Deadliest Catch Trip to the Bering Sea
It was February, 1971, and what would turn out to be the biggest commercial fishing boom in recent American history was just starting to get rolling on the remote, cold, and windy waters of the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia, and along the waterfront in Seattle. I was 24, with just a year of commercial fishing under my belt, and had just been hired for the king crab season on a brand new steel boat, and felt so lucky. Already, stories had begun to filter down from Alaska to the Seattle waterfront about the big money to be had by king crab fishermen in the remote Bering Sea.
Feb. 21 -Goodbyes last night and on this blustery mean morning, we slid through the locks alone and down into the salt water for our run up the coast to Dutch Harbor, 2400 miles away in the remote Aleutian Islands. There are five of aboard our 104’ state of the art steel king crab boat.
Feb 23 – This afternoon found us running in heavy snow before before a southerly gale in lonely 30-mile wide Hecate Strait, British Columbia. At around 3 p.m., alone on watch, I noticed an odd, blotchy-looking target on our radar, where no land was supposed to be. I fiddled with the radar controls, and again studied the chart carefully. Ahead was only open wate,r yet the radar was showing something and I began to feel very uneasy, and finally pulled the engine throttle controls to half speed.
Skipper George Fulton was out of his cabin in an instant, quickly scanning the radar display and the chart, pulling the throttle back to an idle and speaking into the intercom, all in a long instant, “Johnny, flood both crab tanks… quick as you can.” We had been traveling with our two big holds or crab tanks, empty, to give us a bit more speed. Filling them would make us travel a bit slower, but more importantly, it lowered our center of gravity, making us more stable, in heavy seas, an important factor considering the heavy load of crab pots we were carrying on deck.
Sensing something was happening, the rest of the crew filed up into the pilothouse, peering forward into the early and snowy dusk. When the tanks were full, George throttled up, and we moved toward whatever was out there.
For a long while there were just big grey-bearded seas marching past in the thickly falling snow. Then the gloom ahead seemed to get lighter, and we all peered forward intently, pressing our faces into the thick glass, trying to get some glimpse of what the radar was seeing, now less than a half mile ahead of us. Then, just for the briefest moment we saw it—glimpsed quickly through the gloom and as quickly gone—the backs of great seas, breaking, the spume from their crests thrown back like the manes of wild horses, covering a wide area ahead of us.
George quickly turned the boat around, as a sea caught us on the beam, rolling us violently enough that we all had to grab something for support, in that boat that had seemed so invincible… back at the dock in Seattle.
What was happening was that the seas created by the southerly gale were meeting the tidal current flooding in from the north, producing breaking seas all the way across the relatively shallow shelf: 100’ deep at the north end of the strait, seas that we’d be foolish to risk, even in our very rugged and new 104 footer. Somewhere there was a narrow gully of much deeper water, where we thought the seas wouldn’t be breaking. But if it were there, we couldn’t find it, jogging back and forth in that windy wasteland of angry churning water and hissing snow. Finally, the wind came on stronger still, and it began to get dark. The seas grew larger as the tidal current increased. It was rapidly becoming a bad place to be, so we reluctantly headed east, to try and find a way through a maze of islands and breaking reefs to the sheltered waters of the Inside Passage. But we had no detailed chart and today’s GPS plotters were still decades away; we only had George’s hazy memory of a passage through, several decades earlier.
The daylight fled away to the west and the windy, snowy, black swallowed us up. The flying snow and spray were so thick that our radar could barely penetrate it. Three times George said, “That way…” and we proceeded cautiously into a narrow channel bounded by rock and snow blasted trees. And leading to three dead ends: our crab lights high on the mast turning the night into snow thick day and revealing only the sea beating violently on rocky cul-de-sacs. One was so narrow there was not even room to turn around and we had to back out ever so cautiously, and no one spoke.
And something unexpected, unspoken, but there all the same: the taste of fear, even in the pilothouse of the finest and most rugged boat that the best shipyard in the whole Northwest could put out.
But finally the fourth channel opened into another, and another after that, and the sea died away, and the water stayed deep, and sometime after midnight, we found our way into the sheltered and calm waters of the Inside Passage. It was still snowing hard and inky dark, but we were back on our charts. But my confidence in our powerful boat and experienced skipper and mate had been shaken, something I hadn’t expected on just the third day of our trip, and I slept uneasily.
Feb 24: 20 miles north of Yakutat, one of the few good harbors along that coast, a wind came up. After five minutes it was blowing seventy. The temperature was fifteen degrees. The first spray over the bow froze instantly on the wheelhouse windows; we turned around with hardly a discussion. Our vessel was the best that the finest Northwest shipyard could produce, built for winter in the North Pacific, but turn around we did, for we knew that in these waters, freezing spray could quickly accumulate enough weight on our double stacked load of big king crab pots to capsize us.
We tied with frozen lines to a silent cannery wharf, and I walked up to the village with two of my shipmates in the blowing, drifting snow. In the whole settlement we saw only two lighted windows, and nowhere a footprint or car track. We trudged back to the boat through the knee-deep snow with the trees only dark shapes on our left, and the cove on our right lit up by our brilliant crab lights. Our boat, with the bark of her diesel generator filling the night, seemed almost like a visitor from another planet.
A blizzard swept in from the Canadian Yukon to the east after midnight. At the head of the harbor, in the lee of the great mountains, we lay sheltered from its force, but morning showed a grey and eerie world. Outside the windows of the pilothouse, a steady plume of snow settled down on us, drifting down from the wharf above. By noon, what little free deck we had was drifted rail to rail, almost waist deep with snow. It was as if barely 1200 miles north of Seattle, we’d come to the edge of the world as we knew it. And we still had some 1000 miles more to go. That night, sometimes even over the reassuring hum of the diesel generator in the engine room below us, we could hear the wind, screeching through the trees and cannery buildings above us. But at four a.m., when we got up to sniff the air, to see if it was ‘a chance,’ as mariners sometimes call a window of good weather, the storm had blown out to sea so we drew in our frozen lines, and headed out the still bay, into the Gulf of Alaska again.
All day we steamed northwest, a few miles off the beach. The wind was offshore and light, our ride easy, but there was something about the day and place that made us all somber. The land to the north and east was a strip of beach, rising to ice fields and mountains as far as the eye could see, range after range of cold, white peaks. The coast was broken here and there by little bays, all ice-choked and shallow, offering only limited shelter to small vessels.
Last night sometime after midnight I awoke suddenly. The engine was only rumbling along at an idle, but it was something else that had woken me—the boat’s motion—she took a roll, slow and loggy, seeming to hesitate at the end. I stumbled up into the pilothouse and instantly saw the problem: the wind had come up suddenly at Cape St. Elias and we’d iced up badly. Outside the window was a terrible sight—the two inch thick pipe rails around the foredeck were swollen into foot-thick bloated sausages, and in a few places they had already grown together into a solid wall of ice. The anchor winch was an unrecognizable white mound. I took a quick look out the back windows, and just as quickly looked away. What had been a neat stack of big crab pots, was now a lumpy hill of white ice, broken here and there by the black steel edges of the pots.
It was easy to see how vessels died— after just a couple of hours, we’d accumulated enough ice to make the boat dangerously top-heavy—and we were only carrying 50 pots in two layers on deck. Some larger vessels traveled north with their pots stacked three or four high.
Without a word, Russell and I suited up with oilskins—heavy raingear—over insulated coveralls, grabbed a baseball bat and a hammer and edged cautiously out onto the foredeck, while Johnny and Bob did the same on the back deck. Clipping short safety lines around the rails, we knocked the ice off as we went. The ice popped off easily, but it was awkward work—the boat rolling and pitching with that ominous slow motion, the footing treacherous, the bitter wind turning the spray to slush on our oilskins. Once a “queer one,” a sea larger than the others, loomed suddenly out of the night, came right up over the bow—solid, black water. It tugged at our knees for a moment and was gone. But it was a terrible feeling—the bow sinking, the water swirling around us, clutching at our legs. There was a white and strained face in the window, my hands fastened to the rail, but then the bow rose sluggishly and the water cleared. When we’d cleared off the tons of ice from the bow, we worked aft, knocking the ice off the rails as we went. An hour’s work, just to clear the bow and boat deck area, but our little ship seemed to ride a little higher, roll a little quicker, feel a little safer.
“It’s the Copper River wind, boy,” Russell told me in the galley when we were done and warming up. “It just sucks down off the flats and ice after a little sou’west breeze. All that ocean air just gets frozen up there, and all of a sudden decides to roll back to the sea. And I told that guy down in Seattle to put the pots into the hold when we loaded them. ‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘We won’t have to do that…’ Those guys down there don’t even know what ice is except when they see it in their drinks… they think these new super boats can take anything.”
Even at less than a quarter throttle, we iced up again badly before we found a few acres of sheltered water behind a tiny dot of an island off the abandoned copper boom town of Katalla. We hoisted the boom up, lifted, and set aside the heavy hatch covers, loaded as many of the heavily iced pots into the holds as would fit, laid the rest flat on the deck, lowered the boom, and chained it to the stern rail. The icy wind still clawed at us, but there was no sea. When we were finally done I looked around: the scene of frozen islands, frozen shore, and frozen mountains, now hidden, now revealed, by moon and racing clouds, was unspeakably bleak.
Feb 27. – Seward (usually an ice-free port) – The ice was so thick we had to use the boat like a battering ram to get in close enough to the dock to tie up, and even then had to walk across the ice to actually step onto the floats, humped up here and there by the pressure of the frozen harbor. We were met at the head of the dock by a friend of George in his Cadillac, whose heater struggled without any noticeable success against the heavy frost on the windows.
Deep in the night we stumbled out of the bar, numbed by alcohol to what lay ahead of us. Yet at the float, that future was all too clear. We had hoped for a quiet night tied to the dock before heading out in the morning, with at least the thin high latitude daylight of March to start the next phase of our journey in. It was not to be: in just the few hours that we’d been in the Harbor Bar, the sea water had frozen, out past our boat, to the very edge of the breakwater, perhaps 50 yards away. Frozen hard, with little snow devils whirling around it, clearly visible in the harsh glare of the dock security lights. Already it looked solid as an ice rink; if we waited until morning we would surely be trapped, we could see that even then getting out would be an iffy proposition. Instantly sobered by our situation, we clambered aboard, took in the frozen dock lines, and went up into the pilothouse to see if George and the 1200 horsepower of our GM diesel could break us free from the grasp of the ice.
He moved the joystick that controlled the rudder fully to the right, and throttled up to a quarter, normally more than enough power to kick our stern away from the dock. The engine throbbed, and the boat shuddered slightly, but the stern stayed fast in the ice. Half throttle gave the same result. Only when George pushed the throttle to three quarters speed did we start to shudder forward, finally giving us enough room to swing slowly around and crunch our way toward open water. The upended pieces of ice beside us were almost two inches thick—and that in just six hours. We’d heard the weather in the bar—wind and bitter cold for as far ahead as the forecaster could see—if we’d stayed another few hours we’d have been trapped, perhaps for weeks.
March 3 – Uyak Bay, Kodiak Island. Crept in here last night iced up so bad it took us 45 minutes to break the ice off the anchor winch, and drop the hook behind a low spit, which protected us from the seas, but not the wind.
As we ate in the galley that night, now and again our conversation would stop as a particularly violent gust slammed into the boat, heeled us over at anchor, and moaned and whined through our steel pipe rigging that supported the mast, clearly audible through the steel walls and the hum of the diesel generator below us.
Then deep in the night, I woke suddenly, leaning up, bumping the bottom of the bunk above me. Something had hit our boat, like an insistent knocking of angry hammer blows against our hull, and outside I could hear the wild screech of the wind, angrier even and wilder than it had been at supper. Heard someone on the stairs and quickly followed them up into the pilothouse. Everyone was there, looking out at the stark and wild scene etched in the harsh light of our big crab lights high on the mast. Perhaps an eighth of a mile ahead of us was the sand and gravel spit that protected us from the violent seas flung by the churning strait against its opposite side. Beyond the spit was a violent maelstrom of wind and water where no boat could possibly live. The water around us was covered with low white caps, but when I looked astern, I could see that they rapidly grew larger behind us. Another big angry gust slammed us, and nervously I looked at the anemometer: 85, 90, 93 miles an hour before sagging back into just the hurricane range—50-60 knots.
Then it came again: the angry rattle of someone hammering against our hull.
“It’s rocks and gravel, boys,” declared George, breaking our suspense, “picked up off the beach by the wind and carried all the way out to us, and we’re 800’ off the beach! I’ve heard of boats that anchored too close to the beach here and had the paint sandblasted completely off their bows by flying gravel. It’s our little welcome to Shelikof Straits.”
March 6 – Dutch Harbor – Finally the seas lay down and we slid cautiously down the coast, through the dreaded waters of Unimak Pass, oddly still, to tie to the wharf, Dutch Harbor, Alaska. The next weather system arrived just as we tied up, howling through the rigging with blinding snow.
Just as we were ready to turn in, there was the sound of a big engine outside, and then the nudge of another boat coming alongside. We jumped up, pulled on our parkas, boots, and gloves, and stepped outside to take their tie up lines. The sight that awaited us was sobering. A schooner style halibut boat had come alongside, totally sheathed in ice. This style of boat, mostly built before 1920, was specifically designed to fish for halibut in the Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean in all kinds of weather, year round. They were legendary for their seaworthiness, but it was obvious this one had just had a close call with the storm that was now battering the buildings around the harbor. The wire stays that held up the foremast were half a foot thick and what must have been an anchor winch was nothing more than a mound of white. On the front of the small wooden pilothouse, the windows were all iced over except for a small circle of dark clear glass. Then I saw the stern. The so called ‘bait shack,’ a small structure set to one side of the stern used to give the crew a bit of shelter while they baited up–halibut are caught on longlines—miles of line set along the bottom with thousands of baited hooks—had been half smashed off the boat, splintered wood and bent steel protruding from the ice in places.
A grim faced man with what looked like a bloody bandage around his forehead pushed a stiff and frozen line at me, while behind him another was using a heavy hammer to beat the ice off a bow cleat so that he could make the line fast. I took the line, passed it through one of the oval openings in our steel bulwarks and tried to tie it around the big cleat welded to the deck in the stern. But the line was so stiff with ice that I had to work it back and forth a few times before I could get it to bend enough to tie up.
Another shape appeared into the circle of light given off by the big lights on the crab plant dock, and we stared across the frozen shape of the deck gear on the halibut schooner at it. It was another halibut boat, a Canadian by the look of it. It was what we fishermen called a sardine seiner style boat. About 80’ long, its deckhouse was forward and much bigger—two decks with the skipper’s small stateroom and wheelhouse on the top deck—than that of the schooner, whose galley and accommodations were below and forward in the foc’s’le . This style of boat had two bridge wings—open deck extensions that extended out from both sides of the wheelhouse, allowing the skipper to step out and get an unobstructed view of where the fishing gear was being worked, whether it was a sardine seine, which it was built to use, or halibut longline gear, which it had been converted to. The sardiner was also totally iced up, even the sides of her hull were so coated with ice that we could neither see her name, nor the color of her paint beneath the ice.
But what caught our attention most was the bridge wing, or rather what was left of it, on her port side, as she approached to tie up beside the iced up schooner. It looked as if a huge hand had smashed into it—half the structure was completely gone, with the steel stanchions that had supported it bent and twisted. What was left looked like some strange modern art sculpture, thickly iced over to give it an eerie, ghostly look. As she got closer we could see that beneath the ice on the front of her wheelhouse there was plywood where two of the windows had been.
Finished with the tie up lines on our side, the men on the schooner crossed her deck to take the lines of the iced over sardiner, as obviously they had been traveling together. They struggled with the iced up lines just as we had.
I wanted to talk to someone aboard, to ask them what it had been like out there, although it was obvious that they had been in a life and death struggle with the bitter wind and the seas that froze instantly whenever they touched the boat or its rigging, be it wood or steel. My opportunity never came. When the crews finished tying up, four of them crossed our decks, with hardly a glance in our direction or a word as we stood, still a bit awed at the sight of their boats. They climbed up the ladder and quickly disappeared into the dark and the storm, headed, I assumed, to the Elbow Room, the only bar, or place that even had any lights on.
We went inside and up into our pilothouse, to be out of the weather and to look again at the sobering condition of the boats beside us. We hadn’t been there but a few minutes when the men returned from wherever they had gone, carrying bags of something. As we watched, they climbed over the icy decks of the halibut schooner and onto the other boat. A light went on in the galley, and the way the boats were laying, we could look right into the window. On the side of the boat, and protected by the overhang of what was left of the bridge wing, it was only partially iced up and there was enough of a clear area for us to see inside. The men sat down and pulled bottles out of the bags—whiskey and vodka from the look of it. There were eight men and eight bottles. Each man took a bottle and unscrewed the cap. They raised and touched them all together in some sort of toast and immediately started drinking. It didn’t look as if they needed ice, or glasses, or mixers. Or the caps again.
Welcome to the Bering Sea….
Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.