The raucous ringing of the bilge alarm utterly decimates my daydreams of deck-loads and mainland maidens smitten by my seining skills. Copious coffee consumption and a belly full of “boat slop” will do that to a guy! The battle of my intestines intensifies to a literal breaking point when I realize that I’m the only one aboard who actually knows how to drive the dang boat. Oh shit! 

DesPOOate times call for desPOOate measures. With my crew already back in their bunks, a symphony of snores solidifying their status as sleepy Sirs, I take my first decisive action as Captain by sprinting out of the cabin, grabbing the deck bucket, and making my way up to the flying bridge. Nature is calling on VHF channel 16, and it’s a Mayday!

Any seaman worth his salt is well-versed in the versatility and simplicity of the deck bucket. A time-tested staple of seasoned seafarers and modern mariners alike, a dedicated deck bucket is an essential equipment on boats both big and small.

At 40’, my old Beck boat was definitely on the smaller side of seiners, being 18 feet short of the 58’ limit long imposed on Alaskan seining vessels. Luckily, my deck bucket was the regulation size, as I quickly scanned the sea for any impending obstacles and took a squatted seat upon my five-gallon throne. “Not a moment too soon,” I thought as I worriedly wondered if 5 gallons was volume enough for the vileness violently voiding itself from my newly skippered self.

Arched over in agony and soaked in sweat, I was a man in misery, silently swearing to the Gods of the seas and the skies that I’d swear off Spam for all eternity if I’d only survive this battle born from the bowels of Satan himself.

The Gods smiled at me that morning. But that smile wouldn’t last long. Because, just as soon as I allowed myself to embrace the sweet relief of my rotten release, I looked up from the flying bridge floor to see a log, larger and much more ominous than any of those I’d just left in the trusty blue bucket. 30 yards. Dead ahead and closing fast.

To avoid a potentially catastrophic collision capable of curtailing our commercial salmon season before it even began, time was of the absolute essence. There certainly wasn’t time to complete a cleanup on aisle #2 (pun intended), so I did what any sensible skipper would do and scooted my bucket further forward on the flying bridge, grabbed the well-worn wheel, and turned it hard starboard with all the muscle I could muster. Nothing! Zero! Zilch! I had forgotten to turn off the autopilot in my haste to make waste.

Now only a mere boat length and a half ahead, the log was close enough for me to see the bevy of blade-sharp barnacles shod to its side, each capable of gouging the ever-living hell out of my hull or worse.

Abandoning whatever dignity a bottomless bucket-butted 21-year-old seiner skipper had left, I screamed at the top of my lungs, “TURN OFF THE AUTOPILOT!” Fully expecting the next noise, I heard the sickening smash of waterlogged wood meeting fragile fiberglass; I was instead answered by the voice of an angel shaped like my skiffman Larry shouting back at me, “I don’t see an off switch, and why are you screaming like a girl?!”

“Turn it to STANDBY, Larry, STANDBY,” I screamed as the log loomed only a few feet before our bow. No sooner did I hear his “Roger” response than I felt the bucket beneath me start to swing and sway as the boat abruptly swung starboard. Amidst all the excremental excitement, I had forgotten that not only was the rudder turned hard to starboard, but I had also forgotten to hold on.

The last thing I saw before toppling from my 5-gallon throne and plopping into a putrid pile of self-made mess consisting of secondhand Spam and Charmin was that damn demon log barely brushing our bow while a stupid seagull hitching a ride on the submerged cedar callously cackled up at me. The bastard bird appeared equally aware and amused by the shitty situation I’d found myself in. 

Sure enough, the ensuing calamity and commotion roused even the sleepiest of sailors from their shuteye slumber as I rose from my back and turned to see the frightened, fixated faces of my crew looking up at me in wide-eyed bewilderment from the deck below.

Despite their drowsy demeanor, it didn’t take long for my crew to put two and poo together as their state of horror transformed into hilarity in a mere matter of moments. A chorus of laughter at my expense echoed across the oceans as I sheepishly stripped out of my soiled sweats, contemplated cleaning strategies, and wondered when/if I’d ever recover from my blasphemous bucket blunder.

After swearing my crew to an oath of solemn secrecy that I knew darn well would evaporate the instant we arrived back in port, I quickly acquainted Larry with wheel watch at the helm before going to the galley and grabbing a bottle of Dawn dish soap along with a sacrificial sponge. The same blue bucket that had been my downfall would soon be my salvation.

The dish soap and saltwater shower cleansed everything but my embarrassment as I dried myself off on deck, got redressed, and eventually re-entered the cabin to the sound of sarcastic slow claps from my crew of comedians clad in XtraTufs. After settling back into my seat at the helm, I stole a little look at my trusty Timex, surprised to see that although I’d already taken a fowl shower, it wasn’t even 8 AM.

Thankfully, the remainder of our journey to the fishing grounds was devoid of disaster. It was even uneventful, as I opted to take the treacherous yet time-saving route through “The Slough,” a sinisterly shallow narrow passage wrought with rocks separating Afognak and Raspberry Islands. With the pucker-factor passage behind us and the wide-open waters of Raspberry Straight before us, I reluctantly relented my driving duties to Larry, nestled up in my bunk, closed my eyes, and mentally prepared myself for the impending opener. 

An “Uhh, I think we’re here, Henry,” brought an abrupt end to my much-needed meditative musings as I sprang from my bunk, took a quick peek out of the salt-washed windows, and quickly confirmed that we were, in fact, there.

Being the first to arrive at “The Mine,” a hallowed hook-off in the SW Afognak section of the Kodiak District, meant we’d have the first set of the salmon season. Although I was raised with a Ricky Bobby “if you’re not first, you’re last” ethos, possessing the first set of the season made me even more nervous as the eyes of all the other arriving seiners would undoubtedly be upon us once the clock struck noon.

“Why do they call it The Mine?” I wondered, thinking of any thoughts that would distract my mess of a mind from my inaugural opener, now only 20 minutes away. 

Could it be the cornucopia of caves and crags that clung to the towering cliffs of rock and sand that christened this hardened land “The Mine?” The spectacular seaside scenery did look remarkably reminiscent of Tolkien’s Mines of Moria of “Lord of the Rings” yore. Or perhaps the origins came from the countless scores of Sockeye perennially passing by this rugged, rocky outcrop perched at Shelikof Straight? A seine swilling with Sockeye was indeed good as a gold mine for any salmon seining Skipper.

11:55 AM. The time on my watch laid waste to my worried wanton wonderings. To hopefully look like I knew what I was doing, I decided to jog one last slow circle around the set. 

A half-score of summers spent seining with my father had taught me that the free-flowing banners of bull kelp situated near the shoreline would tell the tale of the tides and current conditions. “Thanks, Dad,” I thought, intently analyzing the kelp while simultaneously scanning the sea for the “jumpers” that signified schools of salmon swimming beneath the surface. 

I reckoned I was as ready as I’d ever be, so I kicked the boat back in gear and motored my way 250 fathoms offshore in preparation for finally getting the net wet. 

The longest quarter mile of my life later, I eased off the throttle and turned the boat 180 degrees back towards the shore. Three thumbs-up from my guys in Grundens told me that although they were green, they were gung-ho. I flashed a half-assed smile and a thumbs-up back at them before looking at my watch one last time.

11:59 AM. 60 seconds and a seine length were now all that separated me from turning the proverbial page to the next chapter in a life spent at sea.

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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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