Prison with a chance of drowning?

After nearly a decade with TJ I figured it was time to go for a trip with him on the Constellation. She is a 170′ Bering Sea fishing boat.
I was excited and anxious at the same time. Mostly I was concerned about getting seasick, while he was mostly concerned about getting me on the boat in one piece. Tate the mate was supposed to get back to the boat around the same time, and TJ was hoping he would fly up with me so he could be my chaperon. Really? I asked him. Well, he said, I know you can handle yourself, but… think of it as being in Colombia, only colder. It is the wild North! In any case, if you ever need a chaperon I can recommend Tate. He’s 6’7″ and looks a bit scary when he is tired or in a bad mood. Very handy around wild Northerners.

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Apparently it was either wearing sackcloth and ashes or having a chaperon. Which, thinking about it, I haven’t had since I was about 8 years old. However, I like Tate, so I was happy when he agreed to return to the boat with me and even invited me to his house a couple of days early. I was eager to escape the South Carolina heat.
We left Seattle for Anchorage on the 6.10 am flight on Tuesday, June 22. In Anchorage we had just a few minutes to catch our flight to Dutch Harbor. Luckily PenAir recently started flying bigger planes up there and not the little hoppers. Bigger as in 45 seats. Flying into Dutch was spectacular. Suddenly the plane makes a sharp turn in between two mountain ranges. We were almost on the ground when a gust hit us and we were bouncing up again. I thought to myself wow, what must it be like to fly in here in the winter?
The Constellation wasn’t expected until about 9 pm, so Tate and I went sightseeing. Despite the fact that he said it was going to take about 10 minutes we managed to kill a few hours. That was mostly because I got all excited to see eagles for the first time and he had to stop for every single one of them so I could take a picture.

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Finally we found ourselves at the dock, watching the boat come in.

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It was great to see TJ again after 2 months, but there’s always a lot of hustle and bustle in Dutch, so mostly I tried not to be in the way and make myself at home. We did a touch-and-go at the dock, then went to unload at the tramper.
The tramper sits there and has boats unload their fish to it until they are full. Those ships hold about 5000 tons. Once full they take their load either to Japan, China, Korea or Thailand.
We were done unloading in the morning, then pulled back to the dock to get fuel and run errands. The coolest part about the unloading are the eagles. They show up on the boat to pick pieces of fish out of the net, and there can be loads of them!

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The Constellation holds 50 000 gallons, so fueling up isn’t done in a heartbeat like on the sailboat. In the late afternoon we were all done and on our merry way to the fishing grounds.

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The weather had been gorgeous, sunny and warm, but out at sea I didn’t get so lucky. For about two days it blew sustained 30 knots with gusts up to 48 knots. The seas ran about 10′. Good enough to make me sick. However, I had sworn to myself that I wasn’t going to embarrass myself in front of a bunch of tough guys, and I’m happy to report I didn’t. Initially I used one of those behind the ear patches, but I got sick anyways, so I took some Dramamine. I was pretty groggy due to that, and TJ tried to send me to bed a few times, but I didn’t want to wake up Tate. The captain and the mate share a room, and Tate was sleeping at the time. When finally I could barely keep upright in the chair I caved and snuck into the room. Tate didn’t wake up and didn’t acknowledge my presence until it was time for him to get up and he accidentally sat on me.

On that note, the human interaction on the Constellation was nothing like I envisioned. If you have ever watched Deadliest Catch it seems like those guys are rough, they are very harsh with each other, there’s always lots of screaming and no kindness whatsoever. I encountered none of that. The tone was always polite and I even discovered that these guys have a soft side!

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I asked TJ if those bath sponges belonged to the observers and he laughed and said no, those belong to the crew. I’m not even getting into the discussions about lotion and exfoliating…

I had some trouble adjusting to my spectator role (even though on the official crew list TJ labeled me ‘photo journalist’). I would point out to him that there was traffic, or gear in the water. He would smile and point at the 18 monitors he was sitting behind. (Note: after being on this boat I would even more strongly recommend having an AIS that receives AND transmits – most boats are transmitting up there and the ones who don’t are basically a hazard to navigation!). I gave up on that after two days or so.

Finally it went flat calm out. The Bering Sea was like a lake. I didn’t think it was capable of that, but I enjoyed it. I made it a sport to trick the seagulls into holding still just long enough for me to take pictures.

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This one seemed almost embarrassed!

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We fished for two days, then Jerzy, the chief engineer, discovered that there was a problem with one of the main engines. He couldn’t find the problem, so TJ turned the boat around and back to Dutch we went. Luckily the CAT mechanic came down right away and got the problem under control and finally fixed while the crew did a partial offload. It turned out to be an electrical problem between the control computer and one cylinder.
We spent about a half day in Dutch. Again the weather was beautiful. It was foggy when we came in that morning. Visibility was reduced to about 200′, and watching TJ maneuver that huge 170′ boat in basically no visibility on one engine was impressive. When the fog finally started to clear it was spectacular. I spent some time wandering around and taking pictures.

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While we waited for the mechanic to finish up we saw a sailboat pull in. That’s a rare sight up there, so TJ and I decided to go and say hello. It was an Italian boat which had just arrived from Japan. We invited them over so they could use the Constellation’s internet to check their email. Since we are sailors we can appreciate how nice it is to get back to land and be able to have access to modern technology. TJ gave them a brief tour of the boat and they were duly impressed and uuuh’ed and aah’ed a lot. One of the guys was Japanese and he excused himself, saying he had to make an urgent phone call. Apparently Japan is trying to put together a team for the America’s Cup and he was supposed to be on it. Way cool!

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We left again in the late afternoon. The weather was kind to me this time, and I started feeling a bit more comfortable around the boat and the crew. According to my inside sources guys aren’t as relaxed and behave differently when there are girls around (especially the captain’s wife). I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I mostly stuck to myself with a few exceptions. Joe the factory foreman flew up to Dutch with us, and he is super easy going and really nice so I had one friend already. Carl the cook was nice enough to make sure I always had something paleo to eat and was happy enough to chat, which was always fun. He did, however, put out such a spread that I secretly suspect he tried to make me gain 5 pounds.

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I managed to win over Jerzy when I told him that Poland was playing in the Euro 2016 (and sadly lost to Portugal). I had my final breakthrough with the guys on the last day, but more about that later.
It was very interesting to see the actual fishing. I hear about it at home, of course, and yes, I have watched Deadliest Catch, but in reality it is always different. From the outside it looked like long, monotonous days, broken up about every 4 hours when the net was hauled. But since I know my dear husband so well I could watch the wheels turn heavily in his head in the in between time. As the days went by and I asked millions of questions I started getting a better idea of what went on, why it was better to catch one species than the other, why some species should be avoided as much as possible etc. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

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Unfortunately we had three guys leave the boat when we went in with the engine problem. That meant we were really short on crew, and it was too short notice for the office to fly anyone in. That meant a longer trip, which I didn’t mind because I liked being on the boat a lot, but on the other hand we were itching to get Rocket Science out of South Carolina. The Atlantic hurricane season had started fairly active, and it’s not a good feeling to have your boat sit in a rather unprotected spot all by itself when you are planning to sail about 3000 miles this summer.
However, I wasn’t stressing about it. For the simple reason that stressing is pointless. I was just hoping we could use up some karma points and things would stay calm in the Atlantic.

This trip lasted 9 days. We got back to Dutch on July 6th. Robbie the other captain was there to welcome us. There was a lot of talking and people coming and going, so I decided to have my lunch down in the galley. I got myself a plate and sat down t a table by myself. One by one the guys trickled in, doing the same. Somehow they all seemed to not want to sit by me. I mean, I understand in a way. I’m kind of scary, I wouldn’t want to meet myself in a dark alley! Finally Zedrick decided to not be shy like the rest of them. He sat by me and yelled at the rest of them: “Hey, guys, are you afraid to sit by Jenny or what? I’m gonna sit here and talk to her!” Embarrassed they all brought their plates over and hopefully found out that I’m not so bad after all.
Here are some pictures of the offload.

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After Robbie and TJ did the handover we went to the Grand Aleutian hotel. I was VERY excited about sleeping in a real bed after spending two weeks sleeping on an air mattress on the floor in TJ’s room. To be fair, he offered to let me sleep in his bunk, but since he had to be fit and alert to work I declined. I did take him up on the offer only twice, because my neck and back were so bad I was hardly sleeping at all. But being back in a real bed was priceless!
I was sad leaving the boat. I truly started to believe I was born the wrong gender and should have been a fisherman. Maybe in my next life. I definitely didn’t agree with the ‘prison with a chance of drowning’ sentiment.
I would do this again in a heartbeat, after all this sailing in civilized places this felt like a real adventure again!

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4 thoughts on “Prison with a chance of drowning?

  1. Dennis

    Great photo-journalist!!! We too have heard of TJ’s exploits but this was good to get your take on his hard work, thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Allie Rathan

    I loved your pictures, J! Amazing to hear what it’s like on a deep sea fishing boats. My brief imaginings of it fell very short! – Allie, on my last night aboard St. Vivien…back to dependable AC!

    Reply

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