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.