Caregiver to Crew: Another Abrupt Course Change
I spent Saturday morning considering odoriferous towers of fish clothes. How threadbare was too much so? The same $3 Value Village hoodies and blood-browned T-shirts surrounded me, sorted into piles destined to serve yet another season. The grown-up voice in my head scolded every moment frittered away on something that fell so far below the more urgent jobs to prepare our house for renters. Really, you’re packing all of your socks now? And all your clean unders? You’re not shipping out for another month – don’t think you’re gonna want some of those before then?
Probably. But the house tasks heightened the ever-present thrum of anxiety in my chest, unlike the soothing whisper of an undershirt’s thin cotton, its ribs stained sepia with the ancient memory of halibut slime, and the certainty of stuffing my boots tall with rolled socks.
When the phone rang, Joel’s warm Hey buddy! tone carried between rooms. I kept puttering, only mildly curious until his sudden downshift into dismay brought me scampering forth with raised eyebrows.
“Oh, dude, that sucks. You have any idea what you’re gonna do?” To me he mouthed, “Jefe.”
One of our fishing friends. We’d played on the docks as kids, chasing gulls through the channel in his skiff. I’d watched him grow into a loving husband, devoted dad, skilled fisherman – a genuinely good guy. Both Joel and I had longlined with his family many years earlier, leading to our affectionate Spanish moniker, “the boss.”
“Well, would you guys be interested in having Tele on board?” He paused. “Okay, give us a few minutes to talk about it, and we’ll call you back.”
Joel crutched up to the kitchen to fill me in. Their longtime deckhand had to leave without warning. The boat was iced up, baited, and ready to go – ready, except for crew. In their sudden time of need, our friends thought of us, currently in our own. “He said they wanted to help us out, if you were free to come up.”
Securing a spot on a longliner is a competitive, coveted opportunity for deckhands. Alaska’s halibut and black cod commercial fisheries are managed through an individual fishing quota system, where fishermen own the right to catch a particular poundage. With the pounds that Jefe had to fish, both Joel and I knew that this job could make the difference for us.
I leveled my most serious eyes on his. “I can’t leave you right now – can I?”
There are moments when life forces you to stand taller, more firmly rooted, than you think you can. Now, hands gripping the gray padding of his “sticks,” Joel nodded with new resolve. “I mean, I don’t want you to. It’ll be really hard, going through this without you. But I also know that it’s the absolute right thing to do, and that a month of struggling will be so temporary, compared to how much this will help us next winter. We can’t not take this opportunity.”
“But I need you to know you’re my first priority. I won’t go if you’ll feel abandoned. We’ll be okay, no matter what.”
“Yeah, but this will make it so much easier. You have to go, buddy – I’ll be okay.”
Before this went any farther, I needed to talk with Marlin, the captain I’d already committed to for July through September. Going to Alaska now would mean I wouldn’t be available in Washington to help him with any pre-season preparation.
“Go! Take it!” Marlin chuckled, “Shit, maybe I should call Jeff back and grab that job myself. No, that’s great, Sis. Meet me in Sitka at the end of June. We’ll be fine.”
This is the gift that is our fishing family – boat kids grown up together, looking out for each other’s wellbeing as adults.
Joel and I studied the Pacific Fishing calendar on the kitchen wall. “Okay, it’s Saturday afternoon. I’ll get the house packed up in the next day. You’ve got a physical therapy appointment on Monday, I’ll take you to that, then we’ll move you down to your folks’ place and I’ll fly out Tuesday.” At least I don’t have to worry about packing my fish stuff, I thought.
The dizzying schedule skipped off my tongue, but getting to an island, with out-of-state access monopolized by one airline, isn’t that simple. I frowned at Alaska Airlines’ website. “There aren’t any seats left for Tuesday. They’ve got space every other day this week, but not Tuesday.”
Back to the phone. Would Wednesday be okay? Like all fishermen, my employers understood the realities of island life. “Don’t apologize – nothin’ you can do about it! Wednesday’s great.”
Three minutes and $528 later, I had a one-way ticket to a sudden job.
The next few days spun by according to plan. Good thing there hadn’t been a Tuesday flight; I needed every minute of that spare day. Running full throttle kept me ahead of my anxieties, but when I paused to catch my breath, they caught up, too. Yeah, Joel can handle the work of his recovery – I mean, what’s his alternative? – but still… Leaving my best friend in his time of greatest need? Skipping out on so many of our house responsibilities, dumping everything in other people’s laps? I wondered if my controlling, micromanaging self could accept this lesson in letting go.
More deeply embedded vulnerability lived a few layers down. While the fishing life feeds my writing, I’m not sure the opposite is true. Softened by a winter parked in front of a computer, would my body rally to be strong enough, tough enough, fast enough? Competent enough? It always has, I told myself. And so did Joel’s – until it didn’t.
Only one way to find out.
Those of you who’ve been here through previous seasons know how Hooked goes when I’m Up North: unpredictable, spotty service, sudden departures, quick turn-arounds, and this business of having a real job conspire against reliable contact. Meanwhile, Cap’n J’s at the helm of the Nerka Facebook page; you can check in with him over there for any of our latest news. I’ll be in touch, friends — be safe and be well.