(* This is a letter that I wrote about 2 months after completing a 4 1/2
month stint working in the North Pacific on a fishing boat operating out of
Harbor, Alaska. I
have to thank my friend Mike Reilly for saving this letter. *)
March 26, 1991
I came to Seattle last August, after taking the New York bar exam. I wanted to visit my sisters here, and have a vacation after law school. I ran into a woman (who had also graduated and taken the bar exam with me) at the post office and I asked her what she was doing. She replied that she was going to borrow her boyfriend's plane (she is a pilot and instructor) and flying to Montana for an Outward Bound hiking trip. I asked her for a ride, and she said sure, she was leaving in about a week. All I brought was a backpack and sleeping bag, and after the plane ride I hitched a ride at a truck stop with 2 guys in a car who were driving to Seattle. As we got talking, I realized that they were going to the Olympic Peninsula near my sister's house. I arrived at about 2 a.m. and slept in a field until morning and then found her house. Surprise!!!!
Once in the area, I decided to get a job for a few months on a fishing boat - I had given up my apartment in Buffalo and my car had died as well. After about 3 weeks of looking I finally got a job with a company that had 3 boats operating out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, along the Aleutian Island chain. I had 2 days to buy sweat pants and shirts, etc. for my job. I left Seattle on September 14, 1990 on a 3 month contract to process fish. My boat was called the Northern Hero, was 215 feet long, and had a crew of 10 Japanese and 34 Americans. The boat caught fish and then took off head and guts and froze the fish in 50 lb. "cases" (about 15" X 24" X 5"). Our ship could hold about 23,000 cases, or about 1 million lbs of fish. We worked 16 hour shifts, no days off, unless in port for refueling and offloading. We were guaranteed $70 per day and were paid 10 cents for each case of fish we offloaded. If we did more than 63,000 cases in 3 months, we would start to earn money above the guaranteed wage level. I survived the 3 months and then stayed on for a month as an assistant cook. Then they were desperate for processors - most had quit or were taking off work for various ailments related to the hard working conditions - so I went back processing for about a month. I got off the boat February 1, 1991. We had processed about 100,000 cases.
Our employer, AKC Corp. is in legal and financial trouble, and some of the crew rioted on our sister ship, the Arctic Hero, when their pay was not forthcoming. I've been paid about $7,000 but they still owe me about $7,000. I've started an action for breach of contract and am requesting an additional $7,000 in penalties, etc. I had hoped that with one trip on the boat I could get my creditors off my back but that hasn't happened....
On the bright side, while in Seattle looking for a fishing job I met a woman who was raised in Alaska and who had worked on a boat for a year as a cook and later was part-owner of a boat. We corresponded and now are seeing each other daily. I've been staying at my cousin Kevin's house. He is recently divorced and we're fixing the house in order to sell it. I've built and painted a bicycle from the pieces of about 4 bikes. I've got my own room which is a lot bigger than on the boat.
Living conditions on the boat were fine for me. Each room had 3-6 guys. The bunks were about 6 1/2 feet X 2 1/2 feet, with enough head room to sit upright. We had survival suits for emergencies, and rain gear for in the factory and on deck. We each had a small closet and our bunk space contained a small cabinet suspended from the ceiling. I didn't take anything for seasickness but quickly got my sea legs. Once in a while even the Japanese would get sick. They were the real "bosses" on the ship, and after about 6 weeks we got along fine. They didn't speak much English but for a time we had an interpreter aboard. Sometimes when we were in port I would help the captain and work on the bridge, which I enjoyed. I helped organize various aspects of ship life and helped the new guys learn the various processing jobs.
Our boat would haul in a net of about 15-60 tons of fish which would be dropped into a holding tank awaiting processing. We would use conveyor belts to move the fish and we would sort them and throw the keepers into a bin which would feed the guys using cutting wheels to cut off the heads. Sometimes we would have to cut off the tails by hand, and we would pull out the guts and place the fish by size into freezing pans. The pans were placed in plate freezers and after freezing, the fish were removed from the pans, bagged, and put in the freezer. It was about 170 feet X 35 feet X 15 feet and chilled to about 50 degrees below zero. After working in there for an hour in protective clothing, exposed hair was covered with a thick layer of frost. In rough weather stacking the cases was really crazy. They would come down the chutes, flying off the sides, and we would be running and throwing them like mad. Sometimes we would come out soaking wet from perspiration. Other times you'd stand around and freeze.
Meals were served every 8 hours, and processing and fishing were continuous. We got a 1/2 hour break for a meal, and two ten minute (not eleven minute) coffee breaks. Favorite phrases by the Japanese were: slow, slow; no good; speedo; high money. My Japanese nickname was bee-gar-ay (phonetic) meaning white guy with glasses. I'm still sore, 2 months later, in my hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders. I lost about 20 lbs. in the first 2 weeks, and came back about 30 lbs lighter. My back and legs have recovered and I'm now running 3.2 miles in under 22 minutes. I would like to get my lungs and legs up to easy 6 minute miles. I'd like to keep off the fat if possible. Now I weigh 145 lbs., same as when I got off the boat.
While aboard, we received mail when we hit port. The "care packages" from my family and "B" were were a big help in keeping connected with land, if only figuratively. We had to work 16 hours Christmas day and I was working on Super Bowl Sunday and couldn't use my short wave radio to hear the game. (Buffalo was playing.) Ships could keep in telephone contact via satellite and I called my parent's home Christmas day - I charged it on my calling card and it cost me $180 ($10/min.) We were near the tip of the Aleutian chain, Attu Island, at the time. I would like to visit Buffalo and get my affairs there in order and cart some stuff back here. I'd still like to visit my pianist friend in Georgia USSR but will have to put that on hold till I get organized and solvent. My cousin says he'd like to go with me. He wants to quit his job when he gets the profits from the sale of the house. I'll probably spend June & July studying for the bar and take it for Washington and New York.
Here are some links to newspaper articles about the "mutiny" and the problems of the company, from seizure of the ships under Admiralty Laws, to bankruptcy, to sale of the vessels. A fun time was had by all...
Real Mutiny in the Aleutians?
Unhappy Crew Delays Unloading Trawler's Cargo
Trawler Captain Relieved of His Duties
Two Seattle Seamen Held in Trawler Brawl
Nest Egg Never Hatched (This is a good summary article.)
Pay Delay Protested
Alaska Trawler Ordered Seized
Scheduled Sale of Trawlers Raises Hopes
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