The Sally N had seen better days before I ever boarded her decks. Built in the year 1942 and originally employed as a transport barge, she was recently reconstructed and sold as a salmon tender, with a purchase by my uncle and a new assignment in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Her length was 100 feet and she weighed 200 tons, nearly doubling that amount when her fish tanks were full to capacity. Her bottom was flat, making it easy for her to navigate shallow water and therefore most useful in the Naknek/ Kvichak commercial fishing district, where she was later destined.
When I found her, she was docked in the Homer harbor, patiently awaiting the breakup of ice that would send her out to sea and toward her next job. She looked comfortable and honored despite her being surrounded by new and improved ships of steel and fiberglass, with their flashy paintjobs and pompous names. Her own white body was streaked with unsightly rust and stained a sickly yellowish-green along the bottom from years of algae growth that had never been scrubbed away. The blue window and deck trim was hardly noticeable anymore, after the elements had peeled and chipped most of the color away. The anchor dangled from the bow, unsecured and careless. One front window of the wheelhouse was shattered, giving her the impression of having a black eye, of being the loser in a string of fights. Despite every sign of collapse and exhaustion, I was enthralled with her.
I easily agreed to the conditions of employment as a deckhand for the 2008 sockeye season and soon, along with Mwynen, who was a well-seasoned adventurer and my closest feline companion, I hopped off the docks and aboard the boat, looking forward to an exciting summer. I was the only woman to be aboard the boat and as such, was afforded my own little room to the front and left of the galley, across from the Captain’s quarters. The room was modest and clean. Immediately to the left, there was a closet just big enough for several changes of clothing, my raingear, and survival suit. Across from that, I had a small table with a splintered shelf and a drawer I soon found to be paralyzed in its closed position. The bed was very small, but I found it to be quite cozy and warm, even with the fatigued, sinking mattress and threadbare, gray sheets. A sturdy shelf was built to follow the ceiling above the bed. Much to my delight, it was filled with old books that had been left behind by deckhands of seasons past. Overlooking the bed was an old-fashioned window that could be lifted open by sliding the panel up with just a bit of force. The walls of the room were of thick wood, washed over with a thin coat of white, and constantly whispering and whistling as cool wind found its way through their cracks. The window was curtained in royal blue, which almost matched the faded bedding and lent the room a refreshed and soothing feel, complementary to the outside environment of the sea.
I had packed modest belongings for the four months I would be aboard the Sally N. Being that an appropriate uniform in the commercial fishing industry is little more than quality raingear, thick sweatshirts, and plenty of extra socks, it didn’t take me long to stow away my gear and feel at home.
We had several days before we could leave Homer and head out of Kachemak Bay; beginning a journey that would take us along the Aleutions, through False Pass, and into Bristol Bay. This time was not spent idly, for there is much needed to ready a boat for work after it has been sleeping through a frozen winter. Not surprisingly, I found the galley and wheelhouse to be a dirty mess of books, tools, dishes, and trash. All surfaces were crusted over with a layer of oil and dust, with no item having a proper place. So, I spent my time scrubbing and setting right the details of the crew’s communal living quarters. This effort went greatly unappreciated by the novice crew of men aboard, who found little value in freshness and order, and didn’t spare many opportunities to eye me disagreeably.
Once I had finished the interior of the boat, I turned my efforts outward. The deck was scattered with tangled, oily ropes and displaced buoys in every direction. Any good sailor knows a complicated deck is hazardous, in addition to being inefficient. Once the season is underway, there is little time for the crew to spare away from the loading, hauling, and unloading of each fishermen’s salmon catch. Movement must be quick and unhindered. I can’t imagine why the rest of the crew had chosen to ignore the fact, or how my uncle remained oblivious, but it mattered little. While the men wrenched on our twin hydraulic cranes and worried over the mechanics of the diesel engines below, I was smoothing and coiling every disregarded rope and tying off these shunned buoys to their proper places. This seemed to irritate the men even more, as if I was now encroaching onto their territory by appearing on deck and straightening up what they assumed was their business. Where did they think my place was? Perhaps, they had expected me to cook and mind the coffee pot in the galley. In any case, all of this work took place during the morning and afternoon, while evening gave way to the eating, drinking, and intoxicated conversation that led us into night. With flushed cheeks and a stumble to my step, I’d then make it to my room and be calmed to rest by the tire in my body and the gentle lap of the waves against the boat. The moon would shine brightly in the sky and blend its white radiance with that of the other boats in the harbor, sending a multi-colored twinkling of light across the settled water of our secure harbor. The cursing, stomping, hammering, and hurried commotion of boat work, as well as the criticizing frustrations directed at me throughout the day, had quieted down and the men had passed out heavily to sleep off their drunken excesses. I was left alone with Mwynen, each of us to our private thoughts in the secret and lull of the night. It was a favorite time for both of us. Mwynen would prowl the decks and explore his new surroundings, and I would use the time to reflect and revitalize myself for the challenges of the new day. Finally, word spread that the ice had broken in Kachemak Bay and that we could be on our way. Last minute supplies were purchased, last drinks were had at the local bar, and the engines were fired up. Leaving the harbor on a sunny morning always spreads a feel of camaraderie amongst the crew and this time was no different. I wasn’t thought of as the frivolous female onboard, but instead considered as any other deckhand. I even got a compliment for my cleaning and organizing, followed by eager nods and further acknowledgments that hardened men can only offer when found in their best moods. We voyaged in fair weather that day and I spent most of my time on deck; either at the bow, watching our great push forward through the water, or hanging over the stern, with my eyes following the waves of our wake. I was excited to see that Gray whales were following and swimming alongside the boat often, rising to blow and eye us curiously as we traveled. Seagulls accompanied us too, of course, often landing to hitch a ride on our rails and cargo.
I offered to work the first shift of wheelhouse watch, taking over the Captain’s position and allowing for his rest. Being that the boat is guided by GPS, it is rather simple to monitor our progress and make little adjustments here or there to keep the boat in the correct water depths. That is in calm weather. Now, the elements were shifting considerably as we neared the Barren Islands, where the ocean is always given to tumultuous behavior. Still, I settled into the night readily, with a fresh pot of coffee brewing and a full tobacco pouch in my pocket. I felt peace just to be left on my own, even as with each passing wave, I watched the great bow rise and smash with increasing velocity. Mwynen had arranged himself next to me and alerted to our assignment in earnest. His whiskers twitched to follow the howls of the wind and his perked ears shifted with every erratic motion of the boat, but he did not lack confidence and behaved as any true adventurer; curious and fascinated, even if seemingly courting death.
It does happen fast, the ocean’s shift to violence and the possibility of serious trouble. A loud crash from the galley brought me up and scrambling down the steps to find the rack of drying dishes scattered across the floor. Fighting to balance, I began to strap down and secure everything I was able, even as items continued to drop around me.
I cursed that drunk men might sleep through anything.
Settling back in the wheelhouse, I eyed our course on the computer and began making adjustments with every vanquished wave. I became increasingly nervous, thinking of the age of the Sally N and wondered just how well she could stand up to such difficult weather. But after awhile of this argument with the sea, a steering right here and a push back left there, I began to feel satisfied and trusting in the old ship. A once mighty workhorse of the sea, she still fought stubbornly forward in whatever direction I set her bow. It was with great conviction that I watched white sprays of sea gust over the rails to scatter the frustration of the ocean across our decks and pull at the ties of our cargo. I stumbled down the ladder into her engine room often, as my uncle had instructed me, to anxiously check her bilge and see that we weren’t taking in too much water. Her aged, wooden hull creaked and groaned with each passing swell, gasping and letting in the ocean with great and violent spews as the twin engines bellowed loudly and filled the air with thick heat and exhaust. A disturbing scene, at first glance. But this too, I became accustomed to as the night wore on. Her bilge flushed the water back out, almost as quickly as it could come in and we were in no immediate danger of capsizing, I could see as much. Surely, the night would conclude in our favor.And it did. As the sun stretched its first rays over the horizon and lightly caressed the surface of the Pacific, the water calmed and sighed into remission, taking on the appearance of a great layer of silk, billowing softly and spread forever out before me. I was soon relieved of my duty by the Captain and sent to rest with the sympathies of the Sally N, her engines establishing a efficient rhythm one can easily trust and follow into sleep. I used my last bit of spirit to open my little, stubborn window and let in the fresh morning breeze and salty scent of the sea. Mwynen burrowed himself a nest near my stomach and began his pulse of purring that is the last sensation I remember.
So began the pattern of night watch that I kept. It was not always filled with steering our boat through storms, but became better known for the more peaceful and uncomplicated work one might find on a salmon tender. I handled the last-minute fishermen who came rushing in to deliver their catch, slamming their boats against our side bouys in the drain and fatigue of darkness. I sat in the wheelhouse, often with book in hand, monitoring the radio for official updates from our cannery and the midnight river-gossip of bored insomniacs. The men of the crew would stumble in and out of my night, sometimes even being called forth particularly for assistance, but the hours were forever claimed by me and my control of the night’s happenings was respected. A comfortable and natural setting for a woman to find herself as a salmon tender deckhand.