The huge swell created a 25-foot wave that crashed on top of us before any warning signal could be given from the captain. It hit me square in the back, sending gallons of frigid water down inside of my clothing - and crashing my body limply to the ice-covered deck of the Arctic Dawn. The power of the blast propelled me forward like a hockey puck for thirty feet in a split second. All I can remember is seeing the low wall of the deck fast approaching and wondering if I would be shot overboard. I planted my feet in front of myself and took the impact. Managing to stay on the vessel was nothing of my doing; it just wasn't the exact combination of physical forces necessary to do me in - this time.
Immediately , I was spinning around while standing up and scanning for my mates. It seems I had taken the worst of this particular wave as they were all already in motion towards me. Meeting eyes, we all instantly sensed that everything was alright , said a few choice words, re-gathered our sea legs and started back to our stations. As I did the sea-shuffle back to my baiting area, I realized that my knife had cut my arm during the water-powered slide. It was bleeding a fair amount, but blood was almost as common as water on the Arctic Dawn. Dressing the wound could wait. What bothered me more was having my warmth stripped from me from the keg's worth of ice water that the Bering Sea had so kindly forced down my back.
The Bering was wild this day; it knows no mercy for crabbing vessels and it has no sense of compassion. It does what it does and no force in the world can stop it. I thought to myself that it sometimes seemed to "want" to destroy us - that it was bothered by our presence on its surface. It preferred all things to be quieted in it black depths instead.
Voices sounded loudly, my own included and the boat's wave signal sounded giving all about a quarter of a second to brace for the next wave to hit. This one struck the bow as is preferable. The spray jetted out magnificently - making the famous sprays of Niagara seem quite mundane and trivial indeed. When prepared, these monster waves are actually enjoyable to endure. If you have time to position yourself, you can actually lean backwards into them, like you're falling, and counter their force. This stops the propulsion of your body that would otherwise result - as had just happened to me.
Back at my baiting station now, I again endeavored to grind frozen herring and sardines from 50-pound boxes, stuff that ground mixture into perforated bait cans, slice up the backbones of 8-pound semi-frozen cods and stab them several times in the abdomen to release their crab-attracting juices, string the cans and the cods together on a bait line and then be prepared to do the bulk of my work when each 800-pound crab pot was pulled from the bottom of the icy Bering.
To this point in this story, only about 20 seconds had passed that day.
The day proceeded, as each did, for a total of 18 to 20 hours. Short breaks were given to force down some food and drink while running from one pot-drop location to the next - always less than 20 minutes. Otherwise, it was complete motion at frenzied paces. Still, in rare moments, I would have a spare minute on deck to observe the splendor of my surroundings. Hundreds of nautical miles out in the Bering Sea, here we were - a 103-foot crabbing vessel with absolutely nothing to rely upon save our skills, attention, strength and balance. This is the home of danger - the domain of courage.
In reality, there are no choices on the sea. If conditions come together in the "right" combination, your vessel will be consumed in the sea's brutal force. I always knew that there would be no time to don the life suits that were kept in the main control deck. You would never make it to them and the sea would have you first. At every moment on a crab vessel, you are completely integrated with the water. You are a mere speck on its surface - like a singular particle of dust in the vastness of outer space. Your life is not your own there. You are meaningless - a volunteer to complete chaos.
It's still funny to me how the moments of quietude are what I remember of those times. Month after month of direct confrontation with the rawness of nature can make you feel almost immortal. You cannot go forward each day led by fear - there's no time for that and you would be putting others in danger from your lacking fortitude. Instead, you man-up and attack it back. You stand strong and invite its fury to even try to take you. You come to welcome the challenge of remaining on your feet with each crashing wave. You even come to accept that cold water down your back when temperatures are sometimes 30 below.
All-in-all, I'd go back and do it all again today. The Bering Sea would not even know if it took my life from me, but sometimes I feel that it is the only true friend I will ever have known.
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.
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