June/July 1998

Otoliths, Icthyology and Fish Slime
Chapter 1

by Dail Bridges

The seas had calmed. The waves in the harbor crested at heights of only 8-10 feet. For four days, we had been caught in a typical Alaska winter storm. Winds had roared between the mountains that encircled Dutch Harbor, howling through the frozen streets of this small fishing village. After my third day of motel room confinement, I had ventured outside and attempted to walk down what passed for the main street. The cold seared into me. My bulky layers of clothing offered no more protection than a light windbreaker. I felt vulnerable and exposed. I bowed my head and narrowed my eyes, determined to get some fresh air. That is what one does where I come from. If you've been cooped up, you go out for a walk. Somehow, the climatic difference between North Carolina and Alaska had eluded me until this point. I trudged on, my throat burning with every intake of frigid air. My fingers turned numb and I could not feel my toes. I shivered all over. I had been walking for perhaps three minutes, and I had never known anything like this. I thought of the south where springtime comes effortlessly, the chill of the winter season simply fading away as the days and nights fill up with warmth and sweet fragrances. The harshness of this world frightened me, and I turned back, desperate for the safety of my lonely room. Once again snug in my heated cocoon, I had watched the turmoil of the sea--huge waves pounding and crashing, mixed with swirling snow and ice.

But now the weather had broken. There was no getting around it; the time had come to go. I stood on the upper dock in the harbor, gazing down at the small pilot boat below me. The door to the wheel house flew open and a weathered face peered out.

"Whatcha' waiting for? That Jap boat won't stick around all day just for you. Get on down here and let's go!" His voice was stern, but the Skipper grinned as he looked up at me.

Dragging my fully packed gear baskets and duffel bag, I struggled down several stair ramps to reach the small boat that would take me to meet my Japanese fishing trawler. I threw the stack of gear baskets onto the back of the tug boat. These baskets were standard issue for all Foreign Fisheries Observers and, like ankle shackles that could not be removed, we lugged them everywhere. I hoisted the overstuffed duffel bag onto my back and immediately collapsed under its weight. There went my plan to jump with it, piggy-back style, down onto the boat. I rolled out from under the barge-like pack and dragged it over to the side of the dock. The pilot boat bobbed about four feet below me. I positioned the duffel, imagining it a cannon ready to fire, and rushed at it, shoving with all of my strength. The misshapen cannon ball, lacking true fire power, tilted slightly and finally sagged over the edge, crashing onto the deck below.

I followed the duffel, and a dock worker unleashed the boat. We leapt away from the wooden pilings, pitching and bouncing wildly, a wild animal finally freed from its tethers. One minute I was on a solid wooden platform; the next I was jettisoning through space on a roller coaster, with no safety belts to strap me in. Unable to stand, I crawled toward the front of the boat. Grasping the door to the wheel house, I jerked it open, just as a large swell heaved us upwards. As I tumbled onto the bridge, we nose-dived sharply into the trough of the wave.

"Yep, looks like it's going to be a rough one today." The pilot grimaced slightly as he puffed on his cigarette. "This your first time out?"

"You mean it's not obvious?" I gasped, struggling to keep my balance as the boat went through all sorts of motions which threatened to throw me to my knees.

The pilot laughed. "Come to think of it, you do look a little green. Agh, you fishery Observers! There's a bucket under the bench there if you need to puke. Just don't get any on the control panel here." He patted the console beside him. "Usually we try to do these transfers when it's a little calmer, but this break in the storm might be our only chance. This mess is due to kick up again tonight."

From my vantage point on solid land, the weather had appeared calm--calm, as I was quickly learning, being a relative term. Now, as I swayed unsteadily on this heaving, bucking, pitching monster, it was anything but calm. Terror played against my nausea, and the latter was quickly winning out.

Scrambling on my hands and knees for the bucket, I heard the pilot say he thought he saw my boat up ahead. He peered through the rain drenched window as he asked me what the call letters were. At this point, I could barely remember my own name, much less the call sign for a vessel I had never seen before. I managed to mumble something to that effect, but the grizzled seaman didn't seem to hear me.

"Looks like it says 7LPS...can't quite make out that name...KYOWA MARU number 13...no, that's 15--this has gotta be your boat; we don't have any other Japs scheduled to be in the harbor. Now this is gonna to be a bit tricky here--gotta pull up beside her real careful. Holy Christ, look at the size of those waves!!" The pilot battled to maneuver the boat alongside the 150 foot KYOWA MARU.

Meanwhile, I was zipping up my raincoat and struggling to put on my lifejacket, as well as trying to remain upright and, most importantly, not throw up. I desperately wanted to crawl to a corner, curl into a ball and wake up from this nightmare, back on solid ground, these nauseating gyrations a thing of the past. Instead, the pilot gave me a gentle push out of the wheel house and onto the deck. The wind blasted me, and I leaned into it to keep from being forced backwards.

The crew of the KYOWA MARU lowered a Jacob's Ladder down the side of their ship. The soggy wooden steps, joined with knotted ropes, whipped against the hull as we bobbed beside them. Like a moth drawn helplessly to a flame, I looked down into the narrow space that separated the two vessels, into the wildly churning waves that crashed over the deck, drenching me with freezing spray. I thought of falling down, down into this deadly tunnel and what it would be like to be smashed between tons of metal. The cold would probably kill me first.

The veteran of sea transfers put his hands around my waist and shouted over the wind "Ya gotta climb up on the edge--you can't jump from here!" He tried to lift me up onto the deck railing. I must have added an additional 20 pounds in foul weather gear. My life jacket imprisoned me, bound tightly around me like a straight jacket. My arms dangled uselessly, heavy as lead weights. Like tree trunks, each of my legs remained rooted in place. Hoisting myself up onto the railing seemed an impossibility. The cursing pilot, practiced in the ways of terrified Observers, struggled and shoved until I perched on the edge. He leaned against me, steadying me from behind. When we seemed to be on top of a wave, I forced myself to make a desperate leap through the air, slamming into the side of the KYOWA and, miraculously, grabbing the ladder. I quickly hauled myself up a few steps, the pilot boat leaping behind me like a monster from the deep and missing me by inches.

I breathed in great, jagged gasps, gulping in air, clinging to the wildly twisting ladder. I had no time to think about how scared I was. I forced myself to inch upward, rolling first to the left and then to the right as the ladder swung crazily with the movement of the boat. Finally, I reached the top and clambered over the railing, onto the deck of the Japanese ship. I looked down to see the pilot boat, bouncing like a cork, pulling away from the KYOWA to head back to shore.

I thought how unreal this all seemed. What was I doing, standing on the deck of a Japanese fishing trawler, in the dead of winter, heading out for two months into the middle of the Bering Sea?

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