Long Lining for King Crab on the Aleutian Spray (part 4)

[This is part four of five]

The powerful lights on the mast were called "crab lights."  I can remember the crab lights illuminating a wall of rain one stormy night when I was on watch.  I felt like the boat was in an empty cage with a boiling floor.  When it wasn't raining the wall was of black emptiness instead. Often seagulls and albatrosses would wheel through the pool of light all through my watch.

Gull and Aleutian Island
Semisopochnoi, courtesy of Buzz Hoffman

Watch was one of the most interesting parts of the trip, despite the exhaustion.  We would often work 20 hours in a day on deck and then spend one of the remaining hours on watch.  To make sure that the person on watch was actually on watch there was a dead man switch, a giant red button located across the cabin from the seat.  If you didn't press it every 10 minutes a blaring alarm would sound.  Needless to say you wouldn't want to interrupt the three hours of slumber the other crew members were enjoying.  The chair I would sit on was a swivel chair.  In strong seas, staying in the chair was a major challenge, another factor that kept me from falling asleep on watch.

Sitting in the cabin during my watch I would entertain myself watching the Loran (a precursor  to GPS that might still be in use).  I would ponder the foreign languages that I heard on the marine radio.  I could chart our location on a map lying on the table at the back of the pilot house and track our progress along the different Aleutian islands.  Semi Sopochnoy (or semisopochnoi, pictured above) was one of my favoriate names along the way.  The name translates from Russian as something like Island of the Seven Knolls.

I had every confidence in the quality and safety of the Aleutian spray.  But the boat was not for racing.  We were able to make 7 knots of headway.  When we fought the wind or current it could be a lot less.  Once night on watch I followed the display of the Loran computer as it showed the rate of our forward progress.  That night it often fell to -3.  That is to say that with the engine working at full speed the currant was pushing as back at a rate of three nautical miles per hour.  We went 700 miles out to Attu, the tip of the Aleutian Islands, and back at that speed.

The most beautiful natural sight on the trip was probably the Atka volcano.  As we passed it there was a perfect little puff of smoke coming out of the perfectly oval crater.  The volcano itself is a crisp cone and the snow line makes a neat line.  The hole thing looked like it was drawn by a cartoonist.

The deck hands often referred to me as the "greenhorn."  For example, the cook once laughed: "It looks like our greenhorn is a little green behind the gills."  On that occasion I was being advised not to go out and hang over the rail to puke.  It seems that this is a common way that new deck hands are lost at sea — more than just the contents of their stomachs goes overboard.

All the other deck hands rotated through the different roles on deck.  One person worked at the rail hooking the pot as it was pulled to the surface by a gigantic hydraulic winch, he would then help to control the pot as it came up over the rail.  That person and the person operating the hydraulics and sometimes the person handling bate as well would unload the crab from the pot.  The males went into the hold.  The females went back into the sea.  Another person pushed pots around on deck to make room and keep things organized. The remaining deck hand stood in a bin where the slack line collected and coiled the rope up in little spooled piles. Toward the end of the cruise, the deck hands had a competition to see who could coil the line the best.  The mechanic  won without argument.  He did look like he was concentrating pretty hard on his job, but when we were done bringing the pots on deck and I had a chance to look in the bin I was blown away.  The spools looked like they had been made by a machine.

I had two opportunities to go down into the hold with the crab.  One day when we had almost made it back to harbor and the sun was shining we pumped out the water that the crab were submerged in and opened the big hatch.  I rode the crane into the hold and balanced on some slats of wood that crossed the hold like a fence to keep the cargo from sloshing around in bad weather.  We went through every crab in the hold making sure that they were all male.  Each female we accidentally brought back could be something like a $10,000 fine.

When we unloaded the cargo for the cannery I went down in the hold again.  This time I was loading the crane which lifted the crab off the boat.  At one point early on I was standing directly on the crab.  It was a little spooky, but not at all like being in a pit with 15,000 4 pound spiders as I would have imagined it would be.  The crab were all pretty lethargic and I guess that made the difference.

[This is part four of five]

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