Man overboard in the Bering Sea
Mike Jackson founded Grundéns USA in 1991 with his brother, David. They remain driven by a passion for the sea and a deep respect for the men and women who risk their lives pulling a lifestyle and livelihood out of an all too unforgiving ocean. Like many young men in the 70’s and 80’s, Mike went to Alaska to test himself and make a living. Lessons learned from those years at sea, grinding out a living on the deck of a commercial fishing boat is the very backbone of the Grundéns brand today. What follows here is a two-part story about his adventures aboard the Alaskan King Crabber, F/V Kevleen K.
While these stories are Mike’s true adventures, they are also a major part of the fabric that binds and guides Grundéns today.
Part One: On the boat one second and gone the next
It was a normal November night aboard the 98 foot Kevleen K on the Bering Sea . The wind was blowing 45-50 knots and seas were running 25-30 feet with steep, breaking crests and frequent snow squalls that reduced visibility to a few yards. Depths on the Bering Sea plateau typically run from 250 to 300 feet, but the fall and winter storms that rage in the 10,000 feet deep waters off Russia to the Southwest produce giant deep ocean waves that tighten up and get closer together as they roll onto the shallow plateau of the Bering Sea where they become treacherous.
We were fishing for King Crab and had been at sea for twelve days, averaging three hours sleep each day. This night began like many others as the dull timeless gray of day gradually gave way to the eerie blackness of night. The darkness was so complete that our universe shrank to the deck of the 98 feet crab boat and the small circle of boiling sea illuminated by our sodium lights.
Day and night, the work went on unchanged. The crab pots weighed 700 lbs empty and could easily weigh three times that with a decent catch inside. They came aboard ceaselessly. Every six or seven minutes another knocked on the steel hull announcing its arrival and demanding instant attention from the four men working the back deck. Hydraulics screamed as they dragged the pot in 60 seconds from a depth of 250 feet aboard the waiting boat and slammed it into the launcher. The steel dogs latched into the pot to hold it securely to the launcher, allowing it to be safely emptied and re-baited by one of the crewmembers who climbs inside the pot as it sits securely in the launcher. Fatigue and monotony dulled the senses as familiarity with the repetitive tasks lulled everyone working on deck into a false sense of mind-numbing security.
I had just rotated into my turn at the rail to throw the hook and pull the first of the large buoys, called the trailer, to the rail of the boat. In the heavy seas, the deck was frequently awash with sea water. The skipper had run up on this particular pot very close and the second buoy, called the diver, was just below me as I leaned over the rail. I did not have to throw the hook for this one. I just had to give a flick of the wrist and a quick tug and I had hooked the line and pulled it into my waiting gloved left hand. I dropped the hook into its place and freed up my right hand to start pulling all the slack line aboard and get the trailer buoy out of the water and onto the deck. I finally got to the trailer buoy and threw it and all the slack line across the 28-foot wide deck behind me to clear it out from under my feet. I then grabbed the thick and stiff 5/8th-inch polyline in each hand and formed a big loop to drop into the block.
Regrettably the hydraulic control valve that was no bigger than my index finger and located just below the rail had not been locked in its secure position by the guy operating the block before me and as I dropped the line into the sheaves of the power-block a kink in the line hit the control valve and put the block into full reverse. My left hand got pinned between the block and the line and was run through the block as it screamed in reverse and spit line out at an amazing 8 feet per second. The block spit out my left hand and left me stretched out as far as possible while still keeping my toes on the deck. Attached to the other end of the reversing line was a 32 inch round buoy also moving at 8 feet per second and it hit me square in the ass. There was no time to react or even comprehend what had just happened. Those on deck who saw it happen said I was on the boat one second and gone the next.
The reaction was frantic and uncoordinated as the three guys left on deck struggled to process what had just happened. Precious seconds were slipping by yet it felt to me as if time stood still. In the confusion, no one alerted the skipper that there was a man overboard! As soon as I was able to get to the surface I turned toward the boat and desperately reached for an outstretched hand that wasn’t there. The wheelhouse forward designed Marco crabber and the pots stacked on deck prevented the crew from moving and initiating a rescue. One of the guys managed to get to the orange life-ring resting in its holder and tossed it to me but it was caught by the 50-knot wind and skipped away into the darkness like a blowing leaf on black undulating pavement. In desperation, I swam to the pitching giant ship but found no handhold as my gloved hand futilely clawed the smooth steel hull. The heavily laden crabber was surging violently in the 30-foot seas and as the starboard side rolled into the water it created a pressure wave that pushed me away from the glistening steel hull. As she rolled to port it then created a suction that pulled me toward the corner of the starboard side and provided a full view of the 60-inch propeller and barn door steel rudder but all I could do was paw with my gloved hand at the smooth painted steel.
The adrenaline that shot through my system as I entered the water quickly gave way to numbing cold. The limbs frantically working to keep me afloat were becoming heavy and without control as the cold drained my strength. The clothing intended to protect me from the elements while on deck had become a deadly weight gently tugging and pulling me beneath the waves. By now, seconds had passed to minutes. My desperation was giving way to a chilling sense of calm. The boat that was once so close was now beyond my grasp. There was nothing I could do and I could not imagine I would still be there if they had to turn around and come back for me. I was pretty sure I was screwed and as much as I did not want to go out this way, I was unable to find any alternative.
At this moment, the skipper looked at the deck completely unaware of the drama playing out on the starboard side of his boat. He thought all was normal and enough time had passed that he could proceed to the next set of buoys and start the process all over again. His jaw dropped, his eyes went wide and his face turned white when he realized what had happened. He immediately slammed the big crabber into reverse, hoping suction from the huge propeller would not pull me to a certain and brutal death. I had a close-up of the big prop as it suddenly started churning and digging into the cold hearted Bering Sea. One hundred fifty tons of steel, fuel, equipment, supplies and men, in full throttle reverse, is a view that few ever see from below.
The skipper’s instincts and my only option were keenly aligned and although extremely risky his instincts were correct. The big crabber began to move backward. Once she got some momentum, I quickly slid along the side of the boat headed back to the place I had started from. The skipper then put the big diesel engine in neutral and slid down the wheelhouse steps with locked arms and his feet never touching a step. He raced to the small space at the rail between the davit and the pot launcher, the same spot I had launched off the boat. Just as I was sliding by he threw the stainless steel hook just beyond me and as he pulled the line taught, the hook caught me under the right shoulder and I had just enough strength left to keep the hook pinned under my arm.
Luck and the captain’s quick thinking had gotten me back aboard that night. I was spilled on deck like a half-dead fish able to do little more than flop. The crew helped me out of my waterlogged raingear and tossed me into a hot shower fully clothed. They headed back out on deck to continue hauling. I quickly recovered from the cold, pushed back the rising fear, got into dry clothes, suited up and went back on deck. The job still had to be done.
Thirty minutes later it was business as usual. We were fishing again with a full crew on deck, only now we talked about an overboard emergency. It could happen to us and being overboard in the icy Bering Sea did not have to mean certain death! We discussed at length over the next meal the events that led to my being pitched into the sea and what could be done to accelerate recovery of a man overboard.
We defined the tasks that must be done. First the captain must be alerted immediately, second, one of the crew must try and maintain visual contact with the victim, third, one crew member must get into a survival suit and be ready to enter the water to support the victim.
The personal result of this experience was that I now wore at all times the personal flotation device my wife had bought for me before the season started. This same device was under my bunk when I was launched overboard.
Part Two: Coming home
Two weeks later, aboard the same boat with the same crew on a night no different than before, another crew member was peeled off the boat and into the raging sea. This time we were stacking the pots on deck. We had to build haystacks of the pots one row at a time due to the heavy weather.
I went to the top of the haystack with two chain binders and the 60-foot length of 3/8” steel chain. I carefully threaded the chain through the top of the stack and then down to the man hanging on below me who was ready to receive it and hook it around the rail he was standing on. The man whose task it is to hook up the chain on the side of the boat was in a very dangerous position. His feet were on the rail, his body cantilevered over the water. With one hand he grasped a vertical piece of rusty 1-inch steel rod on the crab pot closest to him as he carefully balanced his feet on the 6-inch diameter round painted steel rail. The other gloved hand fumbled in an effort to quickly grab the hook on the end of the chain and lead it under the rail he was standing on, back up to hook the chain back onto itself.
It was in these circumstances that John made a near fatal mistake. A mistake brought on by fatigue and mind numbing familiarity with the task. John had placed his arm holding the crab pot in a position where the shifting pots would pinch and possibly shatter his arm. As the boat rolled and the pots shifted, his arm became pinned between two 700 pound pots that held him in place.
The roll of the boat finally caused the shifting pots to release him. I was on top of the stack and heard the shouts from John. I looked down and the sight that met my eyes made time stand still. John was in the water 20 feet below me. The boat now traveling at 1-2 knots with seas dead astern was pulling away leaving him soon to be engulfed in total darkness.
In this situation, where seconds could make the difference, I was the only help that could get to him in time and provide the lifesaving buoyancy necessary to combat the debilitating cold that was already impacting him. John was not wearing any flotation and I was certain he had been injured by the sliding, slamming pots. The cries for help ripped from his lips by the 50 knot winds were only heard by me.
John’s brother Toby was running the hydraulics and sheltered from the worst of the wind. He looked at me on the top of the stack but was unable to hear my shouts that his brother was overboard. I stood and jumped off the stack focused on the only visible part of the man who was being left behind. His head seemed so small surrounded by the huge seas mingling with the wake of the slow moving lumbering crabber.
The icy plunge took me well below the surface but I was quickly propelled upward by the flotation I was wearing under my Grundéns jacket. I was able to swim to John through the towering seas as the big crabber slipped away leaving us in a mercilessly cold, dark and angry sea. We were together now bobbing as best we could in 30 foot breaking seas, able to glimpse the boat only after the wave broke over us and we sputtered to breathe a combination of sea foam and precious air on the backside of the passing wave. After a brief hopeful glimpse, we were again cast into the trough of the monstrous seas and lost site of the ship. After another wave, we were once again on the crest and saw the big crabber starting to make her turn. She seemed to be going faster now, and I glimpsed frantic figures silhouetted against the powerful lights.
As the seconds ticked by I was increasingly aware of the growing weakness of my arms and legs. Again, we were lifted to the chilling vista. Our eyes were greeted by the sight of the big crabber charging headlong into the breaking seas at full speed. One of the silhouetted figures was pointing in our direction. Again, our field of vision was replaced by a towering, breaking wave and the cold, complete darkness as we slid into another trough. The view of the boat had given us hope. Now, if they could just get to us in time.
The boat had probably traveled 400 yards from us before she made her turn. The skipper behind the wheel had nothing but determination etched on his face as he tried to get a hopeful glimpse of us that would let him know we were still on the surface and fighting for our lives. His hand was gripping the throttle trying to coax every bit of speed from the big Caterpillar engine roaring in the engine room below.
The big crabber had gone from idling along in the relative easy motion of the seas dead astern to charging at full throttle headlong into the breaking seas. The green water of each wave crashed into the house and as she broke free of the wave the entire boat was engulfed in spray. One of the guys was on the bow hanging on for dear life. His role in the rapidly unfolding drama was to relay instructions to the skipper from another guy who had climbed up on top of the wheel house to try and to maintain visual contact every time John and I appeared. All of this happened while the crab pots on deck were slamming from side to side secured only by nylon ties and the clove hitches that held them loosely together.
Suddenly the trough we were in was bathed in bright light from the big sodium light array high in the mast. Quick to follow from the nearest wave top 30 feet above our heads appeared the charging boat. The awesome sight of the big crabber towering above us, balanced on the crest of that wave, made my heart stop. Certainly as she fell off the wave and into the trough where we so helplessly waited, she would come down and brutally smash us.
At that moment, she did not look at all like the savior we so earnestly hoped for. Spray glistened against the blood red bottom paint, giving her the appearance of a great frothing beast. The barnacles along her bottom were like hundreds of razor-sharp teeth poised and waiting. John and I were completely helpless and could do nothing but watch our impending doom unfold.
Fortunately, the man behind the wheel knew exactly what he was doing. The boat crashed into the trough just ten feet beside us. The big diesel roared and belched black smoke as she backed down and came to a stop. Our rescuers were only a few yards away and worked together, determination etched in their faces. A grappling hook arched over our heads, the line fell cleanly between John and I. We both grabbed hold and within a few minutes we were safely back aboard the boat.
Tragedy had been averted due to the quick thinking and coordinated efforts of those aboard the boat. A coordinated approach with little room for error that only weeks before we did not possess. Talking about it in detail and making a plan over meals at the galley table had given us the edge. The edge we needed to survive a man overboard event that is all too often fatal for those in the water.
Three weeks later we were home, the season was over, and the Kevleen K safely tied to a dock in Ballard, WA for routine maintenance. Boats were lost that season, men had died and others had suffered injuries that would stay with them the rest of their lives. But we had returned home with the same crew we left with.
Special Note: The men and women who work at sea, risking their lives to put food on their table and yours are a special breed. Every time they throw the lines that tie them to the safety and security of the land, there is one overriding emotion that fills them with drive and purpose, “Coming Home” to those they love, care about, and provide for.