After the man in the tote
By Tele Aadsen
Editor's note: This is the postscript of a Sept. 11 entry to the blog Hooked, titled "Lost at Sea: The Man in the Tote," about the crew of the boat who discovered Ryan Harris, a survivor of an Alaska fishing boat sinking, after he spent the night adrift in a fish tote.
After the Coast Guard hoisted Ryan Harris out of the sea, the helicopter disappeared into the clouds, Sitka-bound. Joel throttled up and angled the Nerka inland. I watched the empty tote bob in the waves behind us.
Suddenly shaky, we settled in for our own transit back to town. With one eye on the rain-pocked windows and the other on my point-and-shoot's tiny display, Joel scrolled through the photos I'd taken. He stopped abruptly at one.
"Oh my god — did you zoom in on his face?"
"Huhn-uh. What is it?" I peered over his shoulder.
The helicopter arrived on scene so immediately, we'd never gotten close enough to the man in the tote to see him clearly. Zoomed in tight, the photo revealed not a man, but a kid. We'd later learn he was barely 19.
"God, his face... There's this collision of emotions that just, just rupture you." Joel continued to stare at the image. "He's so young. Like how young I was when I took over the boat."
He turned to me with a clouded Tongass-green gaze. "That could've been me." I forced myself to hold his eyes, knowing — hating — the memory I saw reflected in them.
In 2004, Joel was 22, running the boat he'd grown up on. Abruptly shouldering adult responsibilities upon his father's retirement, he was still an eager-to-prove-himself kid, standing tall on mountains of dreams and pebbles of caution.
Though we were a couple, I wasn't ready to fish with Joel. Instead I crewed for Marlin, a lifelong friend, on the Sadaqa. In the midst of the July king salmon opening, a nasty storm blew up, chasing the fleet off of the Fairweather Grounds. We ran for Lituya Bay's protective embrace, rafts of trollers strung together in impromptu boat parties. The Sadaqa, Aquila, Kathleen Jo, New Day; we were all there. All except the Nerka.
Anxiety crept into my stomach. I asked Marlin, "Has anyone called Joel?"
He shook his head. "We wouldn't be able to get him from in here."
Moments later, one of our fishing partners keyed the group radio, his voice tight. "Joel's in trouble."
A broken transmission crackled through the VHF, followed by one of blade-sharp clarity. "Fishing Vessel Nerka, this is Coast Guard Sector Juneau. Understand you are taking on water."
The fortress of glaciers between us barricaded Joel's response from our ears, but thin words slipped through. "Water." "Engine room." "Twelve miles off Cape Spencer." The bay that had been a sanctuary became a prison.
Helpless to do anything but stare at the radio, I clutched a pen like a lifeline and scribbled impotent fear. And anger. What was he doing out there? Furious tears spattered the pages.
Marlin knew how to sit with grief. He offered quiet company, breaking the silence to ask, "Is there anything I can do?"
I started to shake my head, then reconsidered. "Yeah. Take my picture. I want Joel to see this." "This:" head in hand, spiked eyelashes, glossy slug tracks down flushed cheeks, tears and snot.
An ice age of pan-pans and scratchy updates later, the Nerka anchored in Graves Harbor. Within the calm of the anchorage, he found and fixed the water source. Deeply shaken, he was okay.
When we reunited in Sitka a week later, the first thing I did was hug my sweetheart tight. The next thing was to hand him a copy of the photo, in an envelope labeled, "To look at if you ever think it's a good idea to go out in conditions like that again." As sober as Joel's experience had left him, I wanted him to see the weighty responsibility of his new role. A lesson for every fisherman: even when we go to sea alone, our loved ones' trust and fears ride with us.
Stonie Huffman's and Ryan Harris's remarkable survival sparked an international media frenzy. But no one saw that close-up. "It's too intimate," I told Joel. "It's not right to share something so private."
I was shielding a young man's privacy, but also guarding my fleet-mates from an expression we hate to see and hope to never wear. Salt-split grimace and eyes haunted by realization: the ocean we can't live without doesn't give a rip about us in return.
This awareness lives deep within all sea-faring people. But if we allow it too near our surface, we'd never leave the dock. So we bury it deep in our ocean-craving souls and learn to manage the things we can — maintaining vessels and equipment, training for emergencies, watching the weather and using our best judgment. We approach our work with the confidence that those things will be enough. Proud to feed the world, proud of our boats, our independence and endurance, we start to imagine we're in control. But control is an illusion. When the wind comes up fast and the green water slams our windows, that expression flickers across our faces, and we swallow hard.
[Tele's piece from National Fisherman's January issue continues here.]
Waters familiar as family become the monster we know drools beneath the bed, clacking its claws and biding its time. We tell ourselves that if we resist leaning over, peeling back the blanket's edge, and looking him full in the face, we might make it through the night. Through the trip, through the season. But for much of the landlocked public, that monster is the story of what we do. It's the beastliest elements of fishing – the most extreme weather, obstacles, and risk – that pop culture loves most. I cringed to think of our deepest dread up for public consumption, splashed across TV screens, narrated by the breathless exclamations of those who'd never tasted fear at sea.
We all know that taste. We know the relief that floods our bloodstream as we slide through the breakwater, slide through the ringing, pinging, buzzing, bustling yammer of "connectedness," gladly sacrificing constant access for a moment of silence and access to ourselves. We know, too, that the gentle hand ruffling our hair can shift to a vicious smack without warning. We've all stared at silent radios, every cilia vibrating like a tuning fork, desperate to hear word. We've stood at the mariners' wall, fingertips tracing the names of those who didn't come home. We don't need a photo to know what lives in a survivor's eyes.
As the world gobbled the viral story, Sitka's fishermen processed differently. We drew to each other like magnets, crowding harbor parking lots and the aisles of Murray Pacific. Fleet elders described struggling to get into survival suits in the swimming pool's calm waters. "I couldn't do it," one recalled. Said another, "I finally did, but it sure wasn't easy."
A troller told me he'd texted another captain moments before we'd sighted Ryan, suggesting, "If we all pull our gear and run a quarter-mile grid up the coast, we'll find him." One after another, fishermen recounted a day of binoculars in hand, continuing to scan the gray waters long after believing the worst. At the fuel dock, a gruff veteran approached Joel. "Man, I'll tell ya, me'n about half the fleet burst into tears when you came on the radio sayin' you saw him."
We speculated what the men would take from their survival. Was the captain already thinking of his next boat, or searching for a new path on solid ground? Would either swear off the sea?
With our town chores done, Joel and I headed back out, returning to fish the same strip of Kruzof coastline where the Kaitlyn Rai had gone down six days earlier. Déjà vu huffed unpleasantly on the back of my neck; I yanked my orange hood up against sideways rain. As the Nerka coasted deep seas of mercury, I studied the trollers rising and dipping alongside us.
Some were vessels I'd spent long, laughter-filled nights aboard, others made my blood pressure ratchet as they cross-tacked their way up the drag. Our fleet is an unlikely potpourri of aged hippies, young families, emphatic tea partiers and equally fierce greenies, fishing partners, rivals, lifelong friends, and some folks who don't like each other one bit.
In another place, removed from the ocean, we'd allow our differences to divide us. We'd throw up fences and draw our blinds, sneering at our neighbor's ignorant ways. But in this place, there's no allowance for prideful division. In our deepest moments of need, these waters truly are thicker than blood.
Pushing my gurdy handle into gear, I thought again of the faces in those two photographs. One person desperate to hear her loved one would survive, and another who might not have. Even after wearing the first expression, it never occurred to me to leave this fishing life. What is it, I wondered, that draws some of us so deeply to what can so easily devour us? Would I feel differently after a night adrift in the waves, meeting the monster face-to-face?
Tele Aadsen began salmon trolling out of Sitka, Alaska, at age 7. Catch her blog at nerkasalmon.wordpress.com.
National Fisherman Live for Feb. 27, 2014
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