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.

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