity’s 46’ frame on. I’m perched on the edge of the pilot seat, as if the slightest forward incline will move us across Dixon Entrance any faster than 7.5 knots. We left Seattle 5 days ago, and with a non-fishing friend aboard for the Inside Passage experience, have been taking it pretty easy.

I’ve crewed for Martin on and off over the past 7 years. When I abandoned my Seattle social worker life, he provided the refuge of salmon trolling with him for several seasons. I ended up jumping ship in favor of working on the Nerka with my sweetheart, Cap’n J, but still return to the Charity every spring to longline for Martin’s halibut and black cod pounds. “You’ve got a lifetime contract,” he assures me.

Former boat kids who grew up treating Sitka’s docks as our private playground, Martin and I speak in the half-sentences of lifelong friends who are as familiar with boat life as we are with each other. I worry that our guest will feel isolated in this foreign floating universe, even as he expresses endless curiosity about our lifestyle. Having an outsider on board reveals how much of our information is muscle-deep, so ingrained that we struggle to put explanations into words.

Two days earlier, we’d clicked the VHF over to the afternoon weather update to learn what we’d be in for with that evening’s Queen Charlotte Sound crossing. The water was smooth, but our faces grew tight as we listened to the ominous forecast. “It’s coming,” Martin said.

Our guest has generously prepared every meal on this trip, and was studying the cookbook for that night’s menu plan. “This might be a good night to have an early dinner,” Martin proposed.

I added, “This is going to be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich kind of night.”

Four hours later, the Cuisinart snarled through roasted red peppers and tomatoes. Glassy waters long gone, the Charity pitched and heaved her way through the increasing chop. Our friend casually added the red puree to sautéed onions, stirring leisurely. Martin and I threw more frequent glances at the stove, contemplating the sauce that slopped closer to the cast iron skillet’s rim with each roll we took. Clearly, we weren’t speaking the same language.

The captain stepped in to assist. Within minutes, metal bowls of pasta and sauce made it to the table. We ate quickly. Our friend sipped some wine with dinner. No big clean-up afterwards, we piled everything into the safe confines of the sink. Things were going to get worse before they got better.

We put on a movie to distract from the building seas. Tossed some handfuls of M&M’s down as dessert. When the movie ended, our friend stood up. “So, I think I’m going to go throw up now. What’s a good place to do that?”

The calm in his voice belied the urgency. He made it out the door, but only just.

“Oh, no.” I followed our friend outside as Martin flipped on the halogens, braced myself against the cabin in his line of sight.  Murmured advice between the retching. Stay low, stay away from the rail, no big deal, it’ll all wash off. A groping hand of water reached through the port scupper, sweeping red angel hair away into the black water.

Today, that night’s discomfort is a distant memory. We’ve passed through empathic guilt – should’ve been more clear about keeping things simple, staying away from acidic sauce, alcohol and chocolate –  and have moved into excitement. As Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest begins to appear in the binoculars, our homecoming can’t come fast enough.

“Right about here, it starts to feel like home,” Martin gestures out the window towards Lucy Island. “I look at these hillsides, and the weight of Down South slides away.”

I nod. There can’t be any distinguishable difference between the ocean on either side of a manmade boundary – logically, I know there can’t – but still I’d swear my soul knows when we cross into Alaska. Shoulders relax, breathing deepens, heart rate slows as an unconscious grin sprawls. Noisy demands are silenced out here: Phone, internet, news, relationships, all left on the other side of the Ballard Locks. Out here, life strips down to true connectedness – us and the sea, trying to stay safe and make our living in this age-old trade.

When we get to Sitka, the work will begin. We’ll borrow a flatbed truck and burden the Charity with a mountain of longline gear. Pick up the other deckhand, who’s green to halibut fishin’, and rearrange ourselves into a coordinated team of three.  We fantasize calm seas, setting in a spot free of sand fleas and dogfish, getting our pounds quickly as the boat and our team work perfectly. We’ll watch the weather and shoot up to the Fairweather Grounds, making up for the emptiness of the hold with the fullness of our hopes. This time of year, everything is still possible.

The View From Sitka: Home

7 05 2011

We haven’t started fishing yet, but the good ship Charity’s captain and crew have officially entered the first sleep deprived delirium of our season. (It won’t be the last.) Just a quick update to let you know that we pulled into Sitka’s Eliason Harbor at noon today, and what a day it is… Every Sitka homecoming is special, but we couldn’t have asked for anything better than today’s glassy water, blue skies, and beaming sun. Feeling very blessed and thankful, through the sleep dep haze.

The trip north was generally uneventful, just the way we like it. Took a little longer than I’d predicted: we stopped each night in Canada for 4 to 5 hours, and had an 11 hour rest before crossing Dixon Entrance, waiting out 40 to 50 knot wind storm warnings. After crossing into Alaska, we ran day and night to make it here by today, to meet the second deckhand flying in and send home the friend who’d made the boat ride up with us. Only two all-nighters, but Martin and I are both zombies now, more than ready for a full night’s sleep with the relief of the engines off and the security of being tethered to the dock. The Charity did a beautiful job of getting us here safe and sound, as she always does.

Tomorrow we’ll borrow the flatbed truck from the fish plant to start loading all of our longline gear on board, with the hopes of heading out on our first halibut trip on Monday. There’s a good forecast to take advantage of, and we’re ready to get to work.  I’m too tired to explain the blissed-out relief and joy I’m feeling, so I’ll just let some photos do the storytelling this time.

Winding our way through Peril Straits at 5:20 AM, Sitka-bound.

Exiting Olga Strait, Sitka in sight.

Mt Edgecumbe supervising the homecoming.


F/V Charity, North to Alaska

29 04 2011

A mountain of unavoidable boat projects caused a few days’ delay, but I’m now reasonably certain that the good ship Charity will pull out of Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal today. As certain as a deckhand ever can be, that is. If a profession rooted in taking life can offer Buddhist teachings, it’s this: Let go of expectations and attachment, as captains reserve – and continually exercise – the right to change plans.

(I have a ways to go yet on realizing this lesson.)

The Charity's last night in Seattle, until fall 2011.

Had some excitement this week. If you read Hooked’s last post, you know I was pretty casual about packing for this trip. Saved it for my last night at home, tossed everything into a couple bags. I don’t expect to be on the Charity for more than a month, and the process is pretty formulaic. Boots, raingear, toiletries, a lot of fish clothes, a little of town clothes. (“Town clothes”: A T-shirt and Carhartts that haven’t been worn while fishing. That’s pretty classy for our crowd.)

While Martin did the Costco run, I prepared to gel-coat the head floor. At lunch, he’d said we’d likely stop in Bute Dale, a mystical ghost town several days into Canada. Century-old skeletons of houses and a long-abandoned cannery slide into the bay under the supervision of a massive waterfall and one lone caretaker, Lou.

My thoughts wandered as I wiped the floor down with acetone. Haven’t stopped in Bute Dale since the last time I fished with Martin…what, 6 years ago? Wonder what’s left of it. Bute Dale… Canada…Customs…Passport – NO PASSPORT!

I called Joel in panic-stricken disbelief. We were planning to leave in the next day, and not only had I forgotten to pack my required documentation for transiting through Canada, I didn’t have a clue where I’d put it. A bad surprise for anyone; extra mortifying for the family member known as the responsible, organized one.

Cap’n J saved the day. He calmed me down, refusing to play my “What if you can’t find it!” game. When he didn’t find it in any of my usual safe-keeping spots, he drove down to the Nerka, checked the binder of required documents on our boat. No dice. I jumped when the phone buzzed several hours later, and felt my shoulders sag when he said, “Found it.”

With that, things took a turn for the better. Joel had already planned a trip through Seattle for the next day, so he made a special delivery detour through Fisherman’s Terminal. We had a bonus last lunch together, a few more hugs and kisses goodbye, and I’m now legal to travel through Canada.  Whew.

We got fuel yesterday. Over $3500 of diesel. That’ll get us to Alaska; we’ll have to fuel up again in Sitka before we can go fishing. We’ve still got a few tasks today – groceries, running new anchor line on the winch, checking the survival suits. If you’d like to keep an eye on our trip, visit here and here for marine weather updates.  We’ll be heading up the Inside Passage, Seattle to Sitka, and expect a 5 to 6 day trip, barring any weather-related delays.

June 2010: Looking back on Washington water, heading into a great forecast.

When you next hear from the F/V Charity, we should be safely tethered to Sitka’s Eliason Harbor. If we pass on the dock, you’ll know me by the halibut-sized grin on my face. I’ll have made the first walk up to the Backdoor, Romeos fairly skipping over the sidewalk to get to that homecoming slice of Bernadette’s close-your-eyes-and-whimper-it’s-so-good pie. (See? So much for letting go of expectations.)

Until then, sweet reader, may you enjoy clear skies and safe seas in your life, as you embrace your own seasonal transitions.

Living Seasonally: A Deckhand’s Preparation

26 04 2011

Living seasonally applies unique meaning to life.  Time doesn’t seem to pass particularly quickly, as we mosey through the “off”-season, balancing necessary boat maintenance and improvements with the luxuries of being self-employed. Plenty of opportunities to indulge in hobbies, re-connect with friends and family, and putter around the house. After six months of squeezing ourselves into the confines of 43 feet, we bliss out on the decadence of an 1800 square foot existence.

I keep an eye on the calendar and warn non-fishing friends that any goodbye get-togethers need to happen now, or they won’t happen at all.  I take note of the red flowering currant unfurling in our greenbelt, say goodbye to the varied thrush and start waiting for the evening grosbeak to appear at our feeders.  Even with that cognizance, even as a lifetime veteran of this process, I still feel awe at the annual demarcation of exchanging one lifestyle for another. The change is total – geographic, professional, cultural, social, from living environment to daily routine.  No matter how gently you handle them, closing one door to open another conveys abruptness.

For the past two weeks, I’ve lived by lists, surrounded by scraps of Do-Before-Leaving itineraries.  Car insurance on hold, thrift store for hoodies, cancel netflix. After several months’ lapse, there was a sudden, desperate urgency to going back to the gym, and Joel got used to watching me drop to the floor mid-conversation for impromptu push-ups and sit-ups.

With all of this experience, you’d think I’d spend my last night ashore curled up on the red couch with Cap’n J. We’d reflect on our winter together and talk about our hopes for the coming season, Bear the Boat Cat spilling across our combined laps. A very mindful, intentional way to embrace transition, honoring what’s been and welcoming what’s to come.  Instead, I spent Sunday night in the midst of this:

Bear the Boat Cat, seasoned crewmember, knows this drill.

Our living room piled high with boots, gloves and raingear (several seasons’ broken in and smelling like it, plus a new pair as back-up), I demonstrate a brand-name allegiance that you’d expect from an affluent high schooler: Carhartt, Grundens, Romeos, Xtra-Tufs. The Ziploc bag of toiletries bulges with Extra-Strength Advil, Tiger Balm, and Biofreeze deep heating gel.  A sleeping bag and pillow, mirrored with a small mountain of socks – there’s no luxury on a boat to equal a fresh, dry pair.  And to shore-up my dock cred, a collection of Ray Troll T-shirts and hoodies. Less typical of your average halibut deckhand: the separate backpack bulging with  notebooks, journals, writing manuals, and netbook.

Watching the backpacks and black plastic garbage bags stack up by the front door, I have a moment of gratitude for my vertically-challenged frame. “Personal space” on a boat is generally limited to one space only, and at 5’2″, I can cram plenty into the foot and head of my bunk and still have a welcoming nest.

Cap’n J drove us through a miserable deluge yesterday to deliver me to Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal.  For the next month, I’ve signed off from the Nerka, working with captain and partner Joel, to return to the good ship Charity, crewing for captain and “brother,” Martin.  The halibut are calling, so we’re in the mad scramble of tidying the Charity’s remaining loose ends.  I hope to have another opportunity to share our progress with you, sweet reader, before our Thursday send-off.  Meanwhile, Captain Marlin has appeared at the coffee house and the work day is ready to start – best fishes, friends, until next time.

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