It was 3 am when Doobie woke me. He was always abrupt and direct - not very much in the traditional manners department. He said simply, "Your watch - get up."
I had just bedded down at about midnight, but, as always, there wasn't an option to think about it, refuse or in any way put it off. I stretched my foot toward the familiar spot on the bottom bunk, twisted lightly, waited for the right motion of the boat, and then propelled myself as softly as possible to the floor - trying to not awaken my bunk mate, Cory. The floor was cluttered with clothing, CDs, empty spirit bottles and our outerwear.
In my long underwear, I exited the room that was actually 1/2 underwater and made my way towards the flight of steps that led further down to the engine room where my duties began. As I entered the door, I grabbed the ear muffs that always hung at the top of the steps - the engines were so loud that they actually would make you scream without protection. I descended the steps and went about checking the various gauges for oil and water pressure on the main and two secondary engines - huge diesel monsters that propelled the 103-foot steel-hulled crabber.
If a vessel this size looses power in the middle of the stormy Bering Sea, it will be driven by the forces of the water - and eventually, it will hit somewhere that it definitely should not. Power cannot be sacrificed - the engines must always be in order - lives depend upon that at every second.
All systems go, I turned and ascended the same steps; turned left and proceeded through the galley, stopping to grab a cup of Alaskan coffee - something that was always ready too; continued to another flight of steps that led up to the control deck, always working my motion with the motion of the boat - especially with my hot cup in hand; timed myself and hustled towards the Captian's seat to begin my watch. Everyone takes their turns at watch during the nights and during running times - those times when the vessel is in transport with no harvesting going on.
I hopped up into the high-sitting chair and instinctively read the log entries that Doobie had made in the previous hour. Of course, he had already went back to bed to try and catch a few more winks. Checking the course headings, compasses, Fathometer, radar and GPS, and determining that everything was cool, I sipped my coffee as I looked out at the Bering. As always, it was storming. It was mid-January. It was 10 degrees above zero on the Fahrenheit scale - probably 20 below with the wind chill factor added. Powerful halogen deck lights illuminated the forward deck of the Arctic Dawn.
The winds were literally howling - attacking every crevice and crack with especially-intensive force. The snow outside was typically horizontal - completely horizontal, not just at an angle. It's strange to see the snow falling (actually being driven) sideways. It was brightly accented by the lights of the boat and all I could really see otherwise was the rise and fall of the Arctic Dawn's nose. Seagulls hang with all fishing vessels, hoping to capitalize on emptied bait containers or escaping sea creatures that are being harvested. It was always strange when a seagull would land on the deck. You see, they are in constant touch with the fluidity of the water. When they get on deck, they get seasick. They can't walk straight. They can't take off into flight again often because they are sickened by the relative stillness of the solid surface. When on deck, I would assist them back into the water that would swallow me instantly, so that they could be safe at home again.
Once settled in and sure that the vessel was as safe as possible in a stormy sea, I grabbed a magazine, Maxim, I think, and settled back for some reading while my crew mates slept. It's funny how, on a fishing vessel, you have to assume certain aspects about your life are no longer in your hands. You can't do everything all the time - and even if you could - you can never control nature. The Bering Sea does what it wants to - whenever it wants to. There are no weather men out there in the middle of it attempting to predict what's coming up. You weather reports come from the rest of the fleet around you - although you can rarely ever see even their lights in the far distance. There is just your boat and your crew. Cell phones do not work - no towers. No mail gets delivered. Television signals are not present - nor radio. A Bering Sea vessel's crew is an entity alone in the wildest realm on the planet.
And that is a completely beautiful concept.
Crabbers truly do experience some of the most grueling and dangerous working conditions on the planet, but they also are privy to all sorts of natural wonders that most will never understand. They exhibit fierce attitudes while simultaneously embracing the true, underlying meanings of humility and insignificance. There are no crabbers that are truly arrogant - they know better. They know that every second is one closer to their last.
As I read the magazine and dreamed of pretty girls, something besides Doobie's cooking, beer and solid ground, I also took the time to soak in the wondrous beauty that enveloped me. I have never forgotten that - and I never will.
There's no real point to this - no real meaning. Just take the time to think about where that crab leg comes from the next time you're dipping one in butter. Understand that there is a whole different world out there - a world that risks being taken by unreserved nature for every crab harvested.
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