Time on the Bering Sea: When all moves and stands still
Time on the Bering Sea 2008
It is July and I am here on the Glacier Bay. GB is an awkward blue and beige 148 feet of longling machine equipped with 4 decks, 2 engines and 19 working souls including myself. We are working the edge of the continental shelf where the artic circle meets the dateline. This area is recognized on a globe as the body of water above the words Bering Sea and except for these few months in the summer it is usually totally locked by ice. It is known to most because of silly reality TV but also because here there was a land bridge as we all recall studying in 3rd grade. Up here so long ago where things must have been so desolately bleak and surviving must have been extremely difficult the mammoth, saber tooth tiger, bear, caribou and human all endured this stretch of the planet seeking a new world, or possibly just the next meal. After 10 years working up here I have realized things have not evolved since those first quests across this land/seascape as much as one may think. The crew is a mix of ex military, ex drugo, ex convicts, ex everything you can think of! They are either working to hold on to what they have or working for something better. Each good in his own way and all well proven as of today. Right now we are on day 40 of the “grind” with no fill date ahead. The bait will run out before the freezer hold is full of 42 pound bagged frozen blocks of cod ... this season is painfully dragging on. The pain is revealed by all the faces aboard, life revolves around work, rack time and the next meal.
The days melt into one another living on a factory that works 24/7. As the onboard biologist I randomly sample the vessels catch for composition with no steady sleep shift. I spend several hours a day on the weather deck above the factory where I am exposed to the elements and I cant help but feel I endure the hardships that this area is known for so I can see a new world as well. Only someone with a dream could withstand this for this long. Mine is to circumnavigate the planet in my tiny sailboat DANCYN.
When I first embarked as a fisheries biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service I thought that the elemental hardships would be the most difficult to overcome. After 10 years I have found that freezing wind and sea, meager sleep shifts, working in an environment that pumps sideways every few minutes or being in the presence of so much death are not the hardest things about working these assignments. I have learned that the body is tougher than one may realize. It is unreal what can become normal and how quickly this can happen. However there is another foe up here wearing at my body and soul. Time is my biggest enemy while working up here. Time feels fixed up here and yet still feels like it is flowing with a fluid roll of one day into the next. Days are not punctuated by sunset or sunrise at this northern latitude. There is no schedule to adhere to daily for some sense of routine. Going from working to the rack in endless grinding cycles, so that a sample taken a week ago feels the same in my head as one finished yesterday afternoon. To begin with I feel exhausted worried that I have finally gotten to old for this work. After a few days I bottom out then find a platue. Then it begins to feel like a waking dream as I go robotically from rack to galley to deck up to wheelhouse in a rushing circle as the days fade together. The cycle of the ship runs like a program in my brain, I wake in raingear on deck as the propeller cavitates in reverse, time begin the next haul. Hauling back, tally and get average weights, setting- then rush up to the computer again, perhaps enough time for a “ghetto-mocha” coffee and hot chocolate. The ticking of the hooks against the hull, right fish, right fish, wrong fish wait… how long is that halibut? Thank god the sun is out and it is dry today or not…better pull on another polar fleece. I can hang this level for 45 days, sometimes more, then I need the reprieve of a few days on land, we all do.
Today is day 79. I finished 45 days on the Glacier Bay and after 12 hrs on land mostly sleeping I had been reassigned and embarked. Of these 79 days on assignment, I have spent 4 days on land and am on my 4th vessel. My last assignment of this contract is on a pollock trawler the Royal Atlantic. The Portuguese crew are close knit old salts. We sit together and eat like brothers. It is a slow fishery and there will be ample time to read and think. And to sleep….. My 90 days on contact are almost up, soon I will be clear of Alaska.
While it is difficult to get a fix on time for myself up here it is harder to understand the time in other parts of life. Time almost feels fixed, emotionally stopped as of the first day on contract when I flew west out the Aleutian Islands to Adak to board a deep water longline crabber the Aleutian Spray. All in my life seems fixed in that moment. Dancyn, my sailboat, is tied up in a Malaysian marina on the Island of Lankawi. The love I have for friends and family is cryogenically frozen, my emotional engine seized. My dreams paused. My free will locked as my destiny was handed to the sea (and my contractor). This is the most misleading aspect of the job. Time for these things may be fixed but only for me. Dancyn is stored but the mold inside her and the growth on her hull is by no means slow growing in the warm and moist tropics! My love for friends and family is fixed but their lives continue to flow without me there to bare witness. Their feelings evolve and mature with time regardless of my rigid emotional state. My parents continue to age and I’m no closer to making ‘grandbabies”. My dream may pause but thankfully the bankroll required to finance it grows with every day! Last but not least 4 boats in 90 days from the dateline to the Pribilof Islands and back to Dutch.. how many trips this season?? This does not equate to being stagnate even if it is beyond my control!
I finished my debriefing in Seattle despite my fisherman-esk debauchery. Droves of other biologist cashed up and deprived of freedom rotate through the Seattle bunkhouse. Each observer nervous about the next contract up north or just exhausted from the last one. The camaraderie is tight over drinks and food purchased mostly with our per diems. We swap tales from the Bering Sea or our adventures while off. We are an elite group of biologist that work where no one should. Each observer has a story worth hearing and so we drink on and if only for a moment we forget our time at sea. Good friends are made.
I get a week off, a sweet 8 days of freedom! I jump on a plane to see family and friends back in the south. Dad picks me up from the airport. He is sick with a cold and worn down from his new job outside Montgomery Alabama. He is thankful to have a job these days, as am I. We are both luckier than some. Tallasee, the little country town dad now lives in, like many others in rural Alabama has no bar. So we walk instead of drink Bourbon. Riding in his big Crown Vic on the green highway we talk just father and son. Mom greets me on the porch with a big squeeze and a meal. I eat and chat with my brother and other father Boyd. For a few days it is like I never escaped on that motorcycle back in 96. I am again “at home” at my mother’s huge Victorian house. We spend our few evenings swinging on the back porch watching Momma’s hummingbirds visit, drink cocktails and eat southern cooking. My parent’s graying hair raises awareness once more of time. I have been away for too long.
Time is up, now I must travel from Atlanta to Seattle to Anchorage to Dutch Harbor. Another great reality change to compromise my sense of normal, I embark on the Alaska Mist. It’s a revamped WWII surplus 174 foot fuel tanker, re-commissioned long ago and now destined for cod long lining in the Bering Sea. The captain and crew are much improved since my 89-day run 7 years ago when she was dutifully dubbed “Alaska Bust”. Today under new management she looks and is run better than many in the fleet. The first indication is a young crew that has stuck together for several seasons. Only 45 days of bait. How bad could it be? Fall is here if only for a brief week. Winter begins early in the trip. “Drive on” I think to myself as I do when on Dancyn and the sailing gets rough! The “front lines of resource management” I chuckle to myself as the reality of how much this sucks sinks in.
I am now 20 plus days into a long trip. Hurricane force winds drive cold air from the northeast down onto the blue arrow like hull. Chilled after miles of traveling over the pole and sucked south by a powerful Low beating easterly along the Aleutian Islands, the wind batters the AK Mist. This long liner rides the gale, maneuvering to stay in the lee of St. Paul one of the Pribilof Islands, the tall fine bow fighting to stay pointed into the wind. The latest drama? Diesel is leaking into the main engine’s oil so the vessel is forced to wait for space at the wharf at St. Paul to do repairs. Just arrived at the wharf are parts for the engine and the dead washing machine, coffee and if luck holds out no bait! The limiting factor of this trip will be how long the bait lasts because at this rate we will not fill the boat in another 45 days. This time of year cod fishing, despite the healthy population, is “scratchy” at best unlike January when cod pile together to spawn. Dreams of November with family fade as the season continues to drag on and the season closure gets pushed back a few days every week.
Hunched over the railing on the port side, covered in layers of polar fleece and orange grundins raingear, I count the fish brought on board this factory long liner. I am standing above the line of ganion hung steel hooks dragging fish up from beneath the emerald surface of the Bering Sea. Each bulging eyed cod, rockfish, skate or flounder is summed by frozen fingers on its own clicker. My faithful talyer is seven clickers wrapped and joined in series with electrical tape. It has curved slightly over the months of use to match my gloved hand. Frozen there in mindless reflexive counting, playing my string of clickers like a clarinet, I remember why I do this. Soon I will be facing west, standing at the helm of my “world beater” Dancyn with the wind behind me as I explore my next ocean, the Indian Ocean. The blue water and sunshine will revive the illusion of control I feel over my destiny. Sailing is my chosen form of suffering. As I sail I will be looking toward India and then the Cape of Africa and all that lies between. New destinations, cultures, languages and perhaps one day it will be enough. Possibly it will not. Either way the adventure continues and I must be thankful for each day of it!
Posted by John H Rand