Thursday 27 Oct 2016

Sea Stories 2
M Alan Roberts

The outside of the Arctic Dawn was extremely dark, brutally cold, completely beautiful and deadly. The 103-foot crabbing vessel had taken refuge on the southern side of Prince George Island - about 350 miles from our home port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. In between us and Dutch was absolutely nothing except the Bering Sea itself, and right then it was not a place you wanted to be if at all sane. We positioned ourselves on the side of the Island that would provide us the most shelter from the oncoming storm's onslaught and began to wait it out somewhere around 1 in the morning.

Conditions on the Bering Sea in January are just about always the most intense you can imagine, but when a storm arises that sends crab boats running for cover, you can bet that the forces are unparalleled. There was never a single moment, even in the calmest of times, that we allowed our guards to drop. Other vessel's crew members had done that in the 2005 season, and in every season I'm sure - and they had been tossed, flipped, rolled and turned until their crews were lost to the frigid waters, forever. To this point this season, 9 men had died and several were injured or incapacitated.

So we rested for the next 2 and a half days until we received word from the US Coast Guard, and the rest of the crabbing fleet, that it was safe to not. At the time, we had already been out for 26 days. We were harvesting Brown Tanner crabs - and not having the best of luck to say the least. The trip was scheduled to last a maximum of two weeks, but we needed far more crabs and we were not going home empty-handed. The time of rest, although good for our bodies, lingered as the regular pace on a crabber is as intense as is the weather that envelopes it.

I used my R&R time to take in the magnificence of the Bering - choppy and stirred from the storm - foaming. Prince George did a wonderful job at protecting us and the sea seemed more than just a little irritated that it could not simply plow the island away like a sand castle and get to the Arctic Dawn. We were running low on provisions like fuel, food, strength and hops at this point, but the rest enlivened our spirits and when it was time to forge onward, we did so with surprising effect. As we ran back to our long-soaked crab pots, we were eager to find them, pull them up from the black depths and discover if the extra soak time had resulted in the "money" pots we so sought after.

It had. We pulled in eighty-three 750-pound pots loaded over half full with Tanners - and were as high as you can get on life at that point. 83 pulled in, unloaded, re-baited and reset for another soak - this time just for the standard 24-hour period. If a crab vessel pulls an empty pot after a 24-hour soak, the standard is to pull that pot, tie it off on deck and drop it somewhere else. In this manner, the captain can "hunt" for the crab instead of just leaving the harvest to chance. Of course, 24 hours later, the pots were no longer money pots like the long-soaked ones, but the storm seemed to have changed our luck for the better a bit.

We stayed out for another week or so working these 20 hour days until we were down to nothing to eat except for white rice and fish that got trapped in the crab pots - mostly cod. Only once did we opt for a crab dinner - the freshest possible and one that would cost at least 2 or 3 hundred dollars a plate at a restaurant if such a plate were possible to order. You can get seafood "straight off the boat", but it just isn't the same as having it straight out of the sea. Water was the only beverage left for us at this point. It was kept in mass quantity in the boat's potable water storage tanks - loaded from an Alaska mountain spring. We then had enough crabs to cover the expense of the trip, and so we set back for home. We arrived back in Dutch Harbor 37 days after we left having earned absolutely nothing in terms of money.

We had managed to retain our lives - which was fortunate and good. We had grown stronger both physically and mentally. We had gained experience in nature and had come to appreciate all of our loved ones far more. Around us in town were the crews who had been far more fortunate and had made a literal boatload of cash. Those rich crabbers were all too happy to share their fortunes with us in the form of drinks and games of pool on them. After 2 days of rest, it was time to shine the Arctic Dawn up again and re-gear for the next excursion. This is a very small part of the life of an Alaskan crabber.

Bottoms up, Mates!

M Alan Roberts is a radical thinker. He has a gimlet eye for injustice, much as did Frederich Engels, a century and a half before. Still, Roberts finds a way to write effective SEO copy. This suggests both sides of his brain, his mind, work equally well.

More by M Alan Roberts:
Tell a Friend

Click above to tell a friend about this article.

Please report typos or corrections
to the editor