Cover Story Excerpt: A world of wind and ice
Hard work and harsh weather define winter fishing for pollock in the Bering Sea
By Abner Kingman
Steaming into a Northeast gale on the Bering Sea in February, the trawler American Beauty has built a thick layer of ice from the waterline to the highest antenna. "We're like a giant Popsicle," captain Kevin Ganley says over the radio to another captain. As the boat labors slowly up the face of the next wave he adds, "We're so heavy we're barely moving."
At 123 feet the Beauty is not large by Bering Sea standards, but tons of ice make her motion slow and ponderous, like a big ship. The 30-year-old, Marco-built vessel is in good shape, and 45 knots doesn't register as a breeze worth mentioning up here, but it's still not safe to carry so much weight up high.
Yesterday the Beauty unloaded 500,000 pounds of pollock in King Cove, a tiny fish-plant town on the Alaskan Peninsula, then cast off in a snowstorm to buck the seas for 15 hours on the way back up to the fishing grounds.
Inside, the Beauty is toasty warm, and the constant drone of the 1,800-hp Cat makes it easy to sleep. But after too many hours in their bunks everyone is getting impatient. At 2200 Ganley's three crew members have gathered in the wheelhouse to find out where we are. The plotter indicates that we are almost to the fishing grounds, but before they can set the net, the crew must clear the boat of ice.
The shock of stepping out into the cold is unpleasant no matter how many layers you are wearing. The first breath of frozen air burns your lungs, and deck boots slide on the sheer ice underfoot. The quartz and sodium-vapor lights are blazing and every bit of the boat is bright white, making it impossible to see into the night around us. We are isolated in our own world, facing the daunting task of smashing many thousands of pounds of ice while heaving in a 15-foot sea. Every rail, cable, cleat, and corner is caked in a six-inch meringue of white ice that looks deceptively soft and delicate.
The air temperature is below zero and the wind chill is minus 30. The ice is rock hard, so hard that striking it with a hickory ax handle sends a stinging vibration up your arm, all the way to your molars.
Bering Sea fishermen employ all sorts of weapons when they attack ice on their boats, but the ideal tool is a purpose-built mallet designed by Russ Trombley of Marine Service and Supply in Seattle. It's a 36-inch fiberglass shovel handle paired with a heavy plastic head that looks something like an oversized splitting maul, blunt on one side and wedge-shaped on the other. It has just the right mix of weight, shock absorption, and effectiveness to make smashing ice almost enjoyable.
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