By Danny Scott–September 25, 2005 (Originally published just after season 1)
At 39, Sig Hansen is captain of the Northwestern, one of the most successful crab boats fishing the perilous Bering Sea. It is regarded as one of the world’s deadliest jobs; over 50 men are lost from the fleet every year. Hansen lives in Seattle with his wife, June, and two children, Nina, 14, and Mandy, 10
“There are two big months for Alaskan crab — October and January — and the first day of the season is pretty much your most important day. I’ll be up at the wheel from about 6am, and I probably won’t have slept much. You’re just too jacked up. Too nervous. Too amped. All you do on the first morning is watch the other boats in the fleet. A lot of the guys will take a peek before the season starts, so you have to work out if they know something you don’t. All the skippers lie to each other anyways — you have to work out who’s bullshitting who.
Photo courtesy of Dan Lamont. © 2006 by Dan Lamont
See more of his photography at http://www.danlamont.com/
Last year, I heard a rumour there were crabs up north, but I was the only one who headed north. We were suckin’ ’em up all on our own. That was a good year.There’s no daily shower on board because of the limited water supply, so you basically live in the same underwear for as long as you’re out there. After a while, you don’t even notice the smell.
I make sure the crew gets a decent breakfast on the first day. Those guys are going to be doing serious physical work for maybe a week or two — they deserve to live like kings once in a while. We might have omelette and eggs benedict, meat and potatoes, maybe some left-over goulash. This is probably the last time we’re all going to sit down and relax together for a while, so I also like to do a pep talk and get the guys psyched up.
After breakfast it’s a free-for-all out there. All the boats are jockeying for position and, like the rest of the skippers, I’m trying to decide how I’m going to spread my gear. Some guys only drop a few [crab] pots and try to get a feel for different areas, but I tend to dump everything in one go. You have to go by gut instinct. And you’re keeping one eye on the weather. If you’ve got strong northerly winds and want to move from east to west, you have to work hard to keep the water off the boat. When one of those waves comes over the rail, the crew give you a nasty look.
You can’t keep regular hours on a fishing boat; nobody rings the lunch bell when you’re out at sea. It’s up to you to fend for yourself. If there’s a spare five minutes you grab a sandwich, but most of the time my lunch is cigarettes, coffee and chocolate. My crew is pretty lucky, though — I like to see they get three squares a day. I know some skippers who would just toss a box of candy onto the deck, then lock the door. “Here’s your frikkin’ lunch. Now quit complainin’ and let’s haul some frikkin’ gear!”
When you’re crab-fishing, time is money. I heard about one boat that made $140,000 per man in one season. The Northwestern carries about 250 crab pots, and we drop them about a quarter of a mile apart, but that all depends on the weather. The weather is part of a fisherman’s life. It’s our friend and enemy. They say this is a dangerous job, but I never think about that. I’m fourth-generation fisherman, so I was on the boats as a kid and, at 22, I was the youngest skipper in the fleet. But let me tell you, I’ve never lost a man, and I’m very proud of that fact. Had some close calls, though, and I’ve made some silly mistakes.
One time, I was getting a bit too throttle-happy when the seas were pretty choppy, and this 40ft wave picked us up and tossed us right back down into the sea. A 40ft wave looks pretty scary, I can tell you — it’s like having a three-storey building falling onto the ship. The boat nose-dived under the water — thank God none of the guys were on deck. As it was, somebody had left a window open and the boat filled with water, but we managed to deal with it. That time we got away with it, but we were very lucky.
Probably the most dangerous time is when you’re up on the pots. Those things are over 7ft wide and weigh almost 800lb — empty. Imagine one full of crabs over 3ft wide and weighing upwards of 20lb each. When that thing’s swinging around on the crane, it can come straight at you. You have to jump up on the pot and hope it doesn’t hit anything. We call that “taking a ride”. It’s like a fairground ride, only this one can break bones. And so can the crabs. If one gets hold of your finger, he’s going to break it. No problem. Sure, I know plenty of guys that have passed away. But I’ve been hearing these stories from my grandad and my dad all my life. That’s just how it is.
The end of the day depends on how far you’ve spread your pots. If you’ve been hauling pots for 18 to 20 hours and you know you can get from point A to point B in a couple of hours and start hauling again, you are not going to shut the boat down for six hours just so the guys can get some sleep. We regularly do a 30-plus-hour day, but the most I’ve done is three days without sleep. That gets a bit ugly. You get a bit rummy around three or four in the morning.
We have a name for the Alaskan crab season: “animal fishing”, because the guys who work on these boats are animals. They don’t eat or sleep.
When I finally get some sleep, all I dream about is fishing. Sometimes one of my crew will come to wake me and hear me blabbering about bearings and positions. I can’t think of one job that would give me the thrill and sense of accomplishment that I get from fishing. You want to know my biggest fear in life? Not being able to fish.”