May 21, 2007

Togiak Herring

The Togiak season was filled with great weather, and plenty of easy fishing. In out spare time we hiked to hot springs, combed beaches for Walrus Ivory, glass balls, barbecued on the beach and made bonfires.
We decided to fish the season with one engine and came out as the top producing boat. Over all it was a blast and we came out with more money and adventures than we expected.

From here I am heading to False Pass to Long Line Halibut for three months. It should be a great summer.

Break down at Sea

If you fail the first time then try again? We set out from False Pass, the end of the Alaskan Peninsula, to cross the Bering Sea heading North to Togiak. The Sea was flat and greasy. It was to be a thirty seven hour leg. Fog rolled in, and then snow. The cold buys us time, but our weather window was slim so we pressed to get across the notorious stretch of ocean before any weather arrived. With a crew of three we held six hour wheel watches. Just after a complete rotation on a dreamy crossing with the Captain back at the wheel a new and strange sound rattled the hull. Bill slowed the engines to an idle. Tom jumped out of his bunk and out on deck to check the bow and our anchor winch and the bow. Snow and ice had built one the rails and deck and when I reached the bow slipping along the way in my sneakers with one eye opened and half awake I see Tom bear feat in the snow standing in his pajamas. Fog and calm flat sea surrounded us. The moon was full, but everything was luminous and eerie. The Anchor was there. We must have hit a small ice berg and it worked its way along the hull. We clambered around the deck and into the various holds looking for damage and the cause of the sound. We returned to the cabin with nothing to report on the strange noise.
A familiar sound continued. The three of us stood there in the cabin and below our feet the sound of water flowing settled in on us. We tore out the floor boards to view two spouts of water on both sides of the engine room below us. Our reactions were slow. We were taking on water, our bilge pumps were not working and none of our water alarms were going off. We were out now deep in the bowels of the Bering Sea. We were sinking. Bill jumped into the flooding engine room as did Tom. I asked if I should Pan Pan our GPS position on the radio just in case. Bill thought we should hold off.

Bill called out for some cloth to stuff in the holes. I tore a pair of sweatpants into bits and scrambled for all the dish rags. Tom established a circuit with a bilge pump and began the fight against the incoming water. I stuck my hand in one hole and Bill stuffed rags with one hand in another hole and held his finger in the third hole. The water was ice and our fingers and legs were instantly numbed. Our hands ached and lost their dexterity. The panic began to wear off as did the sleepiness. The reality of the moment began to set in. We were not in a great spot for a break down, but the problem was known to us now. We had holes in our boat, disabled bilge pumps and a broken propeller shaft. What caused it we will never know.

The propeller shaft had pulled out of its tunnel leaving us with a two inch hole that swallowed half a pair of sweat pants and a dish rag. Like magic Bill produced a bolt that fit miraculously into another hole that my finger had occupied. The third hole took a synthetic cork and some 5200 glue. None of these holes stopped leaking but their violent personalities were tamed into non threatening drizzles.

We were one third of the way across the sea and we turned around for the closest shore. We were pretty spooked and with our one remaining engine we lightly traveled back to land.
We sheared our prop shaft and the stuffing box spun free and wildly caught a near by run of wires and proceeded to wrap them around the shaft coupler on the engine. That run of wires lead to the engine room lights and the bilge pumps. When it pulled tight on the wires, the lights were disabled and the bilge pumps were ripped out of there locations and drawn into the shaft. Once the bilge pumps were wound in tight to the shaft their hoses followed and the entire water extraction system was disabled into a tight ball on the shaft. The hoses pulled on other engine cooling hoses and a thru-hold was sheared off at its base. Holes were created, pumps and lighting were disabled all in one shot.
Our confidence was breached. So much trust and blind faith is built in electronics and alert systems. We could hear water coming in, but we did not check our engine room because the bilge pumps and alarms were not activated.
We all have a greater awareness of boats now and a appreciation for the layer that separates us from danger. We also have a cool ass job and live exciting lives. Discovery channel has never caught the look on a skippers face when his boat is sinking and the sea is vast cold and coming to get him. I saw it from two inches away. I don’t know what’s better, having spare hands to take pictures, or to have one fist jammed in a hole of gushing water and a finger in another one. I guess it wouldn’t have been as real if there was time and or though of a camera.

We are now tied to a pilling at an old rotting fish cannery. Our spirits are low because we are bored now it seems like we are no where and we can’t go anywhere.