by Carey Roberts
A mayday alarm pierced the metallic walls of the Coast Guard outpost on Kodiak Island. The Ocean Challenger, stranded 90 miles off the Alaska Peninsula, was being pummelled by water surging two stories high. In the words of pilot Jerred Williams, “The waves were so high you actually got white caps at the top of the wave.”
Suddenly the boat capsized. In those frenzied moments the crew launched a life raft, but alas, the seas were too high. Three men died in that October 18, 2006 disaster: David “Cowboy” Hasselquist, 51, Walter Foster, 26, and Steve Esparza, 26. Only one crew member, Kevin Ferrell, survived.
The tragedy calls to mind the words of Sir Walter Scott: “Those aren’t fish you’re buying; it’s men’s lives.”
These events are deeply rooted in the collective conscious of the hundreds of fishermen who scour the Bering Sea, working the deck of a vessel that sways precariously above 36-degree waters. These men are the unlikely heroes who appear on the Discovery Channel’s recent series, The Deadliest Catch. [http://dsc.discovery.com/fansites/deadliestcatch/deadliestcatch.html]
The captains who run these ships are equal parts navigator, fishing guru, and disciplinarian. They won’t hesitate to reprimand an obstinate greenhorn with a salty, “Keep your mouth shut and do your f***ing job!”
A fisherman’s biggest fear is being hit with a rogue wave, a 50-foot high wall of water that comes barreling out of nowhere and hits the boat broadside. If you’re lucky, the boat rights itself within a heart-stopping minute. But if your crab pots are coated in three inches of ice and stacked high on the foredeck, your only hope is a rubberized survival suit.
If the water is calm, you may have to confront another threat — ice flows drifting down from the Arctic Circle.
In one recent episode, captain Jonathan Hillstrand of the Time Bandit finds himself surrounded by foot-thick ice chunks. He tries to break free, but the boat can only inch forward at a snail’s pace. Even at this speed, the 60-ton ice cakes inflict dents on the hull, causing the inside paint to crack and peel.
Five excruciating hours later, they make open sea. “I think it took a year off my life,” a grizzled Hillstrand admits.
Once Hillstrand was called upon to rescue a crewman from a nearby boat who had been swept into the frigid sea. At these temperatures, a person can die of hypothermia in just minutes. A desperate Hillstrand maneuvered his 113-foot vessel near the flailing man and hauled him out.
Capt. Hillstrand was touched to the soul by the event, almost moved to tears in the retelling. And brother Andy recounts that in his dreams he still hears the guy yelling, “Help me … Save my life!”
The mind-numbing routine is repeated dozens of times each day: bait the pot, plunge the 800-pound cage into the frigid water, and let it soak on the muddy bottom.
A day later the captain retraces his path. As the boat approaches, the deckhand snags the buoy line with a 4-pronged hook and the winch yanks the careening pot over the rail. The men extract the squirming snow crabs and shuttle them to a holding tank.
If Lady Luck is smiling that day, the pots are brimming with four or five hundred opies, what they call “red gold.” At times like this the deckhands don’t worry about the 18-hour work shifts, towering waves, or aching hands.
The men are sustained by the promise of a 5% cut at journey’s end. With luck, they will rake in 50 grand for a few weeks of excruciating work. “I have no clue what time it is, all I know is I’m making money,” shouts one gleeful deckhand.
Eventually the boats log their quotas and unload their catch at the tender. Time to swing the bow to warmer waters. A few days later captain Sig Hansen, a fourth-generation fisherman whose ancestors came from Norway, eases his 118-foot Northwestern into its Seattle port.
The catch was good and no one got hurt. But one question remains: Will greenhorn Jake Anderson make the cut? He made a boatload of mistakes. But he endured the adversity without complaint and learned the trade.
So the captain presents Jake with the ultimate accolade — a hooded glacier jacket with the name “Northwestern” emblazoned on the back. Grinning ear to ear, Jake embraces all the deckhands.
“Now, no one can mess with me,” Jake proclaims. Captain Sig shoots back, “The jacket don’t make you a man.”
© Copyright 2007 by Carey Roberts