I recently re-wrote a journal entry from this summer, and thought I'd share. There's a longer version, but I think it's too long for a blog entry. So, here's the condensed version of my craziest day at sea:
Today was insane! Every day has been intense, getting up at 4:30 every morning, and being exposed to the sun or the wind or the rain all day. Even standing is hard work on a boat! Then there’s the physical work of pulling anchor, hauling fish over the three-foot rails of the boat, killing them with a bat, filleting them, and scrubbing the deck.
It started out pretty normally, with a group of six guys—mostly middle aged, buddies since forever, and one of their sons. One guy was from New Mexico! Another was more challenging for my optimism. He’d done some ocean charters before and gotten extremely lucky! Once someone catches a 160 pounder their first trip, they think that’s what happens every time—it’s not! Early on, the son and one of the other guys got pretty sea sick. That’s also normal—is it the current? The crazy Alaskan tides? I have no idea, but our inner ears fight it pretty hard, and when they lose, it’s chum all day for the fishies!
We sat on one of our prize spots, but nothing was biting, and I worried about the grim weather forecast: rain and big swells, with gale force winds moving in by the afternoon. A few of the guys were inside the cabin, complaining, while I was out on the deck in the pouring rain, doing bottom checks on their rods, and checking their bait. We eventually moved to what we call a chicken hole—where the babies are. The clients have seen trophy halibut pictures on the website, in the restaurants, and in their dreams, and that is what they’re after. But we can’t catch those every single day we go out; there are many fish in the sea, but fewer than there were before, and we’re catching more every year.
After pulling a few chickens aboard, we headed partway back, where radio rumors had it, there were salmon by the islands. If it were up to me, I’d have cruised right on by, worried about the storm, but my captain, a true client-oriented guide pulled us up to the spot. For the first time all season, the bite was on.
The salmon were coming in fast, but so was the radio chatter, and it was not reassuring. “It’s getting bad past the islands, and building fast—head back now!” There were several other boats at the salmon hole, and everyone decided to leave together, making a boat train to beat down the swells as best we could and sticking together in case something happened. A bigger boat called in to say that if we stuck around a bit, he’d lead the train. While we waited, my captain helped me fillet, because unlike usual, I was not going to be able to filet while moving, it would be too dangerous. She’s been a deckhand since she was thirteen, and I love watching her smoothness and speed when she fillets.
By the time the big boat got there, even the water was pretty rough, and our pukers were looking especially green. Our little craft took sixth position in the eight-boat train. We told our passengers they couldn’t move from their seats; our boat is very sensitive to side-to-side movement, and I didn’t want to think about the tipping point, going over some of these huge swells.
I put a five-gallon bucket between our poor sickies, and sincerely apologized for the upcoming ride. They managed a wry smile each. I’d tied down everything that I could, and took my seat. Wind estimates by the seasoned captains were gusts to 35 knots (around 40 mph) and seas of 12-14’ waves! Although it’s my first season, the sailor-swearing on the radio told me I wasn’t the only one impressed! I started imagining negative scenarios, and tried to think through rescue options. If we rolled, I didn’t know if the other boats could maneuver to pick us up, not to mention the quickly numbing water temperature, and trying to keep your head out long enough to gasp for breath. Just then, the boat in front of us disappeared completely over the top of a wave. My stomach clenched, until I saw it rise up again on the next swell. This is real, I thought, this is like the movies!
I glanced over at my captain—I could see the stress in her face. She’d seen almost everything in her eleven or so years of working on boats—but this was her first year as a full-time captain. I didn’t mention that to the clients. Our poor, sick duo, with nothing left in their stomachs still took turns coughing up bile into a fishy bucket.
Just then the radio interrupted crackled, and one of the other captains yelled that he just broke his side window on that last swell—with his head!!! There were a lot of expletives in the sentence, though. I couldn’t believe it! I imagined a trickle of blood sliding down the side of his forehead from cracking it against the window hard enough for it to break.
It calmed down a bit when we finally crossed into the bay, but it was still a rocky ride. When we finally did make it back, and our seasick passengers stepped onto the dock, their faces showed instantaneous joy. I think all of us breathed a sigh of relief. I was glad to be back safely to the docks, and I grinned at the group—the negative attitudes from earlier didn’t seem to matter anymore. My captain and I headed up to show our still wide-eyed faces to the other crews. They’d been worried about us, in our little boat! I realized I hadn’t eaten or drank anything in hours, and probably barely breathed. I got a drink, and let myself relax. What a day, what a time to be alive!