Sunday, November 4, 2012

Rough Beginnings - Stick Rips and Splices

The Skookum Too,  a 32-foot wooden gillnetter, my first boat.

The sky is overcast and dark. Michael is no longer on board, and Danny, my new deckhand passes me a cup of coffee as we head out into the Inlet for a late July fishing day in 1981. The waves are choppy, and I feel the familiar anxiety that I always get when expecting rough weather. As the summer’s salmon run winds down and August looms, the weather becomes less and less friendly on the Inlet.
It's Danny’s first day with me. This has been a particularly rough season, and Michael, my original crew, expressed a desire to leave early if I could find someone else. Danny’s skipper had a girlfriend on board, and he felt like a “third wheel,” so when I offer him the job, he jumps at the chance. We’ve only known each other a year, but we are already friends, and I know he has several more years experience on the Inlet than I. It's only my second year as a skipper, and I know enough to know I still have a lot to learn.
By the period’s opening at 6:00 am we are next to the middle rip off the north end of Kalgin Island. We lay the gear to the west in a light chop. Most of the other boats are stretched out south of us. The tide is running hard, and the most active part of the rip is thick with a huge raft of logs, kelp and sticks. We tow the net to hold it in a hook for northbound fish. It doesn’t take us long to realize there aren't many hits. We're a little too close to the sticks for my blood anyway, so we decide to pick up and move south. Danny takes the boat out of gear and starts picking while I get into my oilskins and boots.
I stand on the hatch covers and pull on my gloves. My eyes follow the white corks of the net as they ride up and down the small waves scooting underneath them. The rip is easy to see, clear on our side, muddy on the other, with whitecaps marking the division between the two. The rip is pulling us toward it quicker that I anticipated. We are seriously closer to it now than when I started getting into my raingear. The orange buoy marking the end of our net is almost among the logs. I step into the picking well at the back of the boat, and Danny stops bringing in the net and ducks under the lines to get on the other side and give me room. It’s standard procedure that the skipper operates the controls in the stern and the deckhand works on the other side of the gear. That way the skipper and deckhand can help each other pick fish, but the skipper is the one in control of the boat.
“I'm going to tow the net away from the rip a little,” I say to Danny. Looking out at the buoy, he agrees it’d be a good idea to get away from the rip. “It's sucking from this side,” he says. “How well does the Skookum tow?”
“Good enough,” I answer, not really knowing and hoping I’m right.

Danny watching fish hit the net from the stern of the Skookum as we tow. 
A rip is seen by the color change in the water near the far end of the net.

During the winter of the previous year I had “stripped out” some of the old, torn up gear I had used the previous season. Stripping gear involves taking a razor knife and cutting the knots of twine that hold the gear to the lines. After stripping, the lines are hung with new web for fishing. Since I didn’t know how to hang gear, I contracted Andy, a friend of a friend, to hang three shackles for me. I didn’t realize Andy had always worked for beach fishermen, who fish fixed nets anchored near shore, and don’t ever their tow nets, putting the extreme pressure on the lines like drift fishermen do.  Andy had never hung gear for a drift fisherman. When he happened to spot a frayed spot in my corkline, he cut it out and spliced in a new section with a "butt splice" by simply laying the two ends beside one another and “seizing” them, or wrapping them tightly with twine. He then wrapped the splice with black electrical tape to keep it from catching the web. What he should have done was knot the two lines together so they could withstand serious stress. Instead, the splice he created was never meant to take the stress of towing.

One version of a butt splice.

As Danny picked the first little bit of net while I was getting my raingear on, he lifted the splice out of the water, but it hadn’t yet reached the reel. It stopped just off the stern of the boat, in that same area of net that receives the most stress from the act of towing. I have not noticed the splice, and am unaware of any problem with my lines until I put the boat in gear to tow. As the propeller digs in, the line parts with a loud pop! The webbing shreds like a zipper until the tear reaches the lead line, which also comes apart with another pop! In an instant the boat is free from the gear, and the surge of it leaping forward almost knocks the two of us off our feet.
I gain my balance and grab the controls in the stern. I put the boat in neutral and we both stare at the net as it drifts toward the sticks. “Let's get the other end!” I shout as I run to the cabin. I take the three steps into the cabin in one bound, land in the skipper's seat and throw the boat in gear. I shove the throttle to full power and crank the wheel hard over. With a roar, a cloud of black diesel smoke belches out of the stack as the Skookum leans into the turn. Danny holds on in the stern with a worried look on his face, pike-pole in hand.
By the time we reach the net, the rip has swallowed it all. I maneuver the boat so the stern swings near the buoy, avoiding the bigger logs that are churning in the waves. Tense, I watch Danny through the open cabin door as he leans out and hooks the buoy line with the pole. I put the controls in neutral once again and run to the back deck to help him pull the end of the net on board and tie it off to the little bit of net left on the reel. The rip is hissing and boiling with the currents churning inside it, and the sound seems alive and malevolent. Once we have lines tied and secure, we look up to see our net filled with sticks, small branches, large branches, and three thirty-foot logs that are three feet in diameter – what had once been trees, but are now barkless, limbless waterlogged nightmares, rolling with the rip and corkscrewing our net around them.
“Oh, man,” I say under my breath.
Danny nods his head. “I’ve seen worse,” he says confidently. “We’ll get it back.”
We begin pulling the net on board and picking sticks out of it. It's slow work. The web catches every small branch, every stem, each piece of bark or wad of kelp that it touches. We bend sticks, break sticks, slide sticks through webbing, peel webbing off sticks, and pile sticks onto the hatch covers for the next twenty minutes. We don’t throw the sticks back into the water for fear they'll be washed back into the net. The pile on the hatch covers gets deep in a hurry. By the time we reassess our predicament we've only brought in fifteen feet of web and lines.
 Hanging in the net just off the stern is a large log that resembles a battering ram as it sloshes forward and back with the action of the waves. My boat, the Skookum Too, is stout enough, but she is made of wood and her 5/8-inch planks certainly aren't meant to take a blow from a waterlogged tree. The leadline is wound around the log in one direction for nearly half its length. Then it joins the corkline and a tangled mass of web, twists around them several times, and continues spiraling the rest of the length of the log. Getting the net back seems impossible.
“Maybe we should cut the lines,” I say dimly.
“No, we’re ok. I’ve seen worse than this,” Danny repeats, sounding positive. “Let’s try cutting out the web and at least get the lines back.”
We take out our knives and begin stripping the web from the lines, me on the corkline and Danny on the leads. We lean over the back of the boat and pull the lines out of the water for as far as we can reach. The big log pulls back at us as we try to roll it out of the hole we’ve cut to no avail. This IS impossible.
I look at Danny and grit my teeth. This is not the decision I want to choose. “We better cut it,” I say more firmly this time. “If we leave now, we'll still have time to get in the river and get more gear before the tide goes out.”
Danny nods his head again and looks at the mess behind the boat. “Yeah, I suppose we better." He pauses a moment, considering the scene in front of us and shakes his head. "I don’t think I have seen it any worse than this.” At any other time, that would be a good joke.
I pull out my knife and without bothering to even save the little bit of line hanging over the stern, I place it on the taut lines next to me. I have a sick feeling in my stomach. Not only are we losing most of the day’s fishing time, I am losing $1,200 worth of gear. With one quick slice the knife slides through the lines. The boat bobs free as she sheds the strain of the heavy net.
“I’ll call Veronica,” I say as I head to the cabin, “and get her to meet us at the dock with more gear.”  I fight hard to keep the discouragement out of my voice. A deckhand never likes to hear his skipper anxious or depressed. “With any luck we can get right back out here.”
Through the VHF Marine operator, I get her on the radio and explain. "Go down to the cannery and get my truck. See if you can get someone to help you move the nets out of my locker to the fuel dock, so we don't have to waste time chasing down the gear. If we run in and crane it down to the boat right away, we might make it out of the river before the tide's too low to get back out here."
  She's obviously worried but holds her questions for later, which I appreciate more than she knows. "I'll call Jon," she says. "We'll do what we can."
By the time we get into the river 45 minutes later, Danny has the small piece of net off the reel and bagged in the stern. The river is empty of boats, and I feel conspicuous as we run by the other canneries. We pull up to the fuel dock to find Veronica and Jon waiting for us with three new shackles of gear in bags, one of them already in a sling on the crane. We load them on board in record time, hoisting our torn-up piece of net off the boat in the process. I blow her a kiss, and with three new, bagged shackles on deck we race out of the river just in time to beat the ebbing tide.

Shackles of gillnet gear stacked along the cannery boardwalk.
In Cook Inlet when I fished there, a boat could only legally fish three shackles,
each one approximately 100 feet long and 20 feet deep.

Half an hour later we are four miles offshore and stop on some streaky water. We set the gear out of the bags slowly, stopping to lace the shackles together as we go. We let it soak a few minutes without seeing a hit, then decide to move on. Danny picks up the net while I call my fishing group on the CB. The strong ebb tide has swept the entire fleet out of sight miles south of us, just barely within radio range. We are the only boat in the upper Inlet that we can see. “Cheryl Lynne, Skookum Too,” I call into the mike. “Pick me up, Thor?”
Thor’s voice is faint and full of radio static as he answers back. “Yeah, go ahead, Pat.”
We exchange information, and to my relief I learn that the fleet isn’t catching much down south. Thor says there's nothing down there to run to. He ends the call by encouraging me, saying, “Maybe they’ll show up there.”
"Yeah, I hope so. Thanks, Thor. Ok, I'm out." is all I can think to say.
Danny finishes picking the set, and we head west to the middle rip once again. The sticks and logs (and my net) have been swept south with the outgoing tide, and the rip is much cleaner and friendlier-looking now. We lay the gear out near it once more.
As we watch the net and drift with the slowing tide, we see an occasional splash on the corkline. Small bunches of fish are hitting the net.  We take a break, have a sandwich and play a half-hearted game of crib, trying to forget the events of the day. An hour-and-a-half later we pull the gear as the fish period comes to a close. To our surprise we discover almost 700 fish in the net! That's one of the biggest sets of the day for the fleet, and my best set of the entire year! We laugh about it and shake our heads all the way home, telling the story to each other again and again. My worst day and my best day of the season have been one and the same.

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