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Hooked on the thrill and tedium of commercial fishing

  • Author: David James
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 1, 2014

Dead Reckoning

By Dave Atcheson, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., 224 pages, 2014, $24.95

Anyone considering commercial fishing in Alaska as a way of life would do well to turn off reality TV and pick up "Dead Reckoning" by Dave Atcheson of Sterling. In this short but enthralling memoir, Atcheson, a veteran of many summers plying the waters off the state's coast, offers readers a peek into the world of fishermen during three key seasons of his career.

The book offers a vivid picture of daily life onboard a fishing vessel, vacillating between hard labor and sheer tedium, as well as the inevitable personality conflicts that arise when people share close quarters. It all unfolds amid the stunning beauty along Alaska's coast -- along with the extended stretches of time off that make the lifestyle so addictive. It all culminates in a horrific account of an otherwise routine trip to Bristol Bay that unexpectedly turned into an extended disaster during which Atcheson nearly lost his life.

Over the first half of the book, Atcheson alternates between two story threads. In one, we follow his 1997 trip to Bristol Bay, an uneventful journey spent getting to know his thoroughly professional captain and highly competent fellow crewmen, a group that would prove well prepared for the fate that awaited them.

First Alaska job

The other story arc follows Atcheson to Alaska for his first summer in 1984, when he came north from New York state, a college student seeking adventure. Shortly after arriving in Seward, adventure found him through an acquaintance who was also looking for seasonal work.

The friend's name was Mark, and he was in his late 20s, with a questionable past and a wife 20 years his senior. Mark had been hired by a fishing boat skipper named Woody and he in turn recruited Atcheson to fill the final slot on the first run of the season.

Along with a third deckhand Acheson refers to simply as the Quiet Man, they headed to sea aboard the Lancer, where they would soon discover why Woody was hiring inexperienced helpers new in town.

Forever in a screaming rage, Woody was a slave driver who worked his crew incessantly, yelling at them constantly. He also showed little regard for the law, violating regulations more than once during the time Atcheson worked for him. But as Atcheson and Mark gained skills, Woody showed a softer side, prompting the two rookies to keep going back out with him the remainder of the summer.

Acheson was hooked on Alaska and was back to stay the following year. He spent a few summers on shore working in a cannery and developing a bad case of what he calls Seasonal Work Syndrome, a common affliction for many Alaskans.

The lure of going back to sea was a draw, however. As he explains, "there were basically two types of people who signed on to go commercial fishing": those incapable of doing anything else and those who just wouldn't do anything else. Fishing was in their blood. They had to be on the water.

Acheson was in the second category, and in 1990 he went back out, this time working at the Linville family's setnet site in Prince William Sound. The family would be his primary employer in the coming decade. Things didn't start off well, however, owing to Atcheson's fellow deckhand, an Australian named Jackie, who was even more unbearable than Woody and lacked the grizzled captain's good side.

Out of control

Atcheson's writing is akin to that of a skilled novelist, and he does a good job of exploring the personalities of the men he worked alongside, showing their strengths as well as their flaws. Despite his personal struggles with Woody and Jackie, he leaves readers feeling sympathetic for both. It's a case study in finding the good even in those he can barely tolerate, and it shows a maturity some memoirists never display.

The main tale here, though, is Atcheson's 1997 Bristol Bay journey, which came early in the season. Short on money, he accepted an offer to go on a herring run, which promised to be lucrative.

Woven between chapters on his earlier adventures is the story of his being hired and leaving Homer in early spring aboard the vessel Iliamna Bay. The trip westward went smoothly, with calm seas and a much more sedate crew than those who peopled Atcheson's previous expeditions, the biggest complaint being the endless roar of the ship's engine, which made conversation difficult.

Even upon arrival the crew seemed destined to have a successful trip as the Iliamna Bay and two partner boats headed to the edge of the bay to meet a huge school of herring. Things went bad with little warning, however, when a sudden tide rip rushed in on the boats, which were tied together by ropes and nets.

The speed at which things spun out of control is stunning, and Atcheson's account of the incident is a page-turner. Boats listed toward and into each other, nearly capsizing more than once. Amid the madness, Atcheson was suddenly entrapped in a flying net and was on his way overboard. Had he not grabbed the cabin and pulled with all his might, he would have been lost forever. It's a harrowing scene told firsthand, one that nascent fishermen would be well advised to heed before deciding if this is something they honestly want to do.

Atcheson swore he wouldn't go back out afterwards, but days later he was at it again. Crazy? Perhaps. But he had become one of those fishermen who just couldn't do anything else. Would-be sailors be warned.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.

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