Captain Phil Harris
The mystic northern lights dance a scintillating, supernatural neon jig in the Alaskan sky.
But stray farther to the southwest and the stark beauty of this little corner near the top of the world can lose its appeal to all but the hardiest of travelers. The terrain is rougher, the area barely habitable, the surrounding water even more menacing.
These are the Aleutian Islands, bordering on the Bering Sea, where the brave souls who challenge the harsh conditions share the area with polar bears, sea otters, and bald eagles, just a sliver of the population that includes twenty-five varieties of marine mammals, hundreds of invertebrate species, 110 million birds representing forty species, and 450 different kinds of fish.
Most of the people who venture into this frontier are part of the fishing industry. Some work in one of the area’s many processing plants. Others man the fishing fleet that braves the notorious Bering Sea.
The fishing vessels are not of the ilk favored by commercial fishermen
on the East Coast of the United States. Crab boats on the Bering Sea are more than 100 feet long, some stretching to more than 180. East Coast boats are normally one-quarter that length. The larger size is necessary to face waves that can soar as high as a four-story building.
Suffice it to say that a different breed of men fish the Bering Sea.
The crab fishing grounds encompass much of the 884,900 square miles of the Bering, the third-largest sea in the world. It is the northernmost region of the Pacific Ocean, bounded by Russia, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and the Bering Strait, beyond which is the Arctic Ocean.
The Bering has long been an enigma to those who ply her waters, a sea with a split personality. On any given day, the water may be as smooth as glass with a gentle breeze stirring the call of seagulls in the distance. On these occasions, the sea is nothing less than majestic. Sea otters float lazily on their backs, a whale swims in the distance, and seals, sea lions, and porpoises play as dolphins, a good omen to many sailors, race alongside an intruding fleet.
Within hours, though, the calm can be shattered, the beauty of a natural aquarium overshadowed by a deadly display of nature’s power. A single arctic storm can range over a thousand square miles. The fishing fleets sometimes face hurricane-force winds, the strongest ever recorded in the Bering Sea reaching 159 miles per hour. Sets of waves, the highest ever seen estimated to be over 100 feet tall, can bring tens of thousands of gallons of water crashing onto the decks. Then there’s the burglar of the sea that strikes when it is least expected: the rogue wave. It’s a monster swirl that caves in against the grain of the sets rolling in, erupting in a wall of water.
And, as if the wind and water weren’t trouble enough, there’s the temperature. It can drop to forty below in winter, the prime season for crab fishing. When the mercury drops to such menacing levels, even the ocean spray freezes, and the deckhands are flayed with splinters of ice. Something as simple as urinating can be an adventure. When the crab boat crew does so outdoors under those frigid conditions, the urine freezes before it hits the deck.
There is ice everywhere on the boat: on the bow, the deck, the 800-pound crab-catching steel cages commonly known as pots, the ropes, the winch, even on the crew’s moustaches. The layers of ice can weigh tons, which serves to make the boat top-heavy. As the ice builds up, the vessel becomes more and more likely to be rolled onto her side, a virtual death sentence for all aboard.
To avoid such a fate, the deckhands must break off the ice with sledgehammers. The crew can spend hours in the tough, urgent work of de-icing the boat. But often, once the ship is safe and fishing has commenced, the ice returns and the same chore must be performed again just hours later.
Boats on the Bering are mandated by law to keep a supply of outfits known as survival suits on board at all times. Crews are routinely tested by the Coast Guard to ensure they know how to put on this gear in a timely manner. Doing so in less than a minute is crucial to staying alive in the event that the craft sinks.
There is a general understanding between the Bering Sea and those who fish her: fall into her waters without a survival suit and you die.
There have been exceptions, but they are rare indeed. Anyone who tumbles into the water in subzero conditions can become paralyzed, as hypothermia sets in almost instantly. The vital body organs fail and the unfortunate soul finds himself in the throes of death within minutes.
That’s usually not enough time for a rescue operation. Because of the great size of most crab boats, it takes the vessel almost ten minutes to maneuver a U-turn and come back. And if the seas are high or darkness has set in, the search for a lost crew member becomes even more difficult.
There are still more hazards to avoid. Rough seas and icy temperatures are the ideal conditions for the killer whales of the Bering Sea to go hunting. Nothing chills the soul like watching a whale just off the bow as it feasts on a great white shark.
Then, there are the icebergs. The Titanic didn’t survive even a single confrontation with a mountainous mass of ice. Crabbers, in much smaller boats, face those huge killers every season. Sometimes the crabs congregate near the ice floes. And crabbers go where the crabs are.
Just being on board a crab boat is hazardous, but nobody is ever just on board. The fishermen are there to work, and their work is grueling. Take the brutal and seemingly never-ending task of stacking the eight-hundred-pound crab traps. Though a winch lifts the pots and delivers them on deck, they must be grounded so that the stacks are even and don’t collapse onto the crew. Positioning the pots becomes a matter of muscle because they don’t respond much to finesse. Even when they are properly stacked, the pots can tumble when they become caked with ice.
The bodies of crew members take a beating from head to toe. A crabber can expect to have his tailbone rubbed raw from slamming against the pots as he works. A bloody back and hindquarters are just part of the job.
The extreme changes in weather and temperature tend to wreak havoc on a deckhand’s complexion. The toughened facial skin peels off in strips when exposed to extreme cold on such a regular basis.
The hands of a Bering Sea deckhand make those of a professional bull rider look manicured and pampered in comparison. Many deckhands are not able to retain all the digits on their hands. The fingers that survive grow gnarled, swollen, and misshapen. A crab boat deckhand sews his own stitches as readily as a carpenter applies a Band-Aid.
The dangers of such a job are reflected in data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that ranks commercial fishing as the occupation with the highest fatality rate: 121.2 deaths per 100,000 workers, thirty-five times greater than the average for the overall American workforce. Loggers rank second with 102.4 fatalities per 100,000, followed by pilots and flight engineers at 57.0. The death rate for Bering Sea crabbers, in particular, is even higher still, at 260 per 100,000, according to a study
by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Eighty percent of those Bering Sea fatalities are due to drowning or hypothermia.
Pound for pound, crabbers are the toughest bastards on earth.
This is the life that our father, Phillip Charles Harris, was destined for when he was brought into the world on December 19, 1956.