In chatting with a friend today the subject of the television show "Deadliest Catch" came up and I told her I had done that, though not to the extreme shown on TV. My experience with king crab fishing was on a smaller scale in calmer waters, but it gave me a good deal of respect for those souls fishing the Bering Sea. I also mentioned I had a friend who died after falling off a crab boat out there and it caused a moment's pause.
Brian was the skiff man on a salmon seine boat when I met him. I never did know his last name. He was a cheerful kid, always ready with a smile, one of those people for whom being alive seemed to be pure joy. At the time I was operating a passenger vessel on regular tours to Alaska's Columbia Glacier. In season when the commercial fisherman worked along our route I'd stop to let the tourists watch a seine boat make a set. There is enough going on in a seine operation to keep people interested and in our passenger questionnaires, watching the fishing boats came in second only to whales when we saw them. The second largest tidewater glacier in North America came in third.
It only took a while to figure out which boats didn’t mind us watching and I would look for those. Brian worked on the Sirocco II which was owned and operated by a friend of mine. We did some fun things with that boat and the crew always would put on a little show for the tourists, often coming out on deck for a bow after the set was finished. Once I even put the bow on the cork line and a crew kid snagged a salmon from the net to show the passengers.
In seining, the large fishing vessel essentially pulls one end of a 900-foot net in a circle while a skiff holds and pulls on the other end, surrounding and confining the fish rather than tangling them like a gillnet does. Once the circle is closed the crew hauls the purse line closing the bottom of the net effectively holding the fish while they slowly recover the seine and haul the fish aboard. Sometimes there are more fish than the gear can lift and then a smaller brailer net is used to dip fish out of the seine.
While the net is being hauled, the skiff man goes to the opposite side of the boat, attaches to it and then pulls the main boat sideways to keep it from floating over the top of the net while it's being hauled. That was Brian’s job.
One day we stopped to watch just as they closed the seine and Brian went to attach to the far side of the seiner. We naturally stayed on the side of the boat with the net so the tourists could see the fish when the crew hauled them aboard. As is often the case, because we stopped another competing tour boat also had to stop or his passengers would feel they were missing something. As we moved with our boat, the seiner and the net I realized we were moving in more of a circle than usual and I had to power up more often to follow it and keep the seine in sight. It came to me gradually what was happening.
Brian was pulling and turning the seiner in such a way that he pulled the seine out of sight of the other boat and letting me stay with it. At one point I noticed him, big grin on his face chugging away with that jitney as he kept the net away from the competing tour boat. When they finally hauled the bag with all the fish, it was right in front of my people and on the opposite side of the boat out of sight from the other vessel. Then Brian disengaged the skiff and came around alongside waving. I walked out onto the weather deck laughing and shouted "Nice going." He just laughed and waved.
That night I six-packed Brian in our favorite watering hole and we all had a good laugh with Brian about his bright future in the tourism industry.
He lived around Blaine, Washington, and came up every year on one seiner or another to fish Prince William Sound.
Only, one season maybe three or four years later he didn't come. I asked the skipper of the Sirocco II where Brian was. All he could say was Brian fell off a crab boat in the Bering Sea the previous winter and was never found.
Deadliest catch, indeed.
The video: Purse Seine fishing for Pink Salmon from ATEEC Fellows on Vimeo.