At the Winter Solstice: Annals of Former Times
Updated: Dec 30, 2022
At the 2022 Winter Solstice I am hunkered down in a warm house near the Atlantic Ocean waiting for a winter storm to arrive. I can’t help but reflect on this day 42 years ago in far different circumstances.
“Baranof off St. George Island, Pribilofs bound for Dutch Harbor in a Gale, December 1980” - Watercolor by Mark Myers 2007
Its December 1980 and my 6th winter crab season in the Bering Sea. I am the ship’s master aboard the F/V Baranof steaming south from the blue king crab fishing grounds near the Pribilof Islands headed for Dutch Harbor 280 miles away. We are completing nearly 6 weeks of continuous fishing activity. The crew is exhausted and licking their wounds but mostly sleeping. All are looking forward to a much earned short break over the holidays.
Baranof is making way in very big seas in front of a nasty Siberian NW gale which is belching gusts to 50 knots. To add to the drama, the ambient air temperature outside is 18 degrees and the windchill factor is well below zero F. Any salt water spray immediately freezes and cements itself to the steel superstructure of the vessel. Over time this can add enough extra weight aloft to make the vessel unstable. Crew members have been summoned to use baseball bats to clear the ice when it is safe. The scuppers, which allow water on deck to clear are continually plugging with ice and are very slow to drain making our travel even more dangerous. We are young and this danger is far from mind as we carry forth.
Fortunately we are traveling downwind with a following sea though the waves are steep owing to the rapid rise of the sea bottom shelf from more than 1000 fathoms to 15 fathoms northwest of St. George Island. This could have been avoided by staying further to the westward in our travel but a safer course would add extra hours to our journey. We are all desperate for R&R. These are the king crab derby days...I take the shortest path. It is dangerous, but I minimize the risk in my mind. The Baranof is stout and one of the largest ships in the fleet. We push on in spite of the real risk of a possible broach and pitch polling amongst these ocean giants.
About 12 miles NW of St. George the ocean swells are running 30 feet with an occasional larger one rearing its ugly head. Baranof is exceeding her hull speed of 11 kts as it surfs down these monster swells like a massive 180 ft. surfboard plowing headlong into the wave ahead. This causes a spectacular cascade of freezing spray on each plunge. The autopilot is straining to keep the vessel on a straight course. Suddenly we are hailed on the VHF by another vessel traveling on a similar course about 10 miles behind us.
The F/v Nordfjord has taken “green water” in several successive waves which have broken over her stern filling the vessel’s deck with seawater. Nordfjord’s frozen and clogged scuppers were not allowing the water to clear. The skipper is concerned and asks if we can standby just in case. He fears if he gets another wave over the stern he may not recover and could capsize due to the instability with so much unsecured sea water filling the deck. We reply. Of course we agree to standby but acknowledge that trying to turn around in this sea will be next to impossible. There is an uncomfortable silence between us. Fortunately the worst does not happen and we both proceed to port in Dutch Harbor without further incident. We take our good fortune for granted.
Some years later, tragically, F/v NordFjord is lost with all hands crossing the Gulf of Alaska in a winter storm. Instability of seawater in her crab tanks is the suspected cause of her demise but never confirmed.
Those were the King Crab “derby days” of fishing in the Bering Sea. Alas, these days are long gone. In fact recent closures of the Alaska Crab fisheries in the Bering Sea have placed the future of the crab industry in doubt as the planet warms and biodiversity adjusts to the “new normal” on these fishing grounds.
Very grateful that fishing families Wells and Hosmer with long Cape Cod roots here in Chatham operate the F/v Baranof and still make a living from the sea even now though harvesting other species for the time being. The memory of the old days still linger every day thanks to artist (and our dear friend) Mark Myers of Cornwall, UK who brilliantly captured this memory from my personal logs.
John J King II