Monday, January 26, 2015

"Making Way"

Chapter 27 "Making Way" from Prepare to Come About

hose headsails are killing our tack! Go tell your husband to sheet in his jib—again.” Tim said. “We’re never going to make it through Thatcher Pass at this rate.”
Oh dear lord, not again. I drew a deep breath and went forward to relay the captain’s orders to my foredeck leader. I seriously doubted he’d be any happier hearing from me this time than he was the last three. “Jeffery, Captain says your jib’s still sheeted out too far. It’s killing the tack and making us carry too much rudder.”
“Christ—I’m doing it exactly the way he asked for it last time! If I sheet in any more we’ll be backed!”
“All I’m doing is passing along orders; please don’t kill the messenger.” I spun around and returned to my new position at the quarterdeck, complaining under my breath all the while. “Talk about getting caught between a rock and a hard place…” I shook my head and silently counted the hours until we’d drop anchor and I could go hide in my stateroom. “This totally sucks. Why did I ever think I could actually pull this off?”
It didn’t help that on this, my first trip out as a mate, I had a fractious captain and a partner who didn’t appear to be adjusting very well to taking orders from his wife—especially when those orders often contradicted themselves. I wasn’t certain whether Tim was testing me or just being testy—either way, it made for a long day. It felt like I’d already logged countless miles on-deck, relaying commands and responses to and from the foredeck.
 I walked up to Tim and inquired if the headsail was now to his liking and received a reply that was more of a muffled grunt. I chose to interpret it as a sound of approval. My next duty was to walk around the deck and make sure everything was ship-shape. I began capsizing a few coils, only to hear the captain’s voice from the quarterdeck. “Chris—hands in your pockets! Your job is to delegate. You can’t keep an eye on everything if you’re busy coiling lines!”
I sighed. I missed my old job as a deckhand where I could just manage my sail, stow my lines and retire below to read or chat with friends. There was no such thing as standing down for me any longer, and no reprieve from the constant vigilance. Now I had four sails to manage—over 7,000 square feet of them—with two or three stations per sail. I had to watch over all the passengers now, not just the ones who were assigned to my station. Worst of all, I had to keep a look-out for eight other deckhands, a few of whom were beginning to stand out as accidents waiting to happen.
I finished my lap of the deck and collared the appropriate crew to tidy up their lines. In doing so, I was met with several annoyed expressions and one unruly complaint from a little blonde deckhand on the back-stays. “Mom! I hung it on the pin just like Tim told me to! I don’t wanna coil it again!”
“This is the mate telling you to recoil it, not your mom. You can’t argue with the mate—if you don’t like it, go talk to the captain.” Juliet pouted and went back to her station to tidy up lines.

Once we cleared Thatcher Pass, Tim told me to sheet-out to a beam reach and order the main and foresail crews to rig preventers—cables that inhibited the booms from swinging back on an accidental jibe. I called my crew and their passengers on deck to start rigging their preventers. I walked forward to supervise the process and noticed that the main preventer cable looked strange; the mainsail team had run it inboard of the jib sheet. “Hey Ron, I think you’ve led it wrong. It’s gonna conflict with the jib once you sheet out…I’m pretty sure.” I scratched my cheek as I studied the layout, and said, “Let’s redo it; I’m not happy.”
Ron glanced down at the preventer and shook his head. “Nah, this is the way it’s supposed to look. I’ve done it this way a hundred times.” He continued to lead his cable aft to connect it to the boom. I shook my head and stared at the mess of lines; now the jib sheet, main and fore preventers were laying one atop the other. My memories from my former position as the foredeck leader told me that things were askew. It doesn’t seem right somehow…Well, he’s been doing this a helluva lot longer than I have. I guess he knows better.
Tim called to ease out all sails for our new course and as the main boom stretched outboard, I heard the twang of my jib sheet springing tight. Dammit! I knew it!
“Chris! Get that preventer fixed—before that ferry crosses in front of us and we have to move out of his way—I do not want to jibe!” Tim yelled at me.
            I nodded my head and glared at Ron, who was too busy trying to free the preventer to bother with my silent reproach. Once their line had slacked, we struggled as a group to untangle the main cable. Tim shouted at me to quit doing the deckhand’s work and to supervise, but I pretended not to hear him—I could see that Ron and his passengers were unable to cope with it on their own. I leaned overboard to help disconnect the hasp, when suddenly a gust of wind grabbed the mainsail and back-winded it, sweeping the sail and all its hardware toward the opposite side of the ship. I instinctively ducked and at the same time heard Tim yell, “Everybody—out of the way!” The massive boom caught on the throttle of our inflatable tender that hung over the starboard rail. It wrenched the throttle mechanism off the console with a resounding smack! The tender jerked upwards, then fell back into the boat-falls.
            The thermal eased as quickly as it started, and the boom slowed its swing just enough that we were able to counteract a complete jibe. I looked back at Tim’s face and had no doubt as to what might be on his mind. He glowered as he spun the wheel around to keep our sails in their rightful positions. Oh balls. I’m gonna hear about this one. Deckhands ran to the rail and helped the mainsail crew secure the preventer correctly. I stood by and pretended to supervise, but inwardly I felt foolish and superfluous. At that moment, my husband appeared beside me. “Whoa! How’d all this happen?” He inquired.
            “Don’t even ask. I think I’m in big trouble.”
            “They shouldn’t have led their preventers like that… didn’t you stop them?”
            “Aren’t you supposed to be up on the foredeck?” My irritation started to get the better of me—I was jealous that my husband had the ability to just come and go during my crisis. I resented that he could identify the problem so quickly and furnish a solution so assuredly.
            “Alright, I’ll stay out of your way. I get the hint,” Jeff said and went back to the charthouse to read his magazine.

            Tim called Worley and Jeff back to the helm. “Get on the tender and see if you can repair that throttle before we anchor this afternoon. We’re going to need it to shuttle passengers to shore.” The guys went down to the engine room to find the appropriate tools. I leaned against the lifelines, hands finally in my pockets, and awaited the reprimand that I knew was forthcoming.
            Tim ignored me for the most part, and concentrated on keeping his sails full. Ron sat in the captain’s chair and avoided all eye contact. Eventually, Tim handed the wheel over to a crewmember and walked over to where I stood. “What went wrong?”
            “The boom jibed because we didn’t have the preventer hooked…” I started to explain.
            “No. I know all that—I could see it from the wheel. What did you do wrong?”
            I gulped. Oh, that. “Well, I didn’t trust my instincts and let a deckhand overrule my decision… I didn’t step back and delegate to the crew when I needed to and as a result, I didn’t catch what was happening with the boom.”
            “Yep, pretty much. You would have seen that we were about to clear the lee of Willow Island—and you probably would’ve held off on releasing the preventer until you knew whether or not we’d get a gust.”
            “I’m sorry Tim. I… I guess I’m just struggling with how to be the boss. I know I shouldn’t worry about how much everybody else knows and, well, start believing in what I know.” I looked down at the deck and fumbled with my words; at that point I didn’t feel like I knew much at all.
            “You got that right—you have to be the authority on the ship. I need to know that you’re watching all this stuff and that you can give orders that will be obeyed—otherwise stuff like this happens.” He nodded in the direction of the tender, where Jeff and Worley were crawling around trying to reattach the throttle.
            “Yeah, I know, but—these guys—like Ron… He’s ex-Navy and he’s been crew on here for years. I realize that I have to tell ’em what to do, but it’s hard to make ’em listen sometimes,” I said.
            Tim looked unsympathetic. “If you don’t believe in yourself, then why should any of them believe in you?” He gestured toward Ron, who was now snoozing in the chair. “Ron’s probably forgotten more about sailing than you and I’ve ever known—but the problem is, he doesn’t realize he’s forgotten it.”
            “I understand.”
            “Alright then, let’s tack and then we’ll drop in about thirty minutes or so. Get ready to slack preventers.” He turned back to the helm and then paused to add, “Hands in your pockets.”
            “Yes sir. I got it.”

            Later that evening, with the hook down and our passengers occupied in conversation and cherry cobbler on deck, I stole away to my little cabin. The mate’s stateroom had become my favorite place on the ship; a solitary confine where I could curl up in my bunk and lick my wounds from the day. And by this time, I’d develop some substantial wounds to care for—after the throttle debacle, we’d encountered another mishap as my crew launched the tender. I’d assigned several of the younger crewmembers to the boat-falls and instructed them to listen for my commands. Unfortunately, one of the old timers took matters into his own hands, calling for the bow to lower first. This resulted in a rather ungainly and rapid entrance into the water for our poor inflatable. I’d pondered briefly about which of us was having the worse day: our little tender or myself. Before Tim had the chance to start yelling, I went back to the helm to explain. “I know, I know…”
            “Get control of your crew,” Tim said.
            “I will—I swear. Mitch just jumped in without asking. I’ll come down on him next time.”
            “Yes, well, Mitch… having him as crew is like losing ten good men.” Tim grabbed his sweater and newspaper from the scuttle. “You either have command of your deckhands or you have… anarchy. It’s your choice.” With that he walked below.
            “Aye boss.” I said aloud to myself.

            A soft tap, tap at my cabin door shook me out of my contemplation. “Yeah?” I said.
            Jeff’s voice emanated from the other side of the door. “Hey, you up for a little company?”
            “I s’pose so.” I leaned over and unhooked the latch. “Just don’t mention anything about today’s events, please.” I thought to myself,  If Jeffery had been the first mate, there wouldn’t have been any arguments or insubordinate looks… nobody would have presumed to call orders out of turn. My ego felt trampled and my insecurities ganged up on me.
            “Can I get you anything—you hungry?” Jeff asked.
            “Nah, I’m good.”
            “Well, you don’t look good,” he piled several armloads of clothes onto the sole so that he could sit next to my bunk. “Are you in here feeling sorry for yourself?”
            “Perhaps. It’s been a sucky kind of day. I think Tim may have overestimated my ability to take charge.”
            “He told me you might be feeling that way,” Jeff replied. “He also said that you’re doing OK… all things considered.” Jeff repositioned himself on my tiny bench seat; my cabin was not built for a tall individual such as himself. “Wanna know what I think?”
“I guess.”
“I think that you’re just going to have to commit to this thing—make your decisions, right or wrong, and stick to them. You’re going to get blamed regardless, so rather than getting chewed out for somebody else’s mistakes, you might as well get chewed out for your own. Does that make any sense?”
“Yeah—yes, I reckon it does.” I moved to the edge of my bunk. “What you’re basically saying is that I just need to ‘cowboy up’ and grow a pair.”
I sighed, “Alrighty then, starting tomorrow I’m gonna own this whole mate’s job,” and then added with a smile, “There’s just one thing babe.”
“What’s that?”
“Sheet that jib in tighter when we come about—you’re killin’ the tacks.”
Jeff chuckled and got up to kiss my forehead. “You got it Madame Mate. You got it.”


                            ~ Chris

The author will be reading an excerpt from Prepare to Come About and signing copies at Seattle's Queen Anne Book Company on February 12th  @ 7PM. Please stop by and say hello.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Alaska Beckoned Me Once Again

By Jeff

With the beginning of the New Year I realize just how busy we’ve been for the last several months. I thought I would catch up and post about some of my activities from last fall.   

Tom, a friend of ours in Bellingham operates a prawn boat in Southeast Alaska and asked me if I wanted to crew for him.  Always willing to try new adventures I agreed and found myself on a flight to Wrangell in the last week of September.

Tom normally keeps his boat in Gustavus, near Juneau.  He'd already moved the boat to Wrangell to be ready for their district's prawn open. I spent a week prior to leaving lacing up new prawn pots to ship them up to the boat.  Upon arrival, it was a little more of the same, checking the older pots and effecting any repairs needed.  The other deckhand, Dan, bad been onboard for a few days already, going over the gear so we were in pretty good shape.
Weather the first day, and what I expected.
As a little background information, I’d been through parts of Southeast while working a run on tugboats, but had been left feeling somewhat underwhelmed.  Of course, that had more to do with the fact that I’d barely seen any land what with all the fog and mist.  I was left with kind of a meh opinion of Southeast so far.  Based on the weather when I arrived I didn’t think I would leave this time with a different opinion.

The weather we actually had most of the time!

 A day prior to the open, it was time to head south. Tom had previously done a little scouting and had a good idea of where he wanted to be. We also wanted to set a longline or two to get some baitfish to supplement to frozen whole fish and pellet we had onboard.  We left Wrangell in the evening and transited the narrows in the channel southbound by radar and GPS in the dark.  After clearing the south end of Wrangell Island we made our anchorage on the east side of Etolin Island, a run of about three hours.

The next morning, we were up to an absolutely beautiful sunrise and clear skies.  After a leisurely breakfast we fired things up to set our longline.  This consisted of a few rocks as anchors with baited hooks clipped on every few fathoms, then a line to our buoy.  It didn’t take too long to set and we went off to scout.  Whenever Tom saw a promising location on the depthsounder, he marked a waypoint on his GPS and by early afternoon we had or plan of attack for setting pots the next day.  When we returned to check our baitset, we found we’d done okay. I was frustrated that we had to send back any halibut we caught.  No one onboard had a recreational halibut permit and it was illegal for Tom to keep any halibut caught on a commercial longline baitset.  Tom was taking no chances, so back into the water they went.

Longline hooks baited and ready.
The thing that sold me on this adventure is that this fishery is completely civilized.  Regulations require that fishing gear can only be moved between 8 am and 5 pm.  This is one way that Fish and Game keeps this prawn fishery sustainable.  The other big regulation is the regular and frequent catch reports the boats are required to file.  This way the biologists keep tabs on the catch and know when to cut the open off.  It usually runs between twelve and seventeen days. 

5:30 am found us up eating breakfast and drinking coffee and the first day of the open.  After breakfast Tom took us out to where he wanted to start setting while Dan and I rigged the pots.  We put five pots on a length of floating crabline, one pot every twenty-five fathoms.  The buoy line consisted of twenty-five fathoms of floating line on the bottom and the same length of sinking line on top, attached to the buoy.  This rig kept the line floating off the bottom, reducing the chances of it snagging on rocks, and the sinking line at the buoy minimized the chances of fouling a prop.  The five pot rig is called a “suicide five” as they might hang up on a rock, have the buoy line break and leave the pots on the bottom.  The other possible rig is a ten pot string with buoy lines on both ends.
100 pots stacked on the workdeck.

At 0800 precisely, our first pot went in the water.  From that moment on, Dan and I worked furiously to build strings and Tom took us to the next setpoint.  I would assemble and bait the pots while Dan built the strings. When we neared a setpoint, Tom would call out to stream the buoy, which would then go over the side.  At the spot he wanted the pots he’d call “Set” and we would toss a pot over the side.  Each pot in a set went over after the line had uncoiled and stretched out.  Working quickly Dan and I stayed ahead of Tom ad 5 pm pound us with the last string of twenty in the water.  Tom was pleased to gotten al one hundred pots in the water.  With the job done, we retired to the anchorage to drink beer.
The fruit of our labors in the live tank.
And so ended the easy days.  After the first day, we would be processing prawns mornings and evenings as well as turning pots during the day.  The next morning we pulled out of the anchorage and at 8 am precisely, began pulling strings.  The first pot was LOADED with prawn and Tom was thrilled.  He picked out the biggest one he saw and returned it to the sea and we were all business after that.  Tom hauled the pots, Dan opened them and dumped the prawns into the live tank and I rebaited and stacked them.  As soon as the pots were ready, we reset the string since we’d found a good location.  Wash, rinse and repeat and that is how the day went.  By 5 pm we’d turned every string and managed to move a few that weren’t on good grounds.  
Then the processing began. Tom likes to head his prawns and process tails only.  He doesn’t like the after treatment chemicals that are used when handling whole prawns and feels the snapped tails yield a higher quality product.  More work for us, more money for the product.  We start by snapping the tails off the prawn, the heads went straight back into the sea.  The tails were then sorted by size and we packaged them into plastic tubs and waxed paper boxes depending upon the customer, and everything was loaded into the blast freezer for overnight freezing. 

The next morning we unloaded the packages from the blast freezer, dipped the boxed prawns into water to glaze them and loaded everything into the hold freezers. All this had to be complete before 8 am to we could start turning pots for the day.  Our first days catch was almost 300 pounds of tails--it was the second best day Tom had ever had in his fishing career.  Needless to say, he was pleased! The second day continued as the first, but as Dan and I had sorted out the deck rhythm we were able to spend more time heading prawns in between sets.  The harder and faster we worked, the sooner we could have a beer and get to sleep in the evening.

A variety of some of the really cool critters that crawled
 into our pots for a free meal.
The weather was amazing, clear and sunny one moment and raining twenty minutes later.  Keeping a weather eye out and changing layers to meet what was coming, kept us quite comfortable and happy. Tom’s biggest concern was that we needed more bait soon as we were turning sets faster than he thought we would.  The morning of the third day, we left the anchorage early so Tom could get to cell phone coverage and order more bait.  Things were shaping up to be a record-breaking season for us.

About twenty minutes out an ominous pounding banging sound built up from the engine.  We shut down to investigate, could find nothing obviously wrong and then fired up to return to the anchorage.

Feeling we were pushing our luck, Tom decided to return to Wrangell for a closer inspection.  A few of the other boats were heading back to unload catch, so we knew we could catch a tow if anything went seriously wrong.  Cruising at idle speed, pounding the engine the whole way we headed home. There were five sets along our route that we were able to pull as we went by, which just aggravated the situation.  We’d been averaging over two hundred pounds of processed tails a day, and these five sets had the biggest, prettiest prawns and the fullest pots we’d yet seen.  When we should have been pulling sets and moving them to this area, we were instead heading back to uncertainty.

Prawns, all headed and sorted by size.
Tom setting up on the next string of pots to pull.
Ten hours of pounding later, we pulled into Wrangell.  The local mechanic met us at the dock and quickly diagnosed that the crankshaft had snapped.   We had knocked the engine off it’s front mounts by the time we’d returned. However, we were felling quite lucky to have made it back. Our fishing season was over for the year.  We spent a day or two trying to lease a boat and work it out with Fish and Game but to no avail.  Five days into my first prawn open--a good one at that, I was headed back home.

Tom has since installed a new engine and is waiting for next year.  In the end, I had a great time and am ready to go back north again.  I’ve gained a new appreciation for Southeast Alaska.  The scenery, if a little wet is spectacular.  With a rifle, a toolbox and some hard work a person could build a pretty amazing life up there. I however, will just continue to visit.  I’m feeling a little to old to try that game now!

~ Jeff.