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61°North

Diary of a Deckhand

  • Author: Mia Alexson
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published June 4, 2017

(Illustration by Sherina Soukeut)

Growing up in Homer, Alaska, my life has always intertwined with fishing. When we weren't skiing, my dad taught me to mend nets and load needles. By fourth grade I was on the boat learning the tricks to stacking gear, and soon after I was driving the skiff. All the skills I've acquired throughout my life have now made me the full crew member I am today at the age of 17. I have found a fine balance between being a daughter and a deckhand. Here is a glimpse of my life seining on the waters surrounding Kodiak Island on the F/V Renaissance.

3 a.m.

The lurch of the engine jolts me awake and slowly my body comes back to life. I slip on my baby blue Crocs. Three steps up out of the focsle, five across the galley and on goes the coffee pot. A necessity for us deckhands, however our captain is already wide awake by the smell of salmon soon to be caught.

3:30 a.m.

Scouting for any sign of the sleek salmon, Captain decides where the best set will be once the sun lends its aid.

4 a.m.

Slowly the sun shows its first glimmers against the deep blue, it's "go time" for us. Captain gives the signal to "cut her loose" prompting Jake to "snap the pancake" releasing Gus in the skiff with one end of our 250 fathom net. The boat goes east while the skiff goes west; the net sets quickly and without error.

4:25 a.m.

Hundreds of hours and repetition go into each set. My father obtains so many years of close concentration that I am almost positive he knows every rock on the seafloor surrounding Kodiak Island. He avoids the snags and snatches the jumpers, almost as if he were playing Minesweeper.

(Illustration by Sherina Soukeut)

4:30 a.m.

Sitting on the day bunk, coffee in hand, I soon see the skiff's bow facing toward us, creating a hook shape to hold our fish in the net yet still allow more to work their way down the corkline. This is our cue to get ready. Jake and I slowly pull up our stinky Grundens and cinch each other's hoods up tight. Only our wind-chapped faces are visible under the stiff orange bibs. I think I somewhat resemble an Oompaloompa from Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

4:35 a.m.

We all move in complete unison, for any mistake could result in injury. And now the net is being hurled over the block for Jake and me. I grab the corks up high with my right hand and throw them in large circles with my left. Always hoping to achieve the perfect "town stack" (a stack so good you could show it off at the cannery).

"Is that a jellyfish tentacle on my face? Or a strand of hair? Man, I really hope it's not a jelly."

"Wow! I could really go for a cheese stick right now."

Stacking becomes almost meditative, the same motion being done over and over until the bag of fish finally comes over the rail.

5 a.m.

The net is all in and we are headed to Alitak Beach to make our next set. I hang up my rubber gloves, coat and hat above the stove and pull my bibs down over my scaley boots.

(Illustration by Sherina Soukeut)

11 a.m.

We've made five sets so far this morning and it's only 11 a.m., I guess it's almost time for lunch!

Tomato soup and grilled cheese would be good, however the weather is picking up. Better stick to a non sloshy food like pasta.

2-6 p.m.

Sets. Sets. Sets. Sets. Sets.

6 p.m.

A pod of whales just moved in after we set our net. The tension is high since they have the capability to rip our net to shreds. We close and haul our gear as soon as possible, in hopes we can avoid a whale encounter.

9 p.m.

We keep getting pounded by a northern wind, making each set harder and more dangerous. Smaller boats are heading in for the shelter of Alitak Bay, but we have to get our net back and deliver before we can relax for the night.

(Illustration by Sherina Soukeut)

10 p.m.

Tied up to the tender to deliver our salmon. Gus, Jake and Katie are on the sorting table while my dad and I hop in the fish hold as it drains. My hip boots are a men's size 12 and they slip off with every slow step I take. We push fish into the tube until our legs are numb and our faces are covered in slime.

As my dad climbs on to grab our fish ticket I yell, "Don't forget the ice cream!"

11:30 p.m.

Gathered around the table our crew sits with spoons and a communal container of Rocky Road. "A job well done" we all agree, as we hit the bunks, knowing we'll be up to start the process all over again in a few short hours.

***

Life on the boat has taught me how to work with others and be quick both mentally and physically. These skills I plan to take with me throughout my life outside of Homer. However, I don't think I will ever be able to stop myself from fishing each summer. It has been hardwired in my mind to keep on coming back each year, just like the salmon do.

GLOSSARY

Seine net – A net with a weighted bottom edge and top that's held afloat by a corkline

Seiner – A boat that uses a seine net to catch fish

Focscle – The bow of the boat were crew members sleep

Galley – Kitchen

Making a set – The process of letting the seine net out completely in order to catch the salmon

Skiff – A smaller boat used to pull one end of the seine net out

Snap the pancake – A metal latch shaped like a pancake which connects the skiff to the seiner; in order to make a set this must be released.

Corkline – A line of buoys (floats) connected to the net to keep it afloat

Tender – A larger boat which transfers the fish caught by a seiner to a processor

Fish ticket – After delivering to a tender, a fish ticket containing the poundage of salmon delivered is given to the captain

This article was originally published in The Youth Issue of 61°North Magazine. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com with questions or comments.

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