Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gripping Tales of the Bering Sea Fisheries

Joe Upton, author of the award-winning book Alaska Blues, an account of a season commercial fishing in Southeast Alaska, has produced a new volume, Bering Sea Blues – A Crabber’s Tale of Fear in the Icy North, just out from Epicenter Press in Kenmore, Washington.

Upton was just 25 years old when he boarded the 104-foot Flood Tide pulling out of Seattle in March 1971, headed for Dutch Harbor with 700-pound crab pots stacked three deep on the deck. Every time the vessel iced up, which was often, the crew would have to beat the ice off with hammers and baseball bats, literally fighting for their lives in the howling winds in 30 foot seas.

This is Upton’s white-knuckle memoir of a winter of fishing for king crab in the Bering Sea, of 12-to-14 hour days in search of elusive pockets on the ocean floor that could yield tons of the precious king crab.

The mood of the book, a sense of foreboding, is set in Upton’s prologue: “The Bering Sea is a bad place, the meanest sea that washes any shore,” he wrote. “To the west is Siberia, to the north the Arctic, to the south the North Pacific, and to the east the vast tundra coast of Alaska. All are weather breeders. Calm days are rare.”

Upton, who got his start in fisheries as a fleet mechanic for a Chilean fishing company at $50 a month, was befriended by a fellow American who suggested he head north to Alaska, where he could make big bucks and walking the docks in Seattle, he found a job aboard a vessel heading for Southeast Alaska to buy fish.

Later Upton moved to crab boats and describes in vivid detail that drama and hair raising adventures of life aboard a crab vessel.

Upton’s epilogue too will keep readers on edge as he describes some of the tragic losses of life in the Bering Sea crab fishery. “For myself, if there was a single event that epitomized the vicious conditions of the Bering Sea, always probing the defenses of any boat, it was what happened to the big 120 footer Vestfjord on an October evening in 1981 and shocked the entire Bering Sea crab fleet,” he wrote.

“Apparently the wave that hit the Vestfjord blew her pilothouse windows inward with enough force that the brass motor of the spinner drove directly into (Skipper Jens) Jensen’s head, killing him instantly. The water also shorted out most of the radios, the automatic pilot, and all the electronic navigation equipment.”

Only after a fierce struggle with the wind howling through the shattered pilothouse windows was the crew able to get the manual steering operating, the crabber turned away from the wind, a radio operating, and start back to Dutch Harbor.

“It was a tragic reminder to the whole crab fleet that even in the apparent security of the pilothouse, the Bering Sea is capable of striking a fatal blow,” he wrote.

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