Story last updated at 2/12/2014 - 5:08 pm
"Seventh wave?" I asked.
According to lore, the seventh wave is the most powerful and highest. It must, I speculate, have the biggest trough between it and the next wave.
Neither Frank nor I knew that Don had taken a few trips aboard the 45-foot purse seiner PRIDE when he was a teenager and attending school in Ketchikan, where his family had moved during construction of the pulp mill in the mid-1950s.
The PRIDE's crew included Don, Skipper Dick Thompson, "Cookie" Bill Robinson and another deck hand whose name Don has forgotten. He acquired the job because his dad Robert, who worked at the Ketchikan Pulp Mill, was a good friend of Thompson's. Thompson agreed to take Don even if he was underage and had no crew license.
"Dick would say when the Alaska Department of Fish & Game came close to the boat, 'Go below and change into your town clothes. You're now a visitor," he said.
Don still received a quarter-share of the earnings for the season.
Don was the cook's helper, getting up at 4 a.m. to light the oil cook stove and start the coffee before Cookie got to the galley.
"He had to have his coffee right off."
Don was also the beach man, the one who tied the beach portion of the fishing seine to the largest rock or log to hold the net in place.
"I would wait for the skipper to holler to bring the net back to the boat," he said.
"We were in Chatham Strait returning to Juneau on the PRIDE. She was a snubnose seiner with barely any V to the hull. She didn't cut through the waves; she pushed. Wide open, with a tail wind, her top speed was eight knots. If the wind blew hard enough, we were pushed backward."
The Pride stopped for a brief visit at Tenakee Springs on east Baranof Island. Here was a store and a hot springs communal bathhouse.
"O'yes, I wanted to stop," he recounted. "We had been fishing for about a month, and the fish buyer brought out our food, fuel and supplies. We picked up these supplies as we unloaded our catch of salmon. We had no freezer and only a small amount of ice we obtain from the fish buyer's tender. To me, it seemed more than a month since I had ice cream. I drank five malted chocolate milkshakes in a row! I don't think I have felt sicker, and to this day I do not care for chocolate milkshakes."
After the brief pause, the seiner untied and started east in the inlet. The wind started to blow stronger. Thompson took the PRIDE out into Chatham Strait, where the wind blew on the stern.
"When we turned into Icy Strait, right after Point Retreat, we ducked into a cove and anchored to let the storm pass," he said.
Frank and Don looked at marine charts and decided it was Freshwater Bay.
"We hung on anchor for several days as did other fishing boats that joined us avoiding the rough seas."
"So what happens on the seventh wave?" I asked.
The other boats with the nice V-hulls scooted out one morning, and Dick said, "If those guys can go, we can go."
The PRIDE chugged out of the bay into the stormy seas and proceeded until Dick yelled, "You need to put on your life preservers and we are going to turn on the seventh wave to return to the harbor."
Don continued, "I happened to look over to Dick and he was licking his lips, a sign he was nervous. The boat turned sluggishly over the wave and into the trough just after the seventh wave. We thought we had made a clean turn. Suddenly we felt a surging sensation and heard an enormous crashing noise aft of the pilot house. The wave had hit the stern, lifting the seine net off the turntable along with the power skiff tied on top of it. These were shoved up against the pilot house, causing a great deal of noise."
Dick managed to turn back to the safe harbor with a minimum of difficulty and dropped the anchor again.
"I guess we counted wrong," Don said.
But later as I thought about it, that wave must have been a "sneaker.'"
"We couldn't get out of the pilot house." Don, tall (6'3") and thin (150 pounds), climbed out through the cabin window and struggled to the aft house door, which he could slide open. Now the others could gain access to the deck and assess the damage. How to get the net and skiff back in place? First the power skiff had to be lowered in the water with the boom. As the crew worked on the skiff problem, Thompson called Fish and Game on the ship's radio to ask if he could make an emergency set. This meant he would let the net out in a closed bay, but would not purse it, thus not catching fish. The crew had to pull the net by hand back aboard using the power roller on the seine table. "The power block wasn't invented for bringing nets aboard seiners until a number of years later. Every seiner has one today."
"What a mess,"' Don concluded. "It took a whole day to get things back to normal. We were very lucky nothing else happened, such as getting the net in the propeller or losing everything overboard in the rough seas."
The PRIDE continued her voyage into Juneau the next day to deliver fish to Juneau Cold Storage.