Where in the World is Michael Rosenthal?
I'm in Anchorage AK, about to board a flight for Cold Bay. From Cold Bay I'll catch a short flight to King Cove where I'll meet the F/V (fishing vessel) Vixen.
Last year as I departed for the survey, I reflected that I was heading to a boat I had never seen with a crew I'd never met to fish waters I hadn't fished in 20 years! We conducted a similar survey in the waters around Adak Island. Two of my crew from last year will be back this year, w/2 additional crewmen. While smaller at just under 100' than the boats I ran during my fishing career, she's a solid sea boat.
We'll depart for Dutch Harbor in the next few days where we'll pick up a fisheries biologist then head out to the Western Aleutians, a 3-day run, to conduct a king crab survey. Specifically we'll be setting pots on Petrel Bank and the area around Semisopochnoi Island. Semisopochnoi is a Russian name meaning 'having seven hills' which are actually remnants of a collapsed volcano.
The waters around this uninhabited island have a deep familiarity to me. Going back here almost feels like going home. I spent most of my fishing career working these waters and the image of this island from various vantage points is seared into my consciousness. As is the topography of the bottom (more on this later).
We're surveying the area for red king crab, a once plentiful resource that went into serious decline in the mid 1990's. This survey is a joint effort by a fishermen's research foundation, National Marine Fisheries and Alaska Dept of Fish & Game. It's a 'pre-survey' survey. If we find a significant mass of king crab, ADFG will know if it's worth investing in a formal survey which could ultimately lead to re-opening the fishery commercially.
Everything we catch will be counted, measured and returned to the sea.
October 28, 2016
Fisherman (& mariners in general) can be a superstitious lot. One such superstition says that you never whistle in the wheelhouse because you'll whistle up a storm.
The weather today is exactly opposite of yesterday's weather. It's blowing SSE 35 (which is technically a Gale, not a storm when wind is greater than 50kts), but that's a technicality. This superstition possibly had its origins several hundred years ago with a positive connotation when becalmed sailors would actually try to conjure up wind by whistling.
Another well known superstition states that you never leave port on a Friday, because disaster is sure to follow. I've personally been known to leave port @ 00:01 (or 12:01AM) on Saturday when all things being equal, we were ready to leave much earlier.
There are ways fishermen have circumvented this, for example by saying 'it's Saturday somewhere' or by saying that the voyage doesn't really begin until they pass a certain geographical point. In this case, we could say we could depart King Cove today, because the voyage doesn't actually start till we leave Dutch Harbor.
We're at the dock in King Cove loading pots. We should be done w/this, this evening at which point we'll look at the weather and make the call. Every fisherman has a story about the time they did leave on a Friday and all hell broke loose. While it's the captain’s decision to make, I feel that if I have crewmen who feel strongly about this, we'll defer. Plus it's really blowing out there!
The wind began drop dramatically around 2130 (9:30pm) and the crew finished rigging and loading pots about 1/2 hr later. We had a late dinner, then the crew secured the boat for travel.
At exactly midnight, I fired up the mains, the crew managed the lines and we departed the dock @ 00:06 (12:06am) and navigated by the breakwater a few minutes later, well into Saturday!
We were in inside waters for the first hour or so, but it was still pretty sloppy. We've been traveling all day as the wind and sea conditions gradually subsided. We should be in Dutch Harbor around 2100 tonight, however we'll be bucking an ebb tide in Unalga Pass so that may slow us down.
Captains Bay that is in the new boat harbor, Unalaska Island (Dutch Harbor). It's still storm warnings, blowing westerly, 55-65 kts (1 knot, or nautical mile = 1.15 statute miles) so this is wind of 63-75 mph. The dock is a good place to be, especially because the wind is westerly, and we're traveling west.
We made it to the dock early this morning just as the wind was picking up. It was an exciting night w/wind gusting well over the forecasted strength and even some lightning & thunder!
The Black Box Theory
My engineer, John, explained this credo that he lives by, "the fisherman's black box theory". It goes something like this. Unlike the saying, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it", John says every time you fix something on a boat that isn't really broken but needs the attention , you get to put a chit in the black box. This way, when you're out at sea and all hell breaks loose, you get to take chits out of the box. You get to fix the unfixable, things you may not have the right tools or the spare parts for. You might even get to save the trip that would have otherwise been lost, or even save the boat.
Fishing most of the time as I did, 3 days run from town (assuming the parts were even available or the weather good enough to fly them in if they weren’t), I completely get that. I remember once being stuck in Dutch Harbor for 6 days as it blew 50 and snowed sideways as we waited for a flight to be able to land to bring us the Goldstreaked part we needed. You can carry a ton of spare parts but you can't carry a whole other boat; inevitably you'll need what you don't have
As any conscientious boat owner will do, this boat has been well equipped with spare parts! I like John, his work ethic and his knowledge are invaluable. So not only do we have a well cared for boat that we will be dependent on for the next few weeks for comfort, safety and work, but I feel very confident in my engineer, which is the best thing a captain could ask for.
We spent most of the day successfully working on such projects. The weather is slowly moderating and we may leave port tonight. The long term forecast shows slow improvement.
Cut Her Loose Boys.
In addition to those black box projects I write about, we also invited the Coast Guard on board to do a 'courtesy' safety inspection. These can sometimes be stressful if your missing any number of things, but this inspection went very well.
We left town last night @ 2230. We did our safety drill and orientation, welcomed the biologist on board and then I said 'cut her loose, boys', (captain talk for throwing the lines.)
Those of you who watch Deadliest Catch might be interested to know that we were tied alongside the Wizard and the Saga, Northwestern and Cornelia Marie were all on the next finger over.
The wind has subsided quite a bit, to W35-40 and we're bucking a 15ft westerly swell. The conditions are somewhat squally, but we're settling in.
We're traveling on the Bering side of the islands, currently just north of Yunaska Island.
Big wind. Big waves.
Today has been a little more eventful. The weather blew up early, westerly 45-50, seas in the 20'+ range, right on our nose. Definitely slowing us down. It's supposed to be a fast moving system so we're hopeful for calmer seas soon. We have about 36 nautical miles to our first set.
Hard to believe it's the same ocean
It's hard to believe that this is the same ocean. Yesterday it was blowing westerly 45 and we were bucking into 20-30' seas. Sometimes seas built so big off our bow we had to throttle back so we wouldn't come crashing down the other side. Things were moderating slightly when we arrived on the grounds, but sloppy enough that we set west to east (going with it) for a safer, smoother ride.
Today there was a bit of a swell left over, but virtually no wind. The water barely had a ripple on it. Of course, we ran into another common challenge out here, the tidal current was running so hard it pulled our buoys under, so we weren't able to start pulling gear until 1530. And then we only caught 2 king crab out of 60 pots.
Better luck tomorrow.
Things that don't translate
There are things that have a familiarity to me when I'm on the water no matter how long I'm off the water. Things that don't translate to anything I do on land. Here's just a few:
1. Somehow, being around fisherman is still more familiar to me.
2. Driving and maneuvering these big boats.
3. Coming awake and lying in my bunk feeling the motion of the boat. I can tell which way we're headed and whether the weather is building or moderating.
4. Driving on the buoys. One of of my greatest pleasures on the boat! Each time I challenge myself to do it perfectly. Especially exciting when I have to turn on them at high speed (well, high speed for a fishing boat) when I make a power turn @ 10 kts and the boat slides around and ends up nearly stationary, perfect throwing hook distance from the buoys. Also if there's any kind of weather, judging the bow surge just right.
5. Marveling at the almost ballet like precision and timing on deck by the crew. There is great joy in watching this
6. Tracking the low (pressure system) by the direction of the wind.
7. Tapping on the barometer. (I guess I could do this at home but somehow it doesn't carry the same importance, besides, its digital)
8. Watching the weather build. Realizing that an average blow out here would wreak havoc at home.
9. Watching the sea birds (mostly Northern Fulmars) fight over the discarded bait
10. The excitement every time a pot breaks the surface
11. Looking at the ocean but really seeing the topography of the sea floor.
What's the most important thing happening today? Laundry!
Not to make light of the historical impact of today's election, just a window into the life of a fisherman.
After blowing 40-45 for days, we got Storm Warnings, NW wind to 65kts (75 mph!), so we decided to do what any prudent mariner would do, run and hide!
We're currently anchored on the SE side of Semisopochnoi Is, Sugarloaf Peak to our left, Ragged Top to our right. The wind is howling but our anchor is holding fast (after one pick and reset).
Because the boat is relatively stable, we can run the washing machine! We are enormously grateful for this.
Life on a fishing boat at anchor is calm, a welcome respite. Usually the crew catches up on sleep, which they are, but I noticed a big "to do" list on the whiteboard in the galley. I'm impressed by the intention, even if it doesn't all get done.
And yes, we sent our ballots in the day after we got them in the mail. It has not gone unnoticed (or unappreciated) that we're not being bombarded w/daily news!
Rudyard Kipling said.., "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet"
Not so fast.
Another big part of my life at sea in this area that doesn't translate to life at home. The 180 degree meridian line runs right through the Petrel Bank, meaning we may cross from West to East longitudes, several times a day. This is also the line that defines the International Date Line (although if you look at a map, the line jogs west to encompass all of the Aleutian Islands in today). So it could be said that technically we cross from today into tomorrow, or tomorrow into today, (or yesterday?) multiple times in a day, a pretty unique endeavor!
Longitudes are read in degrees, minutes & seconds, and while there are 60 minutes in a degree, there are one hundred seconds in a longitudinal minute. My favorite thing about the 180 Line is watching it on the plotter as you cross it.
Going from west longitude to east, your readings go up, for example W179.59'97",
W179.59'98", W179.59'99", then you cross and they count down, E179.59'99", E179.59'98, "E179.59'97" etc.
The coolest thing was that we used to have a plotter that would actually show the 180 line so when you crossed, you could see readings that look like this; W179.59'97",
W179.59'98", W179.59'99", W180.00'00", E180.00'00",
E179.59'99", E179.59'98, "E179.59'97".
This is much rarer, but right up there with the excitement of catching a digital clock on military time, including seconds at exactly midnight, 00:00:00 (which in its own right carries a higher level of excitement than glancing at it and seeing 11:11:11 or 22:22:22 for example, still very exciting)
Imagine the jolt of excitement crossing the 180 line at exactly midnight?!
Being away at sea means getting to come home
The biggest thing about my life at sea which doesn't translate to my life on the beach is the excitement around homecoming.
Whether it's a 3-month trip or a 3-week trip, at some point the scales tip slightly and the sweet thoughts of homecoming begin to take over.
The simplicity of a single purposed existence is at the center of the ease with which I embrace life at sea. But it's a solitary one for sure.
There are no reunions for me, when Alexa or I travel separately that match the anticipation and then the actual high of reuniting as my returns from fishing.
Today I begin my journey home with an even greater appreciation for all the things in life I have to be grateful for. I don't need to go away to realize this or to recognize that the depth of love for my family is fathomless and foremost, but being at sea somehow always frames it so perfectly.