New World Travels
Friday, September 17, 2010
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
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It was early winter and we were seven days out from San Juan Puerto Rico, bound for the Chesapeake Bay. From there we would follow the Delaware River up to Camden New Jersey. I was riding the 3000 hp ocean going tug, Sea Monarch as chief engineer. We had an empty 250’ barge in tow that was to be loaded with steel. The day was pleasant, high-scattered clouds, a slight swell, and light winds out of the east. I’d found a spot behind the wheelhouse that was out of the wind and stretched out on the deck to get some sun. It was late afternoon when I started back down to my cabin.
From the wheelhouse I noticed a black wall of clouds ahead, stretching across the horizon. The wall covered the ocean surface as dark and impenetrable as mortuary curtains. The wall seemed alive though, rolling over on its self, surging forward, reaching out to engulf us. When we broached its forward edge, darkness descended, and the sea and the wind started to go mad. Rain came in torrents, horizontal and blinding. The wind quickly reached hurricane force and kept getting stronger. The weather reports we were receiving had no relation at all to what we were experiencing. We radioed our office and received a weather report of three-foot seas, winds ten to fifteen out of the east. We were in a different world from the one they were talking about.
Within the hour, winds were at eighty knots with gusts to a hundred. The seas were topping thirty feet and building. It was then the main engine faltered. The rpm dropped rapidly. I rushed to the engine room, the fuel pressure was fluctuating wildly, and the engine was about to stall. I switched fuel filters and the pressure and the rpm returned to normal. The filter I pulled out was fouled with black algae and muck from the tank bottoms. The slime in the fuel immediately started turning the translucent case of the new filter black. The pounding the boat was taking had stirred up the algae and sediment from the tanks in greater concentrations than the filters were ever designed to handle. The pressure in the new filter started to drop within minutes. When it got down to a critical level I switched back to the one I had just replaced, and replaced the second one. That set the pattern for the rest of the night. Back and forth, switching from filter to filter, as soon as I got one replaced, the other needed it.
The seas built to forty feet, and I went through case after case of fuel filters. In the early morning hours I sent word to the Captain that I would soon run out of filters, and expected to lose the engine. Without power in these seas, we could easily founder. We were off Cape Hatteras, “The Graveyard.” The number of ships and men who had been lost off those shores was uncounted. The Civil War ironclad Monitor was down there somewhere. By zero three hundred the seas were still building. The wind gauge had blown away hours earlier. The boat was a mess anything and everything that could be tossed off a shelf or out of a drawer had long ago joined in the melee, rushing from one side of the decks to the other. Those off watch tried to stay in their bunks. By piling life jackets, pillows and blankets under the outer edge of the mattress, you could raise it up until the mattress and the bulkhead formed a forty-five degree angle. Wedged into the angle you had a chance of, if not sleeping, at least not getting thrown from your bed. For those not in a bunk, every movement was a challenge. The simplest task became a nightmare. To relax your hold for a moment was to risk broken limbs or worse. The galley was a mosaic of color. Olives and pickles were chasing peppers and toothpicks through a sea of mustard and ketchup, relish and broken glass.
The engine stopped. It seemed time did also. If we went sideways to these seas we were sure to capsize. I grabbed a life jacket and ran to the bridge. The rest of the crew was there ahead of me. They all had life jackets on. Whatever happened I wanted to be up where I could see it. Miraculously, our heading stayed the same, the bow continued to point into the wind and the sea. It was the wind working on the barge that was keeping us steady. The hundred plus knot wind pushing against the high freeboard of the empty barge worked like a sea anchor. By pulling on our stern, it kept our nose into the wind. It was a wonderful revelation. Once I saw that we were likely to ride it out I could pay attention to the world outside. It really was getting interesting.
Daylight had arrived, or at least what was going to pass for daylight this day. The night had passed in a blur of diesel fumes and filter canisters. When the boat was at the top of the waves the defining line between water and air was nonexistent. The wind tore the tops off of the waves and displaced the air with it. It was like an Arctic whiteout, there was zero visibility. As the boat would start the long wild corkscrewing drop down the face of the waves, visibility would improve as the huge walls of water provided shelter from the wind. Only in the questionable protection of the wave’s trough could we visually appreciate the magnitude of the storm. From the bottom of the trough the monstrous waves towered over the boat. It seemed a much smaller vessel than ever it had before. The light would disappear and the boat stagger and shake as tons of water crashed down over us. Those were heart-stopping moments as the boat shuddered in the darkness. Then the water would part, and we would be on the upward track of a wild, wet, roller coaster ride.
Once it appeared the boat would hold its own, I felt secure enough to start thinking about the engine again. I went back down below to see what could be done about getting power restored. By then the storm had ripped off our radio antennas and knocked out the radars. The only help we were likely to get would be self-help. There was no want for help in the engine room. The entire crew came down and stood around big eyed and anxious. Everyone wanting to know what they could do to help. It took eight hours to get up and running again. I changed and modified all sixteen-fuel injectors. The good fortune was that the electrical generators continued to function. Loss of electric power would have made the other repairs difficult.
The storm continued moving to the south, as we slowly beat our way to north. As the Cape was left behind the weather slowly moderated. Bruised and torn, licking our wounds, it was a relief to enter the protected waters of Chesapeake Bay. It took another twenty - four hours to run the river up to Camden. We found out later that the storm that had given us so much excitement still had the power to kill when it hit the Bahamas. It sank half dozen boats and drowned three people. The barge loading took six days. We made repairs, replaced antennas, loaded supplies, and squeezed in a few nights on the town. I made it to several restaurants in New Jersey, and got over to Philadelphia for one evening. The only person I ever saw smile while we were up there, was a coat check girl in Camden. I went back and gave her an extra five-dollar tip for that small ray of sunshine. A uniformly depressing place with a depressed population.
The barge was loaded with billets of steel about four inches square and twenty feet long. A line of I-beam stanchions ran along each side of the barge about twenty feet high. The steel was stacked on deck and straps holding it in place were welded to the deck and to the stanchions. It seemed a solid stable cargo. As on the upstream journey, we were required to have Delaware River pilots aboard. On the day of departure, as soon as the pilots arrived, we cast off and headed down stream. All aboard happy to be heading back to the Tropics. During the night the skipper had to get some rest and left the pilots in charge. He hadn’t been asleep two hours when they ran over a lighted channel buoy. The buoy got hung up in the barge-towing bridle, where its light continued to flash throughout the night. All night long passing ships would radio, “You have a buoy in your bridle.” When we got down into the bay, a Coast Guard buoy tender met us and lifted it clear. After the extraction, we bid the pilots adieu, thanked them for their “help,” and headed back out into the Atlantic.
Though we were all looking forward to returning to the land of coconut palms, it was with some trepidation that we viewed the return trip around Hatteras. Well-founded trepidation it would turn out. About eighteen hours after leaving the lights of Virginia Beach behind, the weather started to deteriorate. We headed due east hoping to get far enough offshore that we would get away from the influence of Cape Hatteras. Pipe dreams, conditions continued to worsen. The wind blew and the seas pounded. We turned south and made what time we could. By the third day nothing had improved. The seas were thirty-five feet and more, the wind gusts over a hundred once again. In conditions such as we were in, it was almost impossible to see the barge back there on its 1500-foot tow wire. On the forth day, the mate said that he thought that the barge might be listing to port. We kept a watch throughout the day. Only on rare occasions would the barge be visible. The boat and the barge would both need to be on top of a wave at the same time. Even then a squall or blowing spray could make line of sight observations chancy. By afternoon, even with the limited sightings, there was no doubt that the barge was healing over to port. There was little we could do. Any attempt to approach the barge under the circumstances would be suicidal. The seas could easily toss us into the barge. Daylight faded rapidly. The last sighting before darkness descended showed the barge heeling sharply. Soon after full darkness enveloped us, the tow winch brake shoes started screaming and shooting sparks and fire in all directions. The two and a half inch steel cable was being stripped off the winch drum like a blue marlin taking 80-pound Dacron off a Penn Reel. In a panic the mate ran back and started to release the tow winch brake. Just in time, the skipper stopped him, and using the after controls backed the boat much like the skipper of a marlin boat would do. If the barge were actually sinking, we would have to let it go, so it wouldn’t drag us down. If it wasn’t sinking, we sure didn’t want to let an unattended barge loose in the shipping lanes. It would be an extreme hazard, and we would have to catch it again. The running wire slowed, and then stopped. We had control. There was no way to know what shape the barge was in, and no way to find out until daybreak.
A man would have to be stationed near the brake wheel so the wire could be dumped if it did start pulling us under. It would be a cold, wet, all-night vigil. The day began as the previous one ended, howling winds, mountainous seas and all eyes searching for sign of the barge. Once again daylight limped in like a weak sister. It was mid-morning before we got a clear enough view of the barge to figure out what we were seeing. We were looking at the bottom of an overturned barge. We had been suspicious of that. Our speed had not broken a knot and a half since the incident with the winch brake. Not good news, but at least it was floating. The seas and the wind pounded us all that day and the next. On the following day the weather showed a slight improvement. The seas remained mountainous, but the wind was shifting more to the east and had abated somewhat. By nightfall the seas were also showing some signs of coming down. Since the barge flipped we hadn’t made over thirty-eight miles in twenty - four hours. The improving weather did not seem to help. The double rows of I-beams along each side of the barge were now creating a thirty-foot draft and causing an immense drag, more power just threw a bigger wake. It looked as though it would be a long trip to San Juan.
As the weather improved we were able to give more throttle, but even at full ahead we could not get more than two knots. We continued south, the lines on the chart showing minute progress each day. The weather warmed, the sea lay down and began to exhibit the vibrant blues and greens of the tropical ocean. Day in and day out the barge reluctantly followed along like some mammoth obstinate turtle. Epilogue: We averaged 1.8 knots on the trip back to San Juan. The weather improved until the sea was as slick and smooth as an oyster’s belly. The trip still proved too much for the Mate. On the night before we hit port he died in his bunk. Obesity and the strain of the storm both took their toll I would guess. It took six tugboats and a salvage crew two weeks to right the barge. The cargo was a total loss.
TUG MERCURY, NORTH TO ALASKA
I awoke a little before five to the rolling and pitching of a boat in a storm. I felt rested, but still I retained the night memory of bracing myself against the bulkhead to keep from being thrown from my bunk. I lay there awake for some time, slowly absorbing the feel of the storm, in no hurry to begin the dance that getting dressed in heavy weather entails. Later, after performing the intricate steps needed to thrust my legs into my pants and continuing on to the next balancing act, performed in front of the mirror with tooth brush and comb, I made my way down into the hot noisy cavern of the tugboat engine room, making my first inspection of the day, looking for anything that might have gone awry while I slept. Finding nothing of immediate concern I made my way back to the main deck and forward to the galley, hanging on with each step, attempting to anticipate the gyrations of the boat, and so not to fight them. I sat down at the table with a cup of the insipid brown liquid that Juan Valdez has fostered off on the American public as coffee, and ordered a plate of hot cakes.
I was working for Crowley Maritime as a Chief Engineer and it was beginning to look as if taking a tugboat north to Alaska in October would be anything but boring. The first few days after leaving Seattle we spent traversing the Inside Passage up the coasts of Canada and the panhandle of Alaska, protected from the early winter gales by the many scenic and providentially placed islands. The calm waters of the passage teemed with life, eagles and salmon, porpoise and whales, and though we had more rain and fog than sunshine, the excitement of making my first voyage through the passage was exhilarating. On our first day out, while still in Puget Sound, we passed through an area where Orca's or Killer Whales seemed to be everywhere we looked. Two or three-dozen whales rolling and jumping gave us a show to put Sea World to shame. Then during our fifth night we reached the northern terminus of the Inside Passage. At Cape Spencer we tentatively pointed our bow out into the icy gray waters of the Gulf of Alaska. The seas rapidly began building and the boat started showing the characteristics I had been warned about, and for which she is justly famous. She has a round bathtub shaped hull that will roll in any sea and beat you to death, or at least make you wish you were dead, in a storm. We moved out into ten and twelve foot seas, but on this boat they seemed closer to sixteen to eighteen footers.
We were towing a 250-foot barge loaded with cement, and in these seas we could only make five or six knots. That meant it would take five days to cross the gulf. The seas hammered at us the entire way, but it could have been much worse. We made it passed the Barren Islands and around Dangerous Cape just in time. The boat slipped into Cook Inlet only hours ahead of a powerful low pressure system packing winds of sixty knots or more. Even beating the storm system we experienced seas in excess of twenty feet.
The day before, on my first inspection of the engine room I found the bilges in need of pumping. The boat was rolling so hard that bilge water was being thrown up onto the propeller shafts, and then slung up onto the engine room deck plates. When I started the bilge pump the motor shorted out and fried itself. I had to rig a Jabsco pump to remove the water. To do that called for running a hose up and out the escape hatch. The boat by then was pitching wildly, hanging on with one hand and dragging the pump hose with the other I climbed up the ladder and opened the hatch. I was immediately drenched in paint thinner from a bucket one of the sailors had left sitting on the hatch. About then the boat started taking some even more radical rolls and the engine room shelves started unloading themselves of parts and supplies. So there I was wiping paint thinner out of my face and chasing spare parts around the engine room, trying to corral them before they hopped into the bilge. Just another morning of tug boating. At about ten o’clock, after showering the paint thinner away, I sat down for my morning coffee.
A few days later, after unloading our barge at Nikiski on the eastern shore of Cook Inlet, we found ourselves once again back out in the Gulf of Alaska. We were now heading for Prince William Sound. We picked up a radio transmission from another Crowley tug, the Sea King. They were adrift in the Bering Sea with an engine room fire. The fire burned out of control for three or four hours, long enough to warp the door and blister the deck in the galley. They said that they had been able to seal the engine room and kill the fuel to the engines. After that the CO2 system and lack of oxygen brought the fire under control. A Coast Guard buoy tender was fortunately in the vicinity and on the way to rescue the crew. We hoped to hear more later, as for our boat, we were having the hell knocked out of us. Seventy-five knot winds had whipped the seas up past twenty four feet. Happily it was only a two-day run before we made it into the protected waters of the sound. It is such a feeling of relief to reach calm water after taking that kind of a beating, I could feel all of my muscles going slack and relaxing of their own accord. In heavy weather there is no relaxing even in sleep, the muscles are always tensing for control
We pulled into Shotgun Cove where we are going to drop off this barge and pick up a fuel barge that we will be towing out to the Pribolof Islands in the Bering Sea. Coming into the cove, the weather was cold and wet, with a steady rain and clouds down around our ankles. All except the closest mountains merely faint shadows in the mist. The few islands and mountains that were visible appeared to be about three thousand feet high with the top third dusted with snow. Every few hundred yards a small and startling white cataract came tumbling down to the sea, providing the only relief to the monochromatic gray color of our world. A lone gull every now and again, the only movement beyond the falling water. The Earth appeared quiet, cold and mystical. Mystical that is until it was discovered the running lights on the barge were not working. After that it was five cold miserable hours out in the icy rain repairing and replacing the lights.
As soon as the repairs were made we headed back out into the Gulf of Alaska, back out where the seas were already in excess of twenty eight feet, and the charcoal gray sky merged into a gray green sea streaked with wind driven foam. We beat straight into the storm all that day making very little headway. Towards evening we pulled into a narrow cove looking for shelter. The small cove afforded protection from the sea, but the winds that came funneling down through the mountain passes would gust to over one hundred miles an hour. The weather is such a regulating force in our lives our thoughts are continuously tuned to it. We spent the night jogging back and forth, the rain coming completely horizontal, the surface of the cove whipped to a white froth. About three in the morning the clouds broke for a few minutes to reveal magnificent mountains in every direction. The full moon draped the snow covered peaks in a beautiful luminescence that looked strangely serene when viewed from the maelstrom in the cove. Early the next afternoon the weather report we received down graded the storm to a gale! That was really wonderful. It thrilled me to no end! That evening we headed back out into it.
We kept beating back into the teeth of the storm, running down along the Kenai Peninsula, until once again we traversed the waters of the Barren Islands and made our way out across the mouth of Cook Inlet. The sea and the wind continued to toss us around, enough so that just being able to hang on and not get banged up was a victory. As we neared Mt. Augustine, an island volcano with a lone and near flawless cone rising shear from the sea, the boat started taking freezing spray and was soon sheathed in a coat of ice. Five hours after leaving Mt. Augustine behind we rounded Cape Douglas, massive and foreboding, its mountains and glaciers did provide some protection from the wind and sea. All that night, and the next day and a night, we proceeded down along the Alaska Peninsula. The Shilekof Straits with their usual eighty knot winds and Kodiak Island off to our port were left astern. As we entered the Shumigan Islands we would experience alternating periods of moderate to gale winds, and our coating of ice would continue to grow. As daylight returned the boat started developing a definite list to starboard, the side the wind was blowing from. The ice buildup there was three times the thickness of that on the port side. By early afternoon the problem was getting dangerous. Many boats have been lost from the weight of such ice. Once again we went in search of protected water. I took this opportunity to attempt taking some photos of the ice. On the stern of the boat the tow winch is partially enclosed to afford some protection from the sea. There was one area where I could stand and be out of the wind and the spray, with only the swirling water on deck to worry about. I rolled up my pants and kicked off my shoes as I was just going to step through the door, snap off a couple of shots and step back inside. I picked up my camera and stepped out onto the deck. The water swirled up around my calves and the first searing pain felt as if I were being hit with live steam. After that first shock passed, the bone numbing cold hit home with a force that was frightening. I snapped one photo and jumped back inside, I waited a few minutes and made one more attempt, I snapped off a couple of more shots, and that was all I could stand. To think of being washed overboard or loosing a boat out from under you in these temperatures is horrendous. A survival suit would be your only hope, even for a few moments.
This time we really did find a safe harbor. Light winds, calm seas, and the sun blessed us with faint warmth. Now it was baseball bats, sledge hammers and fire hoses to knock off the ice. We broke ice for five or six hours and I transferred some fuel until the boat came back on an even keel. We continued down the peninsula with the volcanoes of the Aleutian Range towering above. Pavlov Mountain and Pavlov Sister were wreathed in clouds, but the Shishaldin volcano which was smoking slightly, and the Isanotski Peaks, sparkled in a clear sky, under a low winter sun.
We had picked up further radio transmissions about the tug Sea King. Some other Crowley tugs had arrived on the scene and had taken the crew aboard. Then in the salvage attempt, the tug Tiny got too close to the Sea King’s barge and the barge’s skegs came down and ripped the boats side open. The Tiny sank in minutes. Fortunately her crew was able to scramble aboard the other tugs. The Sea King was finally taken under tow to Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island. We have also had word of a storm out in the Pribilof''s that took another tug and barge that had been tied up at the dock in St. Paul, snapped their mooring lines and tossed them up on the rocks. One more tug and barge was being driven ashore up near Dillingham. A sign on the galley chalk board this morning read, “Bering Sea, 4, Crowley, 0. Something to look forward to.
We finally arrived down at the lower end of Unimak Island and turned up into the Bering Sea. My journal for that day reads, “Now traversing Unimak Pass, 22 foot swells and in the trough.” “Ya Hoo!” It was like a roller coaster. Once into the Bering Sea, a slight rise in temperature allowed the sea water to start melting our accumulated ice. Within two days it was all a memory. Another two days of running in the trough with the sea on our port side and we arrived at St. Paul. The Pribolof Islands are the breeding grounds for eighty percent of the world’s fur seals and a major staging port for the great Bristol Bay fishing fleet. The fleet will use a large percentage of the fuel we are hauling; the rest is heating oil for the island. We were forced to anchor in the lee of the island for three days before the sea calmed down enough to allow us to enter port. It took twenty four hours to pump off the fuel, and then we started on our return trip. We are heading back to Shotgun Cove and on to the nearby town of Whittier.
The return trip was cold, wet, and rough, but we didn’t ice up again, just a “normal” Alaskan winter time voyage. A week after leaving St. Paul, we moored the barge in Shotgun Cove and took the tug on in to the dock at Whittier where I would leave the boat. It was vacation time for me. I was heading for the tropical island of Key West Florida, to bask under its eighty five degree winter sun, and pursue fish and lobster in its crystalline blue waters.
ALASKA JOURNAL, FALL 1991
Well once again, I’m in Alaska and on a boat! Seems I’ve said that before. So far almost a replay of the northern journey this spring. Howard drove me to the Corpus Christi airport and the adventure began. Better connections this time, a quick hop to Houston and then on to Anchorage. Another short hop down to Homer and I was on the boat in fifteen hours. The same job, Chief Engineer on the tug Petro Challenger. Four familiar faces, three new ones. The skipper and the two mates the new faces. First impressions are that it is a normal crew; all but one mate are smokers. Four of the crew consider Louis L’amour America’s greatest writer. The other three, the skipper, the chief mate, and an AB you can hold a conversation with.
The big surprise is that there is still another trip to the Red Dog Mine on tap. I would have thought that they would have gotten that out of the way by now. It is getting late in the year to be heading into the Arctic. We have a two-day wait here in Homer and then we will run up to Nikiski and load fuel. There is a load for Kodiak before the trip to Red Dog. I’m looking forward to Kodiak, another “new” port for me. I never tire of going to see “the elephant.
September 7. The weather has been a pleasant surprise. Sunshine and warm temperatures although the skipper said it is the first sun they have seen in two weeks.
September 11. We pulled out of Kodiak this evening at the dinner hour. We had arrived last night at twenty hundred. A little misjudgment on coming alongside the pier and the barge took out a couple of pilings and did some other assorted damage. Likely take the profit out of this trip, or at least make a dent in it. Kodiak and Dutch Harbor are both fishing towns, but that is where the similarity ends. Kodiak has tree-covered mountains, they use some color on their homes, and the streets are paved. It looks like a nice place. I’ve already written more than enough about Dutch Harbor in my journal this spring; it has & is none of the above.
September 12, Homer. Anchored this afternoon in Kachemak Bay. There will be a delay before we can load the fuel for the Red Dog Mine. The days get shorter and winter creeps intolerably closer. We would all like to get this trip behind us as the Red Dog is one hundred fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle and the ice will soon be spreading south. Already we can expect some very uncomfortable weather. The first major storm of the winter is due to hit here tomorrow.
September 14. Homer. Ridding the hook. Yesterday we left the barge anchored and went in to the pier. I went to the dentist for some antibiotics to try and keep my dental problems under control until I get home and can finish up the treatments that started in July. The skipper and the now “2nd mate”, he was demoted after we hit the pier in Kodiak, had to go in for drug tests. Anymore that is the rule after an accident. I took time to inspect and try on my Survival Suit today. If the worst happens, it is the only chance there is of surviving in these waters for more than a few minutes.
The weather has turned Alaskan, rain, fog, drizzle, wind, more rain, and clouds wispy fingers caressing a cold dark sea. Gale and storm warnings, it is good to be anchored in a protected harbor on a day like today. It is a day that we will likely soon look back on with longing.
September 18. Shilekof Straits. After leaving Homer we made the run up into Cook Inlet to Nikiski and loaded the barge for the Red Dog, mostly jet fuel, some diesel. The jet is simply a better grade of fuel for cold weather. We left out of there at fifteen hundred yesterday and headed south. It is about a six hundred mile run southeast along the Alaska Peninsula. At Unimak Pass we head north out across the Bering Sea. We crossed the waters near the Barren Islands during the night and entered the Straits a little after daylight. So far so good, the weather had been kicking up pretty good out here but laid down nicely before we came through.
September 21. Akutan Bay, Aleutian Islands, midday. We had an uneventful run down the Alaska Peninsula, fog, rain, low, low ceiling. Some moderately rough weather, nothing much though. Last night coming through Unimak Pass we were in the trough and took some big rolls for a while. Right now we are in the calm before the storm. All the weather reports are talking about fifty to sixty knot winds and seas to thirty feet in a wide area all around us. We have pulled into the protected waters between Akutan and Akun Islands to see what is coming. The Petro Mariner is tied up in St. Paul, out in the Pribolof Islands, and already in the thick of it. They will hold there until it passes. We will make circles here at least until eighteen hundred and the next weather update.
By 1800 when we picked up the weather broadcast we were getting wind gusts to sixty mph. The report calls for seas of 30 to 35 feet and winds of 50 to 60, with gusts to 80 and higher all day tomorrow. Coming in here was a good move. There are two other tugs and barges in here also. It is a large well-protected bay, some of the surrounding mountains must be close to two thousand feet and the tundra still has the green of summer.As we were heading in here, we were in amongst hundreds of thousands of birds. Mostly shearwaters, but puffins, gulls, murres, guillemonts, and more. They were so thick on the water that in some places they were showing up on the radar. If it had been night we would have thought we were in among the fishing fleet. Some Dall’s Porpoise visited us as we were shorting up the tow wire and there have been a few otter feeding nearby. Once inside the bay the most common bird has been the puffin. This is the kind of weather when you can expect to hear those frantic calls of Mayday coming in over the airwaves.
If one of these storms hit when we are out in the middle of the Bering Sea there will be no safe harbor. Then it will be head into the wind and hang on. It would be nice to miss that treat altogether, but it is definitely that time of the year. By twenty hundred we were getting wind gusts in excess of a hundred miles an hour and were pitching heavily. It really must be hell out in unprotected waters. The barometer has dropped an inch and a half since we pulled into the bay.
September 22. Holding in Akutan Bay. Sunday morning & the barometer is still dropping. 28.06” this morning, two inches all told. The old Alaska hands on here are saying that it is the lowest barometer they can remember? Engines in clutch jogging back and forth. For the moment the wind has laid to about thirty-five and the rain has let up some. A gray nasty looking day beginning. Anyone still not in protected waters is taking a real beating. Late afternoon we moved into Akutan Harbor for even more protection. The center of the storm has passed over us and the shifting wind has started pushing the swell in through the entrance of the bay. Here in the harbor we only have a slight swell. We are making circles just off of the Eskimo village of Akutan. Three or four-dozen buildings and over a point of land, a cannery and dock. The villagers have blown up the road connecting the two. They don’t want the imported cannery workers and the trouble they bring coming into the village. There is an old whaling village across the harbor. It would be nice to get over there with my camera, but there won’t be any chance of that.
Sunday dinner was baked halibut from a fish we picked up in Kodiak. A peach/apple cobbler topped it off. A very nice meal. I have vowed that is to be the last sugar I consume on this boat! The cook is a grouchy old Viet Nam vet with a disability pension. He was an early advisor in the war and an explosives man. A jeep he was ridding in hit a mine and rotated him out. His hands now shake as if he has permanent DT’s. His enormous belly balloons the stained tee shirts and prevents him from getting closer then arms length to the stove. His stomach looks like a Sunday afternoon football blimp held fast by large red suspenders. The heavy gray stubble jaw is made grayer still by ash fall from the ever present cigarette protruding from the large fleshly lips. The smoke is a real problem on this boat. Last night was typical. The smoke hung in the galley air like that from the fires of Yellowstone. Adding to the poisonous haze was smoke from the adjoining room where some of the crewmembers were watching the video of Louis L’amour’s Sakett clan killing the same people that they have killed so many times before on this trip. The same movie seems to be on everyday. I breathe shallow as I pass through and seldom linger. I try to work my meal times around those of the heaviest smokers. The one I can never work around is the cook. If his meals were not so damn good I would come back when he was finished and fix my own.
I was listening to a Coast Guard broadcast just after dinner. They are trying to identify an overturned hull off to the southeast of here. They think it might be a fishing vessel out of Cordova that has been missing since the twentieth.
September 22. PM. We stuck our nose outside the bay and since it didn’t get broken so we decided to go for it. Another day in there wouldn’t have bothered me a bit. Give it a little more time to lie down. One of the heaviest otter populations that I have come across up here. That was a treat, watching them lolling along on their backs with dinner resting on their chests. One pair we passed was very closely entwined. I went to my Audubon nature guide for information on breeding seasons and gestation times but all that I found was confirmation that they are aquatic in both breeding and birthing habits.
September 24. AM. The nose might not have gotten broken, but it is going to get bruised some, that’s for sure. Heading north and hanging on at a slow bell. 20’seas and 40 to 50 knot winds, a real rough ride. I don’t know what if anything this abuse would do to my computer so until the weather calms down I will keep my journal in longhand and transcribe it later. The storm of course did not go where forecast, (ashore) and we are now in behind it following it north. It looks like a slow rough ride ahead. The delays, along with letting Old Man Winter get really wound up, will also stretch our fresh water supply. I have cautioned the crew about conserving as best they can. We have been making 1 to 1 ½ knots. Twenty-four miles a day. 850 miles to go, it doesn’t bear thing about. There is another low-pressure system coming off Japan already. This could really be a bad trip.
September 25. For a while this morning it looked as if the weather might get reasonable, but that was not to be, not yet. Winds that had dropped to thirty are once again flirting with fifty. Seas back up to twenty feet. It looked so good this morning I opened my port and cleaned the glass both sides. Left it propped open and received a face full of cold salt water during my afternoon nap. I ask the skipper about refueling the tug from the barge, (our usual source) before we head back from the Red Dog. He said that he had asked them to load some extra for us, but the office turned him down. Not a wise decision in my opinion. At this time of year this far north it is not a good idea to be running the boat light on fuel. That is the only ballast we carry. I worry about stability when we are light. I would guess that these diesel engines weigh quite a bit less that the original steam plant that the boat was designed around. I know that the ride deteriorates markedly as the fuel is used up.
September 26. We have been averaging eighty miles a day for the last two days, 3.3 miles per hour. Wind and sea increasing, wind sixty, seas to twenty-five. Making even less headway today, 2.0 knot. Air temperature is dropping a degree a day. It is forty-four and still no concern, but still a long northern run ahead. Freezing spray in weather like this would be deadly. There is no safe harbor out here where you could lay up and break ice. At sixteen hundred we picked up a Coast Guard broadcast about the F/V Seahawk sinking with two people aboard. The CG was asking if there were any boats in the vicinity that could render aid. Once again they were far to the southeast of us. We did have a target on our radar today, about six miles distant but in this weather invisible. Could not raise him on the radio.
September 27. Happy birthday to me! The big FIVE O, somewhere in the middle of the Bering Sea. Whoopee!!! The weather calmed down today, it does get tiresome hanging on twenty-four hours a day. This afternoon we were able to put the engines full ahead for the first time. Looks as if we might get to the Red Dog about eighteen hundred on the 30th. There are storm warnings everywhere behind us. Just hope they stay behind us.
September 28. More good weather, but also the calm before the storm again. The maps coming off of the weather fax today tell a terrible story. One storm tracking north right behind us and a huge one off to the west coming this direction with 75 knot winds and 40 foot seas. We need about eighteen hours of good weather to pump off the barge. The dock is unprotected and the water is shallow. If we don’t get the fuel off before the storm hits we could be there for days waiting on weather. We don’t have days. This is not a good situation. It won’t be long before all this water is frozen solid until spring. It doesn’t happen like one day there is a little bit of ice here, and the next day a little more there. It happens that one day it is suddenly all ice. Poof, just like that.
September 29. AURORA BOREALIS!!! A nice treat this morning, the mate on watch woke me at 0400 for the light show. This is the first clear sky we have had in weeks. Red, green and white ribbons of light pulsating across the northern sky, changing minute by minute. The show went on for about a half hour while I was on the bridge. If fortune will smile on us, we just may have another clear night or two before all hell breaks loose. A nice sunrise this morning also. It went on for almost two hours before the sun crept over the horizon. “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning.” At sunrise we were about the same latitude as Nome and still over three hundred miles to go. We will reach the Bering Strait sometime before midnight and so cross into the Chukchi Sea. Dinner hour, the cook prepared a Thanksgiving Dinner? Approaching Cape Prince of Wales & the Straits. The drab barren volcanoes of the cape and the adjoining Seward Peninsula lightly dusted with snow. High overcast has settled back in, the Diomede Islands faint shadows in the mist. Over on the Siberian mainland Cape Dezhneva is hidden by fog. Light winds and calm seas so it is still a beautiful evening. Twenty one hundred, making good time, the Cape has been left behind and we are now in the Chukchi Sea. The wind is back up to 40 mph out of the northeast. To the west there is a break between the overcast and the fog bank hovering over the land. The setting sun has turned that strip of sky the color of Hawaiian lava, the hottest gold, and oranges and reds. Shooting out of that molten mixture the suns rays have painted the bottom of the overcast in multi hued bands like the strata of some gigantic canyon wall. “Red sky at night, sailors delight.” What now? 2200. Picking up the “Tundra Telegraph” on the Kotzebue radio station. “William Smith please call the National Guard office.” “Bill we will be at the camp until Thursday. Sally & Rod.” “To residents of Kotzebue from Homer Mills, the dump will be open October 1st.” “Larry, Jack, and Vickie at camp; Mom & Dad have made it home OK.” Then some popular music, then Eskimo language lessons and a little later, country music. Something for everyone. Scripture three or four times an hour. In Alaska, unless you are within reach of a PBS station it is hard not to be subjected to Jesus on the radio. Penitence that must be why people move here. Choosing to live in Alaska is the same as the Iranians beating themselves with chains. That has to be it.
September 30. Day broke calm and clear, two-foot seas, light winds out of the east. Color starts to come to the eastern sky a little after seven and builds until the sunrise a little after nine. The radio has brought good tidings this morning. The storm that was following in our tract is now forecast to dissipate in the Yukon delta. The huge storm to the west is now drifting to the south and looks as if it will go into the Gulf of Alaska. Something for others to worry about. With this break in the weather we should be able to get in there tonight, pump the fuel off, and be on our way south by tomorrow night. PM. Clear skies all day. Wind picked up to 20. The red white & blue Red Dog building showing up bright and sharp from twenty miles out. The largest building in Alaska.
October 7. The trip back to the south has been anti-climatic. Everyone is thankful for that. Good to great weather the entire distance. We will pull into Seward in the morning. We have a two-week shipyard period ahead. Not my favorite way to spend time on a boat. I wouldn’t mind just wrapping up this adventure and heading back home. Time for me and the birds to get started on that southbound journey. This is not turning out to be a happy crew. The Louis L’amour click against the others. Luckily I am my own little department and can usually stay out of most of it. It doesn’t make for good vibes though. It is really hard to relate to some of the people that work on the boats. I guess most everyone runs into or works with the same type, but out here you have to live with them also. The low man on the totem here, the one that would normally do most of the general chores is sixty years old. The few remaining teeth hanging in his ruined gums look like the last standing tombstones in a boot hill cemetery. He is a caricature of a white trash figure from Tobacco Road. Stupid, lazy, intolerant, he is against everything he doesn’t understand. He has a lot to take aim at. He, the second mate, and the lead tankerman, form the LL click. The chief mate is their antagonist. I usually just try to ignore them unless our jobs intertwine. This will be my last time on this boat. When the atmosphere gets like this I just don’t come back. I have been getting criticism for not including people in my journals. I am trying to stick some in this one every now and then. The above is one reason I haven’t, I don’t even like to think about some of these the assholes! I’ll show them intolerant.
October 8. Seward. We shortened up the tow wire at 0230 and proceeded up the fiord at slow speed to time our arrival with the daylight. Steep jagged snow capped mountains and huge glaciers marked our route. The dock that we are going to is across the harbor from town. The shipyard and the Alaska State prison are on the banks of Forth of July Creek below the blue white mass of the Godwin Glacier.
October 10. I got my wish and left the boat. I had told the skipper that I would just as soon get relieved when we got here and I was obliged. The two mates and I left the boat first thing this morning and caught a ride over the mountains to Anchorage. I had a seven-hour wait at the Anchorage airport but after that an uneventful flight to DFW and on to Corpus Christi. Twenty-four hours after leaving the boat I was home.
The Sound of Oil
I arrived, forty days before the Solstice, thankfully the summer one this time. Another thirty eight hundred mile commute from Key West Florida, and now once again, I'm in Alaska and on a boat...On March 25, within hours of the Exxon Valdez ripping its belly open on Bligh Reef and spilling 260,000 barrels of North Slope Crude into Prince William Sound, my answering machine was receiving calls from Crowley Maritime. They were crewing up all the boats they could get in service to send to Valdez, and they needed help.
I had been down in old Mexico thawing out after working the winter on the frozen waters of Cook Inlet. For that adventure I had arrived on the winter solstice of what was to be the coldest winter in Alaskan history. Wind chill factors of one hundred degrees below zero and more had been more than enough cold weather to last me a lifetime, but here it was scarcely mid April and I was on my way back, back to a world reeling under the impact of the largest oil spill in American history. My initial destination was Seattle where I would meet the boat that I would take up north.
I went aboard as chief engineer on what turned out to be a massive old 1956 vintage tugboat named the Sea Giant. I had no more than reported aboard when we loaded some groceries and were underway. We were to first head down to San Francisco to pick up a barge loaded with equipment destined for Valdez and the cleanup effort. It was a pleasant transit out through Puget Sound with good weather and a following sea all the way to San Francisco. A couple of days in port waiting for the barge to be loaded and we hooked up and were on our way for the two week trip to Valdez. The Sea Giant had a type of diesel engine that I had never seen before, a huge direct reversible monster twenty four feet long and ten feet high called an Enterprise that looked to be right out of the Smithsonian. The boat itself is 116 feet long, of 294 gross tons, and generates 2000 HP with an engine speed of a sedate 260 RPM. A big comfortable slow moving relic, all in all an interesting Boat. I'm enjoying it, we cruise along at six or seven knots and for a tugboat she runs fairly quiet. The galley has a diesel fired range that looks like something out of an early mining camp and we have a cook named Jack that knows how to make it sing.
On the entire trip south, and now going north also, the ocean has been covered with small jellyfish that I believed were Portuguese Man of War. They are so thick that they sometimes appear to be sea foam. One washed up on deck and it proved to be a type known as the, By-The-Wind-Sailor, a smaller less toxic cousin to the Man of War. This is the first time I have been on the Pacific Ocean in over twenty years and the wildlife we are seeing is a treat. We have been accompanied all along by legions of Black Footed Albatross, their soaring flight with its long low glides skimming the surface is truly majestic and something I have missed on my Atlantic and Caribbean voyages. Also keeping us company in great numbers are the far traveling shearwaters of the Short-tailed, Sooty, and Buller's varieties, true vagabonds, they nest in Tasmania and Australia and summer along the Pacific Coast as far north as the Aleutian Islands. Their journey has caused me to view my commute from far a different perspective. The Dall's Porpoise with his black and white markings similar to the Killer Whale's has been ridding our bow wave daily, while Humpback Whales have put in a couple of appearances also. The Pacific Ocean has been living up to its name and has been almost as smooth and slick as smoked glass. For a while at least the tragic reason for this trip can almost be forgotten.
On the 12th of May we entered Prince William Sound, its remote beauty easily living up to my expectations, steep thickly forested mountains with immense glaciers and shimmering snow fields which at this time of year send many spectacular waterfalls tumbling into the sea. All the way across the sound, past the now infamous Bligh Reef, and into Valdez harbor we saw no sign of the spill. The Exxon Valdez had been moved to Naked Island on the side not visible to us as we passed and the oil is now mostly southwest of our course. Soon enough I expect to see all too much of this catastrophe.
May 26. We have been anchored here in Valdez harbor for two weeks now and along with numerous other boats and barges we have spent most of our time standing by. The harbor is full of equipment doing little or nothing. From my vantage point this operation is in dire need of a general. People are working at cross-purposes and running in circles. We made one trip out to Smith Island and the U.S.S. Juneau, which is the mother ship for numerous landing craft that are being used in the clean up. The Juneau is also used as a hotel for some of the clean up crew. Smith Island is a flyspeck on the charts, yet has been the center of the major part of the cleaning effort for a month or more. There are landing craft and small boats of every description literally running around in circles. I know of one beach that has been cleaned seven times. A beach will apparently be cleaned of oil and then with the next high tide, oil that is already buried in the gravel will float to the surface, recoat the beach and it will appear as if the cleanup never took place.
Some of the figures that have been published: 2500 to 6000 square miles of ocean affected. Estimates are 400 to 700 miles of shoreline fouled; the larger number may be conservative. Miles of beach that Exxon promises to clean by September thirty, miles cleaned as of May 15th: one point three. Sea Otters killed 900. Deer killed from eating oiled kelp 300. Birds killed 17,000*. The number of seals affected is unknown, they should have started pupping a week ago but a Cousteau Vessel reported yesterday of being unable to find any sign of it so far. Forty dead Bald Eagles with 30% of the Prince William Sound population unaccounted for. One millimeter of oil on an Eagle egg will reportedly kill the chick.** It just goes on and on and gets more and more depressing. This is merely the body count from accessible areas and is a fraction of the true totals. I see the restoration of the Sound to be totally beyond the scope of mankind's ability, the best that can be said is that every gallon reclaimed is one gallon less out there spreading its deadly curse.
On a lighter note the weather since our arrival has been glorious, daily highs around sixty degrees. The mountains around Valdez harbor are magnificent, great rugged peaks that come out of the water to rise as shear cliffs five thousand feet or more. We had a seal climb up on the boat to sun himself the other day but as soon as I poked my head and camera out of the hatch he hit the water. Daylight, we have it in abundance, it is not getting dark until about one in the morning and then it starts getting light again by three. I have been into town twice and there is definitely a boomtown atmosphere about it. Lines at every pay phone, bare shelves in the stores and people everywhere. Not much unemployment here, Exxon promises to have 5000 people on beach cleaning crews by June 15th. We are slated to tow a derrick barge out to Louis Bay on Knight Island any day now that will put us right in the thick of the cleanup effort. The schedule is calling for the boat to stay out there the rest of the summer. My bet is that it will be a mad house, though it should be interesting. I go with both curiosity and dread.
May 30. Our glorious weather is a thing of the past; we haven't seen the sun in three or four days. The clouds seem almost to touch our mast, and at times the fog cuts our visibility down to a boat length. The cook has been catching a few sable fish, also called black cod, they are fine eating.
* On June 20, Biologists for Alaska Wildlife Refuge estimate bird deaths from the spill likely to exceed 200,000.
** June 27. U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that out of 118 Bald Eagle nests on Knight Island, only 13 eaglets have been spotted. On five other islands heavily impacted by oil no eaglets were seen in 30 known nests. In affected areas possibly 50% of the nests have been abandoned.
At eleven hundred hours we got underway for Knight Island with the derrick barge in tow. The Tugs Sea Fox and the Sea Queen are following along behind, each with a barge in tow also. Moving out to the front lines finally after seventeen days in Valdez Harbor.
May 31. Louis Bay, Knight Island. What an address! We maneuvered the barge in past several small wooded islands and through narrow passages up into the head of Louis Bay. It is a scene to make a travel agent gush, a well protected anchorage with numerous rocky beaches and forested mountains on three sides, the snow fields of the higher elevations sending sparkling cataracts tumbling down from granite precipice to rocky gorge on waters endless journey back to the sea. At first glance it still appeared untouched by man, and then I noticed the unnatural stillness. There is little movement beyond the falling water, only an occasional bird where hundreds once soared. The normal wildlife is absent...
Our first order of business was to anchor the barges securely. The derrick barge anchored using a four-point spread, which is a manner of mooring where an anchor is run out from each corner of the barge and makes for a very stable platform. Next the two barges brought in by the other tugs were made fast along either side of the derrick barge. This will now form a repair and supply base for the cleanup task forces. The massive crane on the derrick barge is capable of lifting boats of up to 350 tons aboard for repairs. The next arrival and addition to our growing community was the Tug Sea Cloud with a fuel barge carrying over a million gallons of diesel fuel. This is growing into a complete ship repair facility capable of most emergency repairs or engine overhauls. The size of this operation is staggering. I was given a list of seven store ships stationed throughout the Sound that can supply all of our grocery and personal needs such as shampoos, stationary, etc. There are hotel ships and hotel and hospital barges, West Coast boats, and boats from Texas and Louisiana, this operation itself cannot be sustained without its own detrimental impact on the environment. The amount of sewage and laundry phosphates alone now being dumped into the water must be tremendous, there has to be upwards of 8000 people now living and working in Prince William Sound.
June 1. We have been here twenty four hours now, time enough to observe our surroundings, time enough to notice the heavy black "bathtub ring" around the entire bay, time enough to see the oil slicks drifting by and the tar balls amongst the popweed, and time enough once again to notice the stillness, the lack of movement in an area so recently pristine and renown for its myriad forms of wildlife. Time enough also to listen to fishermen who have harvested these waters for years and who tell of the recent past, when I would have seen hundreds of Bald Eagles, plus ravens, and crows, and sea gulls in numbers beyond counting, along with scores of Sea Otters, seals, and shore birds. What I have seen is six eagles, seven sea gulls, three ravens, one Blue Heron, and one otter. What has happened here is devastating and when multiplied by the hundreds of miles of shoreline affected, it is beyond comprehension.
June 2. Fish, now on that score I can be more optimistic. Yesterday after the anchoring operation had settled down, maybe even before, the cook had his line in the water. By evening the tally was four codfish and two halibut, the latter running about eight pounds. This morning I had my line out first thing and soon had a nice twenty-five pound halibut to show for my efforts. Then this afternoon while I was in my cabin punching away at my word processor I heard a commotion out on deck; I arrived just in time to see the crew trying to bring a five and a half foot halibut aboard. After shooting him in the head with the line-throwing gun we were able to land him. It was one hundred fifty pounds of fish, very good fish. Wonderful fish! So far at least the spill does not seem to have affected the bottom fishes and we will have some splendid eating. The salmon should start running in here in a couple of weeks. We can just hope for the best, I sure don't know what is happening, or will happen, I don't believe anyone knows.
June 4. Sunday, I awoke to find a large oil slick covering a good part of the bay stretching out from our boats. It doesn't look like the original spill, to me this looks as if someone pumped bilges during the night. It is inconceivable to me, but that would be my guess. We came here to be a part of the solution and within days we are a part of the problem. I saw a flock of seven sea gulls today; about double the number I've spotted since our arrival. This is the first time I can ever remember being anywhere on or near the sea that you could even think about being able to count gulls. They for one at least should make a rapid comeback, as they are some of the most successful colonizers on Earth.
June 6. Sunshine! The first since the glorious weather of those initial days in Valdez, it is a rare commodity up here, and one to be treasured. The operation centered on the derrick barge is coming together now, small and medium sized boats coming and going in increasing numbers, loading and unloading supplies and equipment at all hours, we have daylight pretty much around the clock now as we approach the Solstice, a couple of hours of twilight in the wee hours of the morning and then it is getting light again. Boats are being lifted onto the barge for repairs, floatplanes are flying in and out and the helicopter pad should be operational soon. There is a water supply ship collecting water from falls coming off glaciers and distributing it to boats of the cleanup task force. Repair crews are fabricating parts and refueling boats, the activity is hectic and purposeful, a big change from our days in Valdez harbor.
June 10. I managed to liberate a skiff today and get out away from the hustle and noise of our part in this operation. I ran in along the shore of Louis Bay and circled some smaller nearby islands. In this area the black "bathtub ring" covers about ten vertical feet of the shore, thick, gooey, and reeking of oil the inter-tidal zone is lifeless. I came upon one group of six or seven seals, it seemed that half of them were oiled and those were very listless. I didn't attempt a close approach, as I am sure they have been stressed to near, or beyond their limits. There was no other life, no shore birds, no otters, no gulls, total silence prevailed. I have not seen even the few eagles that were here when we arrived in days, have we scarred them off or have they also succumbed to the Black Death?
June 12. I availed myself to the skiff again, this time I ran over to Ingot Island, a few miles across the bay. There is a beach cleaning crew that is visible from our boat and has been cleaning in about the same spot since we anchored here. It is a large barge with an attending tugboat holding it up against the beach. They are using high-pressure hoses deployed from a basket similar to the ones used to lift workers up to power lines. They wash the surface oil off the rocks and into the water where it is contained by booms and reclaimed by skimmers. A very slow procedure and one that has little effect on the subsurface oil that is sure to rise again with the incoming tide.
June 15. I went aboard a 47-foot aluminum boat that was tied up along side waiting on the crane. A Navy LCM collided with them and they are over here for repairs. The boat is built similar to a small Navy landing craft, a flat bottom with a bow ramp. They have been involved in the cleanup since day one. So far the boat has grossed $220,000, that is about $3000 a day and will be approximately a half million dollars by summers end. They carry several high-pressure pumps and steam cleaners and are washing the beaches. The cleaners put out 3000 psi and 150 degree centigrade seawater. They have 12 fire hoses churning up the beach and use the steam to wash the oil out to be gathered by the waiting skimmers. They work with a 60-person beach crew and have 3 people in the cargo bay to operate the pumps. The couple with the boat, Rodney and Kathy, were getting ready to leave on a five year cruise on their wooden sailboat when the Exxon Valdez, managed in clear weather, to eviscerate itself on a well marked reef and void its bowels of poisonous cargo into the heretofore bountiful waters of Prince William Sound. They had been planning the trip for three years and it was to be a low budget affair. This has caused a delay in the adventure, but they will leave with a very comfortable cushion. Rodney was telling of beaches where a three-foot hole will continually fill with oil as fast as you can bail it out. He has some photos from the first days, where his boat is anchored in oil a foot thick. We need new terminology, calling this disaster a spill is akin to calling Hurricane Hugo bad weather.
June 18. The work continues, but the task is overwhelming. At summers end there are sure to be many hundreds of miles of fouled beach that will never have seen a cleanup crew, yet today I received a letter from Exxon. Dated June 8, 1989 and signed by L.G. Rawl, Chairman of the Board. Addressed to me as one of many who wrote them about the tragic accident (I had sent them my melted credit card) he states "Exxon plans to clean up all affected shoreline by September 15, 1989." It simply cannot be done, the effort being expended here is enormous, the money being thrown around mind boggling, but the help came too late and now the dimensions of this cataclysm have put it beyond their power to rectify. It is also apparently beyond their power to speak the truth. I believe the best thing that could now be done for the environment is for us all to go home and leave this mess to Mother Nature. The secondary pollution being caused by the thousands of people and boats out here is I believe, worse than any "good" that we are accomplishing. I was told yesterday of a 7000 gallon oil spill at one of the Navy ships, where it still took over two hours to get booms deployed. It is the old one step forward two step back dance, in some areas, after days of cleaning activity, the most apparent difference is oil splattered onto regions heretofore free of the carnage. This effort had to be put forth, but with our current technology I believe that once the oil is on the beach, in this type of terrain at least, the restoration is out of the hands of man. Our efforts must now be on prevention, safer ships, larger better-trained crews, expanded response teams, and higher liabilities and insurance levels for all tankers plying this nations waters.
This is a story without an ending, and one where we cannot yet draw any final conclusions; this sad saga will be played out over the coming years in ways we cannot yet fathom. Lessons can and hopefully will be learned, attitudes and priorities hopefully changed. At times like this it is hard to be optimistic, for as we were passing Bligh Reef on our way out here to Knight Island we met a Liberian Tanker inbound to Valdez. If the Exxon Valdez had been a foreign flag of convenience vessel, there would have been little if any recourse for the recovery of damages. Those ships, usually American owned are one ship companies. Their insurance and liabilities begin and end with the value of that one ship and its cargo.
Louis Bay, Knight Island
Prince William Sound, Alaska
Walrus, Puffin & Whale
The boat staggered as the immense weight of the green water crashed into the wheelhouse. Daylight disappeared as if the jaws of some primal sea monster had snapped shut around us. As the boat struggled out from under the embrace of the huge wave, the windows were suffused with an opaque light. Yet even as we shook free of its grasp, our vision was obscured, as the sea was dashed to foam against the ice-encrusted windows. Knuckles flashed white as handgrips were reaffirmed and bodies again braced against the mad gyrations of the tugboat. The windows cleared, and for a brief moment I again became unwilling witness to the spectacle of an ocean standing on end, whipped to a fury of thirty five foot seas and foam filled skies by ninety knot winds. Tons of water continually rushed over the decks back to the sea, yet some small part always remained behind, now adding a new layer to the ever-growing coat of ice. Ice that can in time overwhelm, and carry a boat down to a dark and everlasting peace, where waves crash and thunder no more. I remembered that morning with a clarity that seems to be saved for those times when you are out on the edge. The memories awakened by a phone call, a company looking for a chief engineer for a tugboat in Alaska. The morning had been in 1989, and we had later made it into a protected cove on the Alaska Peninsula and spent many long hours breaking ice with baseball bats and sledgehammers. That had been in November, and winter had been tightening its icy grip upon the land, but now it was early spring and the world looked bright and new.
By the middle of April 1991, I had been running American Agenda, my maritime employment service for about eight months. By then I had close to five hundred shipping companies and a thousand merchant marine personnel in my computer files. The business was growing and I felt that I was definitely on the right track, but as in every start up I have ever had anything to do with, cash was tight. I received the call from United Tug & Barge of Seattle in response to one the promotional fliers that I periodically fax out. They were looking for a chief engineer for a two-month job on an ocean going tugboat in Alaska. The money and the job sounded interesting so I faxed them my own resume. They called the next morning with the job offer. I phoned my son Howard and offered him a position running American Agenda while I was gone. One of my goals in starting this business was to get Howard involved. I had two weeks to break Howard in and get ready to leave. One of the things that made me think that this might work was the fact that the boat I would be working on would seldom be out to sea for more than three or four days at a time and I could stay in touch by telephone. I bought a laptop computer to take along and loaded all of my files onto it. Under those conditions I felt I would be able to exercise some control and help Howard over the rough spots. Spending the last eight months at a desk had nothing to do with my decision. I’ve outgrown the need for adventure. This was strictly business.
And that is how I found myself once again, far away from the warm sandy beaches of my tropical homeland, sailing on the cold northern sea, on the lookout for walrus, puffin, and whale.
DUTCH HARBOR, ALASKA, MAY 2, 1991 In the early hours of April 30, Howard drove me to the Corpus Christi airport. Eighteen hours and three planes later I was at the Anchorage airport awaiting the flight to Dutch Harbor. I boarded a small twin-engine propeller driven plane for the four-hour flight. Under, over, and through a cold gray overcast we headed for our first stop. It was the tiny settlement of Cold Bay out on the Alaska Peninsula. It turned out to be a dreary collection of a handful of small buildings grouped around a minimal airstrip. The colorless structures seemed to crouch there, racked by the cold relentless wind on a slightly elevated strip of soggy tundra surrounded by miles of mud flats. Beyond the mud, cold inhospitable waters and little else. Most of the homes seemed to have been built to resemble house trailers. A photograph would appear much the same in black & white or color. What would attract or cause someone to stay there? Icy winds of near hurricane velocities seem to be the norm. Our one deplaning passenger the major advent of the day? The week?
At 2100 hours we landed at Dutch Harbor. Almost the same color scheme, varying shades of gray. The mountains are higher here so there is more of the clean white brightness of fresh snow. Some of the ships and boats in the harbor providing a welcome splash of color every now and again. Everything except the fresh snow and the ships covered with mud, or dried mud. Everything. Hovering over the town there is a sour all prevailing smell from the Surimi plants, but that is also the smell of money. This is the top producing seafood port in the nation. That is the attraction that has brought the fishing fleets of many nations to this unattractive and inhospitable Aleutian Island outpost.
We are at anchor, waiting on the fuel dock to sell enough fuel to the fishing fleet that they will have room to take the fuel from the barge we are towing. This is my fifth day on the boat. I awoke to the hissing whine of gale force winds and a hard driving rain that was so cold I was amazed that it was not snowing. It was a reminder that in this part of the world, the month of May does not bring flowers. It was only seven days ago that I was at home on the beach of Mustang Island in ninety-four degree weather. Throughout this day, the wind has been gusting 40 to 50 miles per hour, and bringing with it wind chill temperatures of 10 degrees and below. Last night the winds hit 90 mph. These conditions are so common that they hardly deserve comment. They say the Navy once released a hundred goats here on the island and within a year, all were dead from malnutrition. The sparse vegetation it seems is almost devoid of nourishment.
The one visual treat that can be counted on is the soaring flight of the many Bald Eagles now in residence. They can be found riding the air currents above the mountain ridges and along the shoreline during most of the eighteen hours of daylight available at this time of the year. It won’t be long before daylight will last pretty much around the clock. “The Land of The Midnight Sun.” It has a nice ring to it. The problem with that is the other side of the coin. During the winter months it is, “The Land The Sun Forsook.”
The M/V Petro Challenger. My place of habitation and work for the next two months. She is a 150’ tugboat that started life in 1946 as a steam powered Army tug. She has been converted to diesel power sometime in the distant past. It is an interesting old boat and seems to be in pretty fair shape. The diesels take up far less room than did the steam plant; therefore the engine room is unusually spacious. The overhead raises four decks to a bank of skylights. They provide a rare engine-room phenomenon, daylight. Our hydraulic crane can reach down through the skylights to facilitate replacing heavy engine-room equipment. It is a nice layout for the engineer. By most standards she is a roomy tugboat. The eight- man crew is each afforded a private stateroom. We have a good cook and a comfortable lounge. The later of which I seldom use because of the number of smokers aboard. The level of smoke in this boat is as bad as a politician’s back room. My cabin is separate from the rest of the living quarters, so there at least, I have sanctuary from cigarettes. I’m sure some of the crew-members must think that I’m anti-social but it is (mostly) just my aversion to tobacco smoke.
We left the barge anchored in the harbor and ran in to the company dock to fill up with fresh water. The boat needed some other supplies so I rode along in the pickup to do some sight seeing. From what I’ve seen so far, a roll of film will last a long time on this island. Gray & brown, brown and gray, and in what to me is a unique exterior design statement, most of the homes are painted the color of the mud. Red, green, blue, yellow. I’m starved for the colors of the tropics and I’ve only been here a week. Before long I’ll likely be hanging around the produce department at the local grocery, it is the only place I’ve found with any color.
MAY 8. I awoke to a rocking boat and a whistling wind once again. This time it looks as if it has been snowing all night. On a positive note and one of the things that makes Dutch Harbor important, is the harbor. It is large and well protected. In fact it is a series of harbors. To be bouncing like we are here at anchor does generate some appreciation of the place, realizing what it must be like outside. The barometer has dropped 1” since midnight. There are three-foot waves here in the harbor. A bad day to be out on one of the small local fishing boats. It is a tough and dangerous life. Yesterday was halibut season, a 24-hour season. There may be only one or two 24 hour seasons a year. That forces the fishermen to go out whatever the weather. We picked up a few pieces of bait from a boat that was getting ready to go out the day before yesterday. Four people in a 32’ boat risking their lives for a $1 a pound.
MAY 10. Still hanging on the anchor in Dutch Harbor. Somewhat improved weather. Almost noon and it hasn’t rained or snowed yet. There was even a hint of sunshine for a couple of hours. Today is an EAGLE DAY. They are everywhere; I took some photos of beautiful mature eagle perched on our mast. The skipper and I made a run into town and I must have seen fifty or more Bald Eagles. They were mixed about half and half, mature and immature. They were working the water, perched on the cliffs, and sitting on the rocks at waters edge next to the road. I have seen a number of large sea lions here in the harbor also. I guess it is about time I found something positive about this place. Its good points though, are well disguised. I am ready to hook it up and go see the some new country. (Note: Just heard on the radio of at least one halibut boat going down during the storm. Some lives lost, I didn’t catch the number. Another boat on the news caught 14,000 pounds that is why they take the risks. This year’s price was $1.75.)
MAY 19. 0400 This morning we pulled out of Dutch Harbor, 20 days sitting on anchor. It is good to be on the move. We have pretty good weather, five foot seas, 20 knot winds, we will be in fairly protected waters most of the way to Nikiski. Up along the Alaska Peninsula we will be running inside of some small islands which afford a bit of shelter most of the way. Past Kodiak Island there is a stretch of open water before we get into Cook Inlet. Kick Ass Strait would be a good name for it. 1800. Blue sky and calm seas all day, a nice surprise. If it wasn’t for the temperature & the towering snow capped volcanoes (one smoking) we have been passing all day we might think that we were somewhere reasonable. The old boat is running good, quite comfortable for a tugboat and relatively quiet. (I still sleep with earplugs) The engine-room skylights are a treat. I’m running with them cranked open, letting in the sunshine and the fresh air. With the unusual spaciousness afforded by the engine-room overhead rising open for four deck levels, it would only require the addition some stained glass in the skylights, for it to look like some bizarre cathedral to the God of Internal Combustion.
MAY 20, 1991 Perfect weather, a one-foot swell and no wind or clouds. Almost unheard of up here. A more typical Aleutian Islands weather forecast would be, “There is a small craft warning associated with a low pressure system that has been lying off Adak for the last 48 years, more of the same is expected.” The most numerous birds that I have seen since we left port have been the Horned Puffin. Great looking birds, the sea parrots with the clown face. They sure do have a hard time getting up off the water. They look like a bird evolving towards the loss of flight, but I believe they are simply full of fish. Some of them look positively round. When they do get into the air it still looks as though they have to work pretty hard at staying there. Often as hard as they flap, they just bounce their bellies from wave to wave until they are far enough away from our path to feel secure. At other times they just give up all attempts at flight and dive below the surface.
May 21 0530, Slept from sundown to sunup. That is a little over five hours this time of year. At midnight it is just getting dark. The boat did a little rock’n & a roll’n during the night, nothing radical. It looks like another day of sunshine. It would be great if this summer’s weather turned out similar to the summer of ‘89. The year I worked the Valdez oil spill we had one six-week stretch of sunshine. The locals said that it was almost unheard of. We are passing through the Shilekof Straits, this can be dangerous water. The winter that I was up here, it seemed that the weather reports called for 80-knot winds and freezing spray here every time I heard the broadcasts. This is the water between Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula. Later today, as we leave the Straits we will be passing Mt. Augustine, an island volcano with a classic cylindrical cone. It should be a treat on a clear day like this. And it was. Cape Douglas was also impressive. Huge craggy snow covered, glaciated mountains, jutting powerfully out into the sea. As we neared the Kenai Peninsula the Puffins that we started seeing were of the tufted variety instead of the horned ones that were prevalent out in the Aleutians.
HOMER ALASKA We received word that there would not be any room at the fuel dock for a couple of days so we have pulled into Homer and dropped the hook. A great improvement over Dutch Harbor. This place is what Alaska is supposed to look like. Snow capped pine (spruce?) covered mountains rising sharply from a cold blue sea. We shortened up the tow, made up alongside the barge, and dropped anchor at 2300. Still plenty of daylight left.
NIKISKI, MAY 23 Our stay in Homer was cut short; room was made for us at the fuel dock here in Nikiski. We are moored to the same dock that provided me with so much excitement that winter of ‘89. The boat that I was working on at the time, the Rig Engineer had been stuck in the ice for most of the night. About three in the morning the moving ice flow carried us in under the dock. The entire stern was swept under. The wheelhouse hitting the face of the pier was all that kept the boat from slipping completely beneath the dock. The forward mooring bits were ripped off, as were the bridge handrails and a ladder. The temperature was so low that steel that would normally bend, split like wood. A changing tide is all that spared the boat. I never thought I’d be coming back here. That was the closest I’ve ever come of loosing a boat out from under me. We will be out of here this afternoon. We have a one-day trip over to Seward on tap. Yesterday in Homer, a sea lion caught a salmon alongside the boat. I’m hoping to catch a few my own self. I happened to be on deck with my camera and I might have gotten an interesting photo or two.
SEWARD, MAY 25 We were only in Seward for eight hours, 1900 to 0300. Pulled in, pumped some fuel and were on our way. I would like to have spent a little more time there. A dramatic setting. Located at the end of a deep, cobalt blue fiord, nestled at the base of some remarkable mountains it is another one of those Alaska Tourist Board ideals. They do seem to have a more than casual acquaintanceship with fog though. The warm Japan Current meeting the arctic air mass just offshore creates the ideal environment for its formation. We had been running in bright sunlight until about six hours from port. Then the fog bank appeared ahead, lying like a great gray blanket on the waters surface. It was about two hundred feet thick with clear sky above. As soon as we broached its boundary, all trace of the sun and the horizon disappeared. The all-encompassing gray mist broke for a short time as we arrived in port. As it retreated, it revealed a magnificent amphitheater of forested snow clad mountains rising precipitously from the clear water. The view was illusive though, as the mist quickly settled back in, drawing a curtain around our world that excluded all but our immediate surroundings. The boat, barge, water, docks, a fish packing plant with one lone boat unloading its catch under a haloed light, that was the extent of what was visible on the stage formed by the soft damp curtain. We are now on our way back to the delightful port of Dutch Harbor, realm of the Mud God, and Alaska’s answer to Morgan City Louisiana. Running in fog, but the seas are calm. Gray, the sky, the water, Kodiak Island and numerous smaller islands off to port, gray & brown. A very limited palette. The snow covered mountains providing a dividing line of white, separating the gray above, from the gray below. We are now accompanied by the soaring flights of the aptly named Shearwaters. Sooty or Short-tailed varieties, likely both it is hard to distinguish. Every year millions of these birds make the round trip journey from their nesting sites in Tasmania and Australia. In the spring they fly up towards Japan and on to Alaska. In the fall they head down the west coast of North America to central California, there to head back out across the Pacific Ocean to intersect their northern flight path near Fiji. Running south by southwest, out from behind the protection of the islands. The wind and the sea coming at us from the southeast. Once again, gray above and below, now not even a snowline for a point of reference. Somewhere off to the northwest, the Alaska Peninsula, hidden now by the enveloping sameness of sea and sky. Our world has now shrunk to a circle with a visible horizon only a few hundred yards across. Our radar’s probing sweep piercing the fog and rain, electronically restoring the vision lost to the elements. The boat running in the trough, rolling in response to eight & ten foot seas and thirty knot winds. It is a nice smooth roll, an easy one to get used to. The boat rides well. By Alaskan standards a ten-foot sea is not that big a deal. Fifteen, twenty, or thirty-foot seas are not uncommon....
DUTCH HARBOR, JUNE 1, 1991 Once again at anchor waiting to pump fuel to the Petro Marine fuel dock. The Pollock season is about to open. The harbor is crammed with ships. U.S. flag draggers & trawlers, the smaller long-liners, the large foreign flag processing ships, tugboats, and container ships. The fishing boats and those that support them. The water continually fouled by fuel spills. The rainbow sheen of oil decorates every tide. Ashore, the litter of years. Cast aside fishing nets, booms, blocks, cables, wires, the rusting hulks of boats, cars, trucks, boilers, forklifts, all intermingled with a multitude of less identifiable flotsam & jetsam. The homes and business of Dutch Harbor are surrounded by & inundated by junk. Everything is mired in and covered with the all-encompassing mud. The best that can usually be said about the weather here is that, “it could be worse.”
JUNE 5 Still in Dutch, no rain for three days or so but no sun either. The solid overcast never tops of the 2000-foot Mountains. Most days half that. Today winds gusting to 35/40 mph. Hell, most days at least that. After lunch the cook and I drove into “town.” As we were leaving the dock on the road that skirts the harbor, we were behind a water truck. He started watering the road, making more mud. Later I was to appreciate why. We passed the truck and went on in to town, the cook to shop for groceries and me to go to the clinic to have a last checkup on a boil that was removed from my back last Saturday. I attempted to find out why a doctor would be living in this place if he weren’t born to it. (Or even if he was.) In answer to my questions he said that he had lived in Saudi, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago. I commented that he had quite a track record for picking places of limited aesthetic appeal. After I saw the $320.00 charge for treating a boil I felt I had my answer. Back to the water truck and the reason thereof. Three days without rain and the dry mud turns to dust. Lots of dust. People were sprinting from building to building as if running from a Sahara sandstorm. With the prevailing forty-knot wind I guess mud is the more desirable. The three faces of Dutch Harbor, Ice, Mud, & Dust. Today is our last day here. Amen.
JUNE 6 Underway, we worked all night, the tanker-men pumping the rest of the fuel to the shore stations and I was loading engine parts and taking on water. The rains came; Dutch Harbor gave us a wet send off. We worked in fifty-knot winds and horizontal rain throughout the night. After we got out to sea, fifteen to twenty foot seas. No visibility. Just try to eat, sleep, stand your watch and hang on. Heading for Homer but with these sea conditions we are lucky to make five knots.
JUNE 9 Except for twelve hours or so that we were running in protected waters amongst the Shumigan Island we have had moderately heavy weather since leaving Dutch. It has calmed down a little, ten-foot seas on our bow. Whales today, saw three groups this morning, Humpbacks, maybe twenty in all. I would really like to see a Sperm Whale. Moby Dick that is one I’ve never run across. When we head back out with our next load of fuel we will be heading up through the Bering Strait into the Chukchi Sea and crossing the Arctic Circle. I have great hopes of seeing some Walrus up there. It would be great to get some of them on film. We will be going into Kivalina a native whaling village. There is a good chance that I might find some carved ivory or baleen. Two of the crew that have been up that way before have found dead walrus on floating ice floes and have gotten out on the floes and cut out the tusks. A gruesome task but part of the adventure.
JUNE 10 Calm sea, sunshine, the first in a while. This morning we are in the Shilekof Straits still heading north. We should be in Homer by evening. Above, long tendrils of clouds streaming from east to west, gray shading to white. Off to port & starboard the sky clears before land is reached. Over to port, seven thousand foot Snowy Mountain on the Alaska Peninsula is the centerpiece. To starboard the lower mountains of Kodiak Island. The low sun casts intricate shadows on the snow of the Peninsula Mountains, the lower foothills along the water showing some traces of green. The only whitecaps this morning are those raised by the antics of some Dall’s porpoise off in the distance. To the north, Mt. Kukak, Devils Desk and Mt. Douglas. Their upper reaches wreathed in clouds as white as the massive snow fields which with seeming reluctance have begun to relinquish a narrow strip of shoreline to the brief summer ahead.
JUNE 12 Homer, just long enough to take 12,000 barrels of fuel off of a Foss barge and then we went on up to Nikiski to complete loading. The bad news, the harbor is still iced in up at Kivalina so there is another run to Dutch Harbor in the works. In Nikiski we were 700 miles north and east of Dutch and the difference in the amount of daylight are really noticeable. In Dutch right now it is dark by 0100. In Nikiski when the sky is clear there is no real darkness. Between 0200 and 0500 the last vestiges of an extended sunset seem to blend into the first of an extended sunrise.
JUNE 14 The sky is clear. This morning started with calm seas and 15 MPH winds. By 0900 the winds were 20 to 30, still a nice day in these waters. I had about an hours work to take care of in the engine room so I took advantage of the nice ride to knock it out. When I came back up on the bridge the wind was blowing 50 MPH and gusting to 70. We had fifteen foot seas and I had a wet bunk, as whenever possible I leave my porthole open for the fresh air. Two hours later it was again 20 to 30 with five-foot seas. The wind had blown all trace of haze from the air. Shafts of sunlight seemed to snap off the water. Across the northwestern horizon the snow covered volcanoes of the Alaska Peninsula dazzled the eye with all the brightness of a Hollywood starlet’s smile, but the peaks were as sharp and jagged as a barracuda’s grin.
JUNE 15 Late in the evening, (early at night, what do you call it when at 10PM its full daylight?) we came around Cape Pankof and headed down along the south side of Unimak Island. The wind had picked up to fifty knots and the sea was ten to twelve and building. It was the first day of salmon season in this area and the radar screen blossomed with targets. It showed twenty or thirty boats in the vicinity. To the eye they were almost invisible under these conditions. Dark gray overcast, fog, white caps, and blowing spray. The usual weather anywhere within two hundred miles of Dutch Harbor. The maximum size of these gill-netters is 32’; a two-man crew is about average. The only time they became visible to us is when they were on top of a swell. Watching out for them and their nets, which can be strung out for 2000’, takes a sharp eye. They fish all day and then haul the catch to one of the processor ships anchored in a nearby cove and sell it each night. They say they can make $80,000 in a few weeks each “summer.” More than a few never live to spend it. At Seal Cape we crossed Unimak Pass just to the north of Ugamak Island. We entered the protected waters of Avatanak Strait and ran between Akutan, Tanginak, Akun, Rootok, and Unaiga Islands. Great names huh? How would you like to try and learn that language? It would seem that you could as easily communicate by belching and farting. (From Kurt Vonnegut)
The islands have taken on their summer greenery though they would never be mistaken for emerald isles. Tundra a few inches high, no bushes, no trees, steep rocky cliffs, a smattering of small rocky beaches. Here and there the rusting hulk of a ship tossed haphazardly upon the rocks. Warning signs for the unwary, reminders for all the rest. For man it is a hostile barren land. For the birds, it is another story entirely. Thousands upon tens of thousands of Puffins and Shearwaters, Murres, Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemonts, and many more make their home here for at least a portion of the year. The productive northern sea supports huge populations of birds and mammals, though man’s over-fishing and pollution is taking its toll on many species. I don’t know what it means if anything, but I have seen only one otter the whole time that I have been up here. JUNE 16 Just a few miles out of Dutch in the pass between Unalga and Unalaska Islands our progress came to a, if not screeching halt, a hell of a slow down. The tidal current was close to seven knots against us. We went from 8.7 to 1.8 knots within minutes. And as is so common up here, the almost obligatory rusting ship upon the rocks was in place. In this current it would take only moments of lost power to join her. The margin for error here is slight. (*)
JUNE 18 Delicious, Delightful, Dutch. At anchor once again, last night we pumped 500,000 gallons of fuel to one of the shore fuel farms and another 500,000 to a smaller barge. Only about 2,000,0000 gallons to go. Even the eagles have left. (*)
July 8, we picked up a May Day on the radio. The 90’ dragger Pegasus was hard aground & rapidly taking water with four people aboard on these same rocks. They managed to don survival suits and get in a raft. They were rescued by another fishing boat.Most of the fishing fleet is now out chasing the fish. There are about twenty large freezer ships anchored here in the harbor waiting to load from the processing ships. When the processors are through with the catch, it is ready to go, frozen, packaged and ready for market. Most of the ships here now are from Japan, but there are also, US, Polish, Korean, Russian & more.
JUNE 20 Dutch no more! Last night we pumped another 500,000 gallons to the other fuel farm we service and “got the hell out of Dutch.” It is getting on to time for the run up “north” so we didn’t have to wait for them to make room for the rest of the fuel. We cleared the harbor about 0200. At 1000 we were off Unimak Island amongst the salmon fleet. The day was overcast but the seas were only running four to five feet. The skipper got on the radio offering to trade some crab & $$ for salmon. He had run into a crabber buddy in Dutch who had given us some crab. We found a taker and slowed down. One of the Bristol Bay gill-netters left the fleet and came along side. He loaded us up with about two hundred pounds of really beautiful Sockeye Salmon, fresh caught this morning. Eight to ten pound fish, twenty four to twenty eight inches long. He said he has been catching 5000 pounds a day! Needless to say we enjoyed a great supper tonight. There was more but all I ate was baked salmon and a potato. I told the cook I would like to have salmon & eggs in the morning. I couldn’t wait to try it and made some impromptu sashimi while I was cleaning the fish. The bright orange flesh was as delightful to the palate as to the eyes.
SUMMER SOLSTICE There will be no sun today. OVCST & FG. Overcast & Fog. I don’t suppose the Alaska natives ever knew Solstice from Equinox anyway; they so seldom see the sky. There must have been a limited gene pool up here; anyone with any sense would have kept on going south to become Inca, Olmec, or Maya. Fresh salmon loaf with clam sauce for lunch today!
JUNE 24 HOMER. Yesterday we pulled into Nikiski in good weather and loaded the barge. Ten hours in port and we were on the way north to the Red Dog Mine. The Red Dog is thirteen miles south of Kivalina. It is the largest Zinc mine in the world and also produces lead and silver. This boat has a contract to haul three barge loads of fuel to them this summer. As we reached the lower end of Cook Inlet the office decided there were some things that still needed to be done on the barge and diverted us to Homer. It was a much-appreciated move by me. I had come down with a doozy of a toothache and had been eating Advil by the hand full. I took advantage of the layover to get to a dentist. He told me some things I already knew, prescribed some antibiotics and pain pills and told me to go see a dentist when I get off the boat. Another good thing about this job is that I have worked long enough to be covered by insurance. Time to get one of my, “oh I have insurance” tune-ups.
JUNE 25 Rain & fog, fifteen foot seas & in the trough. For you landlubbers, “in the trough” is when the seas are taking you on the side, a much more uncomfortable ride than when they are on the bow or the stern. But we are on our way to the arctic so I can see a walrus and that is what I have been waiting for. We received word from another boat that is already approaching the Red Dog that they were, “running in the ice.” The chances are this could be a less than comfortable trip but I’m still looking forward to it. Also, when it is over I’ll be heading to the house! I have enjoyed the last two months, it was good to get out of the office, but now it is now time to get back home and go at American Agenda with renewed vigor. A little surf fishing and beach time won’t be out of order either.
JUNE 27 After running back down the Alaska Peninsula on the same course that we used to go to Dutch Harbor, we turned the corner around Unimak Island and headed north into the Bering Sea. Mostly it has been rain and fog and bumpy seas but as we came past Cape Pankof on Unimak the clouds dissipated just in time for the sun to make a dramatic exit behind Shishaldin Volcano. A magnificent sight, the smoking volcano backlit by the setting sun. The timing couldn’t have been better; I should have some good photos.This will be the longest time away from a phone since I left home, the longest Howard will be on his own running the business. He should be OK; he seems to be getting the hang of it. He put five people to work in one week the first of this month. That is my primary goal, twenty placements a month. When we start to average that I will know that we have established ourselves, and that we really are, “The National Maritime Recruiting & Placement Service.” (A footnote to those salmon we picked up from the other day. On the news, the Bristol Bay Fishermen are going out on strike. They are only receiving fifty cents a pound for those great red salmon. Fifty cents to them but what would a salmon steak cost you?)
JUNE 29, BERING SEA OVCST & FG, the sun’s dramatic exit behind the volcano the other day was the last we have seen of her. Once again our world is a circle in the fog that just barely includes the barge trailing along a third of a mile astern. The only sign of life beyond the boat, our escort of shearwaters, their wave skimming flight and acrobatic turns a welcome diversion. The comical puffins have been left behind, as has other boat traffic. One small blip cutting across a far corner of the radar screen yesterday the only other sign of man beyond what is heard over the airwaves. Daily routine, boredom, drama, and tragedy are indiscriminately gathered by the radio antenna and broadcast into the wheelhouse as haphazardly as a pocket full of loose change scattered on the bedroom floor. Calls between boats, calls to the office, calls about the weather and times of arrival, the price of fish, calls home, news about the kids, complaints about the car, the rent, the dishwasher. Love and missing you. The radio captures it all and shares it with all. Calls for help, May Day! May Day! We are on the rocks, we are flooding, and we are on fire. And those terrible last calls when a boat is going down and there is no help. These waters have more of those than any waters I have sailed before. By afternoon the fog had lifted but the overcast was still low and dark. The shearwaters seem to have been left behind now also. A flock of about a dozen common murres the only birds to be seen. We are now farther north than I have ever been before and still six hundred miles to go. All this water we now travel was solid ice just a few weeks ago.
JUNE 30 OVCST&FG, I hope to hell that while we are up here where the sun never sets we will have at least one clear day to experience it! The OVCST&FG has changed to FG&DRZL. The forecast is for FG&RN. The Maya, the Inca, they knew when to keep going. In the afternoon the radio brought word of the pack ice moving back to the south, being pushed by the northwest winds so we have changed course towards Nome to get away from it. The ice is where we will find the Walrus!! The ice is where the photo opportunities lie. No sense of adventure at all. OVCST&FG, still traveling in that soft gray circle, light gray above, dark gray below. One hundred miles south of Nome heading due north. A three-foot swell, a light chop, tree trunks and pieces of timber strewn over the sea. Carried here by the outflow of the mighty Yukon River, one of the major rivers of the world. It’s headwaters rising in the mountains of northern British Columbia, crossing the Yukon Territory, and the breadth of Alaska it is navigable it’s entire length. Historically and now, it is the most important Alaskan river. Our chief mate has been up it nine hundred miles on a tugboat. Picking up the Nome AM radio station, on the news. “In regards to the heavy traffic and numerous traffic accidents on the highway out to the Roadhouse immediately after the Nome bars close, the city council today called an emergency session and voted 5 to 1 to keep the Nome bars open longer to cut down on drunk driving.” Honest, I couldn’t make this up. Also on the news, the run of red salmon is reaching its crescendo. The strike is still on, but the few independent fishermen who are fishing, are bringing in 15 to 20,000 pound loads. The Japanese buyers are offering 55 cents a pound saying there is a glut in Japan, yet the retail buyer over there is paying ten times the price.
By twenty hundred hours the fog cleared, the first sunshine since the two hours or so it came out when we were coming through Unimak Pass four or five days ago. At midnight the sun is about where you would expect it to be a couple of hours before sunset. We are heading northeast working our way around the Seward Peninsula towards the Bering Strait. We should pass through the strait around noon tomorrow! For me, that and crossing the Arctic Circle will be milestones. I guess I should pee over the side to mark the occasion, mark it as an arctic wolf would. With the coming of the sun, the water took on a luminous dark green hue that along with the blue sky is a real treat after so many dismal days of gray. On July first the sun didn’t set until the second. It was two AM a little bit northwest of Nome when Kenny, one of the Tanker-men knocked on my door and said that Ernie the mate on watch had told him to wake me up and let me know that there was a photo opportunity in the setting sun. (I have left instructions that I don’t want to sleep through sightings of whales, walrus, mermaids, or other events of merit.) Slipping into my robe I grabbed my camera and snapped a shot from the wheelhouse and another from the back deck. It was a nice sunset; it wouldn’t have caused a great stir in Key West or Port Aransas, unless of course like this one, it happened at 2 AM.
Sunrise came red and clear at 4 AM. So I heard, I got out of bed at 6, but it was still clear. We had picked up a good current during the “night,” and at ten knots we were already approaching Cape Prince of Whales. We were abreast of the Cape at 0900 at which time I marked the event in the manner of the wolf. We ran into a fog bank at about the same time, but so far at least, it has been spotty and it is still bright. And still there is no sign of ice. I have what must be a Russian station on the radio; we are about forty-five miles off the coast of Siberia. It is not rock & roll.
12 NOON First ice! The fog closed in to where we could not see the barge, even after shortening up the tow tire. It is thick here on the water but must not extend very high above, as the glare is painfully bright. The patches of ice materialize out of the fog only when we are right on top of them. Running at dead slow we try to work our way through. So far I have seen one patch with four seals on it and one ringed seal pup swimming close alongside the boat. Visibility is measured in yards, walrus could be anywhere! It wasn’t long before we worked clear of the ice field and then all there was, was fog. So I took my afternoon nap, awoke at 1500, blue sky, calm sea, no fog, no wind, no ice, no walrus, unlimited visibility, Cape Dezhneva over there in tomorrow on the other side of the International Date Line showing up in fine detail. Anticlimactic to say the least, crossing the Arctic Circle I pose for a photo out on the back deck in short sleeves and my Key West sandals, it is 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
JULY 3 Ice. 0500 about 28 miles from shore we entered the ice. The pack is made up of individual low bergs with patches of open water between. Sunshine, high thin clouds, a light breeze, calm sea, and nice weather. At slow ahead we worked our way into the ice. The trick is to not only weave the boat in and out amongst the bergs but the barge following along behind as well. The ice is prone to hang up in the barge’s towing bridle. We averaged about two and a half knots. As the day wore on the cloud cover thickened drastically, intermittent light rain started to fall. A few miles inside the pack ice we started to spot seals. Most were lone seals in the water but there were two large ice flows with groups of seal pups lying in the sun. The pups dove into their escape holes before we ever got near. The most numerous has been the ringed seal, but I did spot one ribbon seal resting The Red Dog Mine has a huge building that we could see from twenty miles at out, without binoculars! It is by far the largest building in Alaska. Eight football fields would fit inside it and it is as high as a ten-story building. All this I found out later along with the fact that it is used to store the ore concentrate produced during the winter when the Chukchi Sea is shut tight by ice and it can’t be shipped. When we reached a point about two and a half miles from shore we dropped anchor. Our position, 67.34 north, and 164.10 west, ninety miles north of Kotzebue. The clouds broke up and dissipated soon after we settled in. There are two ore barges ahead of us and we may be here awhile.
There is a large low iceberg about 200 yards off our starboard side. It is approximately a half-mile wide and a mile long. Looking out my cabin porthole I could count a dozen seals with pups lying out on the ice. Not long after we arrived, a native skiff with three hunters came by stalking the seals. They looked the seals over but continued on without firing. Maybe they are only looking for the ones without pups. Still no sign of Walrus! The hunters returned at about twenty three hundred, the sky was clear, the sun still high, and the large berg had drifted until one edge was pressed against the barge. There were five natives in the boat this time. Three stayed with the boat where it was pulled up on the ice and seemed to be watching the open water. The other two went out onto the ice. One stopped about a quarter of a mile from the boat and dropped a line down through a hole in the ice, fishing? The other continued on, stalking the seals. I had a good view from the elevation of the wheelhouse, and with the binoculars I could watch the hunters and also see the seals as they came up through their breathing holes. The one hunter was crawling on hands and knees and then dropped down on to his stomach and wormed his way forward. He rose up on one knee, brought his rifle to his shoulder and fired. He jumped to his feet and turned back towards the boat with his arms in the air in sign of victory. The seal he retrieved hung down past his waist when he slung it over his shoulder. It seemed heavy for him as he would carry it that way for a while, and then drag it for a while. The man that had been fishing went to help carry it back to the boat.
JULY FORTH, 1991 Last night the setting sun didn’t. Between 0300 & 0400 the sun seemed to stop and hang in the same spot, about ten degrees above the horizon. It appeared to be stuck there, and then after awhile I noticed that it was rising, without so much as kissing the earth. That sight alone made the trip worthwhile. Since arriving the weather has been phenomenal, clear blue sky, sparkling clean air, light breezes, and 24 hours of sunshine. I can almost forget the days and days of gray gloom. In these high latitudes light refraction does some funny things. This afternoon it appeared that we were surrounded by high ice covered cliffs. Some thought that a thick ice pack was drifting in from sea. At the size and distance that it appeared, it would have had to be two hundred feet high. To leave here it would look as if you were sailing towards a distant shore. I had been warned that in the arctic mirages are common occurrences. Shifted in to the dock at 2200, it is eighty degrees!! This is some Arctic Circle experience we are having. One story that has proven true is the one about the infamous Alaskan Mosquitoes. They are thick and aggressive. If all goes well it will take sixteen to twenty hours to pump the barge so we should be on our way south by tomorrow afternoon.
JULY 5 Red Dog Mine. I walked up along the conveyor that brings the ore down to the dock and went into the building that houses the offices, mess hall, living quarters, etc. The Red Dog is a dangerous place to work. In 1990 ten people died in accidents. In 1991 eleven people were killed in the first three months. Posted on the bulletin board are a series of notices called “Fatal-grams.” Each documents one of the accidents. Electrocutions, falls, crushed by machinery, trucks overturned in water, averaging close to four deaths a month the first quarter of the year. One man that was crushed to death had been on the job two and a half hours! A miner that fell had thirty years experience. Alongside the Fatal-grams are posted bear and caribou alerts. Red Dog is on the migratory route of the caribou and they have the right of way. Vehicle traffic must stop and give at least a three hundred yard berth until they are all past. At times the fifty-two mile road from the mine to the port is closed completely. The bear alert was about what you might expect, don’t feed, and don’t go into the tundra alone, give wide berth, be advised that bears won’t be shot just because they are in the area. We got underway at twenty hundred; the sea was still, the only movement caused by the melting ice, water returning to water in drips and streams, faster now under the onslaught of twenty-four hour sunshine. Every now and then a movement in the ice pack would catch the eye. The rolling over of an iceberg as the melting caused the center of gravity to shift. The eighty-degree weather has made a big impact on the ice in just the short time that we have been in port. Most of the large pieces have broken up, and all of it is much softer. It is much easier leaving than arriving. Some seals and a few gulls and murres, one Jaeger watching from above, the only visible life except for a lone native skiff with three hunters aboard that crossed our path in the distance. At zero two hundred we left the ice behind and the sea’s surface became as smooth as an Exxon oil slick. It was a cloudless sky, as the sun once again seemed to be stuck just above the horizon. The sun, the sky, the water, all the color of molten gold, too bright to do more than steal a quick glance towards. The low sun it seemed could sear the eye.
JULY 6 Russia out my porthole. The Bering Strait once again, from the Chukchi Sea into the Bering Sea, still clear & calm. Starting to see a few puffins again, usually in pairs, bobbing on the water. We are making excellent time, hopefully this will be a six day trip to Nikiski, and then will come the long flight home. Usually twenty hours of airplanes and airports. As the time looms nearer it will be harder to keep from harping on it in this journal. Sixty days on a boat is long enough, most people start to get irritable and edgy after that. I know it is enough for me. I’ll have about seventy-two in when we hit port. Whales, one surfaced a few yards from the boat. A tail slap and he was gone, leaving behind a swirl of discolored water. He was the first and closest of many Humpbacks that we were to see today a few miles south of the strait. For two or three hours we were among the spouts and tails and humped backs of the feeding giants. The water still completely flat, from horizon to horizon nothing to disturb the dark blue surface except the snow white geysers of the whales exhalations, usually followed by the appearance of the dark brown expanse of their backs, and then by the huge tail flukes raising high in the air before slipping smoothly beneath the sea.
WALRUS!!! I this morning I took the wheel watch while the skipper showered. I was sitting back with the glasses watching some whale spouts when I noticed a light colored object on the surface a mile or more distant. I kept watching the whales but kept going back to the other also. It looked to me as if it could be the bottom of an overturned skiff. I mentioned to the skipper that I had spotted something off in the distance and when he returned to the bridge we altered course a bit to investigate. Until we were close along side we couldn’t figure out what we were looking at. Then when we saw the flippers we knew we had a “floater.” A dead walrus, and then we could see that it still had its tusks. What followed wasn’t pleasant, but it was exciting and made this whole trip come together for me. The law of the sea, “he who spots the floater gets the tusks.” At least on tugboats. At least on this tugboat. It took three hours. The smell was horrendous, the deed was gory. It had been dead for a long time and it was blown up until it looked like some giant nine-foot mutant puffer fish. We got a line on it and tried to pull it up with the winch but the line parted. We put the zodiac in the water and got another line on it and towed it around to where the crane could reach. We were able to lift the head up and tried to take it off with a fire axe. On one swing of the axe the zodiac took the hit and we hurriedly slapped some duct tape on it as an emergency patch. Taking the head proved too difficult with the tools at hand so we attacked the tusks with a hacksaw, and then finally used the electric “Saws-All.” Horrendous might not be a strong enough word for the smell! Anyway, we retrieved both tusks and the teeth. We couldn’t have done it without Pat the mate’s knowledge and help, so he earned one of the tusks. He traded me a piece of baleen that he had bought from a Kivalina Eskimo to sweeten the deal. The teeth were divided among the crew. I came out with a fine tusk, the baleen, and two teeth. The mate & I both threw away the clothes we were wearing.
As we traveled south we returned to that part of the world, where in the early hours of the morning, each day begins with yesterday’s sunset. Still there is no darkness; twilight holds sway for a short time, and then the sun is soon climbing back towards the heavens. But today, we’ll see no sunrise, during the time of twilight we were once again wrapped in the folds of that familiar soft gray blanket that lays so lightly upon the sea. Lightly, but thick and almost constant as we draw near the Aleutian Islands one more time. Under the spell of the Dutch Harbor weather pattern. Tomorrow morning we should be in Unimak Pass, and then we will enter the Pacific Ocean and turn northeast for the run up the Alaska Peninsula on the last leg of our voyage.
JULY 9 Days shorten rapidly as we continue south; we are making 265 miles a day, eleven knots. The change in the light to dark ratio is remarkable. One night the sun doesn’t set, the next we have a couple of hours of twilight, the next, three or four hours of darkness. To get around the Alaska Peninsula we are forced south to about the same latitude as Prince Rupert, British Colombia. Then we will head back to the north & east for six hundred forty miles. The nights will start getting shorter again as we return north. We are looking for arrival in Nikiski sometime late on the eleventh or very early on the twelfth. I hope to be on a plane before noon on the twelfth. OVCST&FG, visibility down to a hundred yards, but the shearwaters are back to distract us. To our remarkable good fortune the sea is still calm. We haven’t experienced more than a one or two foot chop since leaving the Red Dog Mine.
July 10: 0700 a nice sunrise in progress, doubly nice as we have had two days of fog where the visibility seldom exceeded two hundred yards. But as I said before, the seas were calm! Two more days to go to wrap up a really nice trip. Not withstanding the bitching about Dutch Harbor and some of the weather, I can’t remember when I have enjoyed a stretch on a boat so much as I have these last two months. The sixteen five I earned will come in handy also. It doesn’t look as though I’ll make that noon plane Friday, but what can a few hours matter after all this? Finished the last of “GARY OSBORNE’S WEST INDIES PEPPER SAUCE” today, it really is time to go home!
WHALES!! ORCAS, HUMPBACKS, & FIN!!!!! A nice morning turned into a great afternoon. Full sun, a one to two foot swell with just a light chop, no white caps. I had been taking a couple of photos of Aniakchak Crater, a huge mountain with the top half simply blown away. Ahead I started seeing whale blows over a wide area, their exhalations looked like splashes from naval gunfire. Then off our starboard beam I saw a pod of Orcas, or Killer Whales. There was one large male and a half dozen or so females and calves. We passed that pod by and I continued to watch the blows, they were Humpbacks for the most part but I saw one that had a large crescent shaped dorsal fin. They were staying out in front of us, at least matching our speed. Closer inboard, on our starboard side there was an area of disturbed water. As I watched, two large whales blew and surfaced and seemed to thrash the water. Then an Orca surfaced in between the other two. His large dorsal was rigid, but he was leaning over on his side so that it came out of the water at a sharp angle. The three submerged and surfaced three or four times before we moved out of range. I believe what I witnessed was an Orca attack on a large whale, most likely a Humpback though at least one of the other whales I saw, and one Kenny saw definitely had an un-humpback like dorsal, possibly a Fin Whale.
JULY 11, Shilekof Straits Midday, chugging north, sunshine but heavy haze, the mountains on either side of the straits, faint shadows. An uneventful morning taking care of engine-room stuff, getting ready to get off the boat. Puffins and some Dall’s porpoise our main companions today. Still nice and smooth.
JULY 12: HOMER. Once again on the way to Nikiski we were diverted here. The office, instead of sending the crew relief’s down here to Homer, say they have delayed crew change until tomorrow, when the boat is due in Nikiski. It doesn’t make that big a difference to me as this has been the only time I have been on a boat in a year, and I have really enjoyed myself. It does show a complete lack of understanding or concern on management’s part, on the psychic of a sailor who has been on a boat for a long time. The other crewmembers that are due off have been on the boat for over ninety days. To most in that position it is not just “one more day.” The man has been counting the hours until we “hit port.” He has visualized his homecoming until it is already real to him. He knows (he thinks) just what he is going to do, how it is going to go. Even though from past experience he should know it wouldn’t happen as he sees it, an unnecessary delay of even a few hours at this point takes on an importance way out of all proportion to what the facts might indicate. A company that does not allow for that is sure to have a morale problem, and a high turnover rate. As it is, I would like to have been on a plane this morning myself. A weekend has been pissed away. So I can understand statements like, “I’ll quit if I can’t get off.” It is usually just talk, but it leaves a very bad taste in the employee’s mouth for little or no reason. In a similar position a few years ago I walked off the highest paying boat job that I have ever had. At that time it was simply insensitivity on the part of the office staff that forced my hand. (Footnote on the Nome bar hours. Today, bowing to public pressure the city council voted 4 to 1, not to extend the bar hours until 5AM. So as of now at 2, you’ve got to hit the road to the Roadhouse if you want to party!)
JULY 17, PORT ARANSAS This is my forth day back home and it is good! I greeted the day as I do most now, swimming in the warm gentle sea as the huge sun paints the eastern sky with orange and crimson. It appears twice as large as it does in the arctic during the rise and set. The seagulls and pelicans were beginning the days foraging, and small pompano were jumping all around me. It is a very special time of day. I’ll swim and walk for an hour before I return to the office. I also try to get in another hour in the afternoon. I’m back at work with AMERICAN AGENDA and will have little time for these musings for a while. So, until the next adventure, I’m “trying to reason with hurricane season.” Adios for now Gary Osborne, Port Aransas, Texas, July 18, 1991
THE WINTER OF’89
I arrived on the Winter Solstice, could I have made my commute any more extreme? Thirty eight hundred miles from Key West Florida, a tiny two by four mile Island that is the southernmost point in the continental United States, across the entire continent, south to north and east to west, to Alaska, our largest and northernmost state on the shortest day of the year. Behind me tropical days of sunshine and warm crystalline waters, ahead seemingly endless nights of ice and cold. Where it is late morning before the sun appears and where, in six short hours the light and meager warmth it provided is only a fleeting memory to be lovingly nourished throughout the coming eighteen hours of frigid sub-arctic darkness.
Having a total and long standing aversion to the cold, even now I wonder why I ever agreed to spend what would prove to be the coldest winter in Alaskan history working in the snow and ice of Cooks Inlet. An almost complete ignorance of what I was actually getting into, and the old urge once again, to see the “Elephant,” had set me on this dangerous icy road. I am a forty seven year old sometime Merchant Seaman, sometime entrepreneur, former owner of art galleries in Texas and New Mexico and now an importer of a folk art and Indian crafts from Mexico and Central America. A veteran of twenty years of travel throughout the Southwest, the Caribbean and Mexico as a voluntary refugee from the madness that is Southern California. I am presently a six year resident of the mystical isle of Key West, a tropical American paradise of coral reefs, manana days and perfumed nights.
My allure for the sea began with visits to the beaches of Southern California as a child, and a fascination with the unfathomable mysteries of the tide pools. At seventeen I went to sea with the U. S. Navy where I was introduced to the power and beauty of the offshore waters along with the thrill and excitement of exotic ports of call. I left the Navy in 1965 after six years, but I have continued going to sea on and off ever since. I have seen the ocean in a dead calm, as slick and smooth as smoked glass, and rearing up and howling in South China Sea typhoons and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. I have experienced Cape Hatteras in all her winter fury and marveled at the emerald flash of days end on the warm tropical sea. The winter of’89 on Cooks Inlet was to be a completely new experience, one I would not care to repeat, but one that does make a tale to tell...
I had been on the “beach” for about six months. In July, having had enough of work and boats for awhile, I had left my last Merchant Marine position where I had been working as Chief Engineer on a Navy owned research vessel. It was civilian operated and engaged in anti—submarine warfare research and development work, usually in the Bahamas, off Bermuda or in the Caribbean. Perfect training ground for the Alaskan winter that was to come! Now after six months of the good life lazing in the sun of my island home, with some extended trips into Mexico, it was time to pay my dues and give the bank account a much needed transfusion. Time to dust off the old Engineers License, time to look towards the sea. I sat down one day in early December and fired off some resumes to a few boat companies around the Country. The first response was a phone call three days later. It came from Crowley Maritime and even though they were in Seattle and talking Alaska to this denizen of the tropics I heard them out and finally agreed to give it a try for sixty days.
My good friend Andrew Cleland who is an engineer with them had mostly good things to say about the Seattle Division and what the hell, I could do sixty days standing on my head, right! They shot me a ticket before I could change my mind and almost before I knew it I was on an Eastern flight white knuckling it to Seattle. I had caught a flight with only one intermediate stop. It was one of those wide body monstrosities with no personal ventilation controls; the temperature must have been eighty degrees or more the entire trip. I would sleep fitfully and then awaken with perspiration running down my face, the flight was only about half full so I could move around, but no matter how far forward I went, the sickening sweet smell of stale tobacco smoke hung in the tepid air as persistent and oppressive as the smell of death and disease in Calcutta. I arrived hot sweaty and ill, into the cold wet world of a northwestern winter.
Andrew happened to be in port waiting for a boat so I had a friendly face to greet me at the airport. My attire from twenty years of knocking around the tropics would scarcely be adequate for the coming adventure so I was fortunate to have Andrew with his previous arctic experience available as a shopping guide. We jumped into his rental car and a few hours later I was the proud owner of $500 worth of accouterments I had not even known existed before, TherMax underwear, Pac boots, Carheart coveralls and various and sundry other articles of clothing employed by people lacking the good sense to stay in a reasonable environment. I was to have one night in Seattle before heading on to Alaska, so to recover from the trauma of the shopping trip we retired to one of Seattle’s fine alehouses where the product is brewed on the premises. Their total distribution system consists of thirty feet or so of tubing, from the vat to the tap. Fine stuff, a beautiful old back bar and a view of the vats in the next room. They serve only light, medium or dark ale. Nothing in bottles, no chips, no eats, and no designer water. Just good ale.
After the therapy of the Big Time Ale House we felt that we might now be prepared to face the rest of the world and prevailed on Andrew’s girl friend Mary to guide us to one of Seattle’s superior seafood establishments. She recommended Ray’s Boat House over on Puget Sound where we dined leisurely and well. After a superb salmon dinner accompanied by a fine Washington State wine it was time for me to call it an early night so I could catch an early flight.
The next morning I was on an Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage. It was a pleasant surprise to experience a flight on a well-run airline. After yesterdays flight this one was doubly appreciated. The well-appointed plane and smiling, courteous flight crew was a fine welcome to the “Last Frontier.” From Anchorage I caught a commuter flight to Kenai, about one hundred thirty miles south on the peninsula of the same name, to catch the offshore supply vessel, Rig Engineer. This is a 180-foot, 3000 HP boat that services the oil rigs out on Cooks Inlet. She is a typical supply boat with a long back deck for cargo and the bridge and living quarters all the way forward.
I was met by Paul Vidal, the Port Engineer and given a ride over to the village of Nikiski where the boat was tied up. Driving along the shore for the first time gave me a grand view of the snow covered mountains across the inlet. There are a series of magnificent volcanoes running south from here three of which were last active in 1986. Arriving at the dock I had my first exposure to the great Cook Inlet tides, as we drove up all I could see of the boat was the mast and top of the wheelhouse. The tides will run 28 to 30 feet at times and the current can run as fast as eight knots or more. The boat cannot stay at the dock during low tide, as she would be left sitting high and dry on the rocks. Soon after I climbed down a ladder to the boat we were forced to pull away from the dock to await the returning tide.
In many parts of the world servicing oil rigs can be a routine, even mundane affair. On Cooks Inlet during the winter of’89 it would be anything but mundane! I soon settled into the routine of my job along with the rest of our five-man crew. We were hauling equipment, fuel oil, water and groceries out to the half dozen or so rigs that we were taking care of. The high point of my first few days on the boat was the sighting of a pod of white Beluga whales. They were a startling sight, their creamy white color just not something I had ever associated with marine mammals. They must have been some of the last to migrate as the ice was already forming very rapidly.
Christmas and New Years came and went; we ate our turkeys and went about our jobs, the temperature dropping and the ice getting thicker day by day. The second week of January and the temperatures are starting to fall below zero. The water fill lines on both the dock and the boat are continually frozen now. It takes a propane torch to thaw them out so we can take on water. The windows on the bridge are freezing up, on the inside! One day while I was sitting in the galley having my morning coffee Marty Smith, the mate stumbles out of his cabin and asks me, “is it cold out.” I replied, “Cold, where the hell have you been? Of course it’s cold, this is Alaska, its winter, it was cold yesterday, it is cold today, and it is going to be cold for months.”
January 15. The Inlet almost totally frozen over now, ice a foot thick. We are breaking through it continuously and it really is getting colder, fifteen below this morning. Maybe Marty’s question was not so off the wall after all?
January 17. MAYDAY!, MAYDAY! We had just finished working a rig when we received the call. It came from the Tug Mickey; she was caught in the ice a couple of miles east of our position and was being carried along towards a reef. We answered their radio message and replied that we were nearby and would attempt to make it over to them and break them loose. We were able to reach her without too much trouble and broke up the ice enough so that she could fall in astern and tag—a—long in our wake. It turns out that she is an old wooden hull former Army Tug built prior to World War Two. She has been converted into a dinning and sightseeing excursion boat working out of Anchorage during the summer and she is now trying to get to Seward and open water to escape the ice that will crush her hull if she tries to stay on the inlet all winter. They waited a little too long to get going, and now they really do have some troubles. The old girl is really beautiful, classic tugboat lines and the addition of the dinning room and observation deck fit in nicely. We led her over to our dock and got her tied up safely within two hours. I understand her hull is three feet thick which is the only reason she made it this far, this late in the season. She stayed at our dock for three days while her owner and the captain hemmed and hawed about what to do. They missed two exceptionally strong ebb tides that would have helped carry them a long way south but indecision rules it seems. Everyday they hesitate the ice gets stronger. On the forth day when I awoke she was gone, I wish her well, and she really is a fine old boat.
January 20. 26 below this morning, we were caught in the ice three or four times last night coming back in from the rigs. When you get stuck it is full astern and then full ahead, back and forth until you can hopefully force a lead open through the ice. It is very slow going. The radio is calling for a high today of 15 below with tonight’s low at thirty five below. Before I came up here I had not owned a pair of gloves in years, now I wear three pair at a time! Mexico has never sounded so good. Dreams of a hammock in a palapa on the beach at Puerto Escondido, I know it will take at least a month to thaw out after this. January 21. 0600 we left the dock heading for one of the rigs. In three hours we made eleven miles, breaking heavy ice all the way. At one point we were within one mile of the rig when the ice got the upper hand and carried us back two miles. It can look as though you are making headway through the ice when in reality the eight-knot current is carrying you backwards. It can take the boat in under a rig or put it on the rocks if it catches you in the wrong place. This ice must move back and forth forty or fifty miles on each tide change. It will run north for six hours then turn and go south for six. The noise of running through this stuff is almost indescribable. Something akin to rolling down a rocky hill in an oil drum I imagine. It sure makes sleep hard to come by, or for that matter it is hard to eat or do much of anything but hang on.
January 22. We spent eighteen hours trying to get to a rig that was only ten miles away and never did make it. This is really getting dangerous. You get trapped in the ice and then go where it goes. There is little you can do about it. Old Man winter is taking control. January 23. Trapped in the ice again, this time it carried us nineteen miles. It was simply good fortune that the nineteen miles of open “water” was there. As it happened it was a nice clear day and since we could not break the boat free anyway the mate and I got out on the ice to see what the boat looked like and to take some photos. Quite an experience, to stand under the bow of a boat five miles offshore and still be moving along at seven or eight knots. We were finally able to break free after the tide changed, that sometimes opens up a lead and gives us a chance to break out. It is the time of the full moon that means higher tides and faster currents, but it also means my time up here is at the half way mark. I came up here on a full moon and now I can look forward to the next one as my time of emancipation and the return to the warmth and beauty of Key West. I do not believe I was meant to be any farther north than coconut trees will grow.
Legendary Arctic Explorer
Gary "Nanook" Osborne's Heroic Quest to find the fabled Frangipanni Pass to the Isle of Key West foiled by the coldest winter in Alaskan history asks, "where is the airport?"
January 24. Weather and ice just gets worse, we did get out to a rig today, it took fourteen or fifteen hours I think, it gets hard to keep track sometimes. I saw my first Northern Lights this morning, monumental ribbons of red and green pulsating across the northern sky. A fine treat, and then the reality of trying to tie up to a rig in this weather intruded with all the rudeness of a rush hour cabby. With these massive “pans” of ice barreling up and down the inlet, Some of them two and three feet thick, the only time we have any chance of tying up is during the relatively short times of slack “water” between the tide changes. After we get tied up, always on the down stream side of the rig there is the chance that the rig will break up the ice enough to let us hang there until the next slack period when we can make a dash for the next rig on our list. There is also the chance that the ice will swing around the rig, catch the boat and knock it back hard enough to part the mooring line. When that happens it parts with the sound of an explosion and can snap back with the power to cut a man in half. When a line starts getting tight and squeaking it is time to get out of there fast. Today we were able to tie up and load and back load some cargo and pump some fuel and water to them. Some rigs have had to shut down operations because of our inability to reach them and keep them supplied with water. I think they should all shut down until this terrible cold spell ends; it will be miraculous if someone does not get hurt or killed trying to work in these conditions. The media are now calling this the “Coldest Winter in Alaskan history,” and the coldest place on earth. It has set a record for the highest barometric pressure ever recorded in North America, if not the world. Airports are operating in daylight hours only as the airplane altimeters will not function at these pressures.
January 25. 0100 in heavy snow. We have been trying to make it back to the dock for eight hours, the last four stuck fast in the ice and going south with the tide. We have a return target on the radar showing a large ship heading our way. The big container ships can run right through this two and three foot ice. We raised him by radio and advised him of our position and situation, in that we are not in control of our movements and are traveling at the whim of ice and current. He confirmed that he had us on his radar and offered to come to a course that would put him close enough to us to break up the ice so we might get free. The skipper replied that we would appreciate all the help we could get and that we would illuminate all of our lights so there would be no doubt as to our correct position. A nine hundred plus foot ship doing twenty knots is not something you want any closer than necessary. A short time latter, he came out of the storm and into our lights, roaring like a freight train, ice breaking and cracking with huge blocks being thrown into the air. He seemed as big as the Grand Coulee Dam and appeared much too close, but then in what seemed just moments, the ice closed in behind him, and he was gone, as if he had never been, swallowed up by the night and the storm. At first there did not seem to be any appreciable change, and then slowly we started gaining ground, a little bit at first, and then a little bit more. Within the hour we were able to work our way over to the path that he had fractured in the ice as he passed, and we were able once again to make some headway towards our birth. As we approached the dock the last quarter mile took over two hours, backing and ramming the entire way. I still do not know why they are keeping the boat here, we cannot do our job, but we can sure get into trouble. If we had not arrived at the dock and tied up when we did, a changing tide one hour later would likely have put us on the rocks within sight of our office. One-hour leeway is cutting it mighty thin under these conditions.
January 27. Listening to Coast Guard emergency radio broadcasts today; the winter is taking its toll. There is a Crowley fuel barge that has snapped its tow wire and is on the rocks in Cold Bay out on the Alaska Peninsula towards the Aleutian Islands, another barge loaded with fuel oil is adrift in the Gulf of Alaska with only its bow above water, and a crab boat that has been calling for help because of heavy icing is now missing with six aboard. I am also sorry to say that the Tug Mickey did not make it. They started taking on water and the Coast Guard had to lift the crew off by helicopter. She was last seen adrift, also with only her bow showing. A beautiful old boat, now just a hazard to navigation. A very unforgiving environment this.
January 28. 0700. Have been stuck in the ice most of the night, going with the flow again. We were carried south for five or six hours and then north for about the same, unable to maneuver, the boat was carried into the big tanker dock at Nikiski. We were thrown up against and drug along the face of the dock, the big truck tires that the boat uses as fenders were ripped off and left littering the ice like so many buttons at a sailor’s homecoming. The ice swung us around and pushed the back deck completely under the pier. The boats bridge was banging and crashing into the dock and our handrails and mooring bits were being ripped up and knocked down, it looked like the aftermath of a tin soldier Waterloo. At one point I could have stepped off the boat right onto the pier. It was tempting; it looked as if we might lose her. The entire crew was struggling to get into their survival suits. These dry, closed cell foam suits are supposed to keep you alive and afloat for eighteen hours or more in twenty eight to thirty degree water. We all looked like giant orange Gumby’s. We radioed a MAYDAY and a chopper was on hand and standing by overhead within minutes. It was a comforting sight, knowing we were not alone out there and that help was hovering nearby. The wind chill was eighty below zero, the metal so cold that instead of bending it split like wood. The survival suits, awkward at best, in those temperatures stiffened to make all movement next to impossible. We finally got a small lead open in the ice and managed to get out far enough that the current carried us past the end of the pier. Clear of the pier but then we were heading straight towards a point of rocks a few hundred yards due north of us. We were carried to within a boat length of the rocks when the tide started to turn. Mother Nature gave us a last minute reprieve. Once the tide switched direction we were able to get into some fractured ice and force our way clear of the point. If we would have had to abandon ship, the chopper should have been able to land on the ice and we could have walked over to it.
If I had been forced to get on that helicopter I would have had him to take me straight to the airport. I had my wallet, credit cards, plane ticket and passport in my pocket; I would have been heading south! Far south! This is about all of this adventure I need. We were very lucky, no one hurt and only a few thousand dollars damage to the boat. It could have been a disaster. January 29. Newspaper calling for forty-five below today, with the thirty-five MPH wind speed it translates into one hundred degrees below zero wind chill! I received four fifty-five gallon drums of antifreeze today and they were all frozen solid as rocks. What am I doing here?
February 1. The powers that be finally woke to the fact that this is getting out of hand and that we cannot stay lucky forever. We are heading south to the town of Homer to await a warming trend. It was only a seven-hour trip but what a difference. Open water with very little ice, above zero temperatures, and really beautiful, high mountains falling sheer, down into a clear blue sea. Abundant wildlife, sea otters, seals, puffins, and many, many bald eagles. The eagles are everywhere; they hang around the city docks like pelicans do in Key West. I must have seen one, maybe two hundred today. They are in the trees, on the power poles, in the air and on the rocks. Wonderful!
February 5. Less than a week here but it was a much-needed respite. The weather has improved and we left Homer this morning. Arrived back up in Nikiski in the afternoon and though the ice looks about the same it is much softer. It can still bring us to a halt but with some backing and ramming we can usually get free.
February 15. Routine operations since we returned from Homer, we had one day when we were running to the northernmost rig we service when the ice got a hold on us and would not let go. Another big container ship happened along and broke us out, a photo opportunity but not much excitement and that is fine with me. It is now getting along towards the full moon and my relief is due in a few days, thoughts turning to Key West, Mexico, and sunshine, but then that is another story.
EPILOGUE The winter of’89 exacted a terrible toll in life and property. My list is by no means complete, for the most part simply events I overheard happening over the ships radios. The crabber mentioned earlier was the Vest fjord and six lives were lost when it went down. The Coast Guard with cannon fire finally sank the fuel barge in the Gulf of Alaska. A three hundred foot Japanese processing ship broke its shaft and went on the rocks of Unalaska Island with the Coast Guard rescuing the crew by helicopter. Another Japanese vessel this one a three hundred foot refrigerator ship went ashore on Aktun Island and is still there with its nose shoved up against the cliffs. There was also a fishing boat in the Bearing Sea that sank with two of the four-crew members who had made it into a life raft being washed overboard and lost. And then there is the EXXON VALDEZ, not something to blame on the weather, but a disaster to eclipse all the rest...
After the Alaskan adventures I signed on as Chief Engineer on some Mid-Western Riverboat Casino's. A much more civilized but not very exciting position.