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…

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