6.06.2013

North to Alaska! Part 5

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4


We'd had enough fun on my Alaska excursion, and now it was time to actually work. The crew was scheduled for a 30(-ish?) hour opening, and I was coming along for the ride. I'd even purchased a temporary commercial fishing license and pulled some over-sized oilskins in the hopes that I would fake my way through a set or two and get the full experience without killing myself or falling overboard. The license wasn't terribly expensive, but it was required for me to go out with the boat since the Coast Guard would be pretty pissed off if they decided to stop us for an inspection and some random unlicensed dude was on board. Like I said, Alaska regulates their fisheries pretty fiercely.

We set off towards the fishing grounds and I started popping Bonine, which is supposed to fight off sea-sickness without the sleepy side effects of dramamine. I'm not usually prone to bouts of motion sickness, but I'd never been on the open ocean before and we were sailing into, as the crew put it, "a bit of weather," so I wasn't feeling super awesome. But everyone assured me that sea sickness was nothing to be embarrassed about, that everyone on the boat got it at least a couple times a season, and I should feel free to vomit on the deck of the boat and let the seawater splashing over the rail take care of things.

Unfortunately, I wouldn't even make it out to the deck.

I did manage to get some photos from the wheelhouse, though.


A small storm was blowing into King Cove when we left. Nothing huge or particularly worrisome, but it was packing winds around 30mph which, the crew informed me, were slightly below the "too windy to fish" threshold they set to keep themselves from having to fight several miles of net blowing in the wind. The wind would push the waves and we were heading into (I think) 12-foot seas. Nothing huge by any means. But to my landlocked Midwestern sensibilities they were more than enough to make me feel pretty pukey. The boat would climb each oncoming wave and then, reaching the top, would plummet down into the trough of the wave with a thundering "BANG." No one else seemed distressed by this, probably because they've been on boats before, but I was convinced we were going to drive ourselves into a submerged mountain any minute.

I don't know if I've mentioned this throughout the two-plus years it's taken me to tell this tale, but at the time I visited Alaska I was suffering from pretty severe vertigo. It was brought on by a visit to a shifty Haitian dentist and at the time it would come on whenever I would transition from standing or sitting or lying down. The experience wasn't "dizziness" so much as it was a feeling that the entire room was spinning as if I were on a swing set and shooting around the bar at the top. When it came on I would be nauseated and incapacitated while I felt my eyeballs spin around in my head.

So this, combined with the steady climbing-and-dropping of the boat on the waves, was slowly overwhelming me. Everyone had helpful advice for me, including to keep my eyes on the horizon. This helped, but not nearly enough. If I stayed completely still in the chair in the wheelhouse and looked straight ahead towards the rising sun I could stay completely miserable as opposed to actively puking. (I am seriously sick to my stomach just remembering the experience, it was fucking awful.) Of course my father-in-law insisted on "helping."

"He's got to try on a survival suit," he told Kat, "you have to make sure you can get one on in time." And he had a point. A survival suit is designed to keep you warm while you're submerged in the freezing waters of the Bering Sea long enough for rescue to find you. Despite the best training, experience, and luck in the world and accident can happen and sink a boat in mere minutes, so you need to be able to get into the thing in something like a minute and a half or three minutes. Not a lot of time.

Kat and her dad walked me through locating the stash of suits, finding one my size, unpacking it and unfurling it along the floor, and sliding my body into it. They're not like a suit you can just throw on. The suit I had was basically a fluorescent orange ninja outfit made from neoprene. It wasn't very forgiving, and I had to painstakingly inch it up my legs and around my torso while fumbling with the zippers and clasps and things. All the while, the boat rocked and heaved and dropped mercilessly. Eventually I managed to get the thing on, which culminates in pulling a zipper that starts just below your dick and ends on the bridge of your nose. 

"How'd I do," I panted through the neoprene.

"Uh, you took like 34 minutes. I think you have to do it in less than five," Kat surmised.

"He'll be fine," her dad chirped. Meanwhile I was now sweating profusely in a rubber mummy suit. I could feel my body temperature rise through my head. The boat continued to roll and pitch. It was a Herculean effort just to maintain my footing. I really did not want to throw up in a survival suit in front of my in-laws.

"I need this off of me. Now. Right now," I panted. Kat probably saw how green I was and hurried to help me out of the thing. I cracked a window and the crisp Alaskan air hit me, but it wasn't enough to stem the tide. I could feel the pressure building. The back of my mouth started salivating, and I could feel that inescapable bubble of nausea rise from the pit of my stomach to the back of my throat.

"Just hurk out the window," my father-in-law assured me. I have a weird hangup about bodily functions in that I basically want to maintain my plausible deniability that I even do them. Obviously I've blown my cover with Kat: she's been crop-dusted enough to know something's going on. But in general I like to refrain from farting, belching, peeing, vomiting, and especially pooping where anyone can see, smell, or hear. But all that goes out the window (ha!) when you're sitting in a wheelhouse surrounded by friends and family all waiting for you to vomit. I cracked open the window. My body, sensing its opening, took care of the rest. Up came the cookies we'd eaten in celebration on our way out of port. In came a massive wave of frigid Bering Sea water to smack me in the face, soaking me completely and throwing most of my cookie vomit right back into my hair and on my fleece.

"AH HAHAHA- oh, babe, I'm sorry," Kat caught herself. I didn't care. I was too busy emptying my thoroughly-shifted contents onto the steel deck below the window while the ocean busily washed it away as fast as I could produce it. 

Thus began my puking, which would not cease for the duration of the fishing trip. At first I tried to keep count, because I thought it'd be funny for this story. I lost track though, so I can only vouch for having puked 27 times even though I know I kept puking well after that. The seasickness was unlike anything I've ever felt and was, at the time at least, the worst thing I've ever experienced. I'm sure if I contracted AIDS or something I'd say that's worse, but I haven't done that so it's still the worst sickness I've had. It was like a cold, wet blanket wrapped around and hanging from my bones. All I wanted to do was throw up and sleep, but I couldn't stop throwing up long enough to fall asleep. 

The crew, well-versed in this sort of thing, each had their own helpful advice. Try chewing gum. I couldn't keep down puke long enough to chew it. Keep your eye on the horizon. My eyes closed involuntarily every time I hurled my essence onto the deck of the boat. Don't lie down. Just stand up and get used to it. This might've worked eventually, but I was on a 30 hour trip, not a fishing season. I crawled into Kat's bunk and tried to sleep it off in the warm, dark folks-hole. The lack of horizon and fresh air only made things worse.

Eventually Jim, the boat's longest-tenured crewman and deck boss, offered me some of his private stash of gummy bears. Works for me every time, he assured me. I stuffed gummy bears down my gullet with a quickness, hoping they would be fast-acting. I made it 20 minutes. It didn't make any sense! Why would gummy bears help? Maybe it was just psychosomatic? My joy was short-lived, though, because I had to run to the head again to vomit (the boat was rocking too fiercely for me to get to a window). Up came a rainbow of glistening, viscous gummy bear goo with a consistency not unlike motor oil. The bears! They do nothing!

"Jim," I panted, "these things aren't helping my seasickness at all." 

"Oh they don't make you feel better," he smiled, "they just taste better than throwing up straight bile." Little victories.

I spent the rest of the trip lying in the rear window of the wheelhouse, watching through the glass as Kat and the crew busted their asses among rolling waves, whistling winds, and literal tons of kelp to bring in a disappointing amount of salmon. Just to be clear, they were disappointed. I had no idea what a good amount of salmon was (40,000 lbs-ish), I was just going off what they were telling me. 

Pictured: "not enough fish to justify this bullshit."

But through my vomit-addled mental haze, I saw some amazing stuff. The raw, untamed ocean is incredible. Killer Whales trailed the boat for awhile, jumping and chasing terrified salmon (and thankfully not running holes through the net). Humpback whales would signal their presence with towering spouts of mist and brief glimpses of a tail fluke. A very confused and probably irate sea lion refused to stop chowing down on salmon and escape the net, so he came aboard the deck and barked at everyone for a few minutes until he figured out how to jump over the side (it's apparently very stressful to try and coax an animal that could bite a chunk out of you to do anything). On our way back in we saw grizzly bears loping along a hillside, their fur ruffling in the wind like the waves of grass in the breeze. 

It was beautiful! Even at the most horribly sick I've ever felt in my life, I was struck by the beauty. And despite puking non-stop and literally pondering how quickly I would die and stop suffering if I jumped in the freezing ocean and bouncing around the galley like a drunk Lucille Ball I had a blast. I wouldn't trade it for anything! 

I took this through the galley door because I was afraid if I walked out I would go cartwheeling over the edge and into the ocean.


Alaska was amazing. I can't wait to go back there. Next time I'm staying the fuck off the fishing boats.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I fished with a guy who, as soon as we poked outside into the swell, would barf non-stop. While hauling. I couldn't understand why he didn't get a job in town. The Skipper's helpful advice, after what looked like an eternity for Todd, was to yell, 'Hey, Todd, if something hairy comes up- swallow. It's your asshole'.