The Crab Report
Leaving port at noon after a 24 hour weather delay to the start of the fishery due to gale warnings, we headed out in a swell that only increased the closer we got to Cape Chiniak and the open Gulf of Alaska. The Miss Linda, 68 feet of steel built for crabbing in ‘74, rolled in the waves, spray shooting across her decks.
I started out in the wheelhouse for the view and the scenery – I had never been down the coast of the east side of my home island – but soon I needed to bolt for the deck, answering one of my pre-fishing questions: yes, I do get seasick on bigger boats. For 48 hours I alternated between being sick, hiccuping, having disjointed thoughts and yet feeling sort of OK but with zero appetite. What a relief it was when I finally got my sea legs and could look around to enjoy life!
After the first seven hour run to a protected anchorage where we spent the night, our life developed a routine. At four or five am we’d wake to the sound of the main engine starting up, pop out of bed fully dressed, put on our rain gear and gloves and start getting the bait chopped up and stuffed in the jars and bags, ready for the day. About 20 minutes into that effort, I’d head back into the galley to cook a speedy breakfast while the guys continued to prep 250 pounds of frozen bait and pull the anchor. As soon as the anchor was up, we’d start the run to the fishing grounds while scarfing down breakfast (for those with appetites) and washing up and putting away everything before we got too far out of our protected spot (along with the 15 other boats there). Then we’d all go lie down in our bunks for the couple hour run to the fishing grounds with Aaron, the skipper, driving to where we’d arrive, just before the 8 am start time of the fishery.
Once there we’d get suited up again and start the dance of pulling our 20 allowed pots. Patrick threw the hook to grab the buoys, then worked in tandem with Tollef to coil the line as the pot rose from the depths while I prepped the bait. As the pot broke the surface, the single hook pulling it out of the water with a hydraulic winch, Tollef and I would jockey its 800 pounds (that’s empty weight) into position on the launcher while Patrick ran hydraulics to lift the pot, slide the table in, and dump any crab on the table for us to sort for size. As quickly as I could, I’d take the old bait out and re-bait the pot while the guys got the coils of lines ready to reset overboard. Then depending on our skipper’s decision, either we stacked the pot on the back deck to move it to a new location or reset the pot back down to continue fishing in place. Even when seasick, but especially when not, I enjoyed the physical hustle, the feeling of being on a team, the anticipation of leaning over the rail to see what each pot would hold, and the bright, almost iridescent creatures – Colossal Snow Crab – we were catching for appreciative eaters worldwide. After I got over the worst of the sickness, one of my favorite jobs was to climb atop the 7-foot-tall pots and tie them down with a clove hitch and square knot so they wouldn’t shift on deck as we moved them. I liked the feeling of jumping around like a spider monkey on a rolling ocean.
Even though most of the weather we experienced was overcast and kind of stormy, giving us gray sea smudged into the same gray sky, there were pockets here and there of delight. Sunrise wasn’t until after 9:30, so we’d start the day in darkness working in a halo of our own bright deck lights. Sometimes glimmerings came from as many as 14 boats fishing around us, their sodium lights shining brightly across the black rolling water; rarely the lights came from a few pinpoints of stars above. Especially on the cloudiest days, light came upon us almost imperceptibly - we’d be working away and all of a sudden realize the night was gone. But one morning a liquid gold full moon set into the dark ocean, stopping us in our tracks and heralding a mostly clear day.
During daylight hours I loved watching the albatrosses that skimmed the waves behind us, waiting for old chunks of bait. These birds never appear in our near-shore salmon fishery – they are open-ocean dwellers – so I relished the sight of them as a concrete reminder that I was doing something new. Every so often I’d be able to spy the spine of Kodiak Island, 20 miles away, the 4,000-plus-foot peaks of the east side glowing snowy white against the sky. These tallest mountains of our archipelago were especially impressive to me since they aren’t visible from our normal west side vantage point. It was so interesting to see shore from a variety of distances, putting our island right into perspective, the giant Pacific Ocean all around us inhaling and exhaling all the while.
After running through all our gear once, we’d let the pots soak for a while before a second run through everything. Aaron would cut the engine and we’d drift on the waves for a couple of hours, depending on the weather and timing of our day. I would climb into my little bunk and mentally float along with the roll of the boat. I had no decision-making responsibilities, there was no internet connection, I didn’t feel like reading, I couldn’t really sleep, so I found that I entered this almost altered state of consciousness, where my mind seemed to move along with the swell of the ocean that cradled out boat, flowing from one topic to another with a kind of fluid, relaxed ease…I felt suspended between reality and dream, enjoying immensely this mode of thought with no haste or worry.
Our afternoon was kind of a reverse of the morning, where we’d work the pots and the day away into slowly darkening skies, then night. Though it was too cloudy to see the super wolf blood moon eclipse, we did have a spectacular show that evening of a giant peach moon rising at sunset, visible in its entirety for just a moment in a clear sliver between ocean and clouds before becoming hidden behind the fog. Soon after that magical glimpse it turned 6 pm, which meant stopping hour by regulation for this fishery. As we did every night, we drove 2-3 hours to a calm spot to anchor up for the night, Tollef cooking dinner during the run. Depending on the roll, sometimes boiling water or any liquid on the electric stove top was impossible, so he planned his cooking based on weather. Finally, we’d turn in for a few hours with the hum of the big generator lulling us into dreamland before the chance to land on a school of crab was upon us once again.
Though the weather was sort of challenging and fishing wasn’t really hot, we’d happily wake up every morning to see what the new day would bring in terms of crab, weather, views, marine life, and mental visions. I’d like to thank Aaron for taking me on, Patrick for his good humor and for showing me so many great little tips and tricks, and Tollef for dreaming and believing in me from the very beginning and getting me further out onto the watery world around us!