Even though I’m proud of the amount of crab we’ve harvested and money we’ve made over the years, I think my greatest achievement in life is that over the years we’ve been blessed never to have a death or permanent injury aboard the Northwestern. Knock on wood. The chances of getting hurt or killed are so great, that safety is a full-time job. So when I said earlier that the captain’s job was to find the fish–that’s actually his second responsibility. Job One is keeping the boat safe. I’ve done pretty well at this, but I could have done better. We’ve had plenty of close calls and near misses that keep us humble. If you watch The Deadliest Catch, you may be a bit of a disaster junkie, and if so, this may be the part of the book you’ve been waiting for. This is the part where I recount some of the close calls.
There are a few stories that we’re taking to the grave, but one that I’m willing to write about here was when I was young, 26 or 28, and we were fishing opies in the middle of the winter. It was blowing 45 or 50, steady, and most of the guys that were close went into the island to anchor up. We stayed out and fished, and I was grinding pretty hard. And I was on lesser fishing than the guys who were closer to shore. So I just kept grinding even harder to make up for the small pot counts. Time was money, so we didn’t take the time to chip the ice off the boat. The guys were fried anyway, and chipping ice requires stopping fishing–and stopping making money. We slept, got up, accumulated more ice. I should have ordered the crew to chip ice, but I didn’t. I wanted to keep grinding.
After a couple of days, three to four feet of ice had built up over the whole boat, especially around the bow and wheelhouse. Of the fourteen windows in the wheelhouse, I was looking through the only one that was not iced. It was a heated “spinner” window that doesn’t accumulate ice. It was like peering through a tunnel of ice. It got bad. She got so nose-heavy that she was actually going down nose first. She took a wave, and when it came up over the bow, I had water up to the windows. Even the deck was submerged. And she stayed like that. She was on her way down. All I could do was throttle out of it. I gave it all she had to starboard. But the prop was barely underwater. It wasn’t doing much. You couldn’t see the bow–just water up to the windows. The boat turned sideways and the next wave hit, and she keeled over. But instead of capsizing, the keeling over allowed a lot of that water on the bow to drain out. So she righted herself, very slowly. It was eerie, like dying in slow motion. I got the boat turned around, and we went with the weather. We started chipping ice. It took a solid 18 hours. We were lucky to get out of that one. After that, I never took Bering Sea icing conditions for granted again.
We’ve had our share of rogue waves, the bastards that come out of nowhere. One time we had come through a storm, and things looked pretty good. We started fishing again. All the guys were on deck, hauling the first couple pots. It was still blowing really bad. I had the boat at a dead stop so they could work. All of the sudden this frickin’ monster comes out of nowhere, like a building going 50 miles an hour. When it hit, I thought the windows were going to shatter. It happened in a second. I dived down, laying my hand on the buzzer to give the crew a warning blast, waiting for the windows to smash through.
But they didn’t. Because I had the boat at a dead stop, there was less force of impact. The reason it hit us straight on is because we weren’t traveling. We were facing the waves, pulling gear as safely as we could. And the wave had just enough curl on top to where it broke over the top of the wheelhouse instead of smashing through the windows.
I was on my knees. I crawled to the door, scrambling to get up, and all I saw on deck was water from rail to rail. Just white. I figured everyone was gone. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I thought I’d killed my family, my crew–everyone. I opened the door. There was still water coming over the top. It poured down over me, and now I was soaking wet and screaming.
It started mellowing out. And all the sudden I saw these little heads popping up. One, two, all of them. They started laughing. Luckily they had heard the buzzer in time and got up underneath the shelter and grabbed onto something. It can happen just that quick. And we kept on fishing.
Another time we were running across the Gulf of Alaska on our way to the Bering Sea. It’s safer to hug the shore but we saved a day by cutting across. We got caught in a huge storm. We were bucking the waves, and every six or seventh wave was one of these rogue waves. You could time them. We’d see them coming, just curling at us, and I knew we were going to get just pummeled. I pulled the boat out of gear and jumped on the floor and hugged the base of the seat. I felt the whole boat go boooomm, and just shudder. I popped back up and shoved it in gear and started up–we were trying to make headway in this storm and just absolutely getting our asses kicked. We were out in the middle of nowhere. We were taking turns at the wheel, and whoever was steering had to punch a button on a watch alarm every so often to make sure he was awake. If he didn’t hit the button, the alarm blared.
Usually we set it for every fifteen minutes, but this storm we had to set it for five. If someone dozed off at the wheel at the wrong moment we’d be sideways to a wave and we’d all be dead. Mark Peterson remembers that we hit one of these big waves when I was laying in my bunk, and they could hear me screaming the F-Bomb at the top of my lungs. But I was sound asleep. I rolled off my bunk and crawled back in and didn’t even wake up. Peterson was thinking that if he survived this storm, he was never coming back on a boat again. But we made it through, and the next trip he was back onboard. Fishing can become an addiction. Ask any of the guys. From North by Northwestern by Captain Sig Hansen and Mark Sundeen.Copyright (c) 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
An Outdoor Life Web Exclusive: You know him best as crab-catching Captain Sig Hansen from the Discovery Channel’s hit reality show Deadliest Catch. Here’s a look at his newly released book “North by Northwestern”