Monday, August 31, 2015

58 More Minutes

By John S. Mickman

I worked for 10 years as a commercial fisherman in Alaska beginning in 1972. For most of those years I was a deckhand on a family owned boat, the F/V Marcy J. She was a 100 foot, steel hulled combination dragger and crabber. As a dragger, we were always one of the Highliner’s in the Kodiak Shrimp Fleet, able to bring in 250,000 pounds of shrimp per load; in our best trip, we loaded the boat in Deadmans Bay at the south end of Kodiak Island in a day and a half. We were always successful fishing both Tanner Crab and King Crab too.

Chris Jones
Life on the Marcy J was one of the most rewarding times of my life. We always had a great deck crew, led by my best buddy Chris Jones. Although he was unquestionably the leader of the deck crew, he led by example. There was no job that Chris wouldn’t tackle, from mending nets to swabbing out the hold after a shrimping trip. We use to sing old rock ‘n roll songs at the top of our lungs while swabbing out the hold because we thought we sounded just like the musicians did in their albums (not!). I’m sure that anyone listening thought we must have been couple shrimp short of a full shrimp cocktail!

Captain Harold Jones owned the Marcy J, and his sons, Chris and Tony fished with their dad during the first couple of years I was onboard; the four of us made a fabulous crew. We each had our respective specialties/skills and we filled out a very efficient team.

It was only by luck that I was able to get aboard the Marcy J. I had fished with Tony for one trip on an old, beat up dragger called the Pacific Pearl the year before. The Pacific Pearl sank the next year and 2 men of the 4 man crew were lost at sea. Our friendship grew to the point that Tony asked me to crew on his dad’s new boat, the Marcy J, not long after it arrived in Kodiak in the Fall of ’73. I soon made fast friends with Tony’s older brother Chris too. The three of us were all short and stocky and all were about the same age. Many people in Kodiak thought that maybe Harold and his wife Marcy had 3 sons instead of two.

Harold was the ship’s Captain, and the Captain is the final word at sea, for a good reason. This was not a democracy, and although Harold would listen to our input on an important decision, he would always decide the best course for his ship and her crew. The system works well.

Harold is a man of honor and has a strict code of ethics. There was no alcohol on the boat and we had to watch our language when he was near. On deck, we spoke like seamen; around Harold we spoke like gentlemen. The other skippers in the fleet also respected Harold for his clear thinking and unabashed, direct way of making his points during discussions. Over all the years I fished with Captain Jones we had developed a close friendship, and I literally spent years up in the wheelhouse with him talking about virtually every topic imaginable. We told stories, discussed politics, religion, economics, fishing, hunting – everything. A mutual respect developed and to this day, 30 years later, I still value his friendship.

On opening day of the King Crab Season in 1980, we were 150 miles offshore in the Bering Sea, waiting until noon – the official ‘starting time’ for each Crab Season. The quota for the season was about 30 million pounds of King Crab. With over 150 boats in the fleet, we all wanted to get our share of crab. That morning we ate breakfast, chopped all the bait we were to need for the day, double checked the engine room, the lines, the hydraulic systems; by 11:00 o’clock, we were completely ready to start fishing.

Although there was a good sized ground swell left over from the last storm, the air was still and a dense fog had settled in around us. As Chris and I stood on deck, with all of our chores finished, we began talking about how we knew that the rest of the boats in the fleet were beginning to fish, in spite of the fact that they were supposed to wait until noon. We knew dozens of crewmen on other boats, and they all thought it was crazy that the Marcy J would actually wait until noon to even start to bait our crab pots. Many of the boats would actually be putting crab in their holds on opening day before noon. Enforcement is very strict now, but back then, there was really no one to enforce that part of the season - with hundreds of boats in the fleet and the whole ocean to patrol. Our competition would always ‘get the jump’ on us because they would break the rules and start early.

Chris and I, and the other two crewmen were pretty much broke that Fall, as the shrimp fishery had collapsed and we had made hardly any money since the previous winters’ Tanner Crab (Snow Crab) Season. As the crew and I talked on deck, we decided that one of us should talk to Captain Jones about starting to fish early too. I was elected to talk to the Captain about it.

So, I went up to the wheelhouse and started making small talk with Harold, working my way into the conversation about starting to fish early. “Well Harold, I can’t believe how thick this fog is’, I began. ‘We can’t see even 50 yards into this pea soup”. “Yup”, Harold said, “and I don’t think it will lift any time soon either. There isn’t a breath of wind and the barometer hasn’t moved a notch for hours”. I walked over to the radar and took a look to see if there were any boats near us. “Look at that Harold” I commented, “the closest boat to us is over 14 miles out and moving away. No one is anywhere near us.” Harold replied, “It’s a big ocean but I’m surprised no one is fishing closer. This is the spot we had our great season last year. I know we’re sitting on top of huge school of crab just waiting to crawl into out crab pots.”

This was the opening I was waiting for, so I said, “Yeah, that’s what the crew and I were just talking about Harold. We’d sure like to start baiting this string of gear we are jogging on. The crab won’t crawl into our pots until we put bait in them. What do you think about starting to bait some pots?” Harold looked right at me, kind of cocked his head and said, “the season doesn’t begin for an hour yet; we’ll start baiting our pots at noon.’ I knew that is what he would say, and I was ready to propose the new plan. “Yes I know Harold, but in this fog no one would see us and there are no boats close enough to get to us within an hour. No one could possibly know if we started baiting pots a little early. We won’t actually be fishing until we put some crab in our hold. Surely, starting to bait pots wouldn’t be so bad. No one will ever know!”

Then Harold spoke slowly, carefully, and looked right at me with a heartfelt gaze. I’ve never forgotten what he said, and I’ve tried to live my life accordingly ever since. “John”, he said, “You and I will know, and we are really the only ones that matter aren’t we.” He looked at his watch and said, “We will start baiting pots in 58 minutes, not one second earlier.” I looked back at Harold, and knew he was right.

The 1980 King Crab Season was one of the most successful seasons we had ever fished. I had never made that much money in my life. Captain Harold Jones has more integrity in his little finger than most people can even imagine. He has had good times, and some of the worst times of anyone I’ve ever known. But win or lose, Harold always did the right thing – because he would know. The world would be a better place if we were all more like Captain Harold Jones.

My Captain still is not shy about letting you know if you’re doing something wrong - and when you do something right. We should all be so lucky.

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