Attacked by Killers


      A Note on Albatross

Ice Fog


Fighting in Factory


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Attacked by Killers Fishing turbot proved more challenging than fishing cod. There was an organized and intelligent adversary determined to dine on the delicacy our line dragged from the deep. Turbot and black cod are typically fished further down the shelf than gray (Pacific) cod. So perhaps it is the distance that makes these fish more desirable to the Orca, whose primary diet in the Bering Sea is salmon. Things harder to obtain are often imputed otherwise inexplicable value. Or maybe they just prefer the flavor. For whatever reason, pods of killer whales that ignore the hundreds of thousands of codfish pulled from the bottom each day by longliners, become fully mobilized the minute a turbot is attached to a hook. They sometimes move in silence, submerged and unseen. Other times they approach overtly, bounding forward like a terrible armada that defies defense. The result is the same: a line with hooks full of fine turbot is suddenly hauling in only heads. When we see them coming, or recognize a stealth attack, we quickly buoy off the end of the groundline and let it go. We drift, and whistle, and act innocent. But they smell the turbot and seem to know what we are up to. They circle the boat several times and start the stakeout. We run to another string. They follow. We shut down and drift, hoping they will become disinterested and wander off. They don’t. We try to haul a string, but the sound of our hydraulics acts like a dinner bell. We haul what we can, but too soon it is only heads. Another boat is fishing in the distance. We buoy off the groundline and run for an hour to try to pass our posse off on them. We hurry back to the first string, but a sentry is waiting at the buoy, its black and white head bobbing in the water. Is that a grin? The whales don’t negotiate. They want all the fish, except for the bad ones. Some turbot have ragged fins, blotchy coloration and look sickly and old. The whales let us keep these, but we can tell the turbot have been tasted. Scrapes from sharp teeth run down the skin of the fish on both sides, but there are no bites. Orca are picky eaters and apparently have discriminating palates. Over the weeks, I get to know my pod and give them names: Scarback, Gimpy Fin, Doc, Grumpy, Two-Spot, Happy, Dopey. The federal fisheries observer objects to some of the more disparaging monikers. The killers are, after all, protected marine mammals. I don't care. I hate them. Continued!

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Water in the Wheelhouse Toward the middle of the season, in February, we headed to offload in the face of a frightening forecast. Strong northerly winds were coming that would cover the boat in ice and push the rapidly descending ice pack over our gear. The Pacific Sun was not quite full, but with two tanks flooded and an ice load, it would be too dangerous to move pots. I wanted to get offloaded and return to the grounds before the weather hit. I didn’t make it. Mechanical issues delayed our scheduled processor, the Deep Sea, by twelve hours. On the 28th of February, with the wind blowing sixty-knots, and temperatures down to twenty-degrees below zero, we bumped out of Akutan Bay into an active storm system. I would not usually consider charging out into such severe weather, especially in a smaller boat like the Pacific Sun, but radio reports indicated that the sea ice was moving rapidly southward. Friends I was fishing with warned that ice was just twenty miles from my gear and moving at one mile per hour. With high winds from the north, ice floes pack together to form a wall of ice that can quickly cover the fishing grounds. Crab pots left in its path are unlikely to be seen again. My season would be over. I was compelled to push through the weather and get to my gear. Even running slowly into the sea we frequently took green water over the wheelhouse. Thick ice formed on our sides, but heavy seas knocked it off again. Suddenly an enormous wave reared up slightly off the starboard side, right in my face. It was a killer, probably fifty feet tall, and pointing right at me. It rose so rapidly I didn't have time to move out of the way. All I could do was cover my head and duck. The wave hit the wheelhouse with a deafening crash. Icy seawater enveloped me. Shocked and shivering, I was surprised to be unharmed. As the water drained from the bow, I was puzzled to see all the windows intact. I was sopping wet, and water sloshed across the wheelhouse floor. It was surreal. Continued!

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A Note on Albatross Nothing avian is quite as amusing as albatross. Competing with comparatively sleek seagulls, speedy Murres, and agile petrels, survival of the several albatross species, although currently threatened, is a miracle. Albatross are the geeks of the sea. A drifting gull just lifts its wings to the wind, and soars effortlessly from sea to sky. It lands with precision and grace, even in a storm, instantly transitioning between modes of travel. On a calm day, an albatross takes flight only after an awkward sprint across the sea, frequently failing in the attempt. And landing is equally cumbersome. Wings held high, feet fully extended, they hit the water with an ungainly splash. Once down, the ritualistic folding of the wings appears woefully uncoordinated. But in the air, the albatross seems to float effortlessly; comfortable in the element it was created to command.

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Ice Fog As the afternoon darkness descended upon a frozen February day, ice fog began to envelop the fleet of American trawlers and foreign factory ships involved in a joint venture fishery for yellowfin sole in the Bering Sea. Ice fog forms when moisture in the air freezes. It rarely forms at temperatures above minus twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit and my thermometer indicated minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, where it bottomed out. Peering through a dinner-plate size hole in the eight-inch thick ice that covered my wheelhouse, I could barely discern the black hull of the Tae Baek 29, my Korean mothership as it slid down my starboard side. I was ready to execute an at-sea delivery of fifty-five tons of freshly caught fish, but as we prepared to execute the transfer, Captain Park informed me that the 29’s winches were frozen and inoperable. Other processing ships in the area faced similar difficulties as thickening ice fog formed in the arctic air. Soon temperatures would drop to minus eighty degrees Fahrenheit. I had little time to find a buyer. Most of the boats were already heading toward Amak Island, a small rock with limited protection, but the only close refuge from northerly winter winds. No other Korean ships were able to take my fish. The Russians were frozen (you know its cold when the Russians are frozen!), as were the Japanese. My last hope was with the Poles. I switched my radio to the Polish channel and pled my predicament. I was almost shocked and certainly delighted when a Polish ship responded. They were still in operation and agreed to take my fish. The 300-foot long Polish ship was only a spot on my radar as I crept carefully closer, concerned about the risk of running over the transfer line or colliding with the much larger vessel that was steaming at six knots just a few yards ahead. But despite the ships proximity, a thick curtain of frozen fog kept it from my sight. And where was the buoy? Frantically peering through a small hole in the ice covering my window I suddenly spotted it - a fuzzy orange specter embedded in shimmering white fog. I pulled ahead, and the crew captured the beautiful, eerie orb. They attached the bulging bag of fish, hit the pelican hook, and watched the cod end vanish behind a wall of sparkling ice crystals. Continued!

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Overboard A winter gale swept the Bering Sea with 45-knot winds, freezing temperatures, and blinding snow squalls. I was a deck hand on the Pelagos, fishing Pollock and delivering at sea to a Korean processing ship, the Tae Baek Ho. The winches strained to haul back the gear as thirty-foot seas rolled around us and occasionally collapsed on our stern. Once the trawl doors were up, the net was wound on an 8-foot wide hydraulic drum (the “net reel”) at the stern. Soon a fifty-five-ton bag of fish filled our stern ramp and trailed behind the boat like a big green caterpillar. The detachable end of the net that holds the fish (called a “cod end”) has four rib lines that each attach to the net with a shackle. While it is disconnected for transfer to the mothership, a forward Gilson winch pulls up on a choke strap of one-inch diameter steel cable near the top of the cod end. The cod end was hanging on its choke strap, and two of the shackles on the net had been removed, when an enormous wave towered above us like a cobra rearing to strike a helpless rodent. It's coils folded around me as I searched in vain for something to hold, and carried me off the stern. The wave also lifted the cod end further up the stern ramp, causing the twenty-pound Gilson hook to fall out and the cod end to slip back, attached now to the boat by only two of the net's shackles. I was bobbing behind the boat, along with twenty tons of fish that escaped from the suddenly slackened cod end. I could touch the boat, but there was nothing to hold. As the next wave lifted the stern out of the water, two large spinning propellers emerged eight feet in front of me, and I was sucked toward them. Panicked thoughts of my wife and children coalesced to a single question: “Is this how I will die?” Through the storm came a quiet but strong and clear voice, “No, this is not your time.” As the stern of the Pelagos crashed down into the sea, I was pushed back, away from the propellers, and away from the stern. A large sea lifted me to its crest as the boat pulled away. Continued!

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Fighting in the Factory


Wayne was coming for me quickly, fists now in front.  "Why?" he yelled, as he drew back his arm and coiled to strike.  Would he really strike a little kid?  It sure looked that way.  Before I could react, Jerry slipped around me and landed a terrific blow on Wayne's jaw.  Wayne stumbled backward and collapsed unconscious on the deck.  After he had awakened, Wayne's breaks came to an end.  He worked harder, complained less, and was friendlier.  Apparently he just needed a nap.


A few hours after Wayne woke up, the fillet machine operator, Dave Slater, knocked out the skinning machine operator; a spindly guy with a sour disposition, glasses and a green complexion who liked to be called "Frenchy."  Frenchy ignored Slater's repeated requests to refrain from inserting a knife into the moving blades of the skinning machine.  Slater realized the possibility that the blade could be kicked out of the machine with the potential to injure someone, most likely Frenchy.  Punctuating his argument, Slater popped Frenchy’s jaw with a short jab.  Frenchy crumpled to the deck.

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