When youre 21, you know everything. When youre 21 and a first-year captain of an Alaskan salmon seiner, you know even more. I was a 21-year-old captain once, and it took me all of 21 minutes to realize that I, in fact, did not know everything

After a decade spent seining as a crewmember in perpetually progressing positions aboard my fathers high-producing salmon boat based out of Port Lions, Alaska (a picturesque pacific paradise positioned where the spruce meets the sea) in the Kodiak Island statistical salmon district, I was positive I was ready to fulfill my destiny as a salty sea-hardened highliner as the impending June 9th salmon season opener crept ever closer. 

Despite my newfound status of skipper, my green as-grass crew, and my complete inability to grow a beard, morale was high. At the same time, we buttoned up boat work, and I did my downright damnedest to inspire and excite my crew about the upcoming opener with pre-season inspirational speeches during our nightly team meetingsover barley pops and BBQ. 

If my guys had any inkling, I commandeered most of my quotes from Lord of the Ringsand Rudy, they kept it to themselves as we spent our last night in port preparing my newly purchased pocket seinerfor our first trip by loading the last of the gourmet grub disguised as canned chili, a cup of noodles and store brand cereal aboard the boat in whatever nooks and crannies we could find. The borderline claustrophobic confines of the cabin were so short on space that Larry, my skiff-man, said it was “less cabin & more coffin.”  

Somehow, no one seemed to mind that we’d eat like inmates, sleep like sardines, and likely smell like them for the next three months. We were boys, and to us, the ocean was just another adventure that we hoped would soon make us men.

My day of reckoning began much like any other, with the shrill cry of a 4:30 AM iPhone alarm followed by a couple of cups of Folgers to shake off the sleep as I grabbed my fishing bag, started the simultaneously trusty & rusty 88Ford and headed for the harbor. 

Port Lions is home to precisely seven miles of roads. None of them are paved, as potholes and puddles are par for the course and make for far more memorable landmarks than any street sign ever could. On any other day, the rotten road conditions would have caused an outburst of expletives. Still, on this particular morning in early June, I was thankful for the tortoise-esque trek that gave time for the caffeine to kick in and allowed me to prepare myself for the aquatic adventure ahead mentally. I was a captain, dammit, now time to act like one.

F/V Amy La Rae was named after Orth's younger sister. Photo by Henry Orth

Lets go, girls, I sang in my best Shania Twain twang as I pushed the cabin door open with my shoulder and noisily made my way down the three well-worn wood steps and across the galley, laughing all the way. At the same time, I threw my bag into my bunk before finally taking my undoubted destiny-defining throne at the helm aboard the 40’ Beck Fiberglass Seiner I'd named the Amy La Rae after my younger sister. Don Juan, I was not in this stage of life because, let’s be honest, I would have probably named my first boat after any pretty girl that so much as smiled at me in this era of unfortunate facial hair and fat pants.

I waited patiently at my prestigious perch until three pairs of bloodshot yet eager eyes looked up at me from the forepeak, awaiting instructions from their fearless leader, before I once again started singing, this time with all the magnitude I could muster… “Man, I feel like a Captain, Do Doo Dooo Doo Do Do Do,then turned the key and pressed the button that brought the Detroit 6V92 to life with a rambunctious rumble and a couple of puffs of smoke that signified the start of our salmon season. 

My Skippers entrance? Nailed it!I thought while putting on my literal and figurative captains hat. I pretended not to see the rolling eyes and visible auras of secondhand embarrassment etched on the faces of my crew as I made my mostly merry way out of the cabin, across the deck, and up the aluminum ladder to the flying bridge in preparation for finally casting off. 

Shore Power? Disconnected! Inverter? On! Skiff? Untied from the dock and secured at the stern! These audible checklists were as much for the crew as they were for me as we slowly but surely took steps to avoid doing anything dumb as I begrudgingly gave the order to throw off the lines. 

“Stern line Larry?" 

"Stern line free Capt!”

“Spring line Wylder?"

"Spring line loose!" 

“Bowline Eric?"

"Bow rope loose!”

Rope? What are you some kind of cowboy? Do you see any cattle? Its a gosh darn line, Eric! I shouted above the incessant squealing of the Screaming Jimmywhile hoping hed have learned the rope VS line lesson like so many newly christened by the sea had before him. Id teach him about prop wash later I snickered to myself as the cry of “Bow LINE loose!” echoed in my ears.

It was go-time at last! I advanced the Hynautic controls and maneuvered out of my stall at a snails pace, knowing that the ever-watchful eyes of my many uncles in the industry would be upon me as I tried to live up to the legacy left around the Island by my old man. 

After a few minutes of avoiding obstacles and remembering how to breathe, I looked to the stern to make sure the skiff hadn’t gone all Houdini on me and saw that not only was the skiff still secured, but behind us, the breakwater of Port Lions Harbor grew steadily smaller while we wandered our way to Whale Pass, where we’d then head west and, in doing so, leave our old lives in the wake. 

To the East, the radiance of the rising sun painted a masterpiece over Marmot Bay by silhouetting scores of seagulls as they soared, sang, and danced between the wind and water while whales lingered lazily through the tide-churned torrents of the pass so aptly named. What undeniable beauty,I remember thinking to myself as the steady sea breeze soothed my soul and effortlessly eased away the internal tensions and turmoil of a long night and short morning spent wondering if I had what it took to be a Captain in Kodiaks chaotic and competitive salmon fishery? 

Many seasons spent as a deckhand with a dream had led me to this reality, a reality I decided right then and there that I was going to make the most of!

F/V Amy La Rae with a net full of salmon. Photo by Henry Orth

The unmistakable smell of Spam wafted its way from the galley to the flying bridge and broke me from my state of self-reflection. I quickly scanned the boat from bow to stern while basking in the beauty of the Island and the seas that shaped me for just a few more moments, before climbing down the ladder onto the deck. A smile crept across my face as I entered the galley to find a heaping plate of Spam and Eggs awaiting me at the helm while the magical mandolin of Rod Stewarts Maggie May traded solos with the Detroit Diesel.

We looked at each other, the camaraderie of our crew growing stronger by the second as we shoved the mystery meat in our mouths (get your head out of the gutter!) and sang Maggie May at the tops of our lungs. We were boys, and our adventure had begun, and we couldnt stop smiling about it. However, those smiles wouldnt last, because the sea was about to teach us, that we still had a lot to learn.

To Be Continued

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Henry Orth V is a third-generation commercial fisherman, writer, and hot sauce connoisseur with home ports in Port Lions and Wasilla, Alaska. When not searching the seas for salmon and mermaids, he spends most of his hours outdoors, where he enjoys hunting, hockey, skiing, snowmachining, flying, fishing, and countless other Alaskan adventures. 

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