The Toothpick: A King Crabber’s Tale

Our Crabber, the Flood Tide, at Akutan, Alaska, in 1971


We worked long hours on our king crab boat, the 104’ Marco Flood Tide. This was 1971  –  ‘Deadliest Catch’ fishing but long before the TV show, before DVDs, VCRs, cell phones, Ipads: all the modern entertainment devices. We didn’t even have GPS, but rather something called LORAN, whereby a microwave-sized unit would display your position in numbers, not even lat/long, which then would have to be plotted tediously on a special chart. When we fished south of the Aleutian Islands the LORAN reception was so poor that our skipper, George Fulton, would make sketches of ranges – lining up the peak of a volcano with the point of an island and and crossing it with another line where two peaks lined lined up in another direction. Instead of the sophisticated color sounders today’s boats have that display the bottom contours and textures on a screen, we had a ‘paper machine’ where a needle scratched a line on a moving roll of paper to show the depth and some minimal seafloor information.

Where all of today’s crabbers use the ubquitious hydraulic knuckle cranes, on the Flood Tide we were human fork lifts, aided only by the ‘railroad boom’ with a traveling block that ran back and forth along a track. It helped – a little, but we still had to bull the heavy pots around.

But we did have a coiler – standard on today’s boats – we had the original Marco prototype, without which we would have been severely handicapped fishing the edges of the underwater canyons that lead from the Aleutians down into the 6,000 foot depths of the Aleutian Trench. When we hit the mother lode in October, we were fishing in about 1000’ of water with 200 fathoms (1200’) of 11/16 esterlene buoyline. That was a coil of line chest high!

We didn’t have any trouble staying awake on the heaving pitching deck, with regular unplanned cold salt water face washes. But sometimes our skipper did, for he was up in the heated pilothouse, 16-18 hours a day, sometimes more.

He had a little trick. He attached a toothpick, hung by a strong nylon string tied to its middle, to the ceiling of the pilothouse.

So when the coffee and the noise and the pills couldn’t keep him awake, he’d put that toothpick in his mouth and when he nodded off, the toothpick would stab him in the cheek and wake him up!