Letter from Crabbing

Dear Mike,

Yes, I’m surviving. Thanks for your phone call. We’re running off shore. It’s my watch. The crew is collapsed at the galley table, raingear around their ankles. Nothing out here but the occasional stray crab pot and Sooty Shearwaters: I’m writing to stay awake.

I keep expecting to see your raingear clad figure out of the corner of my eye, yellow coat green pants. It’s strange when we don’t crew together, I find myself impatient when I need words to communicate. I’m becoming like those old, mumbling Gig Harbor Slavs, pissed off that everyone is so young and no one understands me. Although most words are useless on deck because they’re devoured by the constant noise of a hissing crab block, a barking deck speaker and the slamming of pots against the dump box. When I hit a certain level of exhaustion, the air controls sound like someone sneezing and I find myself saying “bless you” to the reduction gear. This crew started as strangers but we’re already using our eyes to communicate.

You asked how crabbing is different from seining. Imagine a seine season, times ten, in the space of a week. Remember “Fishing Fatigue Syndrome?” I think we coined the term after our second season together, around week 10. It was the morning Jim serenaded us with gunfire until his hung over crew finally crawled out of their bunks. In response, I threw all the plates over board on the trip into Craig. I was delighted with the way corning wear skips off the stern wake. The saving grace of the Syndrome is that everyone suffers from it and none of you mentioned, or perhaps you didn’t notice, that the rest of our meals were served in bowls.

On a crabber, Fishing Fatigue Syndrome sets in on the second day. We have one guy on board who is convinced his clothes are being stolen. Every time he gets up from a nap the accusations fly that someone took his sweatpants. He’s five inches taller than everyone else and wears and XXL. I’m not sure where we would have gone with them 15 miles offshore, but logic is suspended. With the buoy three minutes away he’s running around in boxers, a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth accompanied by a steady flow of obscenities that finish with the promise that one of us will die. We ignore him.

In truth, his paranoia is probably triggered by the fact that our clothes dryer charges its own service fee: it eats blue poly glove liners, socks, stinky t-shirts, and apparently sweatpants. You never know if you’ll get out what you put in. All domestic life revolves around the clothes dryer. Meals compete with sleep time, but nothing competes with a warm hooded sweatshirt. In fact, most disputes and anxieties revolve around getting clothes in and out of the dryer. When we’re coming down on gear it’s a mob scene of bare-chested men smoking and arguing. I’m thinking the crab boat “dryer cam” would be a popular site on the internet.
Yesterday, or two yesterdays ago (you know how time works out here) one guy decided to end accusations that he was wearing other guys clothes. He found a red sharpie marker and labeled all his belongings with a giant red X. Last time I served dinner, four of them sat at the galley table wearing pink T-shirts on with faded red Xs. None of them mentioned it, or perhaps they were too exhausted to notice. I took the wheel so Cap could eat. He returned to the wheelhouse asking why the crew was dressed in pink t-shirts.

Despite the details, most of what we do is standard fishing boat protocol. Our first night in town we got drunk. The local guys went home which left the two king crabbers and I. I liked Joe and Preston immediately. Last time I did this Dungie gig it felt like no one joked around and took life in rubber pants a little too seriously. These guys have seen enough to know the difference between discomfort and danger. They’ve learned that laughing at discomfort is the only way to survive. When the weather went south the circle of eye contact between us was constant: I knew they were both professional and trustworthy.

On the beach, I consider them reckless and indecent but I remember such judgment passed on my own behavior and it was easy to find myself sitting on a bed in their hotel room drinking cheap, thin beer. The ocean had knocked us around enough to skip the formalities and I was critiquing their shaving techniques and telling them which jeans to wear. Then, of course, we discussed the outlook for the season and everything irritating about the job.

They find Cap’s constant nagging tiring, he acts as if they’ve never crabbed before. Joe says king crabbing would make Cap cry. “My buddy was cut in half on deck. We had to put him in the freezer and finish the trip. Everyday I climbed over him to get bait out.” What Joe said sucked the oxygen out of the room. I managed to ask how it made him feel and there was a long pause. Preston was quiet and looked away. As the pause continued I regretted my question, fearing I’d get some canned answer about “that’s the way it is on a crab boat.” When Joe looked at me it was the first time I noticed how blue his eyes are. Not steel blue like mine, but a light blue, like those fluffy sleepers you stuff infants into. Finally he said: “It fucked me up for a long time.” And there was another pause. I realized what we had done; we’d released the lid on the glass jar, the jar of understanding fishermen share. We’ve all placed things in the jar the outside world can’t understand. I remembered the humpback whale we cut out of a net, how its skin felt like spongy sandpaper, the way it sunk when we finally got it free. I understood sitting on that bed in the hotel we have to do this, gather and open the jar, before it gets too full and shatters. In that second pause, Joe and I both sensed the difficulty of tightening the lid back down. He held up his left hand with its two half fingers: “Weather, I slipped, fell into the block. I could have bled to death but they transported me to a Russian Hospital Ship. No one spoke English.”

Yesterday Cap put Joe on the block. He looked natural lunging for buoys, the stick flying out behind him as he hustled the line into place. But he was surrounded in an air of seriousness and caught me watching. He held up his hand which appears complete in a glove: “first time I’ve run the block since they got cut off, fours years.” Then he made the motion of shaking it off and flashed me a smile before turning to the next buoy. But it was only the motion of shaking it off; he was shaking it away to somewhere more manageable.

I felt myself looking down at us on deck and I saw all the decks I’ve worked on. I could see all the near misses of cables snapping, hardware flying, pots sliding, a winch exploding off a boom and my glove sucked into the purse line. I could hear your hand pinched between the boat and piling in Craig. I could see us at Noyes Island striking a compromise: you could have the bottle of whiskey if you kept ice on your foot. The act of remembering has removed me from reality enough to give these scenes a romantic haze they don’t deserve.

One of the guys asked when I’m going to settle down and start a family. He told me I’d be a good mom. This is based on the fact that I feed him and treat all the minor injuries on board. He’s 21, has a two-year-old at home, this is his first job as a deckhand and he hasn’t joined the circle of eye contact on deck. I thought about what skiff driver John once said to me: “If you weren’t a little screwed up you wouldn’t be out here would you? We all are, that’s what we have in common, we don’t fit in there” and he pointed to North America.

I realized this 21-year-old doesn’t see our family yet, or recognize that the ocean is our neighborhood. Explaining this seemed too big to tackle while standing in the galley mixing juice and instead I asked him about his plans. He wants to own his a roofing company and hopes crabbing money will help get it started. When he looks most miserable on deck I lean close to him and say: “Roofing, no bait required, no asshole screaming on a deck speaker, be your own boss. And then I look him in the eye “remember how you feel right now when you’re tempted to come back next season.”

I feel like a hypocrite saying this knowing how part of me suffocates when I don’t fish. But I feel compelled to shoo this guy away from all the near misses and direct hits. I hate to encourage him to join a family where we’re all a little screwed up. But in the next moment I think about being eastbound over the Columbia River Bar on a clear January day with a load of crab, Mt. Hood in the distance, Cape Disappointment almost within my touch, and the feeling of complete trust in my crewmates based on a second of eye contact. It really isn’t logical is it? Perhaps Fishing Fatigue Syndrome never goes away, but I know you have it too and won’t argue with me.

Love to you,

First published as “Letter from the Coast,” Alaska Fisherman’s Journal: Pilot House Guide May 2005.


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