The Mayday wakes me. The radio volume is low, but it reaches the fo’c’sle. A man, his voice an octave shy of hysteria, yanks me from the bunk, pulling me upstairs.
“There’s a boat one mile off Cape Addington taking on water! It’s a yellow-and-black troller, wood, two people on board. He’s got three or four pumps going in the engine room and a guy bailing in the fish hold.”
“Roger, Captain, can you spell Cape Addington?”
“A – D – D… It’s on Noyes Island!” The engine screams in the background. “He’s gonna need another pump. I can see four anchor lights from here, I know somebody’s got a pump they can give us!”
We’re anchored in the next bay down from Addington. Us, and a small fleet of fellow trollers. I slide into the pilot seat. Rain washes the night, beading the windows. I don’t turn the lights on. There’s nothing to see except the solid red glow of the VHF. I pin my gaze on that light, willing it to pulse with another transmission.
Fishermen often know boats better than we know the people attached to them. All season we slide past each other on the tack, observing, assessing. Judging. Sometimes not knowing the person aboard as anything more than a miniature figure in neon raingear. Our boats represent us by proxy – our boats, and our disembodied voices on the radio. Identities are impressions, forged by boat maintenance, tack behavior, and radio conduct.
Only one boat matches this description. It’s been the bane of the fleet all season, most recently two days ago, when another fisherman got on 16 to call out the yellow-and-black troller that had turned right on top of him. It was a mild scold, little more than a “what’s up with that” rebuke. The response was an explosive diatribe hot and rank, fouling the airwaves. Our knives stilled mid-gutting as we stared at the deck speakers, stunned at the escalation. The initial caller was taken aback, too. “Whatever, man. You troll like a dumbass. And put a fuckin’ name on your boat, too.” Refusing to cede the last word, the young man shot more venom back.
Fishermen always say that we’re there for each other. That if you’re in trouble, it doesn’t matter who you are, what our differences are on land. That on the water, we’re family.
I want to believe that’s true.
We could be alone here, if not for low-slung constellations of neighboring anchor lights winking in and out of view as boats slowly twirl on their tethers, darkness broken only by the red glow of radio silence. I want to reach for the mic, tell the man someone is listening, someone is out here. But my transmission would be nothing more than interference; we don’t have the spare pump he needs. I want to believe that’s the reason for the rest of the family’s silence, too.
So I just sit in the dark and stare at the radio, arms wrapped around my knees pulled into my chest. The position a marine safety instructor taught, one that will preserve your body heat in the water. One that might help keep you alive.
The radio snaps to attention. “I’m almost to him, should be there in another five minutes! I’m gonna raft up to him and see what we can do.”
The Coast Guard asks for further description of the boat in trouble. The screaming engine threatens to drown the man’s wretched reply. “It’s my son.”
The weather hits in the night. We’ve spent the run south pushing to stay one step ahead of this gale, only to have it pounce on the midnight shift.
Caught in the ocean’s convulsions, Joel and I go very still. Him at the helm, me alongside, both of us pinch-lipped and vigilant, hyper-alert. We don’t speak, just watch for what’s ahead. Waiting. The autopilot fights to hold its course. Glass jars chatter in the galley. I stormproof the cabin as best I can. Bear the Boat Cat looks uneasy, sitting stiffly beneath the table. I tell Joel I’m going to make sure her safe space below our bunk is clear. I have a bad feeling she’s going to need it.
The fo’c’sle is a disaster. Cabinets flung open, books thrown from the shelf. Margaret Atwood, Ariel Gore, and Neil Gaiman sprawl across the bunk in a disheveled threesome. I’m shoving everything back into place – some place, any place they might hope to stay until the weather comes down – when the world falls out from under me.
“Oh, fuck,” I hear Joel bark. The engine drops to an idle. The Nerka pitches starboard, an abrupt lurch followed by a crash. Not one crash, but the staggered percussion of many heavy things making sudden, artless impact. Flying up the stairs, I brake hard. All five drawers have launched from the pilot seat, hurled across the cabin in brutal disarray. The space beneath the table is a ruin of wrenches, hooks, and knives.
“Bear! Fuck, where’s Bear?”
Gingerly excavating the debris, I release my breath. No crushed cat. I find her under our bunk, eyes like marbles. She must have zipped down, a whisker ahead of the attack. I stroke her rigid body and murmur apologies.
When we trade wheel watches, Joel isn’t in the fo’c’sle five minutes before returning with a scowl. “There’s no way I can sleep down there, the way we’re bucking. I’m just going to rest up here.” He’s too tall for the daybunk but climbs into it anyway, bracing socked feet against the back of my seat.
Bear slinks up the stairs, too. With a wary glance at the replaced drawers, she flattens herself again under the table, appearing at once boneless and tense. The anchor dips, the guts of a wave shattering against sixteenth-of-an-inch window panes. I stand in a hopeless effort to see over the lunging bow. My fingers clench the console.
Someday, from some safe space on the far side of fear, will I reduce this storm in classic fisherman’s understatement, head tilting to shoulder in minimalistic shrug? We took some green water. Will I gaslight myself? Time does that; time, and our future self’s need to whitewash past danger.
Darkness fuels fear. In a world reduced to black night, white foam, green water, you can’t assess conditions as a whole, can’t brace yourself for anything beyond the next toothy wave. For everything I can’t see, there is sound. The river running down the roof. Erratic one-two, one-two notes tweeted like a canary, a cabinet popping open with each up-surge, closing as we slam back down. The violence of water hitting the hull just so – a resounding smack that, no matter how often I hear it and assure myself it’s just water, it’s just water, always makes me jump. Reflexively, I conduct a mental tour of our safety gear.
I think back to the beginning of our season, when the Nerka first headed out to the Fairweather Grounds. It was so easy to trust the ocean when tucking into that cheerful blue, taking at face value the snake-oil promises of a calm day. So easy to imagine myself unafraid on the water. That was a lie. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m afraid on the water as I’m afraid of the instant when everything changes – the moment you don’t see coming, when you suddenly feel yourself falling from shitty into very, very bad. The moment you realize you’re in trouble is the moment too late; there’s no turning back or avoiding what now is. There’s only the question of how you will respond, and if your response will make a difference.
I’ve been back on land for months. Yet I’m still hugging my knees to my chest, staring at a solid red glow, waiting for someone to break the radio silence. I’m still clenching the wheel, watching green water shatter against the windows, praying they’ll hold, bracing for the next hit. The landscape has changed. It shifts and tumbles, every day newly precarious. I review our safety gear, sometimes wondering if it’s time to grab the go-bag. Wondering, if so, where there is to go.
The yellow-and-black troller survived that August night. Family came through, other boats stepping up to share pumps. And Joel, Bear, and I made it though our night, too; the weather broke with dawn, washing us limp and stunned into a new day. Thinking back to those nights and others, times my heart lodged hardest in my throat, I realize it’s less a matter of going, more about getting through. The ocean gives us everything we need to do this. Resolve; Vigilance. Endurance; Solidarity. Hope. Love.
So I’ll be here, standing by the radio, hands steady on the wheel. I’ll keep going, trusting that even when I feel alone charging into dark, storm-tossed nights, dawn will come. Trusting you’re out here with me – and you, and you, and you – and you’ll do the same. In this way, together, we will weather this.
I wrote this in January 2017, for Oregon’s FisherPoets Gathering. Gratitude to Cirque for publishing it in their Summer 2017 issue, Vol 8, No. 2. Revisiting it now, in November 2017, the words feel like they were written by someone else, someone stronger and more optimistic than I currently am. Maybe you are that someone? If so, please share this wheel watch with me; tell me how to be a person who trusts in the dawn.Read More