by Wesley Loy of the Anchorage Daily News.
FLOES: Thirty minutes made the difference for one crabber to reach open water.
Three Bering Sea crab boats and two ships were stuck in sea ice late Wednesday, and nervous crews were hoping the wind and tide would soon shift the ice pack and free the vessels
“It’s an uncomfortable feeling,” said Ian Pitzman, captain of the Jennifer A, one of the three crab boats hung in the ice near the village port of St. Paul, on St. Paul Island.
Speaking from the boat via satellite telephone, Pitzman said the problem began when drifting ice began closing in on St. Paul. His boat and others headed for open water, hoping to escape. Some boats made it out but others bogged down and got stuck in the ice about a mile offshore, unable to move, he said.
There was no real crisis Wednesday night, Pitzman said.
But the vessels do face some measure of danger, depending on how the ice moves.
“The ice can grind you into the beach,” he said.
One of the greatest dramas in the harrowing history of Bering Sea crab fishing happened just a mile or so from the Jennifer A’s position, when the crab boat Alaskan Monarch got hung in the ice in March 1990. The ice damaged the boat’s rudder and a storm drove the boat against the rocky beach. A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter lifted the crewmen to safety, including two who were swept overboard by crashing waves.
A famous video of that rescue has been widely viewed in the crab fleet, and Pitzman’s wife, Stephanie Pitzman, of Homer, has seen it too.
So she was a little concerned to receive word Wednesday that her husband was aboard an icebound boat at St. Paul, where the Jennifer A had delivered its last load of snow crab for the season and was just trying to head for Homer.
Stephanie Pitzman said someone from the Discovery Channel, which is filming a new season of its highly rated crab-fishing cable series “Deadliest Catch,” called to see if she knew how to reach the Jennifer A. The caller wanted to make sure the crew was shooting footage of the ice using the camera the Discovery Channel had provided the crew for the season.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was like, uh, excuse me? I hadn’t heard anything about the ice. I got on the radio right quick to find out what was going on, and all was well — but they’re trapped.”
The Pitzmans have five kids, ages 11, 9, 7, 5 and 2.
Ian Pitzman said boats getting hung in the ice outside St. Paul harbor, which often ices up in winter, is hardly unprecedented. However, the veteran skipper said it had never happened to him before.
Aside from the 103-foot Jennifer A, two other crab boats, the Tempo Sea and the Nordic Viking, also were hung in the ice. Another crabber, the Time Bandit, had left St. Paul only about half an hour earlier, and it managed to get through the ice and reach open water, Pitzman said.
He said the ice was a foot to 18 inches thick, but floes were stacked up, making the ice much thicker in places.
The Jennifer A has a four-man crew, plus a state observer who rides aboard the boat to document the catch, Pitzman said.
Two ships, the 356-foot crab processor Independence and a freighter called the Eastern Wind, also are hung in the ice, Pitzman said.
The crab boats deliver their catches to the Independence for processing. The ship is owned by Seattle-based Trident Seafoods Corp. and can carry a crew of 235, although it wasn’t known Wednesday how many people were aboard.
A spokesman with the Coast Guard in Juneau said Wednesday the Guard hadn’t received any calls for help from St. Paul.
That’s because there’s not really a crisis at the moment, said Pitzman, speaking from the Jennifer A.
“It’s quite likely to resolve itself tonight uneventfully,” he said.