Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Taking a Different Tack Part III

By John S. Mickman

Just before we broke out from behind the breakwater, I turned our bow into the wind and Jim hoisted the mains'l. On the way up, the sail was flapping like crazy. "Keep going Jimmy", I called out as he cranked the windless as fast as he could, which raised the sail. "The batons have cleared the skipjacks so just go full bore!", I exclaimed trying to minimize wear and tear on the sail because it was flapping so hard. "OK Jim, just 3 more feet, 2 more feet, 6 inches more. That's it. Make 'er fast", and Jim secured the halyard brake and took the mains'l halyard off the windless. Next Jim spread the fores'l as I turned the boat to port. When the wind caught both these sails, Morning Star began to fly on her own and I shut down the engine. "Yeee-Haaa..." Jim shouted as the wind seeming lifted the boat half way out of the water. "We're just flying along John".

I smiled at Jim, a little less exhilarated; the anemometer read 32 knots as we broke free of the harbors' breakwater. The morning's forecast hadn't been any different from the previous evenings; 25 knots 'till noon, then 30 knots - but it was only 6:30 and we already had over 30 knots of wind. To make matters worse, the wind had not let up over the night, and the seas had continued to build. There were 8 foot sea's, plus the odd rogue wave to over 12 feet. Big weather for our 37' sailboat.

But, Morning Star is a tough little boat and parted the seas nicely as we sailed along. I advised Jim that we may need to put the weather on our tail and return to the harbor if it got too much tougher, but for the time being we'd keep plowing along.

The other bad news was that the wind was still from the NNW - right from the direction we needed to go. So we began our close coast tacking, back and forth sailing rapidly, but never in the right direction. After an hour, we had only gained about 3 miles of distance toward Dana Point, even though we were making about 5 knots of speed.

As the wind continued to build, now at 35 knots, Jim and I decided to take a different tack: "We just aren't making enough headway Jim. I think we need to head off-shore about 10 or 12 miles and hope to catch the wind off our portside bow enough to blow us up to Dana Point", I said. Jim agreed, but offered that he hoped we wouldn't need to get that far off shore, "At 5 knots that 10 miles is going to take 2 hours John, and we'll be going in the wrong direction. We won't get any further away from Dana Point, but we sure won't be getting any closer. Don't you want to be back in a harbor by noon?" he asked.

"Yea I do Jim, but we aren't going to make it by trying to tack back and forth all day. I think it's worth a shot. If we don't like the way it's going, or the weather gets too tough, we can always change course and let the wind blow us back to Oceanside", I said. "OK John, let' come about then. A different tack - coming up!", Jim shouted.

 Jim is a great guy to go sailing with, as we can bounce ideas off each other until we arrive at the best decisions. Hopefully. And being my brother, he has the same sense of adventure and 'brinkmanship' as me. We're both always ready to take a calculated risk - usually with a backup plan in place. "OK Jimmy, coming about", I yelled through the wind as Jim went forward to work the rigging.

When we got on our new course, just a tad north of due west, we picked up another knot of speed to 6 knots. Our 10 mile goal would take us about an hour and a half. Morning Star was knifing through the building seas nicely, but the further out we got, the higher the seas became. When we were down in the trough between two seas, we could not see over their crests.

But Morning Star was doing great and the wind was steady, now at over 35 knots. As Jim and I talked about the wind and the water, we watched as multiple squalls out to sea raced along, most of the time missing us, but not always.  When one of the racing squalls hit us, the wind would pick up a couple of knots and the rain would come down sideways, peppering our faces with hard, cold pricks. Very irritating.

When we were about 8 miles off shore, Jim went below to make a pot of tea to warm up a little bit; I'm not much of a tea drinker, but a nice hot cup of tea sounded good to me too. As we were passing through yet another squall, I squinted through the rain and noted what looked like a sea racing toward us that was much bigger than the others. "Rogue Wave!", I yelled out to Jim down in the galley. "Hang on!"

Years ago while fishing the North Pacific on the King Crab boat the Marcy J, my buddy Chris Jones and I often talked about the different effects of wind on the water. We came up with a grading system that seemed to work pretty well and we always knew what the other was referring to. Flat calm was when the surface was still as a Mill Pond; not a ripple. This condition is rare and we only really saw it when the barometer would drop precipitously before a SW gale. It would become very calm - and scary if we were fishing way off shore.

Then there was a rippled surface, then chop, then waves, then seas and then ground swells. After a couple of days of 40 knot plus winds, the ground swells are the ones that grow to 40 foot plus monsters. The distance between the crests of huge ground swells can approach a hundred yards or more depending upon the height of the swell. The problem is that in big weather, there are ripples on the waves, waves on the seas, that can approach 20 feet, and seas on the 40 ground swells. When a big sea and a huge ground swell break together at the crest it is an unfortunate place for your boat to be. This whole living thing moves at breakneck speed and no vessel will slow it down; the ship needs to move with the sea or she will break apart.

I've never found anything more exhilarating than being at sea is a storm - big or small. The energy of the wind and water as they move past you and your vessel is incalculable. If you're on a good boat, it's fun. If you are not, it will be terrifying.

They call them rouge waves, but this one was a 20 foot sea, and it came screaming up to us at breakneck speed. As Morning Star climbed up the steep side of this sea, there were large waves upon her surface that were breaking, and their froth was being lifted off the water and into the air; 'smoke on the water'. I glanced at the anemometer; the needle bounced off 40 knots of now screaming wind. This was sailing!

The boat was cutting through these smaller waves nicely, but as we neared the top of this sea, a large wave joined with the sea and they combined to break together into a foaming broth of cold sea water. I held on to the wheel tightly as our bow went through this breaker - not over it - cascading water across the whole boat. Heavy spray hit me hard across the face and chest in a refreshing burst that nearly took my breath away. As my eyes cleared, I saw our bow and the front third of the boat clear the top of the sea, becoming airborne, and then come crashing down the back side as we raced down to the trough again. I worried that the bow would bury itself into the next oncoming sea and have a tough time recovering, but when we hit bottom, Morning Star's bow bobbed up like a cork; no worries.

When the commotion died down, I called down to Jimmy; we needed to talk. "OK Jim, that last sea was a big one and right at the wrong moment the wind hit 40 knots. I've decided that is the line; if the wind sustains 40, we're coming about and heading back to Oceanside", I said with about as much conviction as I've ever mustered.

Jim thought about it and offered, "How about if we came about and got the wind on a starboard tack? She might handle quite a bit better. I hate to turn around when we've gone this far", Jim said. I replied that we weren't far enough off shore to tack back yet, and we'd have to climb just as far into the wind, just from the other side of the boat. "Nope", I said. "We will stay on this course for at least another 15 minutes, then take a look at our position. I don't want to have to climb up these seas like this all day."

In the end, we agreed that we needed to hold onto our present course until we could get a good tack, on a more favorable course, right into Dana Point harbor. The gods were with us because the wind never hit 40 knots again, it stayed at about 35 knots or a little more. We were really having a great time, telling stories, adjusting the sails, watching each sea carefully to make sure we 'hit' it right and checking our gear. Sailing in heavy weather is a busy pursuit.

We finally reached a point just over 10 miles off shore, that a course back toward Dana Point looked favorable. "Stand by the come about Jim", I yelled over the still screaming wind and spray. "OK skipper, I'm ready to go", Jim yelled back after getting his lines ready. I turned the wheel to starboard and Morning Star responded, instantly turning her nose back toward the NNE - back toward land.

This different tack took us on a course just upwind from Dana Point; perfect! And with a little less 'up hill' sailing to do, our speed picked up to almost 9 knots; a perfect course. We were slicing through the water as the seas, now coming on to us from about the 10 o'clock position, lifted us gently up then set us down just as nicely. We were making almost twice the speed as we had been earlier in the day - and the day before. Brother Jim and I were elated as I checked our course, speed and time to destination; just about an hour. We would be in Dana Point by noon. Perfect.

At about that time, a large squall cleared and we saw Dana Point for the first time. We couldn't quite make out where the harbor entrance was, so I referred to the iPad Nav app and had Jim adjust our course accordingly. Then, about a half hour before reaching the harbor, a hole in the clouds broke open and showered the small harbor area with wonderful, golden sunshine. Grinning, I looked at my brother and said,  "Look at that Jim. They turned on the lights for us". Jim started chuckling and gave me a big hug. "What a great sail Johnny", he said as his crazy helmet raked across my ear and his grizzly whiskers sanded the side of my cheek.

The closer we got to the harbor, the sunnier it became, and we shed our jackets and sweaters and basked in the warm sunshine. It felt wonderful. When we arrived behind the breakwater at Dana Point, the wind died down to less than 15 knots and we took down the sails as we motored slowly up the calm waters of the channel. We watched as the people on shore enjoyed a day in what appeared to be a wonderful park. How nice and relaxed they seemed.  But they had all missed a wonderful sailing trip up the coast with my brother Jim and me. As I thought about how lucky my brother and I are to be able to spend time like this together, I had to brush a small tear from my eye.

Arriving at noon, we had time to explore Dana Point and environs, and decided to hitchhike to Capistrano Mission a tad south in San Clemente. What a fabulous old Mission – one of just a handful of Spanish Missions that were established in California in the 1700 and 1800’s.

At our first corner we purchased $10 worth of fresh strawberries (two heaping baskets full) from a fruit stand. The lady wouldn’t just sell us a smaller amount, but Jim and I figured we would share with whoever picked us up. However, taking our first bite of these luscious strawberries, as the sweet juice ran down our chins, we both know we would be hard pressed to share. We ended up having to take a bus due to no one giving us a ride (it isn’t like the old days) and we ate every last strawberry. We were so full of fruit, that when we met cousin Heidi and Tim for dinner, we weren’t very hungry. However, we had a lovely dinner and it was a wonderful time catching up with these two wonderful, engaged people. And, as a bonus, Tim refused to let us pay our share of the check; a free dinner! Thank you Tim!

*  *  *  *  *

Sometime later, I thought about how much this sailing trip reminded me of any number of times in my life. You know, things just don't seem to be going well, and whatever you do, they don't seem to get any better.

I've been there many, many times. I would find myself taking short tacks in a direction that was not working. Then, a big, new idea occurs to me, one that would involve some degree of risk, but what the hell, the other ideas weren't working anyway; why not try it.

So, I take a completely different tack, making the commitment to a big course change. I've seldom regret the things I've done; I only regret the times when I didn't try something ‘that could have been’.

My brother Jim agreed. A month after this sailing adventure, they found another tumor growing inside of our brother Jim's brain. Jimmy passed away on Easter Sunday at 6:30 PM, in 2013 at his home with our family looking on. He was only 58 years old.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Taking a Different Tack Part II

By John S. Mickman

Sometimes I wish I had more of Jim's empathy. I chose to start a small business with brother Chris many years ago, and I'm afraid the rigors and constant stress of our company have taken their toll on me. I think I'm a little too focused and goal oriented to be a good, empathetic listener. If I make a mistake, someone's tree may die; if Jim makes a mistake, a person could die. Jim deals with this pretty well and is very good at comforting people. On the other hand, I'm pretty good in an emergency situation.

As I took deep gulp of my coffee, I looked checked the deck navigation system to verify our current position; to my dismay, it was dead! "Jim, something happened when that big sea hit us; we don't have any GPS or Radar!", I called out. Jim came around the helms station and looked at the now black screen and said, "That's not good. I wonder what happened?" 

I looked over the starboard rail toward the coast and said, "My guess is that there was a bad electrical connection somewhere that just got knocked lose. I don't think we'll be able to find the problem in this weather. We can't see shore, but I know where we are - at least for awhile". I knew there were no ships anywhere within 20 miles, and we still had visibility of about 2 miles; we were about 4 miles off shore at the time.

In addition to being a good doctor, brother Jim is also an excellent sailor and he wasn't too concerned - but we both knew this could work into a pretty good problem if conditions deteriorated. "So, do we have an new plan John?", Jim asked as we continued racing in a WNW course - heading offshore.

We've been in heavy weather sailing a couple of times together, the last time being offshore near the Virgin Islands. That time the winds were blowing the same, at about 25 knots, and the warm rain was coming down in virtual sheets. With this limited visibility, we had run over a crab pot buoy which became tangled with our rudder and propeller, turning this crab pot into a virtual anchor. To get clear of this the crab pot, Jim volunteered to dive overboard in the maelstrom to clear the line from our sailboat. He was successful and everything turned out OK. Things can happen fast in a storm at sea, and we were both pretty tuned in to the conditions at hand on this 'salty' day.

With a smile, I asked Jim to take the helm as I went below decks to get my iPad. My backup was a navigation app on the iPad on which I had loaded the southern California coastal charts. This great tool, as is also has a GPS locator loaded into it. As I worked the iPad, the virtual chart jumped to life on the screen, showing our current location, course, navigational hazards and available moorages and harbors.

Still smiling, I returned to deck and showed Jim the iPad screen and explained that as long as we don't venture too far offshore, we have navigational GPS almost as handy as our now inoperable onboard 'nav station'. Jimmy was pleased. "Good deal John. This is great. How far offshore do you think it will work?", he asked me. "Well, I know that south of Point Loma it is good for about 10 miles, but it may be different up here. But, I'm sure it will work for a couple of miles off shore before we lose the signal which will keep us safe even if it fogs up into a pea-soup. There are no offshore reefs anywhere around here. We're good to go", as we sailed on.

By 2:30 it was clear there was no way we were going to make it to Dana Point by nightfall, and I called Heidi to tell her. "So where are you going to moor tonight?", she asked. "There is a great harbor at Oceanside and we're headed there right now", I told her. "We should be there by about 5 o'clock - an hour or so before dark." We talked for a few more minutes and then I called the Oceanside Harbormaster on the VHS to confirm that there were some open slips at the transient dock; there were. The Harbormaster then informed me that they were dredging the mouth of the harbor and to be careful. Good advice!

After conferring with Jim, we came about with a new, more easterly course toward Oceanside. Just before 5 o'clock we dropped our sails outside the mouth of the Oceanside Harbor and fired up our engine. There were a half dozen other sailboats kind of milling around the entrance, seemingly confused about which way to enter the harbor because the huge dredging machine was blocking nearly the entire harbor entrance.

After trying to reach the dredger on the VHS radio to no avail, I chose a course to pass the dredger on our starboard side, around the churning monster vessel  and entered the harbor - using the iPad nav app. I knew there had to be at least one large flex-pipe leading to shore, but from our position we couldn't it. As we passes slowly by the prehistoric looking creature, Jim and I both spotted the big pipe that brings the dredged material to shore. To our delight, we had correctly chosen the correct course (a 50/50 gamble).The other boats followed our lead into the safety of the calm water within the harbor.

Once inside the harbor area, we found the transient dock, chose a slip and tied up to the well appointed dock. After plugging into shore power, we walked up to the Harbormasters Shack - which doubled as the Harbor Police Station, to pay the moorage fee. By the time, just after 6 o'clock, the Harbormaster had gone home for the day, and a burly policeman unlocked the door and grudgingly let us into the building.

"What can I do for you guys?", he asked in a markedly unfriendly tone, like we were bothering him. "Well, we just got into town and we're tied up in Slip #3 down there", I replied, pointing over to Morning Star. "We want to pay the moorage fee. Can you make that happen?" "Yea", he grumbled back to us and pointed to an inside door within the small building entryway. I went through the door, as the cop went through the next door down, putting him on the opposite side of a large counter in a good sized office area. The door I had entered through closed, and I heard a loud 'CLICK' as an automatic lock slammed into place. Jim hadn't come through the door.

With a markedly alarmed tone, the cop called out, "What happened to that other guy?". I quickly replied that I didn't know, at which point the cop ran back through his door and I heard him yell out, "What the hell do you think you're doing wandering around here?". I heard Jim reply in a much subdued tone, "Well, I'm just trying to find a restroom. Do you know where I can find one?"

"Yeah, I know where you can find one, but you can't just wander around the Police Station like this. I'm the only one on duty and I'm already doing you guys a favor letting you in after hours. Come through this door", the cop directed Jim, with a tone that was getting more gruff with each sentence. I watched as first Jim, then the cop, returned through the door on the opposite side of the counter from me. The cop grumbled something to Jim and pointed to a door marked as a unisex restroom.

After watching Jim enter the restroom, the cop turned his attention to me and asked to see my license and insurance certificate. I passed these documents over to him for examination, but noticed that he was nervously looking over his shoulder ever few seconds to watch for Jim when he came out of the restroom. I also noticed that he kept in right hand on his pistol holster; I didn't know if it was a habit of his or if he was expecting to use his firearm on one of us dangerous looking, pleasure sailors. In an effort to put him more at ease, I made small talk with him as I filled out a couple of forms for him, commenting on the weather, asking about local restaurants...

Jim was in there quite awhile, but the cop was feeling a little more comfortable; he took his hand off of his pistol. "There is a small craft advisory out for tomorrow", the cop said to me. "Here is a copy of it", he said as he pushed a computer printout across the counter to me. At just about that time, Jim came out of the restroom and began to meander through the office area. The cop looked annoyed and said to Jim, "you know this isn't really a public area of the building. I'd sure appreciate it if you would get over to the other side of the counter with your brother", he said as Jim perked up and walked directly over to the door, went through it and then tried the now locked door on my side of the counter. I opened the door for him and Jim joined me safely on 'our side' of the counter. After paying the cop $25, Jim and left and returned to the boat.

Once there, we popped open a couple of beers and read the Small Craft Advisory. It predicted sustaining winds before noon the next day up to 25 knots, increasing to 30 knots sometime after 12 o'clock noon. "Well", I started, "25 knots is about what we had all day today Jim. We only have about 18 miles to Dana Point, so if we get an early start, we should be there well before noon. I don't think this is going to be a problem. I think we should throw the lines off at about 6 AM which should put is at Dana Point well before noon." Jim agreed, "Yea that sounds good to me. And I really don't want to spend all day tomorrow in Oceanside. Let's plan on leaving early like you say before the wind picks up mid-day."

The inside of Morning Star's cabin is all dark, teak paneling and with our kerosene lamp on, it is nice and cozy. We discussed the events of the day over a couple of cold brews and agreed that the boat was doing well except for the navigation system. I had taken a quick look at the wiring harnesses and they looked just fine. However, the iPad chart was really all we needed and we both felt comfortable with this back-up system. Jim and I were a little beat up and wind- burned from being on deck all day, but we felt good.

I took a last long pull off my beer as I thought about the plan, "OK Jim, let's be ready to leave the harbor at 6 tomorrow, but we'll take a look at it to and get an updated forecast. If the weather looks any tougher than we like it, we'll make the final decision at that time. Let's find a place to get dinner in town", and we left the boat to get something to eat.

The alarm went off at 5:45 AM and I rolled out of my bunk and started a pot of coffee. Going out on deck, the sun was not up yet but the sky was beginning to show a gun-steel grey and the low clouds were streaming past Morning Stars rigging, hell-bent for high water. I looked at the anemometer and it read 20 knots of wind, right there in the harbor. Hmmmm...

Back in the deckhouse, Jim was heating water for his tea while he finished putting his sweater on. "Looks like you're about ready to go Jim" I said. "Let's fire up the engine and get the rigging ready to go while we're waiting for the caffeine to get ready." By 6 o'clock we were throwing off the lines and heading out toward the breakwater.

As we glided through the water under power, a light rain started coming down which the wind was driving in sheets. Jim and I both squinted into the weather, watching for the navigation buoys that would guide us out of the harbor. When we reached the tall, stone rip-rap breakwater, a hundred pelicans were standing in a straight line across the top, beaks into the wind with wings tucked tightly to their bodies. The anemometer now read 24 knots.

End of Part II
Watch for the conclusion of 'Taking a Different Tack' in next weeks' Newsletter

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Taking a Different Tack

by John S. Mickman

This story is dedicated to my brother Jim.

At 8 AM, standing on the deck of Morning Star, our 38' sailboat, brother Jim and I watched the dark, grey clouds as they raced above San Diego Harbor. The breeze in the harbor was 15 knots, and we knew that the wind 'outside' -around Point Loma - was probably blowing a pretty steady 20 knots plus. The good news was that the forecast predicted that it wouldn't get any worse as the day wore on.

The plan was to sail up to Dana Point, 65 miles up the coast that grey March day, to meet our cousin Heidi and husband Tim for dinner. We had planned to get an earlier start, but I dropped buddy Bill off at the airport, and the drive had taken a little longer than expected. Because neither Jim nor I had ever sailed into the Dana Point harbor, we wanted to arrive before dark that evening - a pretty good poke for a sailboat, unless we had some very good sailing weather.

After readying the rigging, we fired up the engine, backed out of the mooring slip and motored out of the marina. After clearing the harbor, we hoisted the sails and began our run to Point Loma which we needed to round before we began our sail north the Dana Point. It was kind'a chilly, and a light drizzle began to spit at us as the northeast breeze continued to build.

"Hey Jimmy", I called out as we neared the point. "This early in the season I think we can cut pretty close to the point without having to worry about running into any thick kelp beds". Each summer at least one sailboat would be caught up in the thick, heavy strands of kelp and become disabled. Brother Jim agreed. "I'll stand watch-out on the bow and look for any early kelp beds. If I see it getting too thick, I'll let you know." If we cut close to the point without having to run 2 miles off shore before 'rounding Point Loma, we would save at least an hour of sailing time.

The gamble paid off as Jim guided us past many kelp beds that may have fouled our rudder and propeller. However, by the time we were able to set course north for Dana Point it was after 9 o'clock. The good news was that it was blowing a pretty steady 20 knots from the NW, just enough off of our bow to allow for good cruising.

After the sails were properly set, Jim and I reviewed our timetable. "We have 65 miles to go, and even at 6 - 7 knots, it will still take 10 hours to get to Dana Point", I said. "This is going to be close even if the wind holds." We were both squinting through the windborne drizzle at the steel grey Pacific Ocean. Although our visibility was less than 2 miles, our radar told me that there were no other small boats for at least 5 miles, and no ships within 20 miles. Jim reported the readings of both the anemometer (wind speed gauge) and the wind directional indicator with the comment that if things don't change, we should be able to make our randaveau with cousin Heidi for dinner.

With the wind off our bow by about 25 degrees, we had the sails as close hauled as they would go and we were making about 7 knots of speed. The wind had not laid down the previous night, so the seas were high - and building. Our sailboat, Morning Star was a 37.5 Hunter Legend with sloop rigging. She has a glass hull and a heavily weighted, winged keel allows us to sail in shallower water. This keel design also gives us a smoother ride in tough weather as the keels' 'wings' act as stabilizers and and takes some of the bounce out of the ride. Whenever two sailboats are going the same direction it is a race (whether you like it or not), and time and again Morning Star has proven to be a very fast boat for her size. This trip was going to be a pretty good test for Morning Star as I had never had her out for an extended day sail of this sort with this much wind and sea.

By 11 o'clock the wind was blowing a steady 25 knots, gusting to 28 or so. The seas had continued to build and were 6 -8 feet, with some cresting at well over 10 feet. Not too bad, and Morning Star was proving to be a tough little boat. Unfortunately, the wind began to climb more to the north, and with the tack we were on, we were being blown off course, closer to the coast. "Stand-by to come about Jim", I yelled through the now screaming wind. "We need to get more off shore."

After adjusting the mainsail a tad, Jim readied the foresail lines and reported that he was ready. "OK, coming about", I called as I spun the wheel to port. Morning Star responds well and we immediately began the swing to the new, more westerly tack. As the wind blew the foresail to port, Jimmy pulled 'er in with the windless winch. "Snug 'er up tight Jim. We need to sail as steep a course as possible so we don't lose any ground on this tack", I commented. "Yup, got 'er", Jim reported back as he ground the wench handle tighter and tighter. "How do you like that John?", he asked when he thought the foresail was properly set. "Looks about right Jim. Let's try that for a bit and see what the wind does."

So, off we went - in the wrong direction. Tacking a sailboat can seem to be a contrarian exercise to an inexperienced sailor because unless the wind is blowing in the correct direction, you find yourself never really steering in the direction of your destination; our current predicament. You need to 'tack' back and forth as you sail 'against the wind'.

"Jim, I'm going to call Heidi and tell her we may not make it tonight. Unless this wind changes soon, there is no way we're going to make it all the way up to Dana Point. Take the wheel.", I said. Jim took the helm as I hunched under the dodger to get some protection from the weather. I called Heidi on my cell and told her we may not make it that day, but if not, could they meet us tomorrow night? 'Sure', Heidi replied. "Either night is good for us."

Heidi is a pretty good sailor in her own right and asked how bad is was. "Well, if it doesn't get any worse, it's a pretty good sail", I reported.  "We're making good time, we just can't hold a good course to Dana Point. The boat is sailing nicely and Jim and I are having a good time. I'll call you at 2", I said to Heidi, and then hung up. "OK Jim", I said, "Heidi is still open for dinner tomorrow if we don't make it up there tonight." Jim responded, "That's great, it kind of takes the pressure off now that we don't need to get all the way up there tonight. Good deal!"

So, we sailed on as the wind climbed even more toward the north - the direction of Dana Point. As the day wore on, the wind speed steadied at about 25 knots, but the seas were really building. To maintain our 'general course' direction toward Dana Point, we tacked back and forth every 20 minutes or so to keep from getting too close to the coast or too far out to sea.

Three years ago, Jim developed geoblasoma - brain cancer. They had to open up his skull and scoop it out, and then he underwent radiation and 18 months of chemotherapy. He beat the odds by 95% and made an amazing recovery. But he needs to protect his head bone; to that end he wore a Chinese military helmet he acquired when he and his fiancée hitchhiked across China in the 1980's. It looked kind of goofy on a sailboat, but it worked- protecting his head from numerous bumps from the boom when we came about during the trip. Every day is a blessing for Jim and he lives them with gusto.

At about 1 o'clock, Jim was below deck changing into to some warmer clothes as I watched a pretty good sized 'rouge wave' racing toward us. I yelled down to Jim that it was coming, but he was way forward in his stateroom and didn't hear me. As it approached, I changed course and headed right into it so it didn't hit us across our beam. A big sea like this reminds me of a giant, taking a deep breath, and I felt the tremendous energy of the sea as we climbed to the top of the large ground swell. When we reached the top of this large sea, the bow section of Morning Star came out of the water, then came crashing down the back side of the swell. "Yee-Haw", I yelled out as we raced downhill to the fast approaching trough. We here having fun now!

Shortly after that, Jim crawled back up the latter-way to deck and commented on the increasingly rough ride. He had made a cup of tea for himself and gave me a nice hot cup of coffee. "This will warm us up a little bit", he said with a smile as we balanced our hot broths to keep them from spilling onto the deck. "Thanks Jimmy. This tastes great; just the right amount of sugar", I said.

Brother Jim is a really good guy who is always in tune with others. Of all us kids, he was definitely the best one to become a physician. He is a great listener and one that rarely forgets anything and he was honored to be chosen as one of the 'Top Docs' in the Twin Cities a few years back. His specialty is as a Pulmonologist, and unfortunately, many of his patients are very ill. It is very cool when I meet a new person who asks if I know Dr. James Mickman." I always reply, "Jimmy? You bet. He's our middle brother", I say. Then, more often than not, the new acquaintance will say something like, "Well your brother saved my wife's (brother, husband, mother, father...)  life last year." Pretty heavy. It's nice having a brother like my brother Jimmy.

End of Part I
Part II will be in next week's Newletter

Friday, September 25, 2015

Without a Clue

by John Mickman

When we were little kids, my dad purchased a number of large parcels of land on which to grow Christmas Trees. In hindsight, it wasn't for the money, he did it so us boys would have work to do - with him. We had a great time and learned to love what we did - together.

Early one fine Sunday morning back in 1962 when I was 12, dad told my brother Mark and me to drive our small Massey Ferguson tractor from one farm to the other. I couldn't believe my ears; we were going to get to drive all the way to the other farm, about 10 miles, all by ourselves! And because I was the oldest brother, so I knew I'd get to drive the whole way...

Well, the battered old tractor had no muffler, no lights or signals. In addition, the whole idea was to get the disc implement, which was wider than the tractor by about 4 feet on each side, to the other farm. Although there were a lot of turns, Mark and I both knew how to get where we were going, and away we went. I drove while my brother stood on the clutch platform and leaned against the starboard fender.

We had to yell to hear each other over the din of the un-muffled engine and the clanking of the old tractor as we bounced along down the road. We were laughing and giggling the whole way and everything was going great. Some of the farm dogs along the way chased the tractor, barking all the while; about what, we didn't know. The sun was shining on our young bronzed faces and we were in charge; life was good.

Then, a mile or so before we arrived at the other farm, I looked back at the disc (which stuck out 4 feet!) as we passed by someone's mailbox that was kinda close to the road. At the last second, I jerked the tractor to the left and the disc barely missed the mailbox. Whew! Mark saw it too, and we looked at each other with a sigh of relief. After the abrupt turn, we were OK, but I was thinking about all the other mailboxes we had passed over the course of the past 9 miles. Mark was thinking the same thing, and we whispered to each other about the possible horror of it all several times during the rest of the day.

When it was finally time to go home, we piled into dad's old brown '59 Chevrolet Apache Panel Truck and headed back the same way as we had come that morning. Mark and I were absolutely petrified to see many, many men along the route fixing their mailboxes. After a few miles, dad commented on what a coincidence it was that all those guys chose that particular day to fix-up their mailboxes. Mark and I looked at each other and were both too scared to say anything to him. Even to this day we never confessed to him that we had damaged those mailboxes.

After all these years, I still feel bad about it.

So, if you were one of the dads that had to fix-up your mailbox along Co. Rd. 5, near Isanti MN on a fine June Sunday afternoon back in 1962, I apologize. We didn't do it on purpose; we were just a couple of kids driving an old tractor up the road on a sunny day - without a clue.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Rogue Wave Part III

The Crab Season is finally over and we are now working to get all of our crab pots off the fishing grounds onto shore for winter storage. A huge gale is blowing. At this time,  Mill and I have left the stern of the deck while Dave and Chris finish buttoning up the lazarette hatch while we run to another string of gear to stack on deck.

As I watched in the partial protection of the deck house, I watched as Chris and Dave put the hatch cover back on the lazarette opening and tried to ‘dog’ it securely into place. The wrench they used was specially made for the purpose, but as I watched, Chris was having trouble with the latch. After a couple of hard smacks with the palm of his hand, Chris took the hatch off and turned it upside down on the deck to see what was wrong with the dog mechanism. 

 'Ohh, that’s not good', I thought to myself. Most fishermen, including me, get superstitious about certain things, and putting any hatch cover upside-down on deck is extremely bad luck. You just don’t do it. But there it was, an upside-down hatch cover with Chris beating on the deadbolt dog latch to free it up. 'There, he finally got it', I thought to myself after Chris finally freed up the latch.

As I was watching Chris and Dave work near the stern up against a wall of crab pots, the sky and water had a certain look to them; the huge ground swells were green and the sky was grey – a little lighter than the green sea. Then, in an instant, from the corner of my eye, everything got green  – very green, very fast. I turned my head to see what was happening and saw a wall of water, a huge rouge ground swell, higher than the boat with a breaking sea on top of it. It was a colossal ground swell which had to be 50 feet tall – or taller. Huge rogue waves like this travel rapidly and this one was about to hit the Marcy J square on our starboard side.

I screamed to the guys as loud as I could: ROGUE WAVE!!! – and then the mighty sea engulfed us and washed over the entire vessel. Because it came onto us from a quarterly direction, I was shielded from the main blow of this monstrous sea. The Marcy J listed way, way over to port, and for 20 seconds or so, I wasn’t sure if she would be able to right herself.

Chris and Dave were completely exposed to this maelstrom and unable to get away from the thunderous swell that had engulfed us. They disappeared from sight as I was washed with water over my head. I grabbed for the shrimp wenches as the sea pushed me past them, and I held on for dear life. For what seemed an eternity. Both arms were hugging the huge line cleats on these wenches and I was glad I had something solid to hold on to.

At last the water subsided enough for me to breathe, and I was able to get my feet back onto the deck as the boat lost the dangerous list and the water washed back over the rails and through the scuppers. I immediately started slogging my way back to where I had last seen Chris and Dave, but I didn’t see them; the water was too high. When it finally got down to about 3 feet deep, I saw both their heads; they had been smashed up against the netting of the crab pots and been ‘pasted’ there for the duration of the event.

'Wow. Good thing we had those pots on deck or they would have been washed overboard for sure', I thought to myself – at first. Then I saw the look on Chris’s face; he was ashen grey and writhing in pain. 'Oh no, I thought as I trudged toward them'. Chris is hurt; bad.

I rushed to them as fast as I could. Dave seemed OK, but Chris melted down to the deck, and he was trying to hold his lower leg. Before I could get there, Dave stood up and helped Chris to his feet. I watched in horror as the bottom half of Chris’s leg was swinging free around in the swirling water. It was obvious that the bottom part of his leg was broken in half. Blood colored the water as it leaked over his boots and down the inside of his oilskin pants.

“God damn it Dave. What happened to Chris?” I cried as I reached them.
“I think that hatch cover got smashed into his shin bone and broke it off” Dave yelled to me over the din of the wind and water. Chris couldn’t talk. Although tears were streaking down his salt crusted cheeks, no sound emerged. He just kept holding on to what was left of his leg, just below the knee.

“Come on Dave” I shouted. ”Let’s get him into the galley”. As gently as we could, Dave and I carried Chris across the deck, through the entryway, down the passageway and into the galley. Chris was gasping in pain. Mill came to help and we laid Chris on the galley table.

I ran up the latterway to the wheelhouse and yelled to Harold (Chris’s dad), “Harold, Chris has a broken leg. We have to Medivac him off the boat!” What that meant was that a Coast Guard helicopter would fly out and lift the wounded man off the boat into the helicopter and fly him to a the nearest hospital.

“Take the wheel John”, Harold said as he flew down the latterway to the galley to his son. As I stood by the wheel, the guys stripped off Chris’s oilskins and cut his pant leg up past the break. It was bad; the skin and muscle of the back of Chris’s shin bone area was the only thing holding the bottom part of his let together.

Harold returned to the wheelhouse and called the Coast Guard. No matter Harold’s urgent plea’s, the Coast Guard said there was zero possibility they could go out in this gale and lift Chris off the deck of the Marcy J in the middle of the Bering Sea. No way; not a possibility. We would have to get to the Port Moller Cannery. They would take him to an Anchorage Hospital from there. Major bummer!

All we had onboard for pain killers was aspirin, and being a 'dry boat' we could deaden the pain with alcohol either. To make matters worse, we were 150 miles off shore in the middle of the Bering Sea and as we fought our way through the monstrous seas, each crash into a new swell would throw the boat off and Chris would flinch in pain. We had tied a tourniquet around Chris’s leg and changed it every 15 minutes or so. This was the longest 20 hour trip of my fishing career; my best buddy Chris was writhing in pain the whole way. None of us could sleep. We nursed Chris as best we could the whole way.

We arrived at Port Moller the next day, and lifted him onto the cannery dock with our ‘picking boom’ on a makeshift stretcher Mill and I had fashioned. We gently lowered him in the bed of the old cannery pickup truck and drove a quarter mile or so to where the helicopter was waiting. Harold, Dave, Mill and I said goodbye to Chris with tearful eyes.

The only good part of this story was that Harold’s boat insurance paid a buggered up crewman a full crew’s share while the man couldn’t fish, so Chris and his family wouldn’t struggle financially while he healed. It took about 15 months before Chris was back on deck, and he had recovered to almost 100%. Whew.

So, short one man, Mill, Dave, Harold and I returned to the fishing grounds and finished picking up all our pots in 2 ½ more loads. Another week of work. The mood on deck was subdued. We just wanted to go home and see our families.

We finally made our last trip to Dutch Harbor, unloaded our pots and made the 5 day return trip to Kodiak. I spent a day or so in town visiting my buddies while waiting for a plane to Anchorage.

Then, finally after not seeing my family for months, I arrived back in Minnesota. I was tired, but healthy and had about $50,000 in my pocket. And boy, was it ever nice to see my wife!

*  *  *  *  *

It has been 36 years since this storm and Chris is now in his late '60's. He awakens each morning with a sore shin bone, but it goes away after he moves around a little bit. Although I haven’t seen Dave or Mill for years, I still see Chris and Harold and Chris’s brother Tony frequently; actually Tony and I go on a sailing trip off shore in California every winter.

The four of us are lifelong friends that have had more adventures together than I can shake a stick at. Whenever we all get together, we tell, and retell, all of our favorite tales into the dead of night…

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Rogue Wave Part II

In this tale of King Crab Fishing during the 1979 Bering Sea Crab Season, we had finally gotten all but one load of crab pots on the fishing grounds.

September 15th finally arrived, and at exactly the stroke of noon, we started baiting all of our pots. The last load of crab pots was still on deck with the intention of dropping them in strings alongside the best of our pots that were already in the water. This meant that we had to pick and bait nearly 250 pots to even begin to catch any crab. 

Running back to Dutch Harbor to get more pots

“Those crabs won’t crawl into our pots without any bait in them” Harold would yell down to us over the deck intercom. “Come on guys, let’s get going!” He didn’t really need to give us much encouragement at this time of the season, as we were well rested and plenty ready to make some money.

We worked for 36 hours straight baiting all the pots in the water before starting to ‘pick’ pots. Most of our strings of crab pots did pretty well, and after we’d picked about half our gear (pots) we found a good enough string to drop the last deck load of 75 pots in the water –  in strings parallel to our best string. Finally, after 48 hours all our gear was in the water, baited and ‘fishing’. Whew!

“Let’s get a few hours sleep you guys and let these pots soak for awhile before we pick the rest of them. What do you think?” We were dead on our feet and too worn out to do any more anyway. “OK”, I shouted up through the deck intercom. “Let’s shut ‘er down for awhile”.

But, you can’t just drift around in a boat at sea without anyone on watch, so each deckhand had to take a turn ‘watching the wheel’ while the others rested. The first and last watches were the best because these guys were able to sleep through without being awakened for their ‘watch’ in the middle of a deep slumber. Of course the last watch was the best because not only did you get to hit your bunk right away, but you also were able to sleep through the other 3 men’s’ watches. As the Captain, the skipper never has to stand watch – one of the many advantages of being the skipper.

On the Marcy J we never worked more than 48 hours straight without getting at least 4 hours sleep; some boats would go longer without any sleep. This was the one thing I didn’t like about crab fishing. We never got enough sleep while on the fishing grounds, and this was tough work – the toughest of my life. We were constantly fighting the crab pots which weighed 500 pounds each – without any crab in them. When they were full, they could weigh 1,000 pounds or more. And there was always weather. 8 foot seas made a nice day. Most days the wind would whip up to 25 – 35 knots and pick the seas up to 15 feet or more - with a chilling cold, wet wind. It was brutal.

The cold water of the Bering Sea would come over the rail in wind-swept sheets and pummel us constantly. If you can imagine being hit right in the chest with a full, 5 gallon bucket of water, you can get the idea. But it was more than that and constant. And LOUD! The wind through the rigging was shrieking, the seas crashing into the hull were constant and the screaming hydraulics all combined into a constant, energy draining roar. I don’t know any old time crab fishermen that are not hard of hearing. None of us can hear well anymore, including me.

And the raging sea; it works like this:
The ripples turn into chop. Then the chop turns into waves, 3 or 4 feet high. Then after awhile the waves turn into ‘seas’ that can mount to 10-15 feet. But after a day or two of wind in the same direction, ground swells form that can mount to 25 feet and more. Let me tell you what; when a 15 foot sea climbs to the top of a 25 foot ground swell, and the boat hits it at that precise time, this is a force to be reckoned with. It is awesome-and dangerous!

For many, this weather is dreaded. And for me, while on the grounds fishing, it really slows down the operation. But I loved this kind of weather and drew energy from it. There is nothing in the world like being a healthy 28 year old man in perfect physical condition working in sync with good friends in frightful conditions. I loved it! The bonds I have with these guys have lived a lifetime.

We delivered our catches to an old WW II Liberty Ship, the All Alaskan, which had been converted into a cannery. It was anchored up in the bay at Port Moller and had a fleet of about a dozen crab boats delivering to it. Sometimes we had to wait a day or so to unload if our timing was off, but most times Harold timed it so we could unload immediately. Sometimes we delivered some percentage short of a full load so we wouldn’t waste a day waiting to unload our catch.

We all called the All Alaskan the Blue Zoo – for good reason. First of all, every inch of the ship, was painted a very strong blue. And besides the professional crew that managed her, all the ‘cannery workers’ were young kids in their early ‘20’s looking for an adventure. There were about 75 young men and women aboard and they were aboard for the better part of 5 months – never able to leave. After all, where would they go? There was an abandoned Salmon Cannery at Port Moller, but otherwise it was just wilderness, and the Captain didn’t allow anyone to leave for fear of someone getting lost or killed somehow. Port Moller is on the Alaskan Peninsula and one could run into half dozen or more Brown Bears around the creeks and rivers eating spawning salmon.

Although the Marcy J was a ‘dry’ boat, there was plenty of beer on the Blue Zoo, and when the cannery workers were off duty, the parties began – actually the party never really stopped. As for our crew, there was always plenty of work to do while the crab were being unloaded. We needed to take on fuel, do maintenance to the engines, get fresh bait, purchase provisions, mend crab pots, repair broken machinery… There was never enough time to get everything done. We worked steady until we headed out to the fishing grounds. The trips back and forth to the grounds were when we slept.

This Season lasted almost 90 days during which time we never set a foot on solid ground. We were tired and beat up. Although we didn’t have much weight to lose in the first place, we all were down to bone and muscle and sinew by the end of the season. When the final day of fishing was announced, we were jubilant and all ready to go home. None of us had seen our wives for a very long time!

But of course we still had to bring in all our crab pots – 4 big loads of them. And now it was December and the weather continued to deteriorate. Every day now was some kind of a storm – it was just a matter of degree.

When we store pots, we need to take all the buoys and ‘shots of line’ out of them to store until the next season. Each shot of line is 66 fathoms long – almost 400 feet of heavy 3/4” hard lay poly or nylon. They were heavy. Our system was to lash down the first layer of 6’ pots on deck with a narrow path back to the lazarette, the compartment in the stern that housed the rudder post. We could get a lot of shots of line in there which made for more deck space on which to stack more crab pots.

On our second load, the weather was bad, real bad. There was a 45 knot wind blowing pushing 25’ ground swells. The first string of gear we were picking was running in a direction so that the seas were quartering in from just starboard of our bow. This meant that the spray was constantly washing over the deck and we were fighting every single pot into position on deck before lashing it down. And of course we were tired. Dead tired. But we had to get the gear put away. We didn’t have any other choice.

After this first string of gear, we had 21 pots secured to the deck, leaving a path back to the lazarette. “OK boys”, came the call from Harold over the intercom. “We have about a half hour run to the next string of gear. Let’s get the shots of line down into the lazarette”. 

“Got it Harold” I shouted back over the din of the storm. “I’ll let you know when we’re finished and secure”. Then the 4 of us, Mill, Dave, Chris and I started hauling these heavy shots of line across the pitching deck under the grey stormy sky. The lazarette hatch was a heavy ‘flush hatch’ made from a 1” thick sheet of steel that was oval, about 15 inches by 2 feet. It was heavy and hard to handle. It opened up a hatch just large enough for a small man to go through to whom we would then pass each shot of line. Dave and Chris went down the hatch as Mill and I handed shot after shot to them.

After a few minutes, all the line was safely stowed and Mill and I walked back across the deck to behind the deck house, leaving space for Chris and Dave to emerge from the lazarette through the hatch. The wind was screaming and sheets of water washed over the deck constantly as we quartered into the huge, boiling seas. Mill went into the deck house to make a pot of coffee for us and I waited behind the Deck House, out of the wind and water, and lit a cigarette. What a day, I thought to myself. It seems like the weather is getting even worse…

End of Part II
With the weather continuing to deteriorate, the danger mounts. What is going to happen? Watch for the conclusion of this story in next weeks’ Newsletter.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Rogue Wave! Part 1

By John Steven Mickman

I worked as a commercial fisherman on draggers and crabbers for 10 years from 1972 – 1982. For the first 5 years, my wife Su and I lived on Kodiak Island,  in the small fishing town of Kodiak, Alaska. As one could imagine, these were some of the most exhilarating years of my life.

After the first 5 years though, I found myself at sea for 9 months of each year and I decided that I wanted to spend more time with my young family, meaning I’d have to get out of the fishing business. So, on a trip back to Minneapolis one Christmas, I met with my youngest brother Chris and we decided to start a landscaping business. For the first 5 years the business was not successful enough to support my family so each Fall and Winter I would return to the cold stormy waters of the North Pacific and Bering Sea to fish King Crab and Snow Crab. This tale took place in 1979 during the Bering Sea King Crab Season.

Best buddy Chris Jones picked me up from the airport in the Marcy J’s 1 ton flatbed truck; we were very excited to see each other. It had been since the previous March since we’d last fished together, and the September 15th start of the Bering Sea Crab Season looked promising. The quota for King Crab was even bigger than the previous year and we each stood to earn between $40,000 - $70,000 during the upcoming season. Who wouldn’t be excited!

After parking the truck at the cannery, we walked down to the boat and I swung my sea bag over the rail onto the deck of the Marcy J. She was a beautiful 100’ steel hulled combination dragger/crabber and I had fished aboard her for over a half dozen years. Harold was our skipper and owner of the Marcy J and Chris was his oldest son. He and I were built about the same, short and wiry. Perfect for working on the deck of these older boats that really were not built for large men.

Working on deck repairing some crab pots, were the other two deckhands for this Crab Season; Millich Morris (Mill) and Dave. Chris and I were both 28 years old and at 35 years each, Mill and Dave were much older. “Geez Chris, do you think these old guys can keep up. I mean, God, they are so old.” But, after working with these two seasoned veterans I found I had nothing to fear. Mill was a great deckhand and knew all there was to know about working on the deck of a Crabber. And Dave was the best Engineer I was ever to meet. The four of us became fast friends.

That was the cool thing about working on the Marcy J; the crew was always great and we got along well. It was fun. There was always a lot of joking and rough kidding, and we all knew how to give as well to receive.

It took about a week to complete the preparations before departing from Kodiak for the Bering Sea. We all knew that there would be no towns or stores to visit during the coming season, which might last up to 90 days. Mill had already claimed the position as cook, but I insisted on accompanying him to the multiple trips we needed to make to Kraft’s Store to buy groceries. I wanted to help him of course, but I had ulterior motives; Mill was from South Carolina and had some distinctly different tastes in food. I needed to make sure we didn’t have to have grits for breakfast every single day – which is what Mill had in mind! Grits & eggs, grits & eggs…

We all loved fresh fish, and on the Marcy J we traditionally only purchased enough dinner meat for half of our meals; we had fish every other night. Halibut, crab, codfish, octopus, sole; the ocean was full of fish and we had our choice. My favorite breakfast to this day is warmed up halibut from the previous night’s dinner - with eggs. We also needed candy bars; lots. We burned up a tremendous amount of calories while fishing and candy bars were always a great way to get some extra energy. Heaping bags of them.

After I had assured myself (and Chris) that had all the candy bars we needed (along with getting the boat ready) the day finally came that we cast off the lines and the mighty Marcy J headed out to sea. Up the channel we went, and waved to Harold’s wife Marcy who always waved back to us as we left for a fishing trip from the deck of their home at the end of the channel. Around Spruce Cape toward Whale Pass we went and caught a favorable tide which washed us through the Pass at about 15 knots. Our normal speed is 10 knots, so it is always fun to be swished through Whale Pass on a favorable current.
We got to the far side of Kodiak at about dark and headed south down Shelikof Straights. The long trip had begun; 5 days of nothing but running. I always loved this trip along the virgin terrain of the Alaska Peninsula. It was just as it had been a thousand years ago; no towns, no houses, no people. Nothing but rough coastline forested with short, stocky Sitka Spruce trees and Alders.

Harold, who was about my dad’s age, and I were the best of buddies. I spent most days up in the wheelhouse with Harold trading stories. He had served as a Helmsman aboard a Liberty Ship in WW ll, and then took his new wife Marcy to Juneau, AK after the war to begin his career as a commercial fisherman. He had 30 years of seas stories to tell – and he told them well. I loved telling stories too and we never lacked for something to talk about. Really - for months at a time.

We decided to try and save about 36 hours by taking the nearly un-navigable False Pass shortcut to the Bering Sea. This narrow ditch is the first opening after the Peninsula and the first of the Aleutian Chain, Unimak Island. Once through the narrow False Pass, the real trick was to thread our way through the shifting sand bars that built up on the Bering Sea side of the broken land mass of the Alaskan Peninsula and Unimak Island. The small Salmon Seiners always marked a way through with buoys if there was one, but they drew less than 4 feet of water; the Marcy J’s depth was 12 feet. A big difference! If we scrapped bottom, we wouldn’t sink because the bottom was all sand and mud, but we might damage our fathometers transducer which would require at least a week to repair. It was tricky business, but we made it through – although we did come within a foot or two of the bottom a couple of times. Scary!

Fall in the Bering Sea is not for the faint of heart. There is always weather and back then there were no weather satellites. What we saw is what we got. We did watch the barometer carefully to see how bad it might get, but the needle seemed to always be pointing to ‘Rain’; it really never read ‘Fair’ – or good weather in the Fall. The day we arrived at the Bering Sea was no different. The sun was covered up by thick grey swirling clouds and an 8 foot sea was running.

We had a full deck load of 75 King Crab Pots securely lashed down on deck and both our holds were filled with circulating sea water which was needed for two reasons: 1.) We had to keep the crab we were to catch alive until we sold them to the cannery, and 2.) with full load of pots aboard stacked 18 feet high, we might capsize due to being too top heavy with all that weight so far above the waterline. So we plowed through the seas which were coming from the NW – our exact course. We were slowed down to about 8 knots.

After a day or so, we were 150 miles off shore in a spot that Harold though might have some crab. “OK boys” he said. “Let’s drop 3 strings of 25 pots each right about here – about a mile apart. I think this just might be the ‘hot spot’”. We were always searching for the hot spot of whatever we were fishing. Sometimes we hit; sometimes we missed. If we hit, we were in the money. If we missed, we’d have to restack the gear (crab pots) and search for another place to try.

The four of us deckhands turned to and in an orderly fashion dropped all our pots off in 3 long strings of gear, a pot every ¼ mile apart or so. Each sting took about 30 minutes to drop and then we turned around to make the day and a half run down to Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island  – where the rest of our pots were stored.

Dutch Harbor, AK in 1979
Back in those days, Dutch was about the wildest place in America. During Crab Season, the town would fill up with ‘rich’ fishermen, and hundreds of young ‘cannery workers’. Many of the deckhands were 20 year old kids who didn’t know what to do with all their money.

Do you remember the bar scene in the first ‘Star Wars’ movie? The Elbow Room bar looked like that. If you can picture 100 wild young men with too much money, and happy to be ashore then you can get a feel for it. There were fights inside/outside and you could hardly hear over the din of Rock ‘n Roll being played and the shouting conversations happening between everyone. Wild. I’ve never seen anything like it before – or since.

We had to make 3 trips back and forth to Dutch to get all of our gear in the water, and this took a painstaking amount of time. And of course, time was at a premium; we had to have all our crab pots on the fishing grounds in time for the start of Crab Season – noon of September 15th! We didn’t have any time to waste and we each did all we could to make sure it all went pretty much according to schedule.

End of Part I

How did our Season go? Find out in the next part of Rouge Wave in next weeks’ Newsletter.