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.     

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Mount Edgecumbe Presiding

1 04 2012

The view of our neighborhood, friends:

Mount Edgecumbe Presiding, Joel Brady-Power.

Cap’n J got this one a few evenings ago. Mount Edgecumbe never fails to bring a smile to my face. On April 1st, that smile expands to a chuckle as I remember our volcano’s role in one of the most elaborate hoaxes of all time. Enjoy the story, friends, and enjoy the remainder of your weekend.

Want less story/more info? You can follow @TeleAadsen on Twitter. 





Cap’n J Takes the Stage: Fisher Poets 2012 Onsite Poem Contest

29 02 2012

After my Saturday performance at the Fort George Showroom, Cap’n J, Ashley and I braced ourselves against the biting cold and hustled over to the Astoria Events Center. The 2012 Onsite Poem Contest would kick off at 10:30. Emceed by two of my lit star heroes, Erin Fristad and Moe Bowstern, I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.

We’d learned about the contest on Thursday night, when the programs were distributed. Page 6 issued this challenge:

During the pre-performance Saturday afternoon calm, I’d seen one Fisher Poet after another, studiously hunched over a tablet, scrawling possible verses. “Have you written your poem yet?” several asked, and I shook my head.  No, not this time. I wanted to learn how things are done and cheer everyone else on this year.

If you’re imagining the Events Center as a sterile behemoth of a convention hall, that’s not the place we shivered into. A single-story square in the midst of downtown, we were met by a bar on our left, low balcony seating on our right, and about 300 people squeezed into the folding tables and chairs between us and the stage.

Photo by Pat Dixon

The crowd was unyielding as Moe wrapped up the Saturday set, so we stood against the back wall to enjoy her performance. I glanced over at Cap’n J and saw he had his serious face on. I knew he’d been disappointed that we’d missed Ray Troll’s band, the Ratfish Wranglers, the night before. Now, scheduled opposite the poem contest that I wanted to see, we were going to miss them again.

I leaned into his frown. “Are you upset?”

“Do you have a pen?” he countered.

(Do I have a pen…Really, dude?)

I handed him the Murray Pacific ballpoint from my right hip pocket and he grabbed the loose paper on the table next to us, a single sheet torn from a yellow legal pad. Lips moving silently, he scribbled madly while Moe sang and the crowd cheered.

“Quick – what rhymes with ‘joy’?”

“Boy, toy… Wait – are you writing something for the poetry contest?”

Co-organizer Jay Speakman and I had tried to lure Cap’n J to the afternoon story circle, unsuccessfully. This was the first I’d heard of his desire to participate. As he stared at the paper before him, we heard Moe shifting gears, calling all of the contestants forward.

“Got it!” With a final scribble, and perhaps as much to his amazement as Ashley’s and mine, Cap’n J rushed to the stage.

About 15 participants lined up as Moe and Erin explained how this worked. Everyone would read their poem once. Audience applause would determine who made it into the second round, and, along with the MC’s, who was the final winner.

Astonished to see Cap’n J in the line-up, Ashley and I elbowed our way forward. One by one, the poets stepped up to the mic, introducing themselves by name and home port. Almost exclusively male, they spanned the coasts: Alaska, Washington, Oregon. New Hampshire, Rhode Island. Japan, too. Written from the perspectives of captains, deckhands, even a pair of deck gloves, each poet uniquely wove in the required line, “work is our joy.” All remarkable in their own way, the combined talent was impressive.

Some were especially clever. Nancy Cook’s poem gave a nod to the video games she hadn’t played since 1983: “Work is our joy…stick.” And Rich Bard summed up a clueless crewmate, “She’s a real piece of work, is our Joy.” Some rewarded by raucous laughs, others with appreciative murmurs, we roared and stomped the Center’s wooden planked floors for everyone who had the courage to get up there.

And there he was: Joel Brady-Power, Sitka, Alaska.

Photo by Pat Dixon

I was so stinking proud of my best buddy.

He claims he was terribly nervous, but we couldn’t tell. And the room went crazy for his poem, and it wasn’t just his sister and me making all that noise. After a winnowing that cut the contestants down by half, Cap’n J made it to the second round.

Things got tougher from there. Moe declared that all of the finalists would have to take off two pieces of clothing – “And hats don’t count!” she hollered at our token cowboy, Ron McDaniel. Once more, each contestant stood at the mic, and the crowd roared for their favorite.

So… maybe you’d like to hear Cap’n J’s second go at the mic?

Forgiving my shaky hands, it’s a great video. But if you’re somewhere you can’t play it right now, here’s the text:

It’s the days when the mountains speak

and the sun’s poetry paints the sky

When the fish are thick and the ocean’s flat

and there’s not another boat in sight

And sure there’s days when the storms crash and thrash

and toss our boats around like toys

But thanks to a fisherman’s selective memory

our work is still our joy.

Not bad for 10 minutes before showtime, huh?

We celebrated everyone who’d made it to the second round, clapping as a line of gifted wordsmiths stepped down. “It’s never enjoyable sending people off-stage,” Moe lamented, and then two poets remained before us.

One was Hillel Wright, a writer who’d come all the way from Okinawa. (In addition to traveling the greatest distance, Hillel had triumphed over the most adversity to attend FPG. After making it to the States, he was in a car accident in Oregon. Thanks to the organizers’ quick rallying, FP Tom Hilton brought Hillel to Astoria.)

And Hillel’s co-finalist was… Cap’n J.

Ashley and I exchanged looks of stunned pride, as Moe announced, “Okay, Joel, I’m gonna send you out on the runway.” With an embarrassed smile, Cap’n J shuffled to the front of the stage, arms swinging at his sides. “All right, those of you who loved the poem of Joel, stand up!”

And that was where I watched an awesome event shift into something near-sacred. My sweetheart had never before experienced that kind of all-about-you public praising from a roomful of strangers – people who didn’t “have” to say they liked his words. Few of us have experienced such ceremony, and fewer still know how to receive it.

Joel managed to hold his ground for 8 seconds (I know, I’ve got it on video) before stepping away. But Moe was having none of that. As the crowd continued to cheer, she shook her head, pointed a finger at him, and boomed, “You GET BACK out there, Joel! You stand there, and you TAKE what they’re giving you. Take that in, Joel – OPEN your arms wide! That’s right, everybody, GIVE it to him.”

For the next 22 seconds, I watched my partner stand prouder than I’d seen in our almost 8 years together. He stood taller, his back straightened as if he’d never gone crabbing, and glowed. I wondered what could be achieved in this world, if every one of us experienced that wild public approval just once in our lives.

This time, when he stepped back, Moe acknowledged the challenge. “Thank you, Joel. That’s a hard thing to do in this culture.” That stage might as well have been covered in shiny paper and ribbons, as great of a gift as she gave him that night.

Hillel replaced Joel on the runway. With snowy hair combed back from dark eyebrows, a red flannel shirt and wrist brace, this gentleman exuded panache. The crowd went wild as soon as he stepped forward, and he twirled his gray sweater overhead like a professorial Chippendale dancer.

“Hillel Wright, you are the winner!”

And with Hillel’s blessing, here it is, the 2012 FPG Onsite Poem champion, “Cod Cheeks and Fried Baloney.”

A Yankee once fetched up in old Newfoundland

Where the beach is grey rock instead of white

sand

Where rain falls in April and snow falls in May

And dories and islanders cover the

bay

Where oldtimers cringe at the scent of a phony

And breakfast is perfumed with frying baloney

*          *          *          *          *

Where fiddlers always play the tune and dancers clog the beat

And cod cheeks make the gourmet dish and squid inks spice the meat

The Yankee thought the Newfies crude, but they said “Well me b’y

“Ye may think that we ‘aves no fun, but eh – work is our j’y!”

Friends, please join me in an Alaska-sized cheer for Hillel Wright, Cap’n J, and all of the 2012 Onsite Poem contestants! Immense talent, creativity, and courage; I feel privileged to have heard each of them.





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.)








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