Crossing the Gulf - - 1968


The tide was exceptionally low that morning as I approached the "John R. Mannig".  There were the smells of dead fish, decaying seaweed, diesel oil, creosoted piling and freshly milled lumber and the ever present steamy odor of cooking seafood coming from the canneries that lined the waterfront.

The sounds were of forklifts buzzing here and there, seagulls screaming overhead, boat sides creaking against their moorings and the surf lapping at the slimy polluted shoreline.  A shoreline now hidden under piling supported buildings.  The wheel house was at eye level as I crossed the dock.  Throwing my gear aboard I jumped for the rail and pulled myself on deck.  Wendell, the skipper, didn't at all seem like the rough tough fish boat captain I would have imagined.  Captain Ahab was my closest association with anything like this.


As I shook his hand, he escorted me to my bunk below.  I was more than a bit nervous as I tried to act as calm as possible.  A whole new world was about to be thrown open to me.  Three other crewmen only nodded their heads in silence as we entered the galley.  What was I getting myself into?  Could I handle It?  I felt so young and inexperienced.


I drank two cups of coffee even though I hatted the stuff.  The engines were running and it was now apparent that they had been waiting for me.  The lines were thrown from the dock and we were leaving Juneau headed through the channel for the Gulf of Alaska en route to Kodiak Island.  There we would spend the fall months fishing for king crab.  With good weather we would arrive in three days.


The day was sunny, bright and warm.  However, as we approached the open sea it was obvious that our "blue bird days" were over.  The air was quiet with a heavy fog bank hanging just a few feet above the water.  The surface of the ocean was in such turmoil that a white misty spray continually drenched our decking.  Periodically a larger than usual breaker would completely engulf the boat.  All but the Captain and I were soon in their bunks resting for their turn at the wheel during our long journey.


The Captain and I stood side by side in the tiny wheelhouse gazing only forward as if hypnotized by the sea.  I know I asked a lot of questions but he didn't seem to mind.  I was trying to keep my mind off that strange feeling in my stomach.  I just couldn't get seasick my first time out!  Fortunately it didn't get any worse but the weather certainly did.  By tomorrow at mid-day we would be experiencing one of the worst storms ever remembered by any of the crew.


The few sea birds that followed us soon gave up their quest for tid-bits dropped overboard by the cook and returned to the security of the mainland.  It felt lonely out here.  Nothing but the continual surge of the sea smashing against the bow of our boat, the rattle of dishes in the galley and the creaking of the planking under us.  At this point, no one seems to pay any attention.


By morning the wooden dory lashed to the lower deck had been smashed to bits with only fragments left that washed from rail to rail as the boat rolled back and forth.  Cables vibrated, chains rattled, and Wendell did have a look of concern on his face not evident the previous day.  He talked less freely and the crew was up and about more now.  We passed a halibut schooner just before dark.


The sea was like mountains and when the two ships settled into their individual valleys, it was as if no other boat was on the ocean.  The crests of the waves were foamy white, their bases black, thick and threatening.  Even I could sense that our world out here was out of reason.


Our course was to the northwest and both the wind and the sea were coming from that direction.  The wind was, by this time, screaming through the rigging.  The bow plunged into every wave with a horrifying shudder that would surely rip us to pieces if we were to hit just one more wave.  No one was interested in eating and we had very little sleep.  We were barely holding our own and our forward direction had not only ceased but we were loosing ground according to our last calculation.


We could change course and run with the sea and storm back to Juneau or steer to the northeast for the lee of Montague Island.  The island would be a short but risky run.  The ship would be hit from the side with each of those mountainous swells as we paralleled their crests.   That is what we did for six awful hours.


Many times I wondered if the boat would ever right herself after falling off the top of one of those waves.  Anything not lashed securely was thrown from its place.  Why would anyone want to subject themselves to a life such as this?!


As if out of a dream, the real snow capped mountains appeared in front of us.  The fog was lifting, the sea began to settle itself and a coastline of Sitka spruce, as green as anything I had ever seen, lay before us.


We soon had our boat back in order and the anchor was dropped a hundred yards from the beach.  Blacktail deer could be seen feeding along the shoreline.  Sea otters were swimming about giving us the curious eye.  Sea lions and hair seals were off our stern and once again the continual chattering of seagulls overhead.


A good meal was soon on the table.  The conversation was matter-of-fact but had a certain cheerfulness about it.  The storm was never mentioned.  I began to wonder if it had ever existed.  The talk was of tomorrow and I was a part of it  --  the beginning of a new and exciting life.


Jim Fitzpatrick

Written about 1980