The outside passage up this part of the coast is Hecate Strait. For the most part, the strait is deep, but at its northern end it shallows to 60′ in many places.
This is where our new steel crab boat, which had looked so invincible tied to the dock in Seattle, almost came to grief.
It was early March 1971. As we traveled up Hecate Strait, a sourtherly gale was building, but it was behind us, and we traveled easily.
I was in the pilothouse; the skipper’s brother was on watch. Snow came with the storm, and visibility was down to a few hundred yards. He pored over the chart as he spoke of years in the Canadian trawl fishery, winter fishing in these waters. His voice was gravelly, his hands swollen and scarred. He spoke of 2 [cents] -a-lb. fish, of weeks on end with howling winds, of getting out to make a three-hour tow with the net and getting blown back in for two or three days.
Now and then his voice faded away, and his eyes fastened on the windows as an especially large sea lifted the stern and we slid down its flank, engine racing. Breaking crests rode by higher than our windows. Then we were headed uphill again, the engine noise a deeper pitch with the strain. The tops were blown off the seats, white spray and spume lost downwind. On the tops of the seas we were exposed to the full force of the storm. Visibility dropped to nothing, the snow hissed against the windows, the wind screeched through the pipe rigging. A few moments later, we dropped into the trough, and the wind died away to nothing, the snow eddying gently.
In the middle of my afternoon watch, alone in the pilothouse, I began to have a queer feeling of unease that was hard to shake. I scanned the instruments, checked our position twice, but everything was normal. Twice I walked out onto the boat deck and looked astern; row after row of double-stacked crab pots covered the working deck and the wild, smoking seas beyond.
At 3:30 I saw a strange target on the radar where none should have been. It was a wide, blotchy, poorly defined bar that seemed to cover the northern end of the strait, a few miles away. At first I thought it was sea clutter from the storm, but there was something about it that wasn’t right. I ran up and down the ranges, hoping it was some electronic trick, but it stayed in the same spot, getting bigger as we approached.
There in that cozy pilothouse, with faint music playing on one of the radios, I began to feel something akin to fear. Outside, there were only gray seas marching past and a snow squall moving in from the east. I pulled the throttle back to half, and the skipper was instantly out of his cabin and up peering into the radar.
He studied it for a moment, fiddled with the controls, glanced at the glowing numbers on the loran, and stalked over to the chart table. Pulling the throttle back to idle, he pushed the intercom button:
“Roger, flood the crab tanks, quick as you can; and let me know the minute they’re full.
For greater fuel economy and speed we were running with the crab tanks – almost half the boat – empty. With the load of pots we carried, the onset of heavy weather required that the tanks be flooded for stability.
By then we were less than a mile from the strange target, idling slowly, dead downwind. The cook came up from below, and we peered into the swirling snow ahead.
For a long time there was nothing, just gray seas with white, boiling tops. Then, on the top of a big one, there was a break in the squall just long enough to see a solid line of breakers ahead and nothing but white and broken water beyond.
“Shit – hang on!” The skipper swore and pushed the throttle ahead and the steering lever over to starboard in one motion.
Out little ship was built for the worst the North Pacific could dish out. Yet the next sea picked us up like we were driftwood and slammed us down sideways into the trough as we struggled to turn around. I was thrown against the bulkhead, saw green water halfway up the windows, and heard alarm bells go off before we got headed upwind away from the breakers.
The engineer came up a few moments later, looking white around the eyeballs. The alarm had come from the crab tank pumps at the bottom of the boat sucking air. Their intakes were down by the keel.
“Breaking,” the skipper said. “For the love of Christ, it’s breaking in 80′ of water. Thirty years up and down the coast, and I’ve never seen the like of it.”
For the next hour, we searched among the great seas for the little gully of deep water that should have been there. If it was there, we couldn’t find it. The entire northern end of the strait was a seething mass of breakers, as the southerly gale opposed the tide flooding from the north.
The short day ended, and the wind blew harder. And so, in the storm and in the black we had to find a way through the islands to the sheltered Inside Passage that lay to the east. We had no chart with sufficient detail of the islands to allow us to navigate with confidence. Instead we relied on the skipper’s brother’s clouded memory of a trip through those waters a decade before. With such thin information, it was tough to find a passage on such a night. By then it was snowing so hard that our radar could barely penetrate it. (Clutter from the snow makes it difficult to decipher the picture on the screen.)
Several times we approached what we thought was the correct channel, only to have the Fathometer suddenly shallow alarmingly and our glaring work lights reveal seas boiling on hidden rocks. We would back out until the water deepened, turn around, and try another place.
It got very quiet in the pilothouse. There was little talk. You could hear the whine of the wind, the whir of the radar. I hadn’t expected to feel fear on such a new and well-equipped vessel. Yet on that black and wild night, as we tried anxiously to find a way out of the building storm, fear was in the pilothouse with us. No one spoke about it, but it was there.
Then the water was deeper and we proceeded. The snow broke for a moment and we got a glimpse of the land on either side of the narrow channel: rocky shores, trees plastered with snow and frozen spray.
The heave of the sea became a little less violent, the howl of the wind a little less shrill through our radar and antennas. After a few more anxious moments, we passed to the inside water beyond.
The storm passed in the night and gave way to clear, bitter-cold northerly weather. In the thin yellow light of the morning, we saw the mountains of Alaska gleaming in their fresh blanket of snow.
When the wind blows, Hecate Strait can be more like the ocean than a strait. My friend spoke of lying in remote bays in the winter for four and five days at a stretch to get in one day of fishing, and that in an 85-footer.
April 25, 1985, was a good example of why many vessels avoid Hecate Strait altogether.
On that day, a rapidly developing Pacific storm caught weather forecasters and the Canadian halibut fleet by surprise. Five vessels were abandoned or sunk, and the Canadian Coast Guard had to request aid from the U.S. Coast Guard helicopter at Sitka, Alaska. The U.S. chopper arrived to 20′ seas, winds gusting to 50 knots, low clouds, and visibility down to less than a half-mile. They had just plucked four cold fishermen from the water and dropped them at Prince Rupert when they learned a second boat was sinking. As they flew to that one, a mayday was heard from a third. Visibility had dropped and the winds and seas had increased, but a Canadian rescue vessel was able to vector the chopper to the two boats and to another one after it. After hoisting crew number four out of the water, the chopper received its fifth distress call of the day. By then, however, they were loaded with survivors – the last three crews were aboard – and unable to make headway against the wind. They did a quick run to Prince Rupert, unloaded, refueled, and headed out again.
By the time they found the last vessel, it was dark, the wind was gusting to 60 knots, and the seas were 50′. The chopper managed to hoist all four crewmen before their vessel vanished beneath them.
Chapter Four: The Windy Border Country
Adventures of the Young Man
We tied up to the float next to the Tongass Bar in Ketchikan. The sawmill was down the street. A wall of loggers in spiked boots and red suspenders sat at the bar. Above the bar and around the room were photographs of the fishing fleet: grim-faced men standing by halibut vessels sheathed in ice; graceful salmon boats high and dry on a reef beneath a dark and somber forest. A swarthy group of what I assumed were natives spoke together in a language I could not understand. I nursed my beer until a dispute broke out between a logger who took up two bar stools and a lanky fellow with a white fisherman’s cap. With a scraping of chairs, each man’s friends stood up. I slipped outside. A moment later I heard raised voices and the tinkle of breaking glass.
At the next bar, a bored-looking woman on a little stage was taking her clothes off. The room was smoky, noisy, and full; the men seemed to pay her little attention. While she languidly stripped, she tripped and fell, bumped her leg, and cried out in pain. No one moved to help her, and after a while she got up and resumed her act.
The next day we traveled to the cannery we were to work for, which was at the Tlingit Native village of Metlakatla, on Annette Island, 13 miles away. I had grown up in East Coast suburbs; nothing had prepared me for such a town. The cannery stood on pilings over the bay. The forest and the snow-capped mountains loomed up behind. Bald eagles nested in the tree; seals played by the docks.
My job took me into the cramped engine rooms of the Tlingit seiners. I worked on the big Chrysler Royal straight-eights with the smell of gas so strong in the confined space it stung my nostrils. A dozen feet away in the foc’sle, the stocky natives smoked Lucky Strikes and Camels and spoke of ice and rock bays where spirits lurked. I went back aboard our packer with its big well-lit galley and roomy crew quarters suddenly aware that there was a dimension to the land and people around us I had never conceived of before.
The crew on our 90′ home for the season was the stuff of Alaska fishing lore and legend: the grumpy cook, the insurance man’s son as deckhand, and Mickey, the old Alaska salt as mate.
For some reason Mickey liked me, took me under his wing, helped me with the skills I needed to know. The most important was telling fish apart. To the casual observer, the 20 cents-a-lb. dog salmon looked almost identical to the 60 cents-a-lb. sockeye or red salmon, especially early in the season. The crews of the boats that sold fish to us, unloading fish rapidly in dimly lit fish holds, were quick to take advantage of this if they could.
“Yah gots ta watch dese boys,” Mickey cautioned me, as he squatted by the hatch of a native salmon seiner, a board with three or four mechanical counters on it before him. Below us, three crew members loaded fish as fast as they could into a net bag. For each fish, Mickey’s fingers would hit the appropriate counter.
“Yeah, but Mickey, how can you tell the difference?” I whispered in his ear, sure that I would never be as good as he.
When the boat had gone, he laid out four or five fish on the hatch cover and showed me the subtle differences: the shading of the skin, the pattern of the scales, the thickness of the tail.s
Another important skill Mickey taught me was watching out for cash buyers.
Out cannery, like many others, had a financial interest in many of the boats that fished for us, sometimes owning them outright. Typically the fisherman delivered his fish to the cannery tender (us) and received his money at the end of the season, less whatever he owed the cannery.
However, other fish-buying vessels, not associated with our cannery, and buying fish wherever they could get them, also frequented the ground,s paying cash, giving free beer to all hands, and asking no questions. If one of our fishermen had a particularly good catch and happened to be near a cash buyer, and we weren’t around, it would be to his advantage to sell apart of it for cash and the rest to us. Our tactic was to anchor in the same cove as the cash buyer or be close enough to the boats that they couldn’t sell to another buyer without our seeing them.
“The main trouble with cash, buying
is you end up carrying so much
cash around. It’s not so bad in s mall
boat, when you know all the gang
pretty well. But in ’68, we were cash-buying
with a floater [a processing
vessel] with 30 guys on board, and
we didn’t have a safe. Well, usually
we had at least 60- or 80-thousand
bucks in the cash box. So each night
before I hit the sack, I’d hide the cash
box in a different spot. You can imagine
how many places there are to hide
a cash box in a 120′ floater. Then one
morning I forgot where I’d put it. I
couldn’t find the cash box! I was
wild! I spent the whole day hunting
for that sucker before I found it. I got
a safe after that!”
– A friend
Most of all, Mickey shared four or five decades of experience with me. On my wheel watches, he’d be up in the big pilothouse, watching the chart, his husky voice telling tales of towns abandoned and vessels and crews lost before I was born.
We picked our way into he tiny entrance to Myers Chuck in Clarence Strait, and Mickey’s voice was soft; I had to strain to hear the words. It was 1920 or 1922, and he was a deck hand on the mail boat run out of Ketchikan, in and out of a dozen little settlements that are now ruins on the beach.
“The skipper, see, he’d have the pilothouse windown open, and the snow’d be swirling right in around us. he’d reach up, pull on the whistle cord, just once, quick-like, and then stick his ear right out into the snowy black and listen for the echo. Then he’d put the throttle to her for a minute or two, then cut back, and do his little whistle trick again. Do that four or five times, and then suddenly he’d turn to us standing there. |O.K., boys, get the lines out.’ We’d look out and there would be nothing but snow. Then he’d reverse, and we’d bump right into the dock before you could ever see it.”