Today I received firsthand confirmation that there is reason to worry about Mitch when he’s out fishing. Though he insists fishing isn’t dangerous—the last and only fishing injury that happened on his boat occurred 18 years ago, the first year Mitch captained a vessel—his words are cold comfort in light of the statistics that rank fishing as one of the most dangerous occupations. You need only to see a seiner set his net to understand why: Ropes, pulleys, winches, and cables combine to create a rocking minefield of deadly traps—at least this is how it looks to the untrained eye. And today, it was inexperience that put one of his crew in the hospital.
Our day started around 3:30 a.m. when, along with about 30 other captains, Mitch pulled the anchor, and eased the Wind Walker up and down the shoreline stalking salmon jumps. The fishermen were expecting largely to catch chum salmon, the third most lucrative out of the five types of salmon in these waters. (Though lucrative isn’t quite the right word, since fishermen make a fraction of what they did before farmed fish flooded the market and drove down prices.)
At 4 a.m., Mitch and his crew pulled on their rubber boots in preparation for the action due to start at 5. Waiting for the bell, the crew jumped up and down like swimmers before a race and suspiciously eyed the nearby boats. The hatchery official started the countdown over the radio. Fifteen minutes before the opening. Ten. Five. Two. One. Go! With that, all the skiffs were released from the sterns of their boats and, in unison, began to pull the nets into the water.
After leaving the net extended for about 20 minutes, Mitch called the skiff back in and leaped onto the deck. As the skiff looped around behind the Wind Walker, Petersburg Nick tossed a rope to California Nick to snap to the stern. This was California Nick’s first season fishing, and while some take to it right away, as my source in all things fishing tells me, California Nick never moved naturally on the boat. Although he had been through four other openings, this time, perhaps because he was rushing, he got twisted up in the skiff rope, and when the line came tight it smashed him against the rail and pitched him overboard.
I didn’t actually see California Nick go into the water; I had been looking off the other side of the boat. But when the other Nick yelled, “Man overboard!” I turned from my top-house perch to see California Nick floating, holding onto the rope, and grimacing in pain. His knee had gotten caught in the rope and bashed against the Wind Walker’s rail. He couldn’t pull himself back on board. I froze, but John, always cool as a cucumber, yanked Nick aboard and helped him to the port side of the boat to lie down. Mitch, without taking his eyes off the net, yelled at me to come to the deck.
I can relate to California Nick. I move clumsily on boats; I can’t climb the ladder from the galley to the top house without knocking my head on the hatch; and, ever since I heard a story about an experienced captain who lost his life when he got tangled in the net and was pulled through the power block (a motorized pulley that pulls the net back onboard), I avoid the deck at all costs during an opening. But when the captain yells at you to do something, seaworthy or not, you do it. With California Nick down, Mitch had to help John pile gear, and I had to run the power block.
In a calm and gentle tone, Mitch explained how to operate the block. The directions were simple enough: Turn the handle this way to start the pulley rolling, turn it that way to stop it. But with the possibility looming that someone else could get hurt, this time by my hand, it took all my concentration to keep the instructions in mind.
My time at the block was mercifully brief. For reasons I don’t understand, the net got tangled up, and at one point dipped below the surface to let a couple thousand pounds of fish escape. Mitch took over the block and told me to get over to the starboard side of the Wind Walker. After nearly two hours fighting with the net, Petersburg Nick, John, and Mitch finally managed to get the 35,000 pounds of fish aboard. By that time, most of them were long dead, crushed by the weight of the fish on top of them.
Mitch called a float plane to take California Nick to the hospital in Juneau. The guys got him out of his wet clothes and laid him out in a sleeping bag on the galley floor. His left leg had swelled and his right foot was cold and purple, but his spirits remained remarkably good. He wasn’t in terrible pain and had the presence of mind to refuse my offers of food and drink. If he had to have surgery, he didn’t want anything in his stomach to delay it. Two hours later, the plane arrived.
Just three years ago, people were lining up on the docks looking for jobs. Now, with the pay not as good, captains must actively recruit to find experienced crew members. I worry that having a green crew aboard will mean more accidents like Nick’s—accidents not due to gear failure but to inexperience—and that it will increase the chances that even sure-footed fishermen, like Mitch and John, might slip.