Life on a crabbing vessel is what the Discovery Channel portrays it to be, except it's a hell of a lot tougher. They only show you the good times on the show, "The Deadliest Catch." In December, 2004, I set on on an adventure. It began in Port Charlotte, Florida. Let me tell you about it ....
After Hurricane Charley hit directly in Port Charlotte Harbor, between Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, I spent months as a contractor rebuilding the surrounding areas. Mile after mile of total devastation was all to be seen. Every single home, in certain areas, was at least severely stricken. Of course, there were also uncountable numbers that were simply gone forever - just sticks and splinters left. After having been in the construction industry for over 15 years, I decided that I had had enough and wanted a change. I would return to Alaska where I had worked the salmon seining vessels during my college summers.
And the day came when I hopped that Greyhound and set off for Seattle. I was traveling light - just a backpack with the basics. Upon arriving in Seattle, I went immediately to the docks to begin the process of "dock-stomping" - the method that "green" fishermen use to introduce themselves to boat captains and solicit work. Long story short, it didn't work. I started applying for day labor jobs while I put in applications at all of the seafood processing plants around Seattle. And one day, I received a call on my cell from Peter Pan Seafood, Inc.
I passed a drug test, interviewed, and was offered a job aboard a processing vessel for the rough equivalent of 6 bucks an hour, but for about (they said at the time) 80 or 90 hours every week. I accepted. They flew me to Dutch Harbor, Alaska - almost in Japan - down the island chain called the Aleutian Islands. Dutch Harbor was one of the main US strongholds after Pearl harbor - a location for refueling and servicing the planes that were doing battle with the Japanese. The Island is barren still. Many craters are very evident in the mountain sides and military rubble still lies everywhere.
Another long story short, I left that processing vessel after arriving in Dutch and set out again stomping the docks. It was a brutal cold, severely-stormy late-December day when I met a lady from the Discovery Channel. She said she was there doing a feature on crabbers that do not find work. We talked a bit, in the storm, and she told me to get in her truck - said that she wanted to introduce me to someone. That someone turned out to be one of Dutch Harbor's most notorious crab boat captains, Oli Helgavold -- a Norwegian who had been on the Bering Sea all of his life - and it just so happened that he had an open spot on the Arctic Dawn.
It is a fact that the fleet was leaving that day and most had already left port. The Arctic Dawn was still there because they had a last-minute emergency with one of the crew members. He had to return home. His mother was dying. I got the job and left port within three hours after meeting him. As Oli told me, we were going on a million dollar cruise. For the next day and a half, we "ran" - we cruised as fast as the 103-foot steel-hulled '73-made crabber would take us - straight into the Bering Sea - straight into brutality incarnate.
We were harvesting Opilio crabs -- not so large, but exquisitely delicious - especially to the Japanese! After a 7-day harvest, we returned to Dutch with 74,000 lbs of these deep-water monsters and celebrated in true crabber style in the local cantina until we spent a very good portion of our earnings. Then we returned to the boat to begin the transformation from an Opilio set-up to a King set-up. We worked every day on the boat for the next 3 weeks. Crabbers work all hours - 18 to 20 every day. It seems like it's crazy - because it is. When the Arctic Dawn was ready, we headed out again - this time for 37 days. The weather had turned insane. Ice would build up so much on the boat that one man had to be in constant motion with a sledge hammer knocking it off. If not, the entire boat could capsize.
There are so many things that happen in each day on a crab boat that it is truly impossible to condense even a fraction of it here. In essence, what you come away with - at least what I came away with - is the fact that I am insignificant in this life. I mean nothing at all - less than that even. Life at sea is constantly brutal - and completely beautiful. You know that, as in a hurricane, if your number pops up, then you have no need to fight - just let go and be taken. I always knew that at any second, the sea could take me - and I was cool with that. I knew then, and know now, that a death at sea is honorable - bold and true.
Alaska is a world of its own. Dutch Harbor another, and the Bering Sea quite another still. I never made all the money that I was hoping for there on the Bering Sea, but like Captain Oli said, I definitely got that million dollar cruise -- and a hell of a lot more too!
Bottom's up Mates!
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