Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Alone on the Fish Part 2: Broken Down


“Hey Marauder, Skookum Too. I have a problem here, Don.”

Steph, Don’s girlfriend and deckhand, comes back. “Hang on, Skookum Too. I’ll wake him.”
While we wait, Dan drops into the engine room and starts poking around with a flashlight. “Check the fuel lines,” I tell him. “And the solenoid.” This engine, a Caterpillar 3160,  has a temperamental fuel system anyway, and when the device called the solenoid quits, the entire system becomes paralyzed. It has an indicator switch that lets us know when it has tripped off - like a circuit breaker - but everything on it looks fine. There’s no leaks, no loose wires, nothing that would indicate a problem. I turn the ignition to “On,” so the gauges come to life, but don’t turn the engine over, not with Danny so near the fan belts. The needles all snap into place. Water temperature, amperes, volts. Everything looks normal.
Skookum Too, what’s going on back there?” Don’s voice crackles sleepily over the radio.
“Not sure. She just quit running. We’re looking at the engine now. As far as we can tell, everything looks fine, but she won’t start.”
“I’ll come back and give you a tow to the river, “ he says. “Be there in about ten.”
"Roger."
We wait and keep trying to fix the problem, but we can’t figure out what’s wrong. We check battery cables, wires, circuit breakers, in-line fuses to the ignition and the fuel filter. Everything checks out. She still won’t start. When Don arrives, we rig up a tow line from our bow to his stern, and he starts the tow slowly, so as to not snap the line. With a gentle heave we are under way again, but a boat under tow is disconcerting. I imagine it must be a little like sailing, with the only sounds being those of the water rushing past the hull and the wind in the rigging. Add to that the creaking of the line as it strains to pull several tons of wood and fish through rolling waves, and you have an earful. I try to ignore it as I sit in the skipper’s seat, helping steer so we don’t veer off to one side or the other with the swell behind us. Six-to-eight-foot swells are now lifting our stern and pushing us north. A big one rolls under us, and when we ride down its back, the towline dips into it, slicing it like a knife. When the swell catches and lifts the Marauder, the force of the large waves and two boats heavy with fish is too much, and the line parts with a ‘thwaannngggg.’ Dan and I are on our feet in an instant. I steer the boat with the waves while he goes forward and brings the line back on board.  Don puts the Marauder into neutral while Steph collects the line hanging off their stern. Once she has it on board he swings back around. This time we tie one of the old tires Don uses for boat bumpers between the lines connecting our boats. He lashes his end to the corkline of his net that is on the reel so the tow will be in the center of his stern, allowing him to steer better. Steph eases the boat forward as Don stands on deck directly behind the reel and watches to see how the tow will work. Satisfied, he walks in the cabin and closes the door. Not 15 seconds later, the line snaps again, this time between the tire and my bow, and the tire shoots forward like it was attached to a giant bungee. Dan and I both watch in the fading light as it rockets directly over the reel where Don was just standing, rope trailing behind it like the tail of a kite. It slams into the cabin door with enough force to send it bouncing back over the reel to the picking deck. “Jesus Christ!” I shout.  If the line had split 20 seconds earlier, Don would be dead or injured and knocked overboard. This is getting a little scary.
Again he puts the Marauder in neutral. Steph goes out on deck and gathers the line hanging behind the Marauder while Dan does the same on the bow of the Skookum. Meanwhile, Don and I discuss what to do on the radio. “The boats are just too heavy in this swell,” he says. “I’ll try tying off alongside you.” Dan taps on the windshield and points to the bow cleat. As I watch, he steps over to it and lifts the back end of it up. The bolts holding it are almost completely pulled through the deck. No more tows on it today.

Don and the Marauder on a calm day.

The Marauder approaches from our starboard side, the direction the swell is coming from. We get lines ready, and Don comes out of the cabin and climbs the ladder to the bridge for better visibility while he maneuvers in close quarters. Steph readies lines on the Marauder’s deck. The Skookum is full in the trough now, riding up and down the swells and rolling deeply with each one. We’re in no danger of capsizing, but the motion has the sides of the boat rising and falling several feet with each wave. The Marauder approaches us at an angle, bow first. As she swings into us, Steph passes me a line already secured to the Marauder’s midship cleat and straddles the boats while I start to wrap the line on our side cleat and pull the boats together. Meanwhile Dan has secured a line to our stern cleat, and tosses the rest of it into the stern of the Marauder, still four feet away. He dashes by us onto the Marauder and down into the stern compartment to tie off. The Marauder is made of fiberglass, the Skookum wood. I loop the midship line around the cleat just as the Marauder is lifted by a swell, and the cleat and the 4-inch long bolts holding it to the deck of the Skookum slide up through the wood like butter. Surprised at the force of the two heavy boats moving in opposite directions, I look up at Steph, one leg on her boat, one leg on ours. She hasn't seen what has happened, and still has one foot on each boat. The cleat and bolts fall in between the boats as they roll apart, smacking the side of the Marauder. I grab Steph by the front of her jacket with a growl, “You come here,” and pull her on board as the boats surge away from each other. Seeing what's happened, Don throws the Marauder in gear and guns the engine so we don’t crash together on the next wave, and just like that we’ve switched deckhands.
I make sure Steph is well on board before releasing her. “You okay?” I ask. She nods. We watch as Don turns the Marauder around to come alongside again, this time to trade people. He pulls within a foot of us and hits reverse, stopping dead. In an instant Steph and Dan trade positions. Don pulls away again, and he and Steph disappear into the cabin. Dan and I do the same. “Well that was fun," I say into the microphone. "What now?” 
“I don’t know,” Don says. “We can’t tow you, that’s obvious. There’s nothing left to tow with.”
"I'm gonna call Ray,” I say. “Maybe he’ll have an idea.” Ray is the cannery superintendent, and an ex-engineer. He’s seen all sorts of trouble during his years in the industry, and if anyone can puzzle out what our next move is, it’s Ray. I call him on the VHF and we discuss the possibility of rigging a cradle of rope under the boat and around the cabin to tow with, but that sounds a bit iffy to me. "How would we get the line under the boat?" I ask. "Could a tender come help us out?"
“You could drop the line off the bow and walk it back to just aft of the cabin. Then tie off to that line for your tow."
The idea sounds pretty iffy to me. I know the cabin of the Skookum is mostly constructed of marine plywood, and with the stress of a tow will most likely come apart easier than the cleats we'd just pulled out.
"Yeah, Pat. All the tenders are filled with fish and have several boats in line to deliver more,” says Ray. “Besides, I don’t know what they could do, anyway. I could send the power skiff out, but we’d need to wait until the sea calmed down a little. You could toss out the anchor and wait.” The prospect of trying to set an anchor while adrift and without power doesn’t seem like a good plan to me. Plus I don't have a bow cleat to tie off to. I'd have to tie off to the reel in the stern. It’s completely dark now, and the wind and tide are pushing us toward the beach, where the shoreline is riddled with rocks. There's no good decision here.
“Let me see if we can figure out what’s wrong with the engine one more time, Ray. I’ll get back to you.”
Don comes on the other radio. “I’ll stand by here until you figure out what’s going on, Pat.” I know that’s a sacrifice. It’s late, and we’re the only ones out here. We’re going to be the last boats in the river, and even if we do arrive at a solution for this predicament, it’s going to be several hours before we get any sleep. I look over at the dark shape of the Marauder rolling in the sea next to me and see my friend looking out his window at me. I put a hand up. “Thanks Don," I say. It's a far cry from the feeling I have, but it's all I can express over the radio. "I’ll keep you posted.”
I look at the engine and mentally go back to the beginning. Danny and I stretch out on the cabin floor and start inspecting every wire related to the power system. We are tracing one that runs from the ignition to the top of the solenoid when Dan asks, “What’s that dark line?" I shine the flashlight beam along it. There, about two feet from the solenoid, is a pencil-thin crack in the white insulation. I feel it with my fingernail and bend it apart. Corroded by who knows how many days of salt water and air, the wire comes apart in my hands. 
“Get the wire strippers, connectors and black tape,” I say. I stand up and look outside the windows while Dan scrambles for the electrical supplies. Don is still there, his cabin lights reflecting on the black waves between us. I hold the light as Dan repairs the wire. He straightens up and steps back from the fan belts. "Try that."
I sit at the helm and hold my breath as I turn the key. The engine roars to life! "Oh, Yeah!" we exclaim as I gram the radio. “We got it, Don!  Let’s go home!”
It’s 4:00 am by the time we deliver our fish and head to the dock. We’re high boat for the cannery for the first time ever. As I leave the tender in the dark and motor up to the string of boats tied to the dock, I hear a voice shout out, “Goddamn teachers!” It’s Bill, a friend of mine, a full-time fisherman whom I know likes to imagine that teacher/fishermen aren’t as good as “real” fishermen. I also know he watched us as we delivered, and has a good idea of how we did. It’s his way of paying me a compliment. Surprised and tired, I laugh a little too loud and reply, “Yeah, and you call yourself a fisherman!” We tie off to the dock and head for our trucks, exhausted. We’ll clean the boat in the morning, after I hit the liquor store. I owe the skipper of the Marauder, my friend, some beer and a bottle of whiskey. Sitting down to drink it later that evening, we'll both pretend it makes us even.
Don's boat, the Marauder, tied alongside the Watersong,
my boat, the Skookum Too and Don's brother Dean's boat,
the Cheechako, at anchor in Snug Harbor, 

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