Dangerous life and work on an Alaska fishing boat. Read Ice the Savior, a true story.
Add ice and you've got trouble.
November in and around Kodiak Island Alaska is, under normal conditions windy, wet and at times very cold and usually snowing sideways.
Wind velocities had been clocked at the United States Naval Air Station in November 1962 at 128 mph. Chill factors are off the scale and those that must go fishing to pay the bills are not spending a lot of time worrying about a chill factor.
As a matter of fact, I’m not too certain that back in 1962 anyone knew what a chill factor was.
I had never heard of it.
Skip got a job on this boat and talked me into joining the crew as they needed another hand. I was just another deck hand on an 80-foot, house forward, (the wheelhouse was on the front end of the boat) wooden shrimp fishing boat named “Hekla”. It was not a well-maintained vessel as far as the mechanical functions were concerned. The living area was tolerable and reasonably clean. The “Hekla” was owned and captained by a 64-year-old hard-ass Icelander that had no fear of the sea, cold, rain, wind, ice, King Neptune, Davey Jones, or the Norse God, “Odin”. Our crew consisted of Captain (He insisted on being called Captain) Magnus Magnusson, Johnny Martin, (the Captain’s young friend from Bellingham, Washington) Skip Greene and me Jerry Tilley the last man aboard were Kodiak residents. Skip and I have been friends since our days working together in Wrangell, Alaska. We had worked together for about 5 years. When I moved to Kodiak in January 1960 Skip followed a year later.
Skip and I spent some time in the engine room and a thought crossed my mind that if anything required lubrication all we would have to do was start the main engines (2 older 671 Detroit diesels that leaked copious quantities of oil) and close the hatch for a few minutes and everything in the engine room would be lubricated. The floorboards and bulkheads were saturated with oil as well as everything else. We attempted to clean it to a point then decided it was hopeless in the allotted time. We gathered some cardboard boxes from the grocery store, cut them up to fit and cover the floorboard sections, so we wouldn’t track the oil and other miscellaneous residue up to the galley and through the rest of the boat. This course of action seemed to be a clever idea at the time. It even improved the looks of the engine room.
When it was time to go fishing we left our calm moorage in the boat harbor at Kodiak, Alaska, moved under a cannery’s ice chute and sprayed a 10-inch-deep layer of flake ice on the fish hold bottom then filled the square of the hatch to the top of the bin boards. The square of the hatch is the opening 6 feet square from the deck to the fish hold. We sealed the hatch with the hatch covers and then covered that with the waterproof canvas and secured the deck for travel.
Skip was the cook because he was the only one on board that could cook on the oil-fired range without burning the food and the galley to a crisp. The Captain always bought the groceries for the trip because he took part of the larder home to feed him and his 21-year-old school teacher wife and took the total cost out of the crew share. We were a little slow on the realization that we were paying for a lot more than we were eating. There was usually just enough food for the trip and no extras.
After the 4th or 5th meal of chicken regardless of how it was prepared we were ready for a change. The Captain would cook us one of his specialties which consisted of a fresh cod cleaned, and the flesh rolled up into little round balls. This was what he called Norskie Cod Balls. Properly cooked they were not too bad. Unfortunately, properly cooked cod balls were a rarity because the Captain would prepare them, put them on the stove and then go up in the wheelhouse and fall asleep. We would be working on deck sorting, washing and icing the shrimp into the fish hold and look up and see black smoke billowing like a volcano eruption from the galley door. Skip would go in and grab the pot and throw the round cinder blocks overboard. Then we would eat a chicken sandwich.
We left Kodiak harbor heading east out of the harbor then southwest to the fishing area through Sitkalidak Straits. It is about 80 miles to the Two Headed Island grounds where we fished. We arrived near the fishing area and anchored amongst the other shrimp boats in Jap Bay. The weather was about normal for the area and November. There was a big swell and some wind chop just enough for me to lose the last 3 meals consumed on flat ground. I always gorged myself when in town because I knew there was no chance of anything staying down once we started jumping the wave crest and diving to the bottom of the trough with crashing walls of green water inundating the entire vessel. There were times few that I recall when we had a smooth sailing to or from the fishing grounds. After all this was November in the Gulf of Alaska.
We usually fished for 3 days and then turned the pointy end of the boat towards Seward, Alaska where our market was located. This required a run a little south of and across the Barren Islands and the Gulf of Alaska into Resurrection Bay located on the mainland. Cook Inlet when in the ebb (tide going out) flows into the Gulf of Alaska, and it roars past the Barren Islands. When the wind is from the South or Western quadrant and Cook Inlet ebbs it’s 30-foot tides in 6 hours this area of the Gulf can be extremely treacherous with mountainous waves and foaming breakers.
We rolled out of our bunks a couple of hours before daylight, so we could eat breakfast, don the proper attire and get the gear ready to fish. The wind was causing the riggin’ to sing and snap with an occasional gust that would let us know this was not going to be a nice day to be sliding across the deck trying to lasso a net full of shrimp. Our captain paid no attention to our comments about the weather, the wind, the swells or any other lame excuse we could think of prior to hauling the anchor. The anchor came up unencumbered just like it was designed to do when the winch was engaged. We had hoped it would be hung up on a rock or buried in a crevice.
We mentioned the fact that none of the other boats had hauled anchor or left the protection of the secluded bay. The Captain had selective hearing and was blind to the numerous facts presented by the three of us.
We fished all day in nasty weather. The old “Hekla” managed to stay on top of most of the swells for the day and under some of them. The boat is rolling in the heavy swell and the captain is supposed to try and hold the boat into the swell while we are trying to haul the shrimp aboard. The shrimp bags known as the cod end of the net where the shrimp end up after the tow is completed came aboard swinging from the hauling rail all the way across the deck to the other rail and beyond. When that bag of shrimp comes aboard someone has to grab the puckering string to empty the contents, but you should do it, so the shrimp drop on the wood grated deck that served as our sorting table. This requires lucky timing. There are times when the bag’s puckering string is jerked and the bag sails out over the opposite rail and all the contents dump back into the sea. The puckering string is the line that is looped through the rings on the bottom of the bag and tied in a knot to keep it closed while being towed on the bottom.
We managed to catch about 20 ton from daylight to dark then we headed back in to anchor up for the night. Not one of the boats had left the bay. We worked most of the night sorting, washing and icing the shrimp from the last tow. The temperature was close to freezing and my fingers were numb, and my nose was raw from wiping away the drips with my icy gloves. At night when I am on deck sorting and washing the shrimp from the day’s catch all I think about is how good the sack is going to feel when I finally crawl into its inviting warmth. The wind was still howling when we hit the sack after midnight.
Another day arrives despite the need for more sleep and staying warm. Four hours just doesn’t quite do it. The wind has not abated as a matter of fact it has increased in velocity, and we are in a protected bay. Our morning whining and complaining about the conditions we were about to encounter had absolutely no effect on our Icelander Captain. Weather reports according to Captain Magnusson were never correct anyhow. He always said, “If you want weather reports start the mains and haul the anchor”. We did just that.
We fished another day with the same nasty conditions as the previous day returning to the protected waters of the bay where all the other boats remained at anchor. Not one of them ventured out into the turbulence Mother Nature had conjured.
The third and final day was one we always looked forward to because we could rest on the way to Seward. However, this day was no better and the wind had not reduced its velocity. The riggin’ was still screaming, and the temperature was dropping and our cries of forced labor and undue hardship in the face of Mother Nature’s wrath went unheeded. The Captain’s hearing had not improved. At breakfast, the Captain made the statement, “I can’t understand why these other boats don’t get out there and fish”. We knew the answer to that. None of them were born and raised on a boat in Iceland that fished the North Atlantic.
Up anchor and out to the grounds in big rolling sea and fierce winds. We managed to haul in another big catch for the day with extreme difficulty as the wind and swell had picked up considerably. We sorted and washed the shrimp then iced it in the hold. We always iced our shrimp heavy more so than the boats that had a market in Kodiak. They only had a five-hour run to unload. We had to travel across the Gulf of Alaska to Seward and depending on weather this trip could stretch out to 18 to 24 hours.
Daylight has left, and the darkness covers the violence of the sea. My wheel watch is first and all I want to do is hang my head over the rail and unload the last of my final intake of food. I look out through the portholes and all I see is white combers and green water crashing into and over the wheelhouse. I had to cut the throttles back to about three-quarter speed. Our portholes are the only reason there is no water in the wheelhouse. The glass is one half-inch thick and each porthole is only twelve inches in diameter. If we had regular wheelhouse windows, they would have been blasted out long ago. We have no floodlights, so I can’t see what’s coming. I just try to maintain the compass course.
The wind has increased considerably as if it wasn’t far too severe before. The seas are building, and the boat is climbing up the crest and as the crest breaks over the top we drop to the bottom with a shudder that feels like the boat is shaking off the water like a dog. Unfortunately, our course must change; otherwise we are broadside to the sea. This condition continues throughout my three-hour watch and now there is ice forming on the portholes. The temperature is dropping and as my watch ends I get Skip to come and relieve me. After each watch, it is necessary to check the engine room before we crawl into our bunk. I checked it out and all appears to be o.k.
I wedged myself into my bunk and tried to stay in it. My bunk is located fore and aft on the passage way from the galley to the wheelhouse. Sleep is out of the question. As the boat climbs a large swell my feet hit the bottom end of the bunk and then when we cascade from the top of the wave to the bottom my head hits the top end of the bunk. The Captain may be sleeping but I doubt it. Skip is on watch and hanging on to the wood steering wheel, Johnny is in the galley hanging on to the table. The marine radio is on and the U.S. Naval Air Station in Kodiak has just stated that the wind speed has reached 128 miles per hour. This is going to be a very long night.
The portholes in the wheelhouse are now frozen over with ice, and we just heard above the screaming wind and crashing seas something tore loose from the top of the wheelhouse. We don’t know if it is chunks of ice or part of the boat. The radar quit working, so we thought the radar antenna had departed company. The glass shield on the flying bridge is gone and has been replaced by accumulating ice. The radio antenna has broken off because we no longer have radio communications. Our wind gauge pegged out at the max and evidently went with the wind. It only went to a hundred miles per hour anyway. We looked out the back door leading from the galley and saw the ice attaching itself to the railing and the drag door stanchions. The rails have accumulated about a foot of ice so far.
Skip finished his watch and the captain took the wheel. Skip opened the hatch to the engine room to check it out. I had crawled out of my bunk and was hanging on when Skip hollered. He discovered that the sea was also on the inside of the boat rising rapidly and was sloshing up to the main engines. He and I jumped down into the cold seawater to see why the automatic bilge pump wasn’t working and why the bilge alarm hadn’t screeched out a warning. Our attempt at covering the floorboards with cardboard to keep the oil in the engine room and not all over the upper decks presented another problem. The water had dissolved the cardboard washing it off the deck plates into the bilge and the pumps sucked up the loose pieces and plugged the entire system. I dove down to the intake on the bilge pump to determine why we couldn’t get the pumps working and the water was rising fast. We had to keep it from reaching the main engine intakes. I couldn’t clear the pump intake.
By now the water is coming in fast, and we saw the reason after a quick search. The boat was so heavily laden with ice that the dry seams that were normally above the water line were now below the waterline and were leaking profusely. The severe pounding we were encountering had loosened the caulking in the seams, and they were no longer watertight. By now the water is sloshing to port and starboard, fore and aft and almost up to both main engine’s oil fill pipes. I climbed up out of there soaked with chilled seawater and hollered to Johnny to get us some buckets, right now. I grabbed a bucket and dropped it down through the 24-inch square hatch to Skip, he scooped up a bucket full and reached up over his head and I reached down and grabbed the bail of the bucket (handle) and hauled it up out of there with my right hand and handed it to Johnny. I was on my knees leaning down with one arm to grab the bucket I had to use the other arm to maintain balance, so I was lifting and reaching out with one arm to hand Johnny the bucket. We had two 5-gallon buckets and one 3-gallon bucket. A gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds and the average weight of each bucket was probably somewhere between 20 and 30 pounds depending on how much was left after Skip scooped it up and handed up to me. Johnny took a couple of steps and pitched it out the galley door, I handed another bucket to Skip and scooped up another and held it over his head and I would reach down and grab it and hand to Johnny who then pitched it out the door.
The freezing seawater was just about up to Skip’s knees I asked him if he wanted me to spell him off and his typical non-verbal response was zero, he just passed me another bucket and kept that up as fast as he could scoop them up and hand them to me, so the bucket brigade never slowed down. Johnny said, “hey Jerry the deck gratings are gone, and the ice is building around the wheelhouse”. The ice was about 3 feet thick all around the boat. We were sluggish to the extreme in the rolls and pitching. We couldn’t stop to chop ice because the water in the engine room was not going down fast enough. Skip was still in water now up over his knees and covered with spilled seawater. I couldn’t believe a man could stand in freezing water for that long without some type of relief. I asked him again if I could spell him off, and I received the same reply, zero. Another bucket slapped into my hand. This man is one tough guy or dead below his crotch. The oil-fired galley range was not working. Obviously, the wind blew the fire out. The ice was starting to creep in the galley doorway freezing the spilled water from our bucket brigade. This made it difficult to step out far enough to throw the bucket of water, but I let Johnny worry about that. It didn’t stop him. Johnny was the talkative one on board. He never shut up. We accused him of being vaccinated with a phonograph needle. However, he was reasonably quiet while dumping the buckets out the door. Maybe it was because of the howling wind that we didn’t hear him.
I was wondering what in the hell I was doing on this coffin of ice. Wondering was about all anyone could do at the time. There were no alternatives. I don’t think there were 12 words spoken in the 12 hours that we bucketed water out of the engine room. We didn’t stop for even a minute. Bucket down, bucket out.
We had about 65 tons of shrimp in the hold plus about ten tons of flake ice. That kept us low in the water. The ice that was forming all over the boat added more weight. If this boat had a wheelhouse above the foc’sle we most certainly would roll over. The top of the house was only about 5 feet above the aft deck and about 4 feet above the forward deck where the anchor winch was located. On top of the wheelhouse there was only an open flying bridge.
The ice was now solid from the bow stem to the top of the wheelhouse and along the rails. The ice outside the railings was so heavy large sections would break off as we hit the bottom of the trough. We would drop 30 to 40 ft off the crest and crash to the bottom as another swell would slowly lift us up for the next one to drop us. The tops of the foaming waves were blown flat from the wind.
We were being blown north close to the Barren Islands. The Cook Inlet ebb was causing massive swells that were without exaggeration 50 feet or more. Our 80 foot “Hekla” would climb a wave for what seemed like an eternity at a 45-degree angle and sometimes more than 45 degrees then finally reach the top to cascade down the other side with the stern high in the air. At times, we would drop over so fast the wheel would come out of the water and then down we would slide to the bottom of the trough. Then a swell would just break over us and the boat would drop and hit with a bone jarring crash. One of those sudden stops caused the battery racks to pull off the forward bulkhead and partially submerge under the seawater. They did remain in operation. A little luck was required here.
Skip was still passing the buckets without one single minute of variation in the procedure.
The Captain stayed on the wheel and never said one word. I guess everyone was deep in their own thoughts wondering if we were going to join the others before us beneath the surface of the sea in Davey Jones’ locker or stay on the surface. I was hoping my guardian angel worked overtime and was fearless.
We knew we had no radio or radar, so there was no way to call anyone. It wouldn’t have done us any good anyway. No planes were going to fly and no vessel of any description was crazy enough to put to sea in this weather. I suppose the adrenaline kept us going, that and the fact that we did not have a life raft. We did have what is referred to as a life vest. The life vests were probably purchased at some military surplus store. They looked like WWII vintage. I wouldn’t call them life preservers because all they could possibly be good for is maybe keep your body afloat long enough for someone to find the frozen remains. These were the kind you used to see in old war movies. They were filled with kapok which was something like balled up cotton. The later ones had cork filling that didn’t soak up water. Ours were kapok filled. In this freezing sea, we wouldn’t stay alive long enough to realize we were already dead.
Daylight finds us north of Marmot Island. Marmot Island is 40 miles north of Kodiak. In 12 hours we were blown off course and north of where we started by 100 miles. All we knew was we could see land out the galley door. The Captain had to come out there to see where we were. We had to holler to him on where to steer the boat to an acceptable anchorage as the wheelhouse windows were solid ice and not the kind you can see through. Our spirits lifted considerably. Captain Magnusson managed to maneuver the boat into a cove out of the giant seas and some protection from the wind. We couldn’t stop the bucket brigade yet, so we continued our bailing efforts. At precisely 12 hours of non-stop bailing with buckets we managed to get the water level down below the oil pans of the mains. We ventured out on deck to see what looked like an iceberg with a mast and 2 stanchions with drag doors tightly secured and covered with ice. The rest of the deck was clean, and the hatch covers were still in place. No water entered the hold. This was a real stroke of luck.
With daylight came some relief from the cold. At least we were not making ice. We were very happy to be alive. I was soaking wet and was not aware of the cold. Skip was soaking wet and should have been dead or frozen from the crotch down. He is a born Alaskan and he is tough. Skip is the most Stoic individual I have ever known and never has too much to say about anything. If someone tells a joke that makes you fall out of your chair in hysterics, Skip may smile and offer a grunt. Adrenalin kept us going. We were very aware that if we stopped bailing with the buckets the seawater would cover the engines and that would be a sad moment because then we wouldn’t be able to keep the bow into the sea and the lights would go out, and then we knew what was next. Cold and wet.
Our next move was to try and get the anchor down. We couldn’t even get to the anchor or forward around the wheelhouse as it was solid ice. The alternative was to get the drag doors broke loose and drop them to the bottom and hope they held us in place until we could get rid of some of the ice and survey the damage. After about an hour we managed to break the doors loose and drop them to the bottom. We waited for a while before patting ourselves on the back in case the doors wouldn’t hold us in place. The wind had died down but was still howling.
We determined that the reason we didn’t roll over and sink was the thickness of the ice outside the hull, the weight of the water in the engine room and the weight of the shrimp catch in the main hold. We maintained a even keel but realized when the boat rolled the ice on the outside of the railings and hull kept the boat from rolling the rails under. Ice floats and that’s a good thing. Lots of spray over the boat and some of our half-inch cables hanging from the riggin’ were 12-14 inches in diameter. The equipment on the top of the house was gone as well as the antennas and windscreen on the flying bridge.
We managed to get the stove working and the only thing left to eat was a packaged cake mix. We baked it and ate it right out of the pan. There was nothing else to eat. Our thrifty shopper Captain never bought more than a trip’s worth of groceries. If not for the 20 plus hours of no gain travel we would have been in Seward eating something besides chicken and cod balls. We still had to get across the Gulf to Seward to unload our shrimp. After an inspection of the hold, we were gratified to see the shrimp still well iced and no seepage through the hatch covers. The temperature kept the ice from melting in the hold as well as the top of the boat. We retrieved a couple of buckets of shrimp from the hold and boiled them on the stove. We had us a genuine old-fashioned shrimp feed. We even let the captain have some.
We started chopping ice but concluded the boat was steady in place and the wind had momentarily died down. We were exhausted. We hit the bunks for a few hours before we continued our attack on the remaining ice. The temperature had warmed to a point that caused the ice to drop off the railings and the hull. We charged forward to remove the ice from the front of the wheelhouse, the anchor and anchor winch.
We hauled our drag doors up and secured them to the stanchions. The mains were running, the pumps were cleared, the batteries were back in place, and the cardboard that we could gather up from the oil covered bilge was deposited to the sea, oil slick and all. Then we departed for Seward on the 6th day out of Kodiak harbor.
We had to get across the Barren Islands to Rocky Pass on the mainland while the weather and tide was more or less in our favor. We arrived about 12 hours later just before another screaming southwester hit the area. We had to drop anchor and wait it out because no one, not even our illustrious, fearless Captain Magnusson would tempt this pass in the dark. We were very fortunate the anchor held. We ate more shrimp smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. Daylight arrives right on time about 0930 hours. We went forward to haul the anchor. It didn’t want to leave just yet. It was hung up, and we were certain it wasn’t an unknown creature of the deep, a bottomless crevice or a big rock. We backed ‘er down and pulled around, forward, reverse, let out cable, haul in cable and finally after the Captain made the final call we chopped the cable off said a few kind words to our only anchor and chain then waved goodbye. Now we were at the mercy of the Gods as we had no anchor and a questionable bilge pumping system and a fearless Captain.
Day seven and back out into the nasty weather trying to get to Seward. We had no communications with anyone so if they were calling the “Hekla”, there was no answer. The boats that were still anchored in the bay from where we left were aware of our departure date. Unbeknownst to us, we were listed as lost at sea.
We finally arrived in Seward on the morning of the 8th day out of Kodiak. We pulled up to the dock and tied up. We still had some remnants left over from the storm and some ice hanging here and there. The dock crew was in shock when they saw us. They told us we were listed as lost at sea. We agreed with them, we were lost at sea, but we never thought about leaving the boat. As I said before, “What was the alternative?”
We hammered the blocks out of the hatch angle irons that kept the canvas cover in place, removed the hatch covers and dropped down into the hold to see if the shrimp were still a saleable product. Under normal conditions 5 days would be a maximum time that you would be able to keep shrimp providing it was properly iced. We were extremely lucky on this trip. The shrimp were still in good condition and was accepted by the cannery. The cold temperatures maintained the desired requirement for good product. It was as if we had a refrigerated hold.
As the dock crew proceeded to offload the shrimp, Skip, Johnny and I headed for the nearest restaurant to attempt filling the void in our stomachs. The Captain was probably calling his young wife in Kodiak to tell her we were delayed by inclement weather and to order more chicken. He was the only man aboard that had a wife. Skip, Johnny, and I didn’t even have a girlfriend.
The return trip to Kodiak after the offload was not much better. It was so cold in Seward the water in Resurrection Bay was smokin’. When the water temperature is warmer than the air fog rises, and it looks like the water is smoking. Kodiak is normally warmer than Seward so by the time we returned to Kodiak all the ice was gone.
People we met were shocked to see us as the local paper stated we were lost at sea.
Repairs were the order of the following week or so and when all was back in order and the larder was filled with chicken we made ready for the next trip.
Why did we return to the boat for the next trip?
Adventure, living on the edge, adrenaline rush, chicken diet, who knows? We do know now it certainly wasn’t the big bucks or the meals of those cod balls or the chicken epicurean delights. I reckon we obviously have no clue.
It is just something you accept when your living is made on the sea.
Jerry Tilley Sr.
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