Lessons Learned Aboard an Alaskan Fishing Vessel

Photos: Elliott Wright and Ryan Lutz

I welcomed the exhaustion that embraced me as I eased my aching body into my sleeping bag.

We left land only three weeks earlier, but I was already physically and emotionally drained. My hands were tingling, I could barely bend my knees, and my back felt like I had been hit by a bus. I was really hoping that the peak of the season was not going to continue much longer. That was the last thought I had before the gentle rocking of the boat lulled me into the enticing unconsciousness of sleep.

boarding the alaska-bound cessna

My second season as a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, Alaska was not unlike my first. The trip consisted of long hours, rough weather conditions, and tedious, repetitive work. However, there was never a dull day on the job, performed in one of the most secluded and scenic places I have ever visited. Once the sockeye salmon make their way up the four main rivers of the region, the fish arrive by the millions. On our biggest day, we caught close to 8,000 fish in 10 hours. I could not fathom how many fish continued to pile on board our boat, which measured a mere 32 by 12 feet (10 by 4 meters). By contrast, as the season slowed down there were days when we caught 200 fish in the same amount of time. On those days, in particular, there was a lot of downtime. It was slow enough that we could set the net into the water, strip off our waterproof kits, and hang out in the cabin for hours at a time.

One thing I want to emphasize is that free time on a boat can be a double-edged sword. The respite from work is welcomed, but there is little to do for mental stimulation. Our mobile phones had no chance of receiving reception. There was no internet to look at meaningless social media apps or streaming services. The radio’s single station, National Public Radio, could vaguely be heard over the boat’s engine which ran almost continuously. Reading was the main activity I had to keep me occupied. Between the various fiction and non-fiction texts I dove into, Rutger Bregman’s Utopia For Realists was the most interesting. Worth the read for sure.

Elliott: Big Day

Other than that, I spent a lot of time with my thoughts, which are not always bright in nature. I found myself thinking about and missing the comforts of life on land. I also concluded that the things I was missing weren’t only specific to myself. Everyone is capable of taking simple pleasures for granted, especially at a time when the world is turned upside down by a pandemic and there is a lot of negativity, pain, and grief everywhere. My goal, however, is to share a short list of the things I was thinking about along the way as a reminder to pause for a moment and appreciate how lucky we are.

Ryan at the stern

Family and Friends: John Donne’s poem “No Man is an Island” resonates much more after living on a boat for five weeks. It can be tough being out of contact with the loved ones in our lives. I will note that the boat had a burner Nokia phone with an Alaskan mobile plan, which hardly worked. Finding time to actually use the phone amidst the roaring engine, work, meals, and sleep was tricky to pull off. A couple close friends were able to call the boat phone, which was the highlight of that particular week and meant more to me than they knew. Times are strange; tell your family and friends you love them. Often.

shadow mechanics

Personal Space: On a gillnet fishing boat, the captain and crew are working, eating, sleeping, and shitting within close proximity to each other from the moment the boat leaves the bulkhead to the moment it returns. While at sea, I kept thinking about how amazing my archaic double bed is. And the fact that I have my own room, which has a door that provides privacy if I need it. At home, I can also leave my house and walk for miles if I want to. One of the first things I did upon returning to land in Bristol Bay was visiting the bears in Katmai National Park. Roaming around the open wilderness was the perfect antidote to being in the same compact space for weeks.

thawing out some steak

Fresh Fruit and Vegetables: One perk to fishing for sockeye salmon is that you can eat as much of the stuff as you want. It comes straight out of the sea, is filleted on deck, and slid straight into our propane-powered oven in the galley. The flipside is that the bulk of one’s diet at sea is camping food, which consists of starchy, binding components. A fisherperson quickly realizes the importance of needing essential nutrients to keep digestion operating smoothly. To spare the details, many trips to the head were done in vain. Upon returning home, eating foods that came out of the ground or off a tree was necessary to become regular again.

shadow boys, end of season

Showers: If anyone who is reading wants to get over germaphobia, I would highly recommend seeking out work as a commercial fisherperson. Our boat luckily had a shower, which was working better this season than last. However, freshwater was always in tight supply, as it was needed for drinking and washing dishes. Therefore, showers occurred sporadically throughout the season; I averaged one about every seven days. A long, hot shower is always a rejuvenating experience, but after a fishing season it is like winning the lottery.

Classic ryan flip

Surfboards and Skateboards: Surrounded by water, I was constantly daydreaming about surfing. Especially on the stormier days, my mind would wander and imagine the head-high rollers breaking into completely unoccupied rights and lefts. Once home, I drove down to my local, overcrowded beach break as soon as I could. Rather than getting frustrated with a sea of Wavestorms trying to learn how to paddle, I was simply content to be back in the Pacific and hanging out with the dolphins. I had a similar feeling of gratitude once I got on my skateboard. After being at sea for a while, it takes time to acclimate to solid ground. It feels like being tipsy without having any alcohol at all. After rediscovering my land legs, it was therapeutic to skate and enjoy the warm, late-summer days in Los Angeles.

The importance of everything listed above became more apparent to me after lacking them for a sizable amount of time. It required leaving civilization to work a demanding and dangerous job to remind myself of what truly matters in my life. Despite the temporary moments of discomfort, I was grateful for the experience because it taught me an important lesson. If you find yourself sweating the small stuff and failing to appreciate what is in front of you, take one step backwards, remember to breathe, and make the best of what you got while you still can.

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