Writer to Deckhand, & Back Again

Posted by on June 18, 2013 in Commercial Fishing, Longlining, Reading & Writing | 7 comments

When Joel’s injury made it apparent that neither he nor the Nerka would be fishing this season, some of my writer friends saw an unexpected silver lining for me. “Now you can spend the summer working on your book!”

My shaking head dashed their enthusiasm. Beyond the fact that we’d need whatever income I could make crewing on other boats, the deeper truth was that I’m a fisherman in my own right, independent of Joel and our life together. This annual infusion of Southeast Alaska, of the ocean, is non-negotiable, necessary for my well-being.

The Kathleen Jo’s most recent trip revealed another reason why I needed to be here. Gutting fish is my barbaric meditation. My hands sliced and severed, twisted and yanked, scraped and rinsed. They were machines always in motion, and the faster they ran, the more my mind slowed. Loosened from moorings kept so snug on land, my mind drifted to places it’s never gone while parked in front of a computer screen. Thumbing through memories past, lingering on fantasies future, it drew previously unimagined connections that seemed suddenly obvious.

How have I never seen this before? There’s the takeaway message for Chapter Six!

Of course: the story ends back in the same place where it began!

Peering into the belly cavity of one halibut after another, it wasn’t bloody flesh I saw, but pieces of my book. After months of sacrificing writing to the bottom of my to-do list, feeling that insistent nudge again was electrifying. I mumbled sentences under my breath, struggling to commit good phrases to memory.

“Take a break,” Jeff urged as he stepped inside to drive us to the second set, a 20 minute run away. He meant sit down, enjoy the steaming breakfast plate Lindy had passed out the door to me. Instead, I scrambled for something to scribble on.

A soggy piece of cardboard, torn from one of the 50 pound boxes of pollock we used for bait, would have to do. Using raingear-clad thighs as a desk, I clutched a black Sharpie. Like a long-absent lover sliding back between the sheets, hoping the indentation in the mattress still welcomed her body, that pen fit a different groove of my gloved fingers than the knives I’d been wielding – but it did still fit.

The message was clear. With the bulk of my friends’ quota successfully harvested and several checks mailed home, it was time to focus on my other job. Grateful as I was for my time with Team Thomas, writing needed my full attention.

The Kathleen Jo returned to Sitka, where our friend Mikey greeted us. He’d sailed his 27-foot boat up from Washington, appearing in another blog along the way, scrounging enough nickels and quarters from the settee cushions to cover his final fuel bill. In Sitka, he immediately printed up flyers advertising his diving services, but still faced weeks of cabbage dinners, lunches, and breakfasts before Marlin, our salmon trolling captain, pulled into town.

Time. Income. We both held what the other most needed. The biggest sacrifice came from Jeff and Lindy, who graciously agreed to exchange their experienced crew for one they’d need to train. Not much of a sacrifice at all, compared to what they’d get in Mike, who Hooked’s friends know as the winner of the Golden Scrub Brush Award. They’d be in good hands.

With his old deckhand deposited on the dock and his new one onboard, Jeff didn’t waste any time heading back out. Their final longline trip would begin with a Father’s Day camping adventure, and he couldn’t wait to wiggle his toes in the sandy beach that was their destination. (My friend works hard to uphold his “Captain Picnic” reputation.)

So I waved goodbye to Team Thomas – 3 trips, 24 days, and 40,000 pounds after joining them. Even in such an ideal situation as this, when changes meet everyone’s needs, moving off a boat is always a little bittersweet. There’s an unavoidable intimacy in going to sea that you can’t replicate through time on land, a forced closeness that can either be very good or very bad.  These days, I’m lucky to crew only for people I love, and the time aboard the Kathleen Jo was very good indeed.

Good luck, sweeties, and be safe.

Good luck, sweeties, and be safe.


Writing this week, followed by a too-quick trip South to snuggle my sweetheart. (He’s walking! He’s driving!) It’s a pretty good motivator to get new words on paper, knowing that a reunion with my best friend is the reward. I can’t wait to see you, buddy. 




  1. Once again you really captured it .. not the just the halibut but what can happen when you are doing what you love. At peace with your work and free at last to Imagine….
    Hope your sharpie kept on working.

  2. Kathleen Jo is gone… Marlin’s not there yet. Where are you sleeping?

  3. It sounds like things are falling into place, Tele. Onward!

  4. Your words are smooth like butter and so easy on the heart to read. I especially loved the phrase, “unavoid­able inti­macy.” When I fished with Dennis on the Svea there were two narrow bunks. I had the smaller bottom one and he the top one. The head was two feet from my sleepy head and there was no door, no curtain, and no privacy. Makes me smile…..

  5. Comment

    • Hey! I wasn’t finished…just wanted to cheer you on, Tele. Whoo-hoo! May the cardboard and Sharpies always be available in a pinch. Meanwhile, here’s to reams more on your memoir…and the fish guts that get you there.

  6. Darling Tele,

    Isn’t it amazing how when your hands know what they’re doing it frees up the writer and spirit in us. For me it was ironing. Does anyone own an iron any more? Could never iron without a pad and pencil or tape recorder (guess no one has one of those either – I am a dinosaur!) handy. Glad you found the cardboard and sharpie. Sometimes our books need womb time. Then they burst forth again. Love when that happens and the connections are made. Go to it, Sweetie! Love to you and Joel!!!