Being boarded by the Coast Guard is bad enough. Having illicit drugs discovered by an overzealous 19 year old ensign with a 9 millimeter strapped to his orange jumpsuit is suicide. So you don’t bring them. But all of us, including the Skipper, were wishing we had taken the chance in the middle of our 3rd day in the fish. By day four; Coffee, Kool Aid and candy bars were no longer enough.
It takes about 2 weeks of regular work to rig a long liner for a black cod fishery. Another 2 weeks on the back end to clean the boat and skates for storage. The 5 days in between are spent chasing your share with a fish-finder and in 1992 GPS was rarely commonplace, even in your EPIRB. You tacked your course and pushed a button to manage your sets. You took turns at wheel watch on the way to the Fairweather grounds and if you were lucky you made it to Yakobi Rock at Cross Sound before anyone else. We were Longliners, glorified troutmen. On the OC we were deckhands in the pitch of night with a spotlight on the mast and buoyed anchors in the water. My home for 2 months a year was a 72’ schooner. My share was around $30K. I was 22.
The funny part is, $6000.00 a week doesn’t quiet fear. You either have it or you don’t. Those of us that didn’t, came back when the call came that Halibut was pitching for $2.10 a pound. The wheels start turning and your already spending money in your head long before you pull your sea bag, Grundens and duck boots out of the blue tote in the garage. You quickly forget the pain in your wrists. An ache so bad that the Skipper has to duct tape a knife and scraper in your hands so you could keep hold of them. You faintly remember him standing on the hatch and hand feeding you Baby Ruths and pouring Kool Aid down your throat because you can’t stop to eat. When you’re in the fish, you’re in the fish. No beach in sight. No rack in the Fo’c’sle. Not today, maybe not tomorrow.
At noon the horn goes off and the chute rattles while baited hooks are flying into the sound. Thousands of beckets are hitched to 5 miles of groundline. By the time the last buoy hits the water we are already turned back to retrieve the first set. The Skippers eyes are fixed on the horizon to make sure our line wasn’t gouged or crossed by another in the fleet. Our eyes are fixed on the deck to stave off sea sickness if we’ve been too long off the water and lost our legs. Here we go.
The Skip sidles up to the first buoy and reigns it in, slipping the line on the sheave. The sun quickly slips away. We aren’t night fishing on the Arkansas river. We are 8 miles out from Bingham Cove, our only safe place to hide if weather comes. This boat only does 12 knots when it’s not full of ice and fish. An hour is a lifetime when you’re being chased by a tempest. The first 2 nights we filled the front and both sides of the hold and we still have 3 sets out. Day 3 we are still awake, barely, and have no idea why we say we want to keep going, but we do. We’re in the fish.
When we see the flag atop our final buoy, we have been awake for 4 days and eaten nothing but what the Skipper thought would keep us going; Sugar, caffeine and carbs. The sun is slipping away again and now Bingham is 10m miles east and Dicks Arm is 13 miles north. We’re in the middle of the Fairweather Grounds and I will soon wonder what fool named it so. Soaked to the bone by freezing late May sea water I can keep my balance only by holding onto the hatch. Having tools taped to my hands makes this increasingly difficult. The first breaker hits the bow like a bitch slap as if the cold deep Gulf is telling us to turn around, we don’t belong here. The Skipper fights to keep the bow in the swell, because if the boat gets turned sideways and we get caught in the trough, we are done. Not just fishing…but done. The following waves get bigger, easily half the size of the boat but vertical, and break down on top of us with crushing force. As each one comes, I lay my upper body over the top of the hatch to make myself as flat as possible. The rope around my waist is nearly useless when I get pushed into the bulwarks and almost overboard. This is the perfect storm but it is not the story of 5 Maine fishermen, it is the Alaskan fishery. It’s were the big boys dance.
The sun comes up and the La Perouse Glacier barely catches enough light to shine bluish white on the northern horizon. As we get closer to the inlet, diamonds dance on shallow teal water. It’s beautiful country. We tack back to Hoonah to pitch our fish. When I walk up to the cannery to cash my draw there is a message waiting for me. My brother in South Carolina had called every cannery on the Gulf to see if we had made harbor before the massive storm he saw on TV hit. We had not. When I called him to tell him we made it to Hoonah with a full boat and a fat check he had questions.
“Why would your skipper take that chance”? he asked.
“We all voted to keep going”. I said
“Why would YOU take the chance”?
“We were in the fish”.
I have always been a glass half full kind of guy. I don’t remember the fear of that night, though I am sure there was plenty. But so long as my life is full of fish I will remain absent fear and forge on to fill my hold. Life’s too short to count them as you catch them.