To Bee or Not to Bee
Forty miles off shore in the Gulf of Alaska, aboard the 46-foot commercial salmon troller Beverly B, skipper Woody hugged the 50-fathom line. I ran the gear. At night we drifted.
We were the only boat on the Outer Bank of the Fairweather Grounds.
In September, the wind can blow southeast up there. You betcha. But our VHF radio went out, so we never heard a forecast, or got out a Mayday.
It came in the afternoon – first the dark distant sky, next the wind singing in the rigging, then the driving rain and the building swell.
Too late we ran for Lituya Bay, and we soon lay helplessly broadside to towering waves. We tied an old parachute onto a line off the back, and for a while it held us stern-first into the swell, but then the line parted.
In rough weather, trollers use “stabilizers.” Forty-foot trolling poles extend out from both sides of the boat at, say, 50 degrees. The stabilizers – pizza-box-sized steel triangles – attach to the poles halfway out. The stabilizers hang horizontally on steel cable down into the water maybe six or eight feet. To roll, the boat has to fight the resistance of the stabilizers.
In the middle of the night, a stabilizer jumped out of the water and got tangled in the rigging. When Woody climbed unprotected onto the trolling pole to straighten things out, I thought, “If he falls in, I’ll never find him in the dark.”
Next the bilge alarm sounded. Seawater flooded the engine room. We’d sprung a leak somewhere. The engine wouldn’t start, so the mechanical bilge pump wouldn’t run. An electric bilge pump also failed, so I pumped out the Beverly B with a big steel bar inserted into the manual deck pump. Water gushed up out of the bilge up onto the deck, and I remember thinking, “Maybe everything will be OK.”
As I hung on and pumped, I tried to make a little joke about deck pumps and dating opportunities in Alaska. Woody stared back wild-eyed in disbelief under the deck lights in the pounding rain. “Ed, we’re sinking!” he screamed. Then he ran down to the engine room.
Between pumpings, I took refuge in the wheelhouse. Occasionally a wave broke onto the house, and it occurred to me in a real way that maybe death didn’t just happen to other people. I took a Loran reading and looked at the chart. The nearest landfall: mouth of the Alsek River. “What an odd and remote place for it all to end,” I mused.
Woody had agreed to pay a bonus for finishing the season. I prayed, “God, get me out of this, and I’ll quit. I promise.”
The second night the wind stopped. The sun rose bright on a dead-calm morning, as the Beverly B still wallowed on a big storm swell. We found the leak – a golf ball-sized hole on the bow at the waterline, where we’d apparently run up on a log.
Woody made a patch. He took a little piece of 1⁄4-inch plywood and started maybe 30 short nails in it. We couldn’t get to the leak from inside the boat, so he put on a wet suit, and I tied a rope to him. Then he jumped into the ocean.
You can’t drive nails under water, but every time the boat heaved out of the water on a swell like some bucking bronco, Woody pounded like mad. Then he’d drift away, and I’d pull him back to try again. And again and again.
As we motored back to Pelican, dolphins played off our bow. The Fairweather Range never looked so stunning. Woody said, “I guess we’ll make this our last trip.”
I never told him I’d already quit. What would be the point? Besides, I wanted that bonus.
Peach Valley beekeeper Ed Colby still dreams about the Fairweather Grounds. Ed’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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