Outdoors/Adventure

When the wind roars and the sea rocks, babysitting boats becomes a fisherman’s focus

“The wind, she blow.”

And we were on the water.

Gusts to 60 mph, the marine forecast told us.

Our 32-foot live-aboard drifter rode easy at anchor in the shallow water of Kvichak Bay. Four setnet skiffs, all between 20 and 22 feet, sat on their anchors just to our inside. Over the next 36 hours, we would be monitoring them all.

Medium winds of 15-20 knots can be quite helpful. Wave action and currents will drive salmon toward the shore, and concentrated schools of fish are easier to catch.

Heavy winds that provoke a marine gale warning are the bane of all fishermen. Shallow water and shorelines can be extremely dangerous. Boats can be pushed ashore and swamp. Lines become cable-tight. Hands can be smashed between banging vessels and gear.

Catching fish was not an issue during this storm. The Bristol Bay sockeye run was just beginning to trickle in. Fishing was open in our district, but we had been lucky to capture just 10 fish the previous tide. We had a net in the water — mostly for dinner fish.

Dinner for us was minimal. The rolling of the boat required balancing a pan on the stove while bracing between the counter and the table in an attempt to remain upright. Coffee was managed with difficulty.

The tide was low at 9 p.m. Geoff, Dakota and I lay down, knowing sleep would be temporary. In these situations the captain gets little sleep. Anchor watch was mine.

High tide came and went without issue. I dozed for an hour. At 3:45 I woke to check the skiffs. Two had pulled anchor and slid. Neither had gone far, but with 8-foot waves and 40-knot winds, the anchors could slip into deeper water where their hold would not be so secure.

Geoff and Dakota scrambled from the bunk into rain gear. We untied our little skiff and ran to the wayward skiffs. One at a time we brought them back to secure anchor. The next six hours found us constantly watching lines and keeping the skiff from taking on water.

An occasional wave dipped the rail of our 32-foot boat as the wind built waves on an incoming tidal current. Wind blowing directly against the current — in this case, tidal — creates big waves in a hurry. Shallow water, such as that in Kvichak Bay, will have a shorter wave length because the solid bottom pushes the water up.

A line was fraying on the skiff. Replacing it required jumping into a violently jerking boat and staying on your feet. This task was accomplished in the necessary rush and soon all hands were back in the powerboat.

Our operation follows all of the important safety rules. There are U.S. Coast Guard rules, which can be important, and there are practical working requirements, which are imperative.

All rough-water actions should be accomplished with more than one person available, for safety’s sake. Fishermen must always wear a life jacket — it doesn’t matter how well you might be able to swim. Nets, lines, rough/cold water and banging boats will trump Olympic-class swimmers.

A sharp rope knife, readily available, is also a must. We always work in gloves. It’s better to lose the end of a glove rather than part of a finger.

Full rain gear, including a hat, will keep fish slime and water out of your hair.

The crew and I stayed warm and dry while the wind continued. The tide receded and the wave height decreased significantly. The wind stirred the water into a froth, but for the moment we could relax.

We waited through low-water slack. The wind was unabated, but as the tide turned, it suddenly died. The storm had passed.

Instantly our concentration returned to catching fish instead of babysitting our boats. We watched a nice king salmon hit the net, and the scramble into rain gear was on again. This time the rush was in anticipation rather than trepidation.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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