5 Insane Things 'Deadliest Catch' Leaves Out About My Job
Commercial fishing is often called the deadliest job in the world (in reality, it's merely the second-deadliest), and fishing in the choppy, frozen waters off Alaska is the worst of the worst. The Discovery Channel wasn't exaggerating when they called their show about the industry Deadliest Catch (reality TV titles don't go for subtlety).
So we interviewed Dash Adams, who was a deckhand on an Alaskan fishing boat (he fished salmon, rather than the crab you see on the TV show) to get an insight into a job that really does seem too nuts to be real. He told us ...
There Are So Very Many Ways You Can Die
Basically, the ocean wants you dead. If you wind up going overboard, the odds are heavily in the ocean's favor -- you've got roughly 20 minutes of useful survival time in water under 41 degrees Fahrenheit, even if you're the world's best swimmer. And there are just so, so many ways you can wind up in the water.
First of all, while it's not shocking that a fishing boat can sink, what is shocking is that it can happen in seconds, out of nowhere. Even working this job, it's easy to get lulled into a false sense of security -- these boats are basically floating buildings, complete with bedrooms, bathrooms, and a kitchen. You can subconsciously start thinking of it as a really smelly apartment. But when disaster strikes, it's not necessarily going to start with a hull leak and then a half hour of everybody scrambling around to get off while the vessel slowly does a Titanic. You can be toiling away, minding your own business, and then suddenly be underwater.
"You're in my world now, jackass."
That's because these boats are full of cargo, and while keeping them afloat is hard enough, keeping them afloat while upright is even harder. Mine can have 30,000 pounds of salmon sitting in another 10,000 pounds of water in its storage tanks -- if anything shifts too much, the boat can tip right on over, even in calm seas. In 1992, a crab boat about the same size as mine tried to correct a five-degree tilt by Tetrising the load around. They died. Thirty seconds from fine and dandy to the point of no return, destined to be washed up on the beach, minus all the bits the fish took.
Or your boat can wind up running aground -- this happens a lot if you're fishing for salmon, since they stay in the shallows and you don't know exactly where the rocks are. You can ruin the propeller and wind up dead in the water, or breach the hull and wind up dead altogether. One guy I worked with was on a boat that got stuck on a rock as the tide was going out. They had to go down in the fish holds and move the cargo around to make sure the boat stayed balanced on the rocks, like a giant seesaw, until the tide came back in. They got lucky. Another skipper I know of put the anchor down in low tide, but didn't leave enough line. So when the tide came in, the anchor yanked that side of the boat down and the boat rolled over. Just like that. One mistake.
But even if you were in a magical sink-proof boat, the ocean has endless ways to get you. Rough seas take people off deck in half a second. Even pissing over the rail in a strong wind can get you killed. Most people who go overboard aren't noticed until later. They simply vanish.
It isn't until you finish your food and are ready to dig into their's that you realize something's gone very wrong.
And hell, I haven't even gotten to the job itself -- there are a hundred ways to cripple yourself, even in dead calm on a sunny day. For example, to pull the net in, we use this giant flywheel that pulls the net out of the water. The excess rope coils up on the deck at your feet, and if it wraps around your leg, you'll go from standing to upside-down in a matter of seconds, like one of those jungle booby traps you used to see in cartoons. That might sound hilarious, but if you're dragged through with the net, it will turn your leg into a skin-sack filled with viscera and bone fragments. I saw one guy get lifted six feet in the air by his ankle, and I had to jump on him and pull his leg out of his boot to save him from a ground-hamburger-leg future. Later in the season, I was lifted by my neck until I kicked free.
Side note, we all wear cups ... just in case.
If you're asking yourself why there are no safety measures in place, well ...
You Have Safety Gear ... Sort Of
Keep in mind, even if your boat takes its sweet time going down, you don't have a lot of options. Within three miles of coastal waters, you're not required to have a dedicated life raft. Because of this, and the fact that those things are expensive as balls, most boats don't. Instead, they have a small boat called a skiff. A skiff is a boat chained to the back of the main boat, used to deploy the net. In the event of the boat sinking, someone will have to stay on the big boat and release the skiff's chain. They will then try to run across the 18-foot, tilted, slippery deck in boat-sinking-ly rough seas to get in the skiff before it pulls too far away to make the jump. This person has the rough life expectancy of one of Captain Kirk's girlfriends.
Except your skin's going to be blue.
Part of my personal preparation for fishing was getting what's called a Water Safety Drill Conductor certification. Basically, it's a water survival course provided free of charge by the Coast Guard to anyone who works on a fishing boat, but it's not mandatory, so very few people take it (note: this industry attracts crazy people). The biggest part of the course is learning how to properly don something called a "cold water immersion suit" or survival suit in sea slang. It's a big red suit that looks like hooded footie pajamas with mittens permanently attached. Also it's covered in sparkly reflective tape. So what I'm saying is: Sex Incarnate.
The requirement to pass the course is getting in the suit on dry land in under a minute. My personal best is about 30 seconds, which would presumably be longer if I was trying to do it inside a dark boat that was in the process of rolling over like Poseidon's obedient dog. It was while we were learning how to make a human raft (exactly what it sounds like) to help someone who didn't have a suit that the instructor said something that made the whole "deadliest job" thing truly hit home for me. I had asked how effective the human raft was and he replied, "It's not. Basically this just lets you watch your friend while he dies."
But as for the suits, they really are the difference between living and dying when a boat sinks. One of the guys I worked with was on a boat that hit a rock in the middle of the night. It nearly stood the boat on end, and he was slammed against the head of his bunk. They got their suits on and piled into their raft. They were rolled a couple of times in the surf but made it ashore 15 minutes later. A helicopter picked them up, and they were drinking in a bar 40 minutes later.
Better to drown our sorrows than to actually drown.
That's the best case scenario. Another time, two men from a sunken boat were found after a crash, floating arm-locked together. One guy had his suit zipped completely and only had frostbite on his nose. The other's zipper jammed and he couldn't get it up the last six inches. He was dead. Six inches were the difference between life and death.
It's an Insane, All-Out Gold Rush
Fish are wild animals, and the ecosystem that supports them is surprisingly fragile. For example, if you dump one measly supertanker full of oil all over everything, it takes decades for things to return to normal. Because of the fishes' selfish tendency to threaten to go extinct every time we humans attack them en masse, the whole fishing industry has to be tightly regulated. It's necessary to prevent overfishing, but also results in a crazy stampede the moment the season arrives.
Unlike wabbit season and duck season, there's no confusion here.
Basically, each part of the sea is open for a specific amount of time (down to the second) for fishing. Once it's open, it's fair game -- catch as much as you can. The second it closes, you're done. Some openers are only for a couple hours, and once it's over, it's over, like the final buzzer in basketball. Once, we thought we were 30 seconds late in closing our net, so we cut everything we had loose. It was rough to watch 45 minutes of work swim away, but it's better to be safe than sorry -- the enforcers of these rules (the Department of Fish and Game) are no joke. If you put a single fish in your hold after close, they'll take every fish on your boat and potentially revoke your boat's fishing license. Your entire small business dies on the spot.
Then you spend your days serving greasy "fish" fillets and weeping over the irony of it all.
The level of paranoia about losing everything, combined with the derby nature of flare openers (as in, they literally fire a flare gun when an area opens), leads to some pretty stupid shit. Right before the flare goes off, you've got about 40 boats crammed into the area of a couple city blocks, and each of these boats has a quarter-mile of net trailing behind them. I've seen boats ram each other for the best spot near the mouth of the river. I've seen one boat get stuck in a net, and we sat there and laughed because, hey, it wasn't us. I've even watched a 30-minute shoving match between a skiff and another fishing boat over who got to hold near a rock. Think of it as Black Friday, but instead of getting to that $50 widescreen first, every boat is trying to cram into the tiny fishing hole where there are legal fish to catch.
And hey, did I mention no one really sleeps during these days-long fishing marathons? Particularly the guy driving the boat, which means ...
Drugs Are Basically a Job Requirement
The reality show mentioned in the intro -- Deadliest Catch -- is a pretty accurate look into fishing culture. You see guys fishing for 40 hours in a row, in all weather, trying to beat ludicrous deadlines. But the thing that's always missing (read: completely glossed over) is how much drug use exists in the industry. Here's a hint: A human being can't actually stay awake that long, with all of his or her reflexes intact, without help. No, coffee and Five Hour Energy won't do it.
You'll simply end up falling asleep during an epic 90-minute piss session.
So for most fishermen, it's a hard choice between toughing it out and taking drugs. Toughing it out can easily get you killed. You will fall asleep on your feet, so a lot of fishermen do about anything they can get their hands on (crack, meth, Adderall, coke, etc.). It's a fine line between taking enough to do your job and not taking so much you trip over the railing and die. Even when properly managed and used for work, meth still isn't exactly health food.
"Next time, try steaming your meth instead of frying it in fatty oil."
So various crew members will kind of disappear for a minute, and when they come back, they're suddenly peppy for an unknown reason. Maybe some of them are guzzling Red Bull and are just self-conscious about their sugar intake. I don't know. But if you can find a better way to stay awake and alert for six days while the entire ocean is trying to swallow you, I'd like to hear it. And I mean I'd seriously like to hear it -- there's an industry full of people who will make you insanely wealthy for this fabulous invention, and I want in on the ground floor.
Lock me inside so I can Scrooge McDuck my life away.
So by now, I've clearly made this job look so attractive that you're wondering how you get started. Is there some rigorous training program? Some kind of months-long certification process?
Don't Look Like a Murderer? You've Got the Job!
My status as a salty sea dog was legally solidified in the lobby of Mack's Sporting Goods in Kodiak, Alaska. It was there that for the low, low price of $200, I bought my first fishing license and became a bona fide commercial fisherman. That's the entire legal process of becoming a fisherman -- everything else is just convincing a skipper you're worth the risk. I personally was hired because I'm from the same place as one of the crew and I "didn't look like a Charles Manson." That was the sum total of my qualifications to do what is, let me remind you, one of the most dangerous jobs on Earth.
"You know what, we're short handed ... wear a cap to cover that damn thing, and you're in."
Pretty much every greenhorn (rookie) has a similar story. Others lie and say they have experience. It works -- usually the boat is too far out of port for them to get fired by the time anyone finds out otherwise. Add all these factors together and you've got an environment where the bulk of your training is sink or swim (which in this case is about as close to literal as it gets). But hey, how complicated can it be, right?
Well, remember when I said that industry is tightly regulated, so that we don't accidentally cause the fish to vanish from the Earth forever? Well, some types of salmon are off-limits -- hauling in forbidden fish can mean anything from a fine to complete forfeiture of your boat. But since your net doesn't magically only catch the things you want, you've got to be quick about getting the off-limits stuff back in the water before it dies. My instruction in this was pretty typical -- we had 2,000 pounds of fish on the deck and my skipper was screaming at me to "get the King back in the water." If I sat 2,000 pounds of fish in front of you and said "grab the King," would you know what to do? I didn't. I literally had to sit down with a book on my own time and figure this all out so that I could sort through the fish.
"They ... they all look the same."
So there you go. If you've got a couple hundred bucks, are a normal-looking person, and yet are still mentally unbalanced enough to be enticed by what I've described above, you, too can have a career in Alaskan fishing.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Facts About Meth the Anti-Drug Ads Won't Show You and 5 Unexpected Things I Learned from Being a Heroin Addict.
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