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’.

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