This was the day I had been waiting years for. Finally, I was a commercial fisherman. A Copper River fisherman, no less. And it was opening day of the Copper River Gill net fishery 2000. Gale warnings be damned.
I had just taken the plunge and bought in. At last, I was a permit holder for Area E, the Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta drift salmon fishery. I had a new (to me) boat, new (to me) net, old raingear (I had visions of starting off my new career as a skipper with new raingear) and a new $90,000 state loan. In a matter of a few months I had managed to: get a state loan, find a boat, find a permit, nets, get everything in working order, launch the boat, drum the net aboard, find my way to Egg Island without going dry, and get up and over the bar without too much demise. And now, the moment I had been dreaming about for years; making my first set as skipper of my very own fishing boat.
However. It didn’t quite go as I envisioned it. In my vision, I make this stellar set and am the envy of the fleet. I load up on glorious, famous Copper River Reds my first try and make $10,000 my first day. In reality, I found myself on my hands and knees, puking on my fish, my glorious fish, wondering what the hell I had just gotten myself into.
May 15, 2000, the first day of the season brought 30 knot winds, 8-10 foot seas with cold rain. Gale warnings were in the forecast and the weather was already snotty. My steering was on the fritz, but I could still limp around and try to fish.
The romantic notion of owing my own commercial fishing boat was taking a beating. And so was I. After eight years of crewing on boats I decided it was time to buy in and buy my own fishing boat and permit, the license needed to fish. I was 28 years old wanted to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I needed a true course in my life, opposed to the magnetic course of wandering of being a deckhand. Buying in seemed to make the most sense. No doubt, I had other options. I had two years of college under my belt but school wasn’t capturing my interests. Besides, in order to go back to school, I would have to do the unthinkable, move to a city where there was a school. My other option was to carry on my budding flying career by getting my commercial pilot’s license. Since I already had a private pilot’s license, the state of Alaska would loan me the money to continue on. But, that didn’t fully suit me either as I didn’t think I would like sitting still in a tiny cockpit all day long. So, with those two other possibilities eliminated, that left only one choice, to buy in.
I got all my duckys in a row and dove right in. I figured if I ended up flat on my face financially, then at least I was young enough to recover. That is, if I survived. Commercial fishing in Alaska has a fatality rate that is 36 times higher than the national average for other occupations. But, when you are 28 you think you’ll live forever. So who cares about national averages?
Besides, I was single, no kids and no one else I was responsible for, financially or otherwise. It was scary though, I had never had a loan before. Shoots, I had never even had debt before. But, here I was plunging head first into a $90,000 debt to the State of Alaska. To me, the loan was the scariest part. Until I got out there, that is.
So, there I was. I ran out the Egg island bar without too much mishap. The whole fleet ran east, I headed west. I was scared to death that I would crash into someone out there. The fishery opened at 7 AM and I made my first set in the Mousetrap. I could steer, more or less, well enough to make a set but as the day went on my steering problem got worse. Dale, a guy in my radio group offered to give me a few pints of steering fluid. I just had to come get it. I got as close to him as I dared in rough seas and defunct steering and he threw me the first quart of steering fluid. Of course, he missed and it went in the drink, but I got the second one. The steering fluid should done something but now my problem was I didn’t have a funnel. As it turned out, it didn’t do much for my steering system but my teak did look real good.
After about 8 hours of battling the weather, being seasick and lack of steering I decided I had just about enough fun for one day. Besides, the weather was already bad enough to make a tow impossible if my steering went completely out and it was picking up.
I limped into Egg island and headed for the tender. I shouted to the tendermen that my steering was going out and that I’d have to make a crash landing. I got close as I could without crashing into him and took her out of gear as they lassoed me in. I delivered my 64 fish, tucked my tail between my legs and limped back into town.
Turned out that the previous owner accidentally put the vent cap for the steering system on the outside helm, which is lower than the inside helm. So, not only was steering fluid leaking out but salt water was also getting in. I had to flush and bleed my whole steering system, which was quite a task. Funny though that one teeny tiny little hole on one teeny tiny little cap could cost so much time and money. Could have been worse though, I suppose. But, I got ‘er all fixed up and went back out and caught some fish the next opener.
And that was my first day as a commercial fisherman.