From the log of the F/V Donna C.
Donna C, Shelikof Bay, AK, 1975.jpg
I heard the roar minutes before it hit. At first, I thought it was an airplane, forced down by the storm. The sound sent chills up and down my spine. I was lying in my stateroom with nothing on but shorts. The vessel rose, as if it was on an elevator. The boat was thrown sideways about 100 feet and landed on its side, momentarily submerged in green sea water, then struggled upright, water cascading off the bridge and main deck.
I looked out the stateroom porthole, expecting the 50-foot-long port trolling poles to be broken, or down. But the pole was still in place. Missing was the 80-pound stabilizer, a huge affair, made of wood, steel and lead. Hung suspended halfway out either trolling pole, stabilizers eased the pain of a rough sea.
I went on deck and climbed the ladder to the bridge, unsure what I’d find. Bits of plastic and electronic parts were scattered over the bridge deck. The stabilizer was broken into three pieces, lying amongst the debris. It had made a giant swing outward, then upward, at the end of its chain, then plunged down and struck the radar dead center.
Red’s head poked from the top of the ladder. “What the heck was that?”
“Must have been a queer one. I don’t see any more like it.” “Queer” giant seas are not uncommon, especially during a bad storm. The damage they could do was legendary.
“Trolling hatch is filled to the brim with water. Glad it’s a self bailer,” Red said.
“Stabie came over the rail and wiped out the radar. Cannot see any other damage.”
Back in the safety of the galley, we clung to the table for support. “Man, that must have been some sea,” Red said. His bunk was in the fo’c’s’le. He looked at me questioningly Mountainous waves bore down on our drifting vessel. It was a quarter of a mile between crests. Now that the port stabilizer was missing, the vessel pitched, rolled and lurched like a drunken sailor.
“I’m glad I’m on a Paul Lacky boat,” Red said. The Donna C was number 14 of identical hulls built by Paul Lacky. Only one had sunk, and that was because a 3-inch pump, that was supposed to keep the crab tank full, had mistakenly been diverted into the engine room, and the boat filled with water.
A quick check of the engine room disclosed that two feet of water sloshed back and forth. The only place it could have came from was air vents on either side of the cabin. The top of the vent was level with the bridge!
I started an extra pump and watched the water disappear.
“What now?” Red asked, as I returned to the wheelhouse.
“I don’t have another stabie. I don’t know about you, but I’m going back to bed.”
* * *
. After a season fishing salmon in Southeast Alaska, Donna and I had headed south. My radio assured me that albacore were showing in good numbers off the Oregon, Washington Coasts.
We never stopped running for 750 miles, until we reached Port Angeles. Donna had already informed me that I had to get someone else for the deckhand job. Although she had frequently accompanied me while fishing albacore, she had had enough rolling around on the Fairweather Grounds while trolling for salmon.
Our vessel, the Donna C, was 54-feet in length, with a V-8-71 GMC diesel main engine and a 4-cylinder Perkins driving a 30 KW generator set. We had built the boat at Paul Lacky’s boat yard, in 1973-1974, at Fort Bragg. My wife and I had done much of the work, including the inside of the galley and wheelhouse. I had welded steadily for almost a year. The shipyard crew had done most of the steel work.
The vessel was designed specifically for salmon and albacore fishing, and was fully refrigerated, with an air blast system that would keep the hold at -20 degrees. The vessel carried 4,000 gallons of diesel and 100 gallons of lube oil.
The fish hold was 20 feet long and 11-feet wide. Sister ships reportedly would hold 20 tons of albacore.
Launched August 1, 1974, we had jig fished from Fort Bragg west about 75 miles off shore. My brother Gene and nephew Mike accompanied me on the maiden voyage. Catches were disappointing and we caught only half a load before quitting for the season.
* * *
Gene & Mike Caldwell, tuna fishing
After arriving home from Alaska, I was tied up in our home port, of Port Angeles. My attention was consumed with installing a set of hydraulic tuna pullers, one on each side of the stern. The haulers would save a lot of effort over pulling by hand.
A tall, red-bearded fellow appeared. “I’m looking for a job,” he said. “Have salmon and albacore experience. I’m known as Red.”
“Well, I need someone. Come aboard.”
Preoccupied with the hydraulic plumbing, I didn’t pay him much attention. When I went to the engine room for tools, Red was washing a sink full of dishes. When I came back into the galley, Red was sweeping the deck.
“I can cook and have owned a boat of my own down on the California coast,” Red said.
“Well, Red, I pay 20 percent. As soon as I finish installing these pullers and take on some groceries, we’ll be on our way. Anything in particular you want to eat?”
“No. Whatever you like.”
Although Red worked for me several trips, I never had to say a word to him, never had to say it was time to cook a meal, never had to tell him fish were on and he needed to go to the cockpit. A partner like that is worth his weight in gold.
After clearing Cape Flattery, I pointed the bow southwest. We expected to run almost 100 miles before reaching warm, or 62 degree water, which albacore prefer. The weather was calm. We took turns at the wheel and caught up on our sleep.
: At 12:00 hours the next day we caught our first albacore. We were near the Compass Rose, a spot on the chart often referred to by albacore fishermen. The radio was busy with complaints that there were no fish. Discouraged by reports to the south, I set a course that would take us off Vancouver Island at about 100 miles distant.
: A dozen jig boats could be seen scattered about the horizon. All were straight tacking west. Everyone seemed intent on working “up the hill,” as west if known, because of persistent northwest winds. We scratch fished all day for 21 big albacore. About midnight the wind started blowing from the southeast.
Back in those days, albacore fishermen were inclined to help each other by putting their daily scores on the air. High scores were as useful as low, as other skippers tried to plot a course to better fishing.
: Dawn brought rain squalls and cloudy skies. It was too rough to fish. I kept the bow pointed west. We had heard scores to 1,000 off Cape Cook, but didn’t know how far off it was.
“Southeasters are rare and never last long,” Red said.
By noon the southeast wind had became a full gale. I looked back into the galley. Red was sitting on the deck with his back against the bulkhead, a bowl of potatoes between his knees.
“What do you think, Partner?”
“I think I’ll have to hold the potato pan on the stove.”
“I haven’t seen another boat for hours. We’re not catching, so I’m going to drift.”
Drifting was okay. Since it was too rough to do anything, we hit the sack.
The scream of the wind through the rigging soon lulled me to sleep. With the main engine shut down, only the murmur of the auxiliary could be heard above the screech of the wind.
I awoke at dusk and went up to the wheelhouse. The wind had veered from southeast to south.
I had shut off the oil-fired range because the fierce wind blew smoke back into the galley. We ate egg salad sandwiches and went back to bed.
I was painfully aware that only 22 albacore were in the hold. Our fuel tanks were down about 275 gallons.
Midnight. The wind had veered from southwest to south, and picked up in speed. The vessel was equipped with four 229-volt sodium vapor lights, which turned the night into day. A short, steep cross sea was running on top of a huge southern swell.
Red came up the ladder from his bunk in the fo’c’s’le, headed for the toilet. “What’s it like down there?”
“Like a lump of butter in a churn. And I’m the butter.”
“The wind is boxing the compass, coming out of the south now,” I said.
“That’s good. Not often anyone sees southerly out here. It’ll soon wear itself out.” “Probably wear us out first. I’ve about worn all the hide off my back sliding around in that bunk.”
“Well, maybe tomorrow it’ll be better. Good way to test out your new boat.”
Red, the eternal optimist. Good material for a commercial fisherman.
: We didn’t expect what we found this morning when it became light enough to see. The wind was now northwest, and blowing about 50 knots. The swells and seas were so confused they were running up and down each other’s backs.
I took a Loran reading. We were within a dozen miles of the first reading taken two days before. A few more points to the west and we’d have completed a circle.
: I sensed during the night that the wind had slackened. I awoke at seven to the smell of bacon frying. I had a 110 volt hotplate, and the only reason we hadn’t used it before was because there was no provision to keep anything on the burner.
In the galley, I was surprised to see Red stirring a bowl of hotcake batter in the protection of the sink.
“I don’t know about you,” Red said, “but my stomach was beginning to knock against my backbone. Hold the skillet for me.”
The storm had finally blown itself out. After breakfast, we tossed ten jigs in the water. As soon as they hit the water, fish grabbed them.
Those sodium vapor lights attract schools of bait. A school of albacore has been known to stay with a boat equipped with those lights for several days.
But the wind was still too strong to fish all ten jigs, which run on the surface at about five knots. We soon tired of untangling lines, and hauled in one side.
I took a Loran reading. Our position was 175 miles west of Cape Flattery. Fifty fish by dark, I wrote in the log. The albacore’s stomachs were crammed with tiny, silvery bait fish. As soon as they hit the deck, they disgorged hundreds of these tiny fish.
“Hope they stick around. We have plenty of jigs to feed them,” Red said.
: Only a big, oily swell was running at daylight. Fish hit jigs as soon as we flung them out. I began circling. Score today 625 albacore, school-sized.
Same place. This school is about a mile long and half a mile wide. If I let the boat wander out of that area, we catch nothing.
“A bait boat would make a killing here,” Red said.
“Don’t even mention bait boat,” I warned him.
We hadn’t seen a boat since the blow started. I kept off the radio, well aware that a hungry fleet of jig boats would descend upon us if they knew. The spot was not large enough for more than one or two boats. Score today, 890.
We have become a well-oiled team. Red command of the cockpit, me keeping the boat over the school and moving fish into the hold. Red became an expert with the new hydraulic line pullers, often having lines in both at the same time.
I’d put 25 albacore down at a time. After they had laid in the cold blast half an hour, so the skin would dry off so they would not stick together, I’d chuck them into storage bins.
During lulls in the biting, I’d take Loran readings and discover the reason why; we’d wandered away from the school.
Meals were grab and run, until after dark, and Red would cook something.
While Red was busy in the galley, I would don a snow mobile suit and face mask, then go below and shift fish around in the hold. The chill factor was about 50 below.
I kept one eye out for other boats.
Without saying so, we were both trying for the magic number, known as a “unit” in the fishery, or a 1,000 fish day.
On July 15,
shortly after lunchtime, it happened. I spotted another boat. Binoculars indicated it was a bait boat. Bait boats are equipped with a crew, usually Mexicans, and live bait tanks. They drag jigs until they start catching fish, then stop, haul in their long lines, put the boat in a circle and start flipping bait.
The crew stand on platforms at the water level, beat the water with the tips of their short, stiff poles, with a jig attached, and throw fish aboard. The hooks are barbless and the fish quickly spits out the jig, which is immediately flung back into the water.
If the school goes for the bait, six to ten poles can jerk an enormous number of fish on board in a short time. Ten tons in half a day isn’t unusual.
Once the school does go for the live bait, a jig boat is out of business.
If the school doesn’t go for the bait, the vessel moves on.
The skipper of this bait boat was no greenhorn. He had stayed on the sidelines, watching my frequent turns, until convinced I was on a school. Then he drove straight in, intending to make a stop over the school.
“Let the jigs fill up and drag. “I’ll try and lure him away.” I kept going west, slowed down until no fish were surfing, or out of the water. We both went into the wheelhouse and watched through binoculars. “If he stops, we’re sunk,” I said. We watched while the bait boat made several passes through the school, didn’t stop, then followed us.
“Boy oh boy! Our fish are ignoring the bait.”
I wasn’t enjoying this checker game, but had a few tricks of my own. Our lines were tight with fish, fish caught before we left the school. Two miles past the edge of the school, I began circling, a sure sign that I’m catching fish.
The ruse worked. The intruder took the bait and followed. When it approached close enough for them to see what was going on, we slowly pulled in our “tired” fish, one at a time, making sure they saw us. Some tuna that were on short lines, we’d flip aboard, then sneak them back overboard, pretended to land several fish.
The skipper of the bait boat came close, then put his boat in a circle, ordering his crew into the pits.
I shook my fist at the bait boat skipper, changed course, then tacked off to the southwest. A normal-sized tuna jig boat disappears over the horizon at about seven and a half miles. I stayed on the bridge with my binoculars watching. The bait boat kept going west, evidently tired of the cat and mouth game. I waited until he was down over the horizon, before headed back to “our spot.”
Our fears, that the bait boat had put the school down, were unfounded. As soon as we were in the right Loran readings, we started picking up a few fish. Darkness put a stop to the hectic day.
Total tally for the day, 925.
“The bait boat cost us our unit,” I growled.
“Oh well, be thankful for what we have,” Red said.
“Meanwhile, we have a problem. Fish are piled up so high in front of the blower they’re cutting off air. I’ll have to pitch some frozen fish on deck, replace them with fresh, unfrozen fish, then chuck the frozen fish down again.”
Although fishing was “slow’ today, we caught 56 before I announced the hold was full. At dark we headed for Astoria. It would be a long, long run, but we were happy. Once these little pigs were in the cannery, and we had the check, we’d do it all over again, we hoped.
The fish weighed 19,700 pounds.