Yesterday afternoon, we unloaded fish at the tender, which is a processing boat that serves the outfit Mitch fishes for. Commercial fishermen don’t head to sea unless they have a market—a contract for the season—with a processing company to buy their catch. One reason the Petersburg fleet has dramatically fewer boats these days is that many markets have not been renewed. And several markets now place strict limits on how many pounds of fish a captain can deliver. If the quota is too low, it doesn’t pay to go out to sea. It’s a lean time for fishermen, even though the water’s rich with fish.
Around 6 last night, after the tender pumped the salmon out of Wind Walker’s refrigerated tank, we set off for Petersburg, our mood lightened with the good news that California Nick was fine. He’ll be out for the season with a broken foot, but, thankfully, his bashed knee was only bruised. John and Petersburg Nick stumbled to their bunks exhausted, so Mitch gave me a tutorial on steering the boat before falling into his bunk behind me.
Thanks to modern technology, navigating open waterways is fairly easy. A software program loads navigational charts onto the computer screen, and the global positioning system figures the boat’s exact location, which shows up as a little boat icon on the screen. Mitch charted our course by using the mouse to draw a line on the screen for me to follow, and set the autopilot in the right direction. All I had to do was occasionally shift the boat’s position to the left or right by pushing the appropriate button.
I drove until early this morning, and those six hours killed all the romantic notions I had about traveling through the night. I was so tired that I could hardly keep my eyes open, even with the threat of hitting the beach to jolt me awake. Several times on my watch, I’m quite sure, I dozed off, but I stupidly didn’t want to wake Mitch. I knew that when we got back to Petersburg, he and the others would have to take the net off the boat to make room on the deck for his crab pots, put on the crab block (a motorized pulley that yanks the pots off the bottom and brings them up to the boat), and then travel out again another 10 hours to retrieve the pots, about 175 of them, that had been soaking for two weeks, since the salmon season began. Thank God Mitch’s captain instinct kicked in. We were still about four hours away from town, but when my head jerked backward and stayed there, he insisted on relieving me.
We were in and out of Petersburg in just two hours, which meant we reached the first of the pots about 11. Crabbing lacks the drama of seining. The boat inches toward a pot; Petersburg Nick leans over the boat’s rail and grabs the buoy with a long stick. Then he threads the buoy line through the crab block that pulls the pot up to the boat. Nick and John sort out the keepers—male crabs six and half inches across the back—and toss the females and immature crabs back in the water. This continues, pot after pot. It’s mundane work, and the bait reeks.
Going to work with anybody, no matter how exciting and fascinating their occupation, eventually turns to drudgery for the observer. On this trip, I saw areas of the Inside Passage that few landlubbers ever do. But oh how time drags when you’re hauling pots! This morning I was as bored as I was tired. I lay in Mitch’s bunk and let out dramatic sighs to remind him I was still there. When Mitch enthusiastically pointed out a bear on the beach, I reluctantly roused myself to peek out the window. A bear, great, but what I really wanted was to get off this boat!
I blamed my sullenness on two things. One, with California Nick out, I slipped into the position of low man. I cooked and cleaned, an easy job compared with Mitch’s and the crew’s, but when your man is also the supreme boss, communication can get tricky. We muddled through. What made me moodier, though, was yet another change in plans. Mitch and I both planned (why, I don’t know) that my last day would be fishing-free, but the Fish and Game Department unexpectedly announced a two-day opening for the day I was to head home. This meant that as soon as we get back to Petersburg, our day of relaxation would morph into a day in which Mitch, distracted by a multitude of errands, the most important being finding someone to replace California Nick, would have to ready the Wind Walker to go out again.
I’m always a weepy mess when I say goodbye to Mitch, so I know this period of boat weariness will pass. After a week of being back in my windowless office, I’ll wish I was back aboard, pleasantly bored and listening to the guys playfully ribbing each other after hours of hauling pots.