The main diesel monster inside the Arctic Dawn's engine room fired up with fine-tuned confidence as the crew was preparing to depart the anchorage spot on the south side of Saint George Island. A brutal storm system had just caused the vessel to lose nearly 2 days of harvesting time. We waited it out in safety - allowing the Island to absorb the blunt of the weather's fury. It was January, 2005 - can't remember the date exactly. Sometimes crabbers have no clue what date it is - unless they check a calendar and figure it out - but why? With only about 4 hours of daylight per day, rarely any direct sunshine, 18 hour workdays seven days every week unless the Bering Sea is just too crazy, and life confined to the same 103-feet of space every day - there are only 2 things that really seem to have any relevance: staying alive and the amount of crabs in the hold.
Time ceases to be a concern. Clock watchers on a crabbing vessel would be very unhappy.
The rest did us good. Unbearable storms were always bittersweet: your body cries for the rest, but your mind tells you that every minute lost equals lost revenue potential - and a later return date. And so you just endure it - and try to love it for what it is. As for me, I stilled my emotions by gelling into the sea itself. Its ever-changing nature is continually fascinating. Of course, there is very little time to sit idly and meditate on the water's characteristics. But it is always there all around you. You live on it, depend on it, fear it and love it all simultaneously - without end. When you find yourself back on land, you miss it. It calls to you to return and experience even more of the unparalleled freedom that it yields.
My mate, Cory Helgavold and me were torching the roller off of an unused sorting table and preparing to weld it onto the table we preferred. As he held the directed acetylene flame in place, I proceeded to beat on the steel caster with a sledge hammer - the same that was used to break the foot-thick ice off of the Artic Dawn when bad weather hit, as it did so regularly. The deck was, as always, covered with a sheet of ice - and I slipped a bit. I was in mid-swing with the sledge. My footing displaced. My hand reached for leverage - and my left ring finger was smashed flat under the weight of the hammer's head.
Being on a crab vessel is not a game - and there is really no room whatsoever for whiners and complainers. I stopped what I was doing, squeezed the blasted finger with my right hand tightly and walked away. The pain was unlike anything I had ever before felt. This was not a common finger smashing - this was obliteration. I made no sounds except to tell Cory that I would be back directly. He had not seen what had happened very well.
Inside the galley, I examined my mangled digit. It was pretty serious. The nail had come off instantly - like dynamite had been planted under it. The tip of the finger was completely flat. It looked strange. I knew that the crew had just finished resting up - and that there was a new onslaught of duty to be diligently performed. I made a decision to man-up and support the effort.
I swallowed a few aspirin. I wrapped the flattened, yet swelling soldier tightly in electrical tape. I stuffed my hands inside two pairs of gloves as always: the first a warm wool pair, the second, a neoprene, protective pair. Then I went back to work.
We had a chance to bed down for a few hours later that day as we ran towards the harvesting region. When I woke up, I had some seriously incredible pain in my hand. I felt it clear up to my neck. As I hopped down from the top bunk, Cory's eyes widened as he released some choice and colorful words concerning what he saw. My arm had swollen to a grotesque degree. The mangled flesh of my finger had set off a reaction in the surrounding tissue and had caused my entire arm to bloat to the center of my left biceps. The lower section of my appendage was stretched under the skin - a Popeyed forearm on steroids.
Cory called the captain, his father, Oli Helgavold, and he too had choice words to explain the disfigurement. I knew what was on all of our minds right then: Would I be able to hold up my end of this job? Hell yes, I would!
There is no stopping on a crab vessel. Life and finance depend on every move made by each person on the crew. Everything matters - yet, as with all life at sea, nothing really does at all.
I swallowed some more aspirin, stuffed on the gloves and proceeded to attack my duties harder than the rest of the crew to make up for my limitations.
Days passed and the swelling subsided. The pain became numbness and my flattened finger was forgotten in the rush of life on a Bering Sea harvesting vessel. We returned to Dutch Harbor after 37 days out - and we had only about half of what we had hoped for in the hold. It was only because the crab just weren't where we were - not because anyone on the crew wasn't giving everything and more that they could.
My finger is still almost twice as wide as the fingers around it even as I type this tale right now. Sometimes it gets in the way and hits the wrong keys. I call it my "fat little buddy" now - and it always reminds me of serious beauty, unbridled turbulence and my time spent on the world's most hostile - and most alluring environment: the Bering Sea.
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