Friday, January 27, 2012

Trailer Turned Submarine: Part I

The Cordova NAPA has a BBQ every year on Memorial Day weekend. There is a savings on things that fishermen need to have, like oil and fuel filters, oil, and tools.  I like to stock up for the season.     The whole town shows up but not so much for the sale as for the free hotdogs.  In a town where hotdogs are $9 bucks at the local lunch hit, free hotdogs are a treat.
It was my third or fourth season fishing my own boat and I was working on being more independent.  I guess fishing one of the most dangerous waters in Alaska alone at the age of 31 or 32 just wasn’t enough for me.  I wanted to be more independent.  Anyway the tide was falling and I, true to form, was running late.  I needed to pull my boat to fix something on the lower unit.  I didn’t own a truck and relied on Lenny to pull me out with his two-tone tan 1983 Ford F-350.  Feeling like a bother since high tide was so early in the morning, around 6 AM, I waited until the last possible moment to pull out.  And, wanting to be more independent, I hooked up the trailer myself, even though I had never done it before.  Plus, I was in a hurry.  This is always a recipe for disaster.  This morning was no different.
Lenny backed the truck up to my trailer and I latched locking mechanism above the ball hitch and my safety chain to the truck.  Lenny drove the truck and trailer to the ramp where my boat was already waiting as I ran down and jumped aboard.  At 7 AM on a Saturday morning, the harbor was still pretty quiet, no one around except for Gloria mending gear on the airplane float just behind the boat ramp. 
The tide was over half out and I was pushing the envelope by pulling my boat out, as I needed at least a 2.5 hold up tide to have enough water.  I climbed aboard, fired her up and untied.  I backed up a bit to line my bow up with the trailer while Lenny backed down the ramp until the back tires just touched the salt water but not enough to cover the rims. He locked the front hubs and put it in four-wheel drive in order to have more power to pull my 28 foot, 15,000 pound bowpicker.
I got the bow lined up and slid right in.  I gave her a little more power and scooted her up.  While leaving her in forward I grabbed a safety line from my front cleat, went around the tow post of the trailer and back to my other cleat, making a bridle.  This way, she can’t slide off the trail on the way up the ramp as some boats have done in the past.
I ran inside the cabin, cut the engine and raised the lower unit.  Since we were in a hurry, I just stayed aboard instead of jumping into the truck.
I went back to the bow and gave Lenny the signal that I was all ready to go.  He put the truck in low and started up the ramp.  I looked over the side of my rail as we went up and everything looked fine, the boat was straight and even on the trailer.  We got about half way up and I heard a bang and knew that wasn’t too good a sign.  It was followed by a loud clank, clank, clank, clank, clank.  I looked up to see that the locking mechanism of the trailer above the ball had come up and the trailer disconnected itself from the truck.  That was the first noise.  The clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, was the safety chain liberating itself from the tongue of the trailer but stayed attached to the truck.  The truck and the trailer were no longer joined.  In that split moment of sheer panic my eyes got wide as saucers.  “Holy shit!  What do I do?” I cried.  Lenny, who is always cool as a cucumber, casually and calmly said.  “Hold on.”  I grabbed the wheel.  She was only idle for a split moment then I was surprised how much speed my boat and trailer gained in that short distance of down the boat ramp.  It couldn’t have been more than 50 or 60 feet.  She was really flying fast, backwards, heading for the water completely out of control and there wasn’t a thing to be done about it, except to hold on.   The boat didn’t go straight back, I went back at a bit on a angle, my stern, with my $15,000 lower unit raised up, was heading straight for the dock.  The only thought I had time for was “This is going to cost me a lot of money”.  Then I hit the water and the force almost knocked me off my feet.  Luckily, I took Lenny’s advice and held on.  
The boat didn’t torpedo too much, since it was still attached to the trailer, which acted as a big sea anchor. It also acted as a big bumper and smacked the dock instead of my lower unit.  The whole episode only lasted about 15 seconds but to me, it seemed like an eternity.  Still a bit dazed I looked up to see who just witnessed my folly.  Gloria, barely glancing up from her work nonchalantly commented “At least the truck didn’t go in with it.  I’ve seen that happen before.”  Gloria, who used to spend all day everyday down on the docks for years has seen it all and clearly wasn’t impressed.   I, on the other hand, had to push my heart out of my throat and back where it belonged before I could even speak. 
It only took a second for the surprise to wear off then I assessed my situation.  I was standing on my boat, which was tied to a trailer, which was completely submerged in the harbor.  I wasn’t close enough to the dock to hop off, nor was the truck anywhere near being able to retrieve the trailer.  No matter, I had the perfect solution.  I would just drive the boat and trailer back to the dock and try again.  I lowed my lower unit, fired up the engine and put it in forward from my forward helm and the boat moved.  I figured I was genius for coming up with this plan so can imagine my surprise when I realized it wasn’t going to work.   I got the boat to move forward about five feet or so, but then it wouldn’t go any more.   So close, but so far.  I was still about three feet away from the dock and the trailer wasn’t anywhere near where we could grab it with the truck.
Huh.  Now what?
Lenny suggested that I untie the boat and go get Howard.   But, I didn’t want to.  I wanted this to work.  And where there is a will, there is a way, right?
I tried again.
Still didn’t work.
I tried again.
Again, it didn’t work.
Eventually, it slowly sunk in to my somewhat stubborn head that the plan would only work in theory, not in reality. 
I was afraid to just leave my trailer turned submarine  turned navigational hazard unattended and unmarked at the bottom of the boat ramp  “What if someone hits it?”  I questioned Lenny.  “No one else is going to try to pull their boat this stage of the tide. Just take your boat back to your slip.  Come on, I’ll give you a lift.  Lets go find Howard.” 
I ran my boat back to my slip recalculating todays plan in my head.  My plan was to pull my boat, get it to Cordova Outboard before they close for the weekend closes for the weekend and launch it that next morning.  Then I’d have Sunday to finished mending my torn net, get fuel and ice and head out to the fishing grounds that evening for Monday’s opener. 
You’d think after a few years of these set backs I’d get used to them. But no, they pissed me off every time.
I met Lenny at the top of the ramp and got in.  We drove down to the Cordova House, locally known as the CoHo, to look for Howard.

Turn in next week for rest of the story…..
I’m out. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cordova's "Snowpocalypse" 2012


Cordova Alaska, where I fish, is used to managing a lot of snow.  But this winter, they’ve received

around twenty feet in twenty-four days, give or take.  A bit more than the normal amount. 

Browning street in downtown Cordova
School was cancelled, the airport was snowed in, businesses shut down, residents were snowed in, the road was closed, roofs collapsed and avalanches were triggered.   This town is used to being self-sufficient and true to form, Cordovans pulled together to help each other out best they could.  A task force was created to manage and prioritize each crisis, such as digging down eight feet of snow to the top of someone’s heating fuel tank or digging someone out of their home.  But after a few days, even they had to call for help.  The mayor declared an emergency and the National Guard was called in.  They had to arrive by ferry since the airport was still buried in snow.  Granted, they arrived without shovels, a slight oversight, but that was quickly remedied and they helped dig the town out.  Shovels were a hot commodity, you see, the whole town was sold out.  More were ordered but with the airport shut down, there was no way to get them shipped in.  Meanwhile, it kept snowing.

Copper River Seafoods
(photo by L. O'Toole)


Copper River's net loft


Roofs caved in under the weight. One of those roofs was the Copper River Seafood's warehouse. Inside that warehouse were fisherman’s boats, nets and gear. The irony is that these fisherman took the extra step of putting their boats to bed for the winter inside a cozy dry warehouse, opposed to either leaving them in the water or storing them outside on a trailer.   And then the roof caved in.  At first, it was just the second floor that was damaged, but as it kept snowing, that floor eventually caved in on top of boats. From what I understand, what the snow didn’t destroy in that warehouse the heavy equipment used to clean up the snow did.

heavy equipment clearing the snow load
(L. O'Toole)

heavy equipment clearing the snow load
(L. O'Toole)

boats inside on the bottom floor
(L. O'toole)

When a disaster like this strikes, I can’t help but wonder how it will affect the economy of the town, which is primarily commercial fishing.  If fishermen lost their boats, will they be able to make a season out of it?

There are just so many variables in fishing, like state of your boat, your gear, currents, how much sleep you just got, or didn’t get.  And so many things outside our control that affect our fisheries such as earthquakes in Japan, fuel prices going through the roof, dentists in Fairbanks (anyone remember that?), and record snow falls.  All I know is we can only control what we do or don’t do.  So I guess we’ll all just keep on keeping on and hope for the best. 

I’m out.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Happy Friday the 13th!

This is a contradiction, isn’t it?  What’s so happy about a day that is cursed with bad luck?  Well, I beats me.  I was just trying to be optimistic.  

Vince doesn’t believe in bad luck and thinks these superstitions, like the ones I mentioned in last week’s blog, are hogwash.  Then Vince accidentally kicked his shower kit and broke a mirror; 7 years bad luck.  That same day, he broke his toe (possible the same one he kicked the mirror with).  How can he still claim that superstitions are hogwash?  I don’t know either.  

We are sailing down the east coast this winter, trying to get to the Bahamas.  Currently, we are stuck in Stuart, Florida.  It’s a nice enough town and all.  Folks are real friendly and helpful, the marina is very nice, but the water is cold and brackish and we want to go snorkeling.  We planned to come here for a week or two to get some work done on the boat then keep heading south.  That was a month ago.  And we still don’t know when we are going to be able to leave.  We just keep getting held up, we wait for parts, we fix one thing, another thing breaks, then the weather turns, etc.  You name it.   It looks like the wait is finally coming to an end and we should be able to leave here in the next day or so.  But, despite how badly I want to get going again, we can’t leave port on Friday.  I won’t do it.  Especially, Friday the 13th.  We can go as late as 11:59 on Thursday or as soon as 12:01 on Saturday.  But. Not. On. Friday.  Do you know what boat left of Friday and sunk?  Yup.  The Titanic. 

Which brings me back to why fishermen are so superstitious.  My theory is this.  Commercial fishing is unpredictable at best.  There’s no real denying that.  So, you are careful as can be, then just hope for the best.  And while a lot of being successful has to do with skill, a lot also had to do with dumb luck.  See, there it is again.

I mean, sometimes, your net is just in the right place at the right time.  And you load up, for no reason that you can reasonably take credit for. I over slept one morning, my ass dragging behind me.  I stumbled down to the docks, got aboard my boat and ran out to the fishing grounds, late.  The beach was crowed, as it usually is 10 minutes before an opener, so I kept running east to get on the other side of the fleet.  I stopped when no one else was to the east of me.  I thought, this is ridiculous, I’ll never catch anything out here.  But, the opener had started and if I’ve only learned one thing from fishing, it’s that if you net is not in the water, you don’t catch anything.  So I set my gear.  I had 300 my first set (which is a really good set!)  Dumb luck.  It doesn’t take skill to be lazy and over sleep. 

Which brings me to my other point.  There is just so much about fishing that is out of our control.  I mean, you get yourself a good boat, the best you can afford, take care of it, get yourself some nets, some fowl weather gear, a survival suit, and the rest is up to chance.  The weather is out of your control, so are tides, tsunamis, other boats, and the amount of fish you catch.  All these things can and have sunk boats.   Men have died on perfectly calm, blue bird days. 
Its only human nature to try to control something, anything, when we have no control over what happens to us.  So we don’t whistle on board or we’ll whistle up a storm.   

Good luck!

Friday, January 6, 2012


            The almost only safe assumption that one could make about fishermen is that they are all superstitious.  At least, I’ve never met one who wasn’t.  There is a slough of superstitions out there, almost as many as fishermen.  Some are more commonly known than and abided by than others.  The number one cardinal sin on a boat is to whistle, alas, one will whistle up a storm.  I almost got fired once from accidentally whistling.   I was clear out in Togiak, too and would have been screwed to find my own transportation home. 
Leaving the hatch covers upside down is another big one.  I’m not real sure what will happen but I just know I’ve never done it to find out.  Saying the word “horse” on a boat is bad luck in some circles.  I think this one came from back in the day of wooden boats that used to transport horses.  In bad weather horses scare, kick, and damage the boat.    You are supposed to replace the word “horse” with draft-animal as in “I have a 200 draft-animal power Volvo diesel engine…”
Of course, bananas are bad luck on a boat.  Everyone knows that.  This is because putting bananas next to other fruit makes them turn rotten faster.   Some folks tweak this one a little bit and say that bananas are only bad luck in the wheelhouse.  But what if you have a bowpicker and don’t have a wheelhouse?  I don’t know, but I wouldn’t chance it.
Another is not leaving the deck bucket right side up, it simulates the boat filling with water and sinking.  Coffee mugs need to all hang the same direction, though I don’t remember the direction or the reason for this one.  OMG!  I almost forgot a HUGE one; never ever leave port on Friday.  This is a biggie and I can’t believe it almost escaped me.  One other boat made this mistake and was never heard from again.  Want to know which one?  The Titanic.  Yup, left port on a Friday and look what happened to them. 
A lesser-known superstition is having someone of the opposite sex pee on your net for good luck.  I’m not going to really go into detail on this one.
Another superstition, one that came around to bite me in the ass once, a little bit, is throwing all your spare change overboard to appease the fish gods.   I only worked on one boat that abided to this one and have never heard of it since.  Makes me wonder about that skipper.
Anyhow, me wanting to be a good deckhand, I reached into my pocket as requested and sent my coins into the drink.  It was a donation to the herring gods, or so I was told, as we steamed west to seine Kodiak and Togiak. All was fine and dandy until the day I got smacked in the face with one of the metal rings on the bottom of the seine.  It gave me a big fat bloody lip and put 3 cracks in my front tooth.
The next day was a day off and our spotter pilot offered to fly me into Kodiak to have it looked at by a dentist since we were about to head out further towards the end of the earth, Togiak.
I hopped in the plane with the plan to look up a dentist in the phone book and give them a shout in Kodiak.  But, when I arrived, I had no quarters for the payphone (this was way before the day of cell phones.) In addition to bumming a ride from the pilot I had to bum a quarter, too.   Though, it was mostly all for naught anyhow.  The dentist told me there I had a 50/50 that my tooth was going to break in two.  Thanks, but I could have guessed that on my own.  Oh well, it was a pretty day for a flight and I got to get off the boat for an afternoon.  Though I did spend the next month drinking tons of milk and not biting into apples.   Fast-forward 14 years later, my front tooth still has 3 cracks in it, but is holding up just fine. 
Knock on wood.