A Wicked Winter Night
Editor’s Note: Captain Jack Molan has worked in the Bering Sea and other commercial fisheries for over 35 years and authored this guest post for us. His words and images can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/JackMolanPhotography/.
The Bering Harvester pounds through challenging waves. The gale blows sea spray across our decks that flash freezes, adding weight to the boat. Having delivered our last load of fish, we’re enduring the 200-mile return to our fishing area.
Boats can roll in icing conditions, but if I continue at reduced speed in the inky black night, the spray should be manageable. Squinting at the chart, my eyes burn from being awake for 24 hours. I plot a course skirting the peninsula separating the North Pacific and Bering Sea, keeping the trawler five miles from land.
The first watch arrives in the wheelhouse to relieve me: Johnny, our youngest crewman. His dark eyes look brighter after a few hours’ sleep. “If the wind picks up or the temp drops, wake me,” I say and go below deck to catch a nap. I fall asleep instantly and am startled awake when I hear, “Cap, you better take a look.” Fully dressed, I roll up and over the high-sided bunk to rush after Donny, the deck boss, up the short staircase, into the wheelhouse. The hair rises on the back of my neck. We have no visibility on the starboard side. High on the mast, our crab lights accentuate the ice crystals that obscure the windows. Stepping to the port side, I see less ice and purse my lips, forcing air out slowly. We’re in trouble.
Sea spray and plunging temperatures have added tons of ice to the starboard side, while fierce winds brace the heavy side, hiding the imbalance. Johnny hadn’t noticed, but Donny spotted the problem as soon as he came on watch. Without looking at Donny I say, “Get the guys up. We got work to do.” We’re in for an ice busting party. “Roger that, Cap.” Donny dives downstairs to shake the crew awake.
The boat is upright, but buoyancy is tenuous. The thick ice makes us top heavy.
If the wind against our heavy side changes, we’re sunk. “Everything’s okay as long as everything’s okay,” I recite several times. Sayings like this have kept me alive, and my next moves have to be right. The closer I can get us to shore, the milder the waves will be, reducing the spray, which will diminish the ice buildup.
The autopilot holds us on course. I dare take five steps from the console to brew a strong cup of java, breathing deep to remain calm. Setting the cup in its holder, I jump in the wheelhouse chair, pulling back the throttles to slow the boat. Wind noise thrums through the antennas above my head. Spires play different tones as gusts rise and fall.
I hope to spot another vessel within 50 miles using the automatic identification system (AIS). But the screen is blank. On the vast frigid ocean, our vessel is a lonely speck of light, a thin skin of steel on the tumultuous sea holding warmth and life.
Sipping my coffee, I peer through ice crusted windows, beyond the sodium floodlights, and see nothing but black water streaked with white spray. We wouldn’t survive five minutes out there.
Grabbing the ship phone, I press the button. “Guys, come up when you’re done getting coffee.”
I put my hand on the knob, ready to change course and force myself to wait, to think it through. My mind screams, Get closer to land. But I’m torn. “Turning toward land may roll us over,” I mumble. The bow pitches up. Spray covers us in more deadly ice. Then we drop, slamming against solid water. I squeeze the arms on my chair to keep my seat and hear a crewman curse in the galley. My heart races, and my hand tenses on the knob. “Easy, Jack,” I scold myself aloud, releasing my grip on the control. “Fear kills. Cool heads prevail.”
I have to finesse the boat toward shore. It’s our best shot at survival.
My weary crew climbs the stairs with one hand on the rail and one clutching a coffee cup. “Hey guys, how ya doing?” “Another day in paradise, huh, Captain?” The ship’s engineer, we call him Chief, smiles over the steam curling from his cup.
“Roger, Chief,” I say. “Everything good down below?” “Roger, Cap. All good.” Chief takes a swig of coffee.
“Okay boys, we’re heavy with ice on the starboard side. The wind’s been holding us up, so we’ve got to head toward land, and you’ll have to break out the anchor.” The guys nod slowly.
Downing the last of my cold coffee, I drop the cup in the holder. Dire situations like this bring on my laser focus, an otherworldly perception that guides me. I’m ready to make a move. “Let’s see how she likes a course change.”
I click in a ten-degree adjustment. The bow swings smartly to the right. The droning antennas change tune. Wind no longer blows directly on our side, and spray pelts the front windows. The boat dips slightly starboard. My stomach muscles tighten. “Needs to be more direct.” Checking the Radar and Plotter, I sigh. “Okay, let’s see if she’ll go another ten degrees.”
I dial the course change slowly, a few degrees at a time. Our lights reveal wind and spray on the forward quarter, and the vessel lists alarmingly to the right. My boat tells me, “That’s enough.” After years in the chair, I know her limits.
“Like a ball balanced on the nose of a seal,” I joke and light a small cigar, contemplating my options. Snapping the lighter shut—wham. A gust slams our port side. I’m thrown against the window, staring at the ocean a foot below the glass. It’s a surreal view as the boat rises and falls in the swells, laying on its side.
Ship alarms go off. Pinned between a window and the boat’s controls, I can’t reach the handles. Our forward motion pushes us under water. I grunt, forcing my torso to twist enough to pull the throttle to idle. The wind changes direction and stops the rolling, but we still lay on our side like a wounded animal.
Helpless to save the Bering Harvester or my crew, a dreamlike sensation engulfs me, and I beg God to keep the wind on our right side. Inch by excruciating inch, the boat lifts, fighting the waves to pull herself upward. With a survivor’s heart, she rights herself.
I feel the entire crew exhaling with me. Dropping in my chair, I grip the armrests, clinging to a familiar thing. “Everyone okay?” I call out.
Two guys are sprawled on the floor. “Yeah, all good, Cap,” says the Chief. “That sucked. I spilled my coffee. Sorry. I’ll shampoo the carpet later.” Unable to see his expression in the dim light, I can imagine his grin.
“Chief, go down to check the bilges, and make sure we’re watertight. And get started transferring fuel and water to the high side.” I look at the two men getting to their feet. “Guys, look below to see if anything busted loose.” I open the cabinet containing my survival suit. “A 123’ Marco has never rolled over, but let’s be on the safe side and get out our suits.” I nod to my crew. “Okay boys, we got this.”
Damn. I should have taken these precautions earlier. I inwardly curse at myself. We’re lucky a good boat saved herself despite my mistakes.
Transferring fuel and water gives us stability. Setting a course for land, the smell of bacon pervades the wheelhouse, and my stomach growls. A big breakfast will keep the crew going today. There’s a lot of work to be done before we can set our nets again.
The deadly conditions improve as we get closer to land. Although the boat is still relentlessly hammered by bitter wind, the spray has subsided, so the wicked ice accumulation has stopped. Surrounded by snow covered mountains, a crescent beach of black volcanic sand gives us protection. Sunrise paints the snowy peaks a pale pink.
Armed with ice mallets, we bundle up for a long day. Ice entombs the anchor requiring the crew to pound and hammer, freeing it of ice, to make the winch functional again. Heavy chain rattles over the bow roller as the anchor breaks through chunks of sea ice and bites into the sand bottom. We’re secure. Our boat is safe.
In howling winds, we swing our massive hammers. Whump. Whack. Thump. The ice reluctantly releases its grip on the rails and decks. Weary crewmen shovel heavy loads into the sea throughout the day, muscles trembling with fatigue.
Cod fish soup and bread, prepared by Johnny the Portuguese, is devoured by a dog-tired crew. Smiling wind-burned faces surround me in the galley. We’re all grateful to be alive.
“Good job today, boys.” I get up from the table, and the crew watches me, waiting for directions. “I’ll take anchor watch. Everyone get some sleep. This blow will moderate by morning, so we’ll fish tomorrow.”