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.

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