Alaskan Fishing Vessel

Yes, I did that. This is usually the answer I give to response that I get from people who I tell that I worked in Alaska on a fishing vessel. The reason they usually ask it like that is because so many classrooms in college have signs up that say "Earn $15,000 in a summer in Alaska". Not many people ever respond to those, and neither did I.

It was a 1:00 am conversation in a bar with a friend that made me do it. This guy by the name of Sharkey had been telling a friend and I about his experience working on a boat in Alaska. The stories he told and the experiences that he had made me want to go right then and there. That was over Christmas break. For the next semester, I amassed all the information I could on working in Alaska.

Turns out that there are a variety of jobs that you can do ,and they all fall in to 3 categories - you can work a Fishing Boat, a Tender Boat or a Cannery. The fishing boat is the most dangerous, pays the best, has the highest risk of not making anything and is the hardest to get, the tender boat is a good job, but damn hard to get. A tender boat transports supplies to boats at sea, and picks up their fish and brings it back to land. The jobs are really scarce. The last is the cannery work. Mind-numbing, cutting off fish heads for 16 hours a day so that you rack up enough overtime to make your $8/hr worth something, and you go home with some money. The cannery is the least dangerous and what I told my parents I was going to go do once I got to Alaska. My mom never would have let me go knowing I'd be on the boats. It is the second most dangerous profession in the world, second only to working on a crab-fishing boat. Its more dangerous than coal mining or building sky scrapers, according to the ranking by number of deaths per 1000 employees in the field yearly.

I have a full journal of that summer, which is one of the best I've ever written. I was always afraid I was going to die and it would never be read, so I would mail it page by page to my girlfriend at the time. We broke up before I ever made copies of it. I still talk to her and plan to get copies someday. It goes in to how I got there, how I got the job, and how I thought I might not make it home.

Below is something that I had written for a "worst day at work contest". It wasn't really a contest, more just a story submission post-board. So, it focuses on the bad, when there really were great points to the experience, most of which you realize in hindsight.

This is an account of a summer I had 3 years ago in Kodiak, the best summer of my life. This is a day of commercial fishing in Alaska from the eyes of a greenhorn on an Alaskan Fishing Vessel. Your day starts, you haven't had a day off in 1 month, and wont have one off for another 2 months. You've just worked 22 hours a day for the last 8 days. you went to bed at 1am. At 3 am you awake, and not to the pleasant sound of your favorite morning radio show - you awake to a 450hp diesel motor being started about 10 feet from where you sleep. The walls of the ship are steel and its like sleeping under the hood of a truck. This monstrosity of an engine makes a sound capable of waking the dead, and it thrusts you from your bed. You are still wearing the same smelly clothes that you have not washed in over a month, and its been at least 8 days since you've showered. You try to force on your boots, but your hands have become clenched during the night, and you are unable to open them. You go up to the galley of the ship, and pull violently to pry open the muscles in your hands. Once you have done so, you take 8 Advil at once to alleviate the pain in your hands, and 2 doans back pills to relieve the pain you will have in your shoulder throughout the day. Then you head out to the deck to get the net ready for the day. Its dark, and the swells are rocking the boat pretty hard. Its cold, and the first wave splashes over the side of the boat and wets you. That's ok, you weren't very dry from yesterday, so it didn't matter much. You then jump in the skiff (small power boat attached to the main boat) with the skiff driver, and the net is drug out with it. For the next 30 minutes you will plunge the water sending the fish in to the net, working every muscle in your upper body. After 30 minutes the net is brought to a close, and you jump from your skiff to the main boat as both boats are moving. It doesn't matter what the weather is like, you're still jumping. Even if there are swells, storms, rain, or wind. You're going over and not necessarily landing on your feet. Today is rough, the swells are high and your skiff is bobbing up and down as the boat tilts from side to side, making the platform you're jumping from unstable, and the landing surface uncertain from second to second. You jump, tumble, and land flat on your back on deck. You're in pain, but you're not dead - that's a good thing. The wave that made your jump difficult, has now washed up on the deck and slams you to the other side of the boat, crushing your already sore arm. You lay there in pain for 3 or 4 seconds. Your skipper then bellows at you, "get up, there's no time to be lying around!!" You get up and help your crew begin to pull in the net. For the next 10 minutes you will open and close your hands hundreds of times to stack and move 1/4 mile of the heaviest netting known to man. Open. Close. Open. Close. Open. Close. The repetitive motion is what will make your hands sore tomorrow when you awake. As you pull and pull, you can feel the knots in the muscles in your back begin to hurt. As the net comes on board and you stack it, the jellyfish that are caught in the net will land on you. If you're lucky, they'll land on your coveralls - sometimes they don't. Sometimes they land on your face, in your eyes and in your mouth. The white ones are ok, the yellow ones sting, and the red ones will hurt like a bitch. They will make you bleed, the will make you swell, and they will render you blind for at least 2 minutes when they're in your eyes. Sometimes they will go down the neck of your shirt. There is no stopping at this point in pulling in the net. It may be 20 minutes before you are allowed to stop working and remove it - there are no exceptions. If you break the work cycle, people can die, its as simple as that. The net is now in and the fish are on deck, and it wasn't a good catch. Oh well, re-rig the gear, its time to try again. 15 to 20 sets a day, each one more painful than the one before it. Sometimes you pray the fishing will be bad, and you'll move to a different spot and that might mean a break while you travel. You can eat, sleep, or do what ever for maybe an hour or so. There are no breaks for pain. If you hurt, you work through it, or you get off at the next stop and they will find someone new to replace you. If you get off don't ever plan to work in that town again. You work, you hurt, and you sleep - and sometimes there's no time to sleep. Your longest day my be upwards of 60 straight hours. Towards the end of the season, you learn to deal with the muscles. Its all a routine by then, even the pain becomes part of the routine. The days get shorter, and you now work 20 hours a day and sleep for 4 and it feels like you're on vacation. You count the days until you're going home, and when that day comes, you give what's left of your tattered clothes to your crew mates, shake hands and part ways knowing that there's not much in life that is going to be tougher than this. The pride of this experience will last you a lifetime.

Since I have put this story up (sometime in 2001) I have had numerous emails asking how I got the job up there from people who also wanted to do it. I wish I had that journal, but I will try to give some details from memory.

When I returned from the Christmas break when I decided to do this, I told everyone at college that was my plan for the summer. Most everyone replied "Yeah, right." One guy said that he had thought of doing it the previous year and had ordered a book. This book described the boats, what the duties were, and what ports in Alaska were the best to find jobs in. It gave a description of each city and how likely you will be to find each job there. It appears as though the book wised up and became an internet site at I know its the same book, as it has the picture that was on the cover on the homepage. It will give you good tips on where you might want to go, but realise it gives NO INFORMATION ON HOW TO FIND THE JOB. Thats because, its up to you. Alaskan Fishing is not the kind of world that puts out ads in newspapers, sets up interviews, or schedules meetings. It works in a strange way.

I headed to Seattle, at the advice of the book-now-website. The logic there is that a lot of the Alaskan fishing boats dock in Seattle during the harsh winters. If you can find a job on a boat in Seattle, you get a free ride to Alaska and back, saving you about $300 each way for the plane ticket. So, off I went to Seattle. I stayed in a youth hostel, which is a good idea. You'll meet other people looking for boat work if you go at the start of the summer - its a given. I stayed at the Green Turtle, which I highly recommend. While there, I headed down to the docks and walk around and ask the fishing boats if they needed any deckhands. Thats the way it works. You basically just keep asking all the boats. Well, there werent many boats still in Seattle when I was there, and the only lead I had, I got a bad vibe from. While at the hostel, I met 2 guys headed to Kodiak. They were brothers. The older brother had been to Kodiak for the past 2 summers and done so well that he was taking his younger brother up there this year to get a job. There were jobs everywhere as he put it. I took the fact that he convinced his own brother to go as a sign that he was telling the truth and I bought a $30 tent at K-Mark and booked my ticket in to Kodiak.

When I arrived in Kodiak, I headed for the "tent city" mentioned in the book. Tent city was a gravel patch with some sticks indicating where each campsite was. They had an old trailer that someone installed a couple showers in, and winds that whipped through at all times. It was located next to an abandoned shipping facility which was actually made from a 1930's Ferry that was cemented to shore. There were about 10 other guys living at Tent City, all in their 20s, all looking for fishing work.

Kodiak bears would occasionally come through the campground looking for trash in the dumpsters. The dumpsters were 30 feet or so from my tent. The wind got so bad one night that we broke in to the old shipping yard and stole some palates and lashed them together and put a tarp over it so we could hang out in there. It really was a good little fort we had built. Our tents werent fairing too well. Anyhow....

Each day the grind started the same. Wake up at 5 or 6am, strap on your boots and walk or hitchhike to town. Walk the entire north docks, asking every boat if they need help. They will all tell you no. Then walk or hitchhike over the bridge to the south docks and repeat. Again, all no's. Return for lunch. Make lunch rounds at both docks. Re-ask the people that told you no. Some will say "I told you no this morning". Ask them if they know of any boats looking for work. During lunch rounds, feel free to knock on hulls to see if anyone is home. Never board a boat and knock on the door. Its just a no-no. Return for another bite to eat. Then make evening rounds about 8pm. It is light about 20 hours a day.

Heres the game. You're going to be working 22 hours a day. You're going to have to keep going when every part of you wants to stop. People will tell you no even if they need help. They want to see how often you'll come back. Keep asking. Eventually the No's will turn to Maybe's. What I did at that point, was wrote down a list of my Maybes. I would then hitch from north dock to south dock. I would ask the person giving me the ride (presumably a local, considering they have a car) what they thought of each boat. Time and time again, when I mentioned the boat the Dee Donna J, the person told me it was a great boat, one of the best in the harbour.

Knowing that, I went to the Dee Donna J and made the skipper this offer. I told him I would work for free for a day, and at the end of the day he didnt have to hire me. I would do any work required (pre-season, there is a lot of work being done to prep the boats) and it would all be for nothing if he was unhappy. Or even if he was happy, there was no obligation. I worked 15 hours that day and he told me to come back tomorrow and he'd let me know.

When I arrived the next day, there was another guy there waiting. When the skipper arrived, he told us to both go get breakfast, and he'd have a decision when we returned. Again, asking us to come back was another test. I am sure that if the skipper arrived at 6, and the other guy was there and I arrived at 6:15, I wouldnt have gotten the job. As I worked out I was the one who he gave the job to.

Dont be afraid to ask everyone you see if they know of someone looking for help. Go in the marine supply stores. They know everyone. Keep asking them. Make friends with them, and if you see them at the bar, hang out with them for a bit. Do the same with the boat owners. As much as they want a hard worker, they want someone they can stand being in close quarters with for 3 months. Show them you're not a screwball, and it will go a long way.

For the record, I made $10,000 for the summer - that was 2.5 months of work. Could have made it $12,000 if I had stayed on an extra 2 weeks, but I had school to return to. We had just hit a huge run at the end of the summer, and I left before it ended. Also, by amazing co-incidence, my friend Steve got on the boat I saw in Seattle and only made $1000 for the summer and had the worst summer as the skipper was an alcholic. And, the guy from Seattle who brought his brother up there.... never found a job. I saw him in a bar one night. Turns out his brother became skiff-man (unheard of for a first-year fisherman) on a really great boat and made over $15,000 by the half-way point of the summer (skiff drivers will make more usually). Both his boat and the Dee Donna J were in the top 10 boats in Kodiak again for that year, out of over 300 boats.

Bottom line - Alaska is truly one of the last wild and untamed places on this earth. A job-finding journey up there cant be planned out too much - you've just got to go and make it happen. Be in it more for the adventure than the money, and it will all work out for the best.