Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Deadman's Bay Part V - The Conclusion

By John S. Mickman

At the end of Part IV, our shrimp fishing trawler, The Sogn, was dead in the water in gale force winds at the head of Deadmans Bay. We had been successful extinguishing the fire which struck the vessel that morning, but no one knew where we were and all our electronics were ‘dead’ because our battery bank was ruined.

After talking it over a little bit, Ron said that he thought all the batteries were melted and useless, but he said he would take another, very close look. I went on deck and down to the skiff to start the motor in case we needed to make a run for it. After pumping the primer bulb, I pulled the choke halfway out, adjusted the throttle to 'Start', and pulled the starter cord. On the third try, the little Johnson engine roared to life and it sounded strong and ready for action. Good deal, I thought to myself. I don't know if we should leave the Sogn, but if we need to, we can. Maybe we'll stay here until the wind lets up, then one of us could make a run to the Alitak Cannery in Kempff Bay. It's only about 30 miles south. In good weather, that would be an easy trip. With the fire out and the Sogn secured to the bottom with the net I was feeling much better about our predicament. I shut down the kicker and went back up to the wheelhouse.

Ron was back up there, and he had a pretty crusty looking 12 volt battery and a spool of electrical wire with him. "I think this battery may still be good", he said. "I hope so, because the rest of them are completely shot. This battery is our last hope for calling in a Mayday", Ron announced as he cut and spliced wire to our VHF radio. His last step was to strip two wires and secure them to each of the poles of the battery with a couple of sheet metal screws. After the wires were all properly secured, Ron told George to turn on the radio. Voila! Radio static began blaring over the loud speaker.  All three of us let out our own personal version of jubilant cheers; we were saved!

After we calmed down, George made a distress call to the fleet. "Mayday, Mayday. This is the shrimp trawler, The Sogn. We're up at the head of Deadmans Bay. Does anyone pick us up?", George called out. Almost immediately, another fish boat in the shrimp fleet named the Emerald Island called back to us. "This is the Emerald Island, George. Are you guys OK?" asked Connie, the Emerald Islands skipper.  "Yeah", George replied over the VHF. "We're OK, but the boat caught fire and we're dead in water just off the rocks in Deadmans Bay".

"What the hell are you doing way up in there?", Connie the skipper asked, as most of the Shrimp Fleet listened to our Mayday call and conversation. George hesitated and looked at me and Ron. We both shook our heads. He thought for a moment, then called back. "Well, it was too rough to fish today, and one of the guys wanted to do some beachcombing. We came up here where it was calmer so we could get the skiff safely back and forth to the beach", George said with a big grin on his face. 'Good one!'', I thought. None of the three of us wanted the whole fleet to discover this unbelievable, virgin shrimp fishing grounds.

"Well, we're just going past the outside of Alitak Bay. We'll run up there and pull you boys off the rocks in about 3 hours", Connie called back. We all looked at each other with great big grins. This was awesome. The Sogn was saved, no one was hurt and we even had about 30,000 pounds of shrimp on ice in the hold. Way Cool!

While we waited, Ron went back into the engine room with a flashlight to see if he could figure out what started the fire. The galley stove still worked as the diesel fuel was gravity fed from the hollow mast, so I made some coffee and sandwiches as The Sogn rocked to and fro. The waves were continuing to build in the wind and spray washed over the stern rail onto the afterdeck of The Sogn.

About the time the coffee was ready, a soot-covered Ron came into the galley holding a 3" diameter hydraulic pressure gauge. "This is the culprit", he announced. "The hydraulic pressure from trying to lift the net was too much for the threads of this gauge. Look how all the threads are stripped. It blew off the hydraulic line and smashed into the electric panel. An electrical fire must have started, igniting the rest of the engine room." George and I each looked at the gauge with the glass face smashed and the striped threads that had secured it to the galvanized hydraulic line in the engine room. Mystery solved.

When Connie and the Emerald Island arrived, George explained how we used our shrimp net as an anchor. "We'll have to be careful when you tow us off Connie", George said over the radio. As they carefully sidled up to the Sogn, we threw over a hawser, a large towing line. One of their crewmen caught the line and ran it back to the stern of the Emerald Island, making it off on a big cleat.

 "OK Connie", George instructed over the VHF. "We need to spool off all the cable from our cable reels before we can get underway. Start pulling slowly; I'll tell my crew to begin spooling the cable off". He then yelled down to Ron and me on the deck to take off the brakes and let go the cables. We each released our brake handles allowing the cable to pay out, slowly at first, then faster and faster as the Emerald Island spun our bow around and pulled the Sogn to safety.

Finally, all our cable was paid out and the cable ends were pulled free from the reel and then through the blocks on the stanchions before sinking to the bottom of the bay. $20,000 dollars worth of cable, doors and net with over 30,000 pounds of shrimp were laid to rest for evermore at the bottom of Deadmans Bay.

They are still there.

*  *  *  *  *

While the Emerald Island towed us to the cozy little Kempff Bay Cannery near the outlet of Alitak Bay, Ron got a big pry-bar and we were able to get the dog off of the anchor wench in case we needed to drop anchor. When we arrived at the Cannery, the crews of both boats lashed The Sogn and The Emerald Island together and Connie laid us right up to the cannery dock before continuing on his way to try and find some shrimp to catch. Out of Alitak Bay toward the waters of the North Pacific. We were all glad to see him turn to Starboard instead of to Port - which would have led him back into Deadmans Bay. None of the shrimp fleet discovered our 'hot spot' for two more years...

Later that night, a tugboat arrived and towed us back to our home port of Kodiak. When we arrived early the next morning, Frank met us and helped  us tie up at the dock of the cannery; the shrimp unloading crew was ready to go. With moist eyes, old Frank gave us all a hug and a hearty handshake; we had saved his boat and none of the three of us were harmed in any way. But we did have a good story and he wanted all the details.

Soon, Jacob and Mary came down to the boat with my girlfriend Su. It was a happy reunion. Jacob was working on a boat called The Robbie, which was a smaller sister ship of The Sogn. The Robbie was a good boat and they were doing well.

Later on that day, a reported showed up from the Kodiak Mirror newspaper to interview all of us for the story he was going to write and publish. But first, he lined the three of us crewmen of The Sogn up along the dock, in the misty, grey morning, in front of the rigging of our boat which was tied up to the cannery dock at low tide, and took our picture. Pretty cool.

His story began, "'Quick thinking and action on the part of the crew is the only thing that saved the boat', said Frank Tennyson, owner of the Sogn of the fire which struck the vessel..."

That was the truth. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

Deadman's Bay Part IV

By John S. Mickman

In Part III, my deck-mate Ron and I had been hauling up a giant load of shrimp off the bottom of Deadmans Bay when all of a sudden, the huge hydraulic wenches shut down and the engines of our vessel, the M/V Sogn killed. We were dead in the water!

As we looked up toward George, he strode out of the Wheelhouse toward us, and as he walked by the engine stack housing, a huge tongue of fire roared out of the open ventilation door and engulfed him. George quickly jumped through the fire and brushed off his hair and shirt - extinguishing burning embers that were all over him. In the instant Ron saw the fire he yelled out, "Fire. Fire on the boat. John, George, get all the fire extinguishers you can find and meet me at the Engine Room hatch. NOW!" Just as the words came out of his mouth, both the generator and main engine of the Sogn quit. We were dead in the water -   in Deadman's Bay!

Ron was not only the engineer, and a good one at that, but he was also the boat owners son and he had every intention of saving his family's boat. As instructed, George and I met Ron at the hatchway that descended vertically into the engine room. As I looked onto the engine room through the 3' x 3' hatch, all I saw was an inferno of yellow and orange fire billowing black smoke up through the hatch and into the deckhouse. Being an old wooden boat, the planks and timbers of the engine room were all diesel fuel soaked - this fire was going to consume the boat - and maybe us with it.

Ron grabbed an extinguisher from me, pulled the trigger and sprayed the whole tank full through the hatch. The flames were still roaring, as he pulled a second extinguisher from George and sprayed it too through the hatch, although this time he kind of goose-necked it around the circumference of the hatchway opening. This made a difference. Although the engine room was still an inferno, right near the hatch area, including the latter going into the engine room was fire free.

Ron grabbed another extinguisher and dropped it through the hatch onto the engine room deck below. After grabbing yet another extinguisher he yelled to us, "I'm dropping down into the engine room. If I don't come up in one minute, lift me out with this line" - a line with a long standing end that he had tied around himself. With that, Ron jumped into the fiery inferno. I was incredulous as I saw Ron disappear into the thick black smoke and into the fiery engine room.

 An order from Captain George pulled me out of my dismay. "John, get the skiff in the water and put the kicker and gas tank in it. Now!", he ordered in a 'not to be disputed' tone. "I'll take care of Ron", he said. "Go!"

I flew through the galley, onto the deck and around starboard side of the deckhouse that had latter rung's bolted to the bulkhead. Up I scrambled as fast as I could go. As I was unlashing the heavy aluminum skiff, I surveyed our predicament. The now screaming wind was pushing the Sogn, along with the submerged, yet suspended net, toward the rocky windward shore of Deadmans Bay. In a matter of minutes, we would be on the rocks and the Sogn's hull would be shattered, sinking the boat and - and crashing us all against the unforgiving, sharp teeth  of the volcanic rocks of Deadmans Bay. I needed to get this heavy aluminum skiff over a rail, off the second deck of the Sogn, and into the water, right-side up, all while fighting against the wind - while our vessel was afire.

To this day I couldn't tell you how I got the skiff in the water, but I did, and then I fixed the 25 horsepower kicker to the transom and connected the gas tank to it. After double checking my lashings which secured the bow and stern of the skiff to the rail of the Sogn, I scurried back into the deckhouse to see how Ron and George were doing with the fire. When I got there, George was just going down the ladder into the engine room with a fire extinguisher. "Is the fire out?", I asked George. "Yeah, we think so, but we have to look for any places that might flare up", George replied.

As I knelt down to look into the engine room, the stench was overwhelming and smoke was still wafting through the hatch and into the deckhouse. As my burning eyes looked to see down through the hatch, I was shocked at the devastation of our once neat and tidy, gleaming engine room. Everything looked like burnt toast and the ash like residue from the fire extinguishers brushed most of the surfaces of the engines and bulkheads.

After taking it all in, I reminded George and Ron, "I know you guys want to make sure the fire is out, but we're about to go up on the rocks. Like in a minute or two. We should get back on deck". They both looked up at me with sooty faces, took one last look around, then rushed to the hatch opening and climbed out of the engine room.

By the time we all emerged on deck, we were 75 yards off the shore and lumbering toward it as each wave, and the wind, pushed us closer. "John", George asked, "See if you can get the anchor overboard. If you can, drop it until you get enough scope then set it when you feel it take a good bite. Giver 'er plenty of scope but we can't get too close to shore."

I ran alongside the portside of the deckhouse to the bow and inspected the anchor wench. I was concerned about George's order, and for good reason: The final step of raising the anchor is to 'dog' it securely to make sure it doesn't come loose in tough weather. When properly 'dogged', the only way to free the anchor is with the hydraulic motor. Without any power, we didn't have any hydraulics. When I reached the anchor wench I looked at the dogging mechanism and my heart sank; I had properly dogged and braked the anchor. There was no way we could get the dog off to let go the anchor to save the Sogn. No way.

I ran back to the deck and told Ron and George the anchor was useless. Ron got a big smile on his face. "I've got a better idea anyway guys. Our best anchor is already in the water under the boat. All we have to do is let loose the brakes on the dragging wenches and 30,000 pounds of shrimp will keep us off the rocks", Ron explained as he took his position at a wench. I scrambled to the other wench, and when Ron gave the word, we both backed off our brakes and let the cable stream off the reels. We could tell when the net hit the bottom of the bay because all of a sudden the cable stopped unreeling. "Let off another 100 feet you guys", George ordered. "That will keep us in place and off the rocks. Great idea Ron", George said with a grin.

After we felt the net reach the bottom of the bay, we reeled off another 100 feet or so of cable, Ron and I securely locked the wench brakes and watched as the Sogn swung by the stern and was suspended off the rocky shore by a scant 30 yards. Whew!

As the 3 of us surveyed our situation, George looked at the skiff in the water, all ready to go and asked, "How the hell did you get the skiff in the water John?" I looked over the rail at the skiff, neatly tied to the rail with the motor properly mounted and the gas tank all hooked up. Then I looked back at George and said, "I really couldn't tell you George. One minute I was on top of the deckhouse with it, and the next minute I was hooking up the gas tank. I don't know how it happened."

"Well, I hope we don't need the skiff 'cause in these seas it will be tough going for the three of us to reach a beach-able shore", George said as he looked over the rough water of Deadmans Bay. "Ron, let's get to the wheelhouse and see if we have any power to the radio's".

I followed them up to the smoky Wheelhouse and the three of us groaned in disappointment when we found that the CB, the VHF and the long range radios were all dead. No outside communications. We were dead in the water, hanging by the net which was holding the Sogn off shore keeping us from total destruction and there were no other boats anywhere near us. And none would be coming either. No one knew where we were and no one would even begin wondering where we were for days. The three of us looked at each other, all realizing our dilemma.

End of Part IV: Tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of Deadmans Bay.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Deadman's Bay Part III

By John S. Mickman

In part II, we were running down the coast of Kodiak, AK toward the shrimp fishing grounds at the south end of the island, on a dark, stormy night. George the skipper had relieved me from my late night wheel watch and I went below to my bunk to get some sleep.

I awakened the next morning, and was surprised that the engine was shut down and, with the exception of our smaller, quiet diesel generator, the boat was completely still. Weird. I put my boots on and walked through the crew's quarters to the galley. George slept topside behind the Wheelhouse and I could hear him gently snoring. I wonder where we are; it's breezy, but calm as a mill pond? WHERE ARE WE?

As I started making coffee on the old diesel fuel, wood-burning style cook stove, I looked out the galley porthole and all I could see was pea-soup fog - thicker than I had ever seen fog in my life. Hmmm, kind'a spooky. After I got the coffee going, I lit up a cigarette and went out on deck to see what I could see. Being still breezy, we must be way up inside of some bay 'cause the water had barely a ripple on it. Where are we? All though I couldn't see through the fog at all, I sensed that we were closed in somehow. I wonder where we are?

As the cook, I'm not supposed to wake up anyone until the coffee is made, and making a big, full pot on the old griddle-topped stove always took about 25 minutes from a luke warm stove. I started making some drop-biscuits. When the coffee and biscuits were ready, I woke the guys up and they slowly meandered into the galley scowling and scratching their bellies - but glad to see the pot of fresh coffee on the galley table along with the fresh, hot biscuits, canned butter and Nabob strawberry jam.

After both of them had guzzled down a sip or two of coffee, I asked, "So where the hell are we, you guys? And how come you didn't wake me up to drop the Pick (anchor)?" (The low man on the boat (me), always had to drop anchor, and raise it.)

George looked at me with bloodshot eyes. "Well, old Ron here couldn't sleep through the gale last night after we went around Cape Trinity, so he came up to the Wheelhouse. It was a rough ride; seas to 20 feet. We got around the corner (of Cape Trinity) and we had to run into Alitak Bay. No way we could get to the west side of the island, and even if we could, there is no way we can fish Long Bay today. Too rough."

Then Ron chimed in, "So I was looking at the charts as George was looking for a place to anchor up in the bay, and I looked at the detailed chart for Alitak and Deadmans' Bays. We decided to run up into Deadmans Bay to anchor up".

"Deadmans Bay", I spurted out. "Deadmans Bay is up there over 30 miles. Couldn't you guys find a closer spot for an anchorage?" A 30 mile run in the Sogn would take over 3 hours each way,  6 hours total, and we had to pay for the fuel ourselves.

"Well yeah", George replied. "But look at the chart John. The bottom looks like it could have some shrimp in it. I've never, ever, heard of anyone fishing up here, and since we can't find any shrimp anywhere else, and the weather is so tough, I decided to give it a try". On any vessel, the Captain made the decisions; life on a fishboat, or any vessel for that matter, is not a democracy.

"Hmmmm. So you guys really had a late night. Do you want to have breakfast first or drop the net first?", I asked. They both wanted to eat before getting started for the day. Nice...

After eating, Ron dropped through the narrow hatch, about 3 feet square, to the engine room and fired up the main engine. After it warmed up, I went up to the bow to hoist the anchor. That done, Ron and I prepared the deck for a day of dragging the bottom for shrimp, as George determined the best route to take to fish in this unexplored, possibly virgin, narrow shrimp grounds. We used the Wench Head to lift the huge, steel 'doors' off of their stanchions. Each of the two doors are about 10 feet square with a half-round pipe welded around the edges. When fishing, and when the rigging is right and the skipper has the boat at the correct speed, the doors on each side of the afterdeck are lowered into the water. As the water rushes past the doors, they pull away from the boat, spreading the net as they do so. It all has to be done in an exacting manner or the doors will spin over and over, tangling the net into a huge rat's nest - a big problem.

Deadmans Bay is very long and narrow with barely enough room to turn around at its head while dragging a shrimp net (Otter Trawl). It was still so foggy that, even though we were in this narrow bay, we couldn't see the coast on either side. All the edges of the bay are lined with sharp, volcanic rock - like teeth. We needed to be careful in here. Thank goodness for radar. It was still very breezy and the wind seemed to be picking up a little every time I took notice of it. With the temperature hovering at about 50 degrees, this biting wind kept us moving to keep warm.

George finally picked the spot at which he wanted to drop the net, and gave us the word over our deck intercom system to drop the net. In perfect unison, Ron and I first ran the net out off the reel over the stern, then dropped our doors into the water. The doors spread the net, the buoys on the Headrope lifted the net as high as it could go, and the 'lead-line' and 'tickler chains' on the Footrope weighed down the bottom of the net. As we lowered the net into the bay, it opened up into a huge mouth to receive whatever we scooped up. In this case, hopefully shrimp.

George told us how much cable he wanted let out so that the net would 'fish' properly as we trawled along. During the first 'tow' of the day (usually an hour and half to two hours), the Deckhands, Ron and me, had some free time to catch up on chores, play cribbage/chess or catch some zzzzz's. Ron took a short nap to digest his breakfast while I tidied up the galley and started another pot of coffee.

However, after only about 45 minutes, George called down to us that we must have caught a snag on some sea debris because he could hardly keep the boat moving - even under a full throttle. "Let's bring up the net and see what the problem is", George yelled down from the Wheelhouse. He wasn't mad. He had to yell to be heard over the thundering howl of our 450 horsepower, Caterpillar engine under full throttle.

Ron crawled out of his bunk, and I put the finishing touches on the galley cleaning project (a clean boat is a happy boat - George reminded me daily). We emerged onto the deck, still socked in by the thick fog. However, through the mist I could see the windward shore of the narrow bay. The wind had continued to pick up, and was now blowing at about 25 knots, right here in the bay. That meant that white-capped waves were forming before they crashed into the windward shore. At 25 knots, the sound of the wind in the rigging is remarkable, and when combined with the thundering main engine and screaming hydraulics, all communications need to be yelled. In their waning years, most fishermen have pretty poor hearing.

Ron and I assumed our positions at each of the 2 huge wenches which lift each side of the net, and after advising George that we were ready to go, we started the huge wench drums reeling up the cable, slowly bringing the net toward the boat.

In all my shrimp fishing experience, the net always came toward the boat. However, this time the boat was being pulled backward toward the net?! Weird. Ron and I wondered out loud to each other as to what the problem could be, and George, powerless to control the boat as it was being pulled backward toward the net, exited the Wheelhouse and walked across the roof of the Deckhouse to watch this strange occurrence.

After a few long minutes, the cables that led to the net stopped pointing off the stern and began pointing straight down from the stanchions which are mounted on each side of the stern. Straight down. And as we lifted the net up off the bottom of the bay, our stern began to sink lower in the water. "Holy Smokes, you guys. Whatever's in that net is pulling the boat down. I wonder what we caught?", I yelled over the noisy din, including the now growling hydraulic wenches, which had slowed down to a crawl due to the heavy load being brought to the surface. The one inch thick cables were tight as a fiddle-strings and the levelwind which kept the cable tracking properly onto each the wench drums, had a hard time tracking at the far ends of each layer of cable. 

At long last we lifted the doors out of the water at which time we could always see the Headrope buoy's popping to the surface; but not today. The net was still tracking straight down. After racking the doors on their respective stanchions, we began rolling the net cabling, and then the net onto the net reel. Soon we were to see what the problem was; the net had over 30,000 pounds of shrimp in it!!! Since our typical 'tow' yielded only 3,000 - 6,000 pounds of shrimp, 30,000 pounds was unimaginable.

It took almost an hour to get all this shrimp on deck including the time it took to wash all the mud out of it. An awesome task, but we were on top of the world; in just the one tow we had caught almost a half a load of shrimp. Since I usually made about $1,000 per trip, this one tow meant almost $500 to me - more money than I had ever made in my life. Far out!

As soon as we could, we dropped the net back into the water so it could start fishing again, and Ron and I began the hard work at getting 30,000 pounds of shrimp into the hold. We worked at a feverish pace because we knew that we couldn't get another big tow like that last one on deck until the first tow was in the hold. George kept coming back from the Wheelhouse, on top of the Deckhouse and yelling at us to go faster; we had to get the net back on deck pretty soon or we would get too much shrimp in the net!

Just as we finished getting the last of the shrimp into the hold, the Sogn stopped dead in the water. George couldn't get the boat to move forward anymore. We all suspected the same thing; we had caught too many shrimp and the engine didn't have enough power to pull the net forward anymore.

Once again, Ron and I manned the huge hydraulic wenches, and once again, the boat was being pulled backward toward the net. Although we all wanted to get another big tow, I was really worried that this tow was, for some reason, going to be too big. I didn't know what kind of problems too big a tow could cause, but I knew that all our machinery was geared for a certain size catch - and this was way over the limit of the gear.

When the boat was pulled back to just above the net, the heavy hydraulic wenches began their job of pulling net off of the bottom of the bay. The cables were singing tight, and the stern section of the Sogn sank deeper and deeper in the water. By the time the net came off of the bottom, the wenches were groaning and going so slow that they actually stopped when the waves lifted the boat up; as each swell dropped the Sogn back down, we would make a little headway with getting more cable on the drums, thus lifting the net higher off of the bottom.

All the gear was staining so hard that I leaned back from the cables, worried that one would break and snap back and maybe rip off my head. This was scary. The cable was barely creeping onto the drums if it was moving at all. The engine was straining under the stress and putrid, black smoke began coming out of the stack. Something had to break but none of us knew what, but we still had to try to get this mighty load of shrimp on deck. What else could be do???

As all our gear groaned under the strain, the wind was still screaming and now with the net off the bottom, we were being blown toward the windward shore of Deadmans Bay. George went back into the Wheelhouse and turned the boat toward the middle of the bay to give us room to maneuver. Suddenly, both wenches abruptly stopped and Ron and I had to apply the heavy brakes to keep the cable from spinning off the reels. "What the hell, Ron. What's wrong?", I asked him.

"I don't know, but it isn't good", Ron replied as he backed away from the wenches toward the middle of the deck. I followed suit so I could see George in the Wheelhouse above the Deckhouse.

End of Part III.  Do you wonder what the problem was? It was a BIG problem. To find out, watch for next weeks edition (Part IV) of ‘Deadmans Bay’.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Deadman's Bay Part II

by John S. Mickman

John and the Sogn
In Part I, I had just gotten onboard the Shrimp Trawler, The Sogn, and was looking forward to a fruitful summer season of fishing shrimp off of Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Frank took great pleasure in feeding me baloney and seeing how far he could take me down the garden path before I figured out the ruse. I soon learned to take the things he said with a grain of salt and question everything he talked to me about. However, he still would catch me unawares and we'd have a good laugh. This season with Frank as the Skipper of the Sogn was so much better than it had been the previous summer with 'Jack the Skipper'. We were having a profitable Tanner Crab Season, and each crewman, Ron, George and me, earned over $1,000 per week. We all got along well and were having a good time.

Being a smaller, 72' wooden hulled boat, we waited out the worst of the late Spring storms by anchoring up in one of Kodiak Islands many bays. During these layovers which could last two to three days, I'd read, write, tell stories with the guys and play games. Ron loved to play cribbage and chess and we spent much of our 'down time' in these pursuits. Although I considered myself a pretty good cribbage player, Ron had incredible luck with good hands and would win most of these games. However, although he was an able opponent, Ron never won a chess game. He was just as competitive as I, and this frustrated him to no end - much to my delight. The whole crew would rub his losses in, at which time he challenge me to yet another game.

Ron eating shrimp for lunch
Franks son Ron was about five years older than me and many days while anchored up, we'd take the heavy aluminum skiff down from atop the Deckhouse, put the kicker on and cruise around whatever bay we were in. On one of these cruises, we spotted 3 Kodiak Bears beachcombing along the shoreline. Not long after that, we saw a small camp of guys and beached the skiff to see what they were up to. It turned out that they were bear hunters and hadn't seen a bear during their 10 day bear hunt.

    [Ron eating fresh shrimp for lunch]

We told these guys we knew where there were 3 bears - boy, did their ears perk up. They wanted to know if we'd take them to the bears, as this was their last full day of their hunting trip. Before I could say anything, Ron said, "Sure, we'd be happy to take you over. But, if you guys get at least one bear, you have to pay my buddy John and me a thousand dollars." The guy that had been doing most of the talking replied without missing a beat. I'll give you guys a thousand dollars for each bear we shoot!" The deal was struck.

The three hunters jumped in the skiff with Ron and me and off we went. As we neared the place we'd seen the bears, Ron hugged the far side of the bay and we all saw the bears still playing around on the beach. When we were just adjacent the bears, Ron changed course and headed right for them at top speed. As we got close, the bears spotted us and began running up a big snow slide that ran a thousand feet up the mountain. Just about this time, the guy on the bow drew his rifle and put his scope on the biggest bear as he raced up the mountain. BOOM, he fired from the moving skiff; I'll be darned if he hadn't killed the bear and he rolled down the mountain to the water line. When we reached the shore, each of the other guys jumped out and fired at the other two bears. One was hit and the other one escaped.

Well, this was quite a turn of events. We skinned the bears keeping the heads and put them in the skiff with us. With all this weight in the boat, we were really low in the water and needed to pay attention. We were all thankful that it was very calm in the bay. Ron invited the hunters to dinner aboard The Sogn, so we headed that way. Frank was a gracious host, and we all enjoyed a dinner of King Crab and Halibut. We all drank, talked and told stories well into the night. These guys couldn't believe their luck and thanked us all many times over. Finally, Ron brought the hunters back to their camp. When he returned, he handed me 10 - $100 bills. He asked me how I liked being a Hunting Guide; I told him I liked it just fine!

When Crab fishing, we needed three men on deck as opposed to having two men when we were shrimp fishing. Our crew was comprised of Frank as Skipper, Ron the engineer, a guy named George who was the Deck Boss and me - Deckhand. Of course as the low man on the boat, I was also the cook and chief bottle washer. George was a much better cook than I, and he gladly showed me many more meals to add to my limited repertoire. We had a merry crew, but it was not to last long.

Six weeks after I got the job on The Sogn for the Tanner Crab Season, the fleet had caught the quota which was established each Season by the Dept. of Fish and Game,  and the season came to an abrupt end. During our last trip, I asked Frank about the coming Shrimp Season. "Not to worry", Frank said with his typical gusto. "I hate shrimp fishing. I'm going to have George run the boat and you and Ron are going to work the deck. You should have a job all through the summer shrimp fishing, and then in the fall, I'll get back onboard and the four of us will fish the King Crab Season. Your job is secure!"

Wow, this was awesome! We were making good money fishing Tanner Crab and I was confident we'd do well fishing shrimp all summer too. But the big money was made during the fall King Crab Season. Some Crew Shares were a thousand dollars per day, instead of a thousand dollars per week. I was on top of the world. I sent some money down to my girlfriend (and future wife) Su, and she come up to Kodiak and found a little house in the woods we could rent. I then purchased a little VW station wagon for bouncing down the rustic Kodiak roads; life was good.

After converting The Sogn from a crab boat to a shrimp dragger, George, Ron and I set out to catch as much of the season's shrimp quota as possible. I was still the cook and George encouraged me not to skimp on the groceries. I gladly complied, as Ron and I were burning up calories like crazy, working 20 hour days on deck. However, George was sitting up in the Wheelhouse each and every day, and I noticed he was staring to get a little pudgy. I continued to buy more groceries, cook bigger and better meals as Ron and I watched George get chubbier and chubbier. 

Unfortunately, we were not doing very well and were struggling to get full loads of shrimp - about 75,000 pounds including a deckload. We only had 3 days to catch a load of shrimp in the summer because the warm weather would melt the ice that kept the shrimp cool in our hold. When our ice was gone we had to be at a cannery dock unloading or we were in peril of the entire load rotting. Most of the boats in the shrimp fleet were having the same problem. I wondered if we were catching all the shrimp in the local waters? No one knew, but there were some that thought so. We all trusted in the divine wisdom of the Alaska State Department of Fish & Game to set quota's so as to only allow harvesting on a sustained yield basis. The idea was that each and every year in the future, Kodiak would have a successful Shrimp Fishery.

After a month or so, we decided to try some new grounds on the southwest part of Kodiak Island, just outside of Long Bay. We'd never seen anyone fishing there before, and although this bay was just a long narrow divot carved into the coast, the depth was about right; it could be an untapped shrimp grounds. We agreed to burn the fuel, which came out of our Crew's Share of the total earnings for each trip, and give 'er a try.

So, the evening of July 14, 1973 I stood my usual 4 hour watch as we cruised down the east coast of Kodiak Island, going south toward the Cape Trinity. There were Storm Warnings out and the winds were coming from the Southwest at about 45 knots. Real breezy! However, I was hugging the coast and although it was windy, the wind was coming offshore with no expanse of water from which to build seas of any size.

Also being from the SW, the sky was clear with a full moon lighting up the water as we steamed along at 9 knots (about 10 miles per hour). It was a beautiful, exhilarating night with a lot going on. In the moonlight I could see the coast, but I relied on our radar for navigation. There were no other boats around, and because there are no houses or towns to speak of on the coast of Kodiak, the only illumination was the moon and stars.

I had learned to enjoy being at sea in a storm and this night was no different. The Sogn sliced through the 4 - 6 foot waves nicely, and being a wooden boat, the timbers worked and 'sang' as we danced along through the storm. I loved 'watching the water' when on watch like this, and found great interest in looking for squalls, watching for debris and crab pot buoys on the surface, sea life - lots of stuff was always going on. I loved long trips on the water then, and I love it still.  I wasn't tired at all during this late night watch that night. Too much was going on.

Finally, at 3:00 AM, my 4 hour watch ended and I woke up George for his watch. We were still running toward Cape Trinity, and once we rounded that corner, we would be taking on the full brunt of the storm over about 50 miles of open ocean - from the Alaska Peninsula, all the way across Shelikof Straits.

Skipper George and his big tummy was matched with a big sense of humor. George had a quick wit and really loved bacon-fried white bread as a 'desert' at breakfast. As he sidled through the narrow hatch to the wheelhouse, George said, "Gawd John, has the wind been screaming like this all night?", as he took a sip of steaming hot coffee.

"Yeah, you should have seen the seas build up just after Sitkalidiak Island. It was awesome! I'm surprised you and Ron slept through it", I replied. The wheelhouse of the Sogn, which sat perched on top of the Deckhouse, was small, and George and I together up there barely fit. I squeezed past George back toward the hatch and interior latterway that led into the Crews Quarters below in the Deckhouse.

I commented to George that we were at an extreme low tide. "We're not going through the Geese (Gee-zee) Channel are we George?" I asked. "My heading is off to the East of the Geese Islands right now."

The soft red light in the wheelhouse illuminated the small area, and George shuffled over to the radar and took a look. "Nope, we have to go outside the Islands for sure. This is really going to be rough going through Sitkinak Straits." George turned on the spot light and looked over the rough seas. The spray was starting to be lifted off the tops of the waves - 'smoke on the water'. George commented that he figured the small waves we were in as we hugged the coast would build to 20 feet or better after we rounded the Cape.

After talking about it for a few minutes, George said I should keep my clothes on when I hit the bunk because we may have to run into Alitak Bay and drop anchor; there was no reason we needed to take that kind of a beating and risk damaging the Sogn in any way. I agreed, went down to my bunk and laid down, fully clothed, but with boots off.

By this time I had learned that the only way to stay in my bunk in tough weather was to sleep on my back with my arms locked behind my head. In this way my elbows were firmly pushed up either side between the bulkhead and the bed board that held me, my sleeping bag and my mattress in place. I assumed the position and went fast asleep. That's another skill I had developed; when fishing, catch up on sleep every chance you get because you may not get another change for a long, long time.

End of Part II. Watch for Part III in next week’s edition.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Deadman's Bay Part I

by John S. Mickman

John Mickman and the Sogn in 1973
(Yes, we all had long hair back then!)
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in the Winter Quarter of 1973, I arrived at one those big decision points of my life; a) I could either search for a job using my degree from the Carlson School of Business at the U of MN, or b) return to Kodiak, Alaska and get a job on a commercial fishing boat.

At that time in my life I really couldn't see myself working in an office as a businessman, and anyway, in the early 70's the country was in a recession and there were not many jobs to be had. Option 'b' was way more appealing, as the previous summer I had hitchhiked to Kodiak, and after many trials and tribulations, had gotten a job on a commercial shrimp fishing boat named, The Sogn.  I had really liked fishing and working on the deck of a commercial fishing boat had come naturally to me. I was good at it, and the potential earnings were much more than a young cadet businessman could make.

The other factor was that I didn't have to be a fisherman for the rest of my life; I could be a commercial fisherman for some period of time and then make a career change and put my business degree to work (I hoped!).

And so, on a cold, bleak day in March, the day after my last Final Exam of Winter Quarter 1973, I was back on the road hitchhiking to Seattle where I took a plane to Anchorage, and then on to Kodiak. I had decided that I didn't want to hitchhike all the way to Anchorage because it was still winter in northern Canada and Alaska. Bitterly, dangerously cold. I still had thousands of dollars saved from working on The Sogn the previous summer, so I decided that flying was a better option. And, the sooner I arrived in Kodiak, the sooner I could start looking for a job on a boat.

A good buddy from the previous summer, Jacob LeVann, lived in a rental house with his fiancée Mary on the hill (Pillar Mountain) above the harbor. They had extended an invitation for me to stay with them until I was able to get a job and find my own place to rent. Jacob had fished on a boat named The Salu the previous summer, and the Salu and Sogn had fished side by side a few times during the '72 Shrimp Season. The Salu was a bigger, much newer, steel hulled boat, but the Sogn's catch had matched the Salu time and again. Actually, our 3 man crew of Jack the Skipper, Bert Parker and me were always able to get our shrimp on board and our net back in the water dragging along the bottom before the Salu was able to. We really had worked out an efficient deck operation.

Both Jacob and Mary welcomed me with open arms and we all became even better friends. Jacob was looking for a fishing job too, as the Salu had left for the 'lower 48' to get rigged up to fish King Crab that Fall. So Jacob and I teamed up and were able to cover all the areas which would likely turn up a fishing job - the harbor, cannery row, the fisherman's bars and marine hardware stores. A couple of fisheries were open including Halibut and Tanner Crab (Snow Crab), and shrimp season was just around the corner. As an experienced shrimp fisherman, I was certain I'd get a job soon.

The small town of Kodiak was a beehive of activity and it all revolved around the fishing industry. Kodiak's population was less than 5,000 souls and harbored hundreds of boats in the harbor -- which was always bursting at the seams. There were hundreds of young deckhands like Jacob and me in and around town, as well as boat engineers, skippers, hundreds of cannery workers and many businesses that supported the fleet. There were young people like me galore; having a 'beverage with the guys' was always interesting - and fun.

My favorite night time haunt was The Beachcombers. This truly unique venue was a old, decrepit, landlocked cruise ship that was located about a half mile from 'downtown' Kodiak,  and a hundred feet from the waterline. The developers had dug a deep ditch from the shoreline, pulled the ship into it, and then bull-dozed the dirt back around the ship. You had to climb about three flights of steps alongside the giant hull to get to the entrance on the main deck of the ship.

I was amazed the first time I saw the Beachcombers and spent many, many fun filled nights there. The Beachcombers boasted a nightclub, that featured live, nightly entertainment - always a rock and roll dance band. It also had a billiard hall in which I really honed my pool playing skills. There was a 'restaurant' of sorts from which you could get a sandwich and a beer if you liked. They rented out the staterooms for $25 per week, and although they were small and cramped, the rooms were warm and dry and were always available. These rooms were a real necessity for Kodiak because there was a severe housing shortage in town with lots of people coming and going constantly.

Kodiak had no stoplights and the roads didn't go to anywhere in particular because Kodiak was an island. There was only one grocery store, Kraft's Grocery. Shopping in a small town like Kodiak was as much of a social event as any other endeavor in town. I ALWAYS met lots of my friends there and shopping took twice as long as it should have -- what with all the visiting and all.

The roads outside of the actual town of Kodiak had been forged through the woods and over the mountains by the military during World War II.  They were all made of black, volcanic gravel that was converted to washboard status within days of any occasional grading job. During any dry spell longer than two days, the dust from these roads would coat the trees, brambles and houses with a fine grey dust. This dust coated 100% of the vehicles in Kodiak and no one bothered washing their cars; we all just waited for the frequent mist and rain to rinse them off. This dust was everywhere. Misty rain was nearly constant in Kodiak, which converted the dust into a fine grained mud that coated ones shoes or boots and stuck like glue. No one in Kodiak wore their shoes into their houses due to this  black mud. All houses had a mudroom where the family and visitors shed their shoes and oilskins then entered the abode in their stocking feet. Everyone. Every time. Every house.

Because Kodiak was a fishing port that supported the entire population, the fishermen enjoyed a higher social echelon than the non fishing people; the better the fishing season, the more successful the town. And, the better boat you fished on, the higher up the social ladder you were; the better the boat, the more respect you earned among the community.

Within the first week of my arrival, Jacob contracted with a King Crab boat to overhaul 100 of his crab pots, at $20 per pot - $2,000! The good part was that the pots were right next to the huge processing ship, the Star of Kodiak, and there was a steady stream of boat owners, skippers and crewmen walking by daily. After working out a good system, Jacob and I could re-wrap a pot with new webbing, re-tie the door hinge including door straps, and lace the tunnel eyes in place in about 45 minutes. Working fast with a good buddy like this was great fun and we planned to be done with the job in a week or so.

I've always liked to work and enjoyed it more when it was shared with a good friend. My dad trained me early on that if you have to do a lot of the same kind of thing (work), the trick was to do each one faster, better and more efficiently than the last. During my many years as a commercial fisherman, almost all the deck work was repetitive and when I would get 'in the zone', a tremendous amount of work would be accomplished in a short amount of time. Jacob was the same way. There is a certain camaraderie that men develop when working 'in the zone' like this, and the bond between Jacob and me became much stronger during this time. Although I've always been extremely competitive, I was as hopeful that Jacob would find a job just as much as I hoped I did.

One afternoon while flipping over the last 500 pound King Crab Pot for the day, I pulled my back out and could hardly stand up straight. I'd never had any back problems before, and this was really debilitating. That night another buddy of ours that was looking for a job, Pat, came over celebrate; he had gotten a job on a Tanner Crab boat. His extremely attractive girlfriend Patty was with him, and they were very much in love. Pat was a huge guy, 6' 6"  and he weighted at least 275. Huge. I knew the smaller boat he'd gotten a job on; the 54' Madre del a Rosa was a rusty old slab that hadn't seen a coat of paint in 10 years.

Pat noticed my back pain and told me he could fix me right up. Really?, I asked. "Sure", Pat said. "Just stand up in the middle of the floor right here" he instructed. As Jacob, Mary and Patty watched, Pat put me in a 'full Nelson' grip, lifted me a foot off of the floor then dropped me. Just before my feet hit the floor, Pat jerked me up and I felt(and heard) my vertebra snap back into place. Very scary. But, my back was fixed and I didn't have any more back issues for 20 years.

The next day, Pat left the harbor aboard the 'Madre' and I never saw him or Patty again. In a storm on their first day at sea, the rigging which supported the 'picking boom' broke and the boom crashed down on Pat, hitting him at the base of his neck, breaking his back and severely damaging his spinal cord. They medevaced him to a hospital in Anchorage where Patty flew to met him. We heard through the grape vine that he ended up in a hospital in Seattle and the prognosis was grim; he might have to spend the rest of his life as a quadriplegic.

I have often thought of the omen of Pat fixing my back when, within a day, his back would be broken for the rest of his life. After hearing this awful news about my good friend Pat, I resolved not to accept a job on any boat what wasn't in good condition. Fishing was dangerous enough without the added issue of ratty rigging, poor electronics, rotting pots and leaky hulls. Nope; I resolved to find a job on a good boat.

Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for an injured guy that had been fishing on The Sogn, I was hired back aboard. The boat's owner, Frank Tennyson, hired me for the balance of the Tanner Crab Season and was back in the Wheelhouse as Skipper of the Sogn. Frank had been ill the summer before and unable to fish, but he was fully recovered and he loved crab fishing. Frank was a large, hearty man with a quick wit and a great sense of 'tom-foolery' with a huge, easy laugh.

End of Part I. Watch for next week’s edition of the continuing saga on the M/V Sogn!