Out on the Deep Blue


It started in 1977 when I put on my first pair of hip boots on a tiny island in the Gulf of Alaska and vaulted into a small wooden skiff full of salmon. In my previous life in New Hampshire I had written about everything, surreptitiously scribbling stanzas on restaurant napkins, fussing over line endings on index cards while in line at the store. My trip into the skiff, though, was a step into silence. I was sucked under with such force, working twelve to eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, for four months on a remote island incommunicado with the rest of the world, that all literary thoughts fled. And though this world was astonishing—volcanoes spouting over the roofs of the cabins, whales, seals, sea otters, sea lions daily sights, winds that blew eighty knots, living on a scrap of land flung onto the Shelikof Strait, sometimes hanging on for life itself—for all of this my journal, which I had kept faithfully for ten years, became the equivalent of a series of grunts; picked two skiffs of pinks this morning, worked past dark on a 7-mile in a NE blow, kicker broke down around the island, arms going numb at night, can’t sleep. Language was a luxury. There was no place in my fishing life for literary allusion; I was body and muscle only. This was the active life, the life of doing, where salmon were salmon, the ocean was itself and nothing more, and the day’s object was to pick and delver as many hundreds and thousands of fish as possible. I wrote no poems or essays about fishing for nearly ten years.

I shouldn’t have expected otherwise. Commercial fishing has rarely been viewed as the realm of the contemplative. This belongs to fly-fishing, sportfishing—men and women at rest in the wilderness, senses awakening, losing and so finding themselves, restored for return to that other world. Fishing here is not doing but being, or some magical alchemy of their perfect merging. Books and anthologies abound connecting the spiritual and the natural with sportfishing.

Commercial fishing, though, is a business and so the second cousin from the other side of the tracks, the world of doing and action, where the bottom line governs all activities. Tasks are done in fast forward, so repetitive and at such speeds and for such a length of time that they are best done unthinkingly, instinctively, automatically. Your worth, both economic and personal, is often measured in terms of how fast you can bait the halibut hooks, how quickly you can pick fish, how long you can work without sleep. The all-absorbing intensity of the work coupled with many fishermen’s schedule and lives on the water do not allow for languid introspection.

And should a fisherman have the time for such, revelatory communication about his life’s work cuts against every tradition and fiber of this occupation. In fishing, sport and commercial alike, secrecy is required and assumed. As many resources decline, and even among those still vigorous, competition for the halibut, cod, Pollock, and salmon is intense, even cutthroat. When any kind of fisherman, sport or commercial, speaks, gross understatement or gross overstatement rule the day. No one expects otherwise: There is so much that cannot be said.

The traditional seal has been recently broken though. Sebastion Junger’s The Perfect Storm, on the bestseller list for fifty-three weeks, and then Patrick Dillon’s Lost at Sea opened this hermetic world to millions of readers. Commercial fishing became, almost overnight, literary territory. Outside magazine, noting the growing appetite for such stories writes wryly, “If you’re a commercial fisherman, you’ve probably been contacted by an agent.”

Why, at the turn of the millennium, in the post-information age, when 85 percent of Americans live in urban or suburban areas, are we turning to books about men and women who break their backs, and sometimes lose their lives, pulling fish from the sea?

It is not hard to hazard a few theories. Commercial fishing, as many know, is ranked as the most dangerous job in the nation, with a death rate from seven to one hundred times the national average. Indeed, as I write this, yesterday two people who work a few miles from our fishcamp off Kodiak Island in Alaska died when their skiff was swamped in a fifty-knot gale. We were out in that storm as well. It does not require flights of imagination or verbal high jinks to create from such a setting and occupation the necessary elements of story: plot, conflicts, tension, drama, and tragedy—all of this is built into the business of commercial fishing. But even story is sometimes not a large enough container. This is epic, even, the primeval, universal struggle of man against nature: men and women alone in a fifty-seven-foot boat against a twenty-foot raging sea, or wrestling a leviathan in steep waters, adrift in a suffocating fog. Yet these stories are not Oddysseys or lliads, where the Greek heroes, godlike figures, ultimately and inevitably triumph against all the malevolent forces that would keep them from reaching home and hearth. For all their courage and daring, in these recent writings we see fishermen as thoroughly human, as beset by flaws, pride, and mortality as the rest of us. Their obituaries appear in our local papers; we leave their funerals weeping. Their stories read like sagas, feeding our deep human hunger to understand the ultimate battle against nature and earth; but the lives are real, the losses are personal.

Yet, even for those of us who commercial fish, reading about the losses of our own, thrilling to adrenaline-laced accounts of fishermen’s rescues and near rescues at sea is not macabre; it is human and it is necessary. Scott Russell Sanders wrote in “The Most Human Art: Ten reasons Why We’ll Always Need a Good Story” (Utne Reader, Sept/Oct 1997) that story, whether fiction or nonfiction, “is to teach us how to be human,” and to “help us deal with suffering, loss, and death.” Those who have suffered tell and write their stories “as a way of fending off despair,” and as a way of teaching us to live consciously and wisely.

There is something here too, about our national passion for frontier and wilderness. We are losing both the imaginative, mythical frontier, and the actual wilderness lands themselves, we feel. Where do we go now to explore, to test our American mettle? Where else but out past the continents’ boundaries to the oceanic plains beyond. This is our Wild West. It is not by chance that the commercial fishermen who work this expanse are often called “the last of the cowboys.”

At our fishcamp, we speak a piece of this analogy daily. Our own boat, a modest sixty-five-foot scow we bought at an auction for a song, and used mostly to tender our supplies to fishcamp, was bought with the name crudely and audaciously stenciled on the stern: Cowboy. The twelve hundred miles of the Aleutian chain are called “Out West” by those whole live and fish there. In Alaska’s most audacious fisheries, where fleets of wheeling boats stir a single bay to dust, reeling lines on lines, nets over nets, every boat unbridled, every set a maniacal, defiant few minutes’ ride—these are rodeos, we say: one of the last Wild West shows still playing.

The mythos of the cowboy carries with it a rugged individualism we still prize, but even more we drawn by the physicality of the fisherman-cowboy’s life. As our physical interactions with natural world atrophy, we hunger for sensual, whole-body experience with the forces of nature—earth, air, fire, and water. Even the agrarian culture that remains, accounting for less than 4 percent of the population, is increasingly distanced from feet-in-the-soil, hard-muscle extraction of the harvest, often laboring in air-conditioned computerized cabs and rounding up herds of cattle from helicopters.

It is nothing but romanticism to insist that someone somewhere still tills the earth, herds the cattle, and fishes the sea as his forefathers did. No one can compete and survive as a business in this global economy with such ideals; a population of 275 million couldn’t be fed. And yet, the fishermen remain, some fishing just as their fathers and grandfathers have fished: in fleets of small boats clustering the nation’s coast, working in homemade vessels with crews of two or three, salmon seining in forty-two- Deltas, setnetting in open skiffs, hand-hauling the beach seine, pulling a living from the depths with backs, arms, ungloved hands, we are anomalies, indeed. We are anomalies, indeed.

Many of us in this book are still fishing close to the ancient ways. But nostalgia and literary trends may not save us nor others here from the same fate as the small family and ranch. A short time ago, there were many threads on the horizon. Today they are here among us: at-sea catcher-processors and factory ships that catch and produce mass volumes of fish product, threatening the resource; fish farms that raise penned fish, routinely feeding antibiotics against the diseases that proliferate, risking infection and destruction of the wild stocks; increasing pressure from sportfishermen to augment their own share of the resource by reducing the commercial fisherman’s catch. This is just the beginning.

Much has been lost already. It is no longer enough to weigh anchor and risk life and health on the North Pacific or the Bering Sea or the mid-Atlantic for a hold of fish. Many fishermen have become activists, lobbyists, consultants, working off-season with the same determination as in-season to preserve the resource, or their own right to a share of it.

While fishermen are becoming increasingly vocal and public in their fight to preserve their livelihood and the natural resources, they are just now beginning to write their own stories. Until very recently, most books about fishing were written by outsiders, writers and journalists afforded a peek or gaze into this other world. This is the first collection of essays written by fishermen themselves, not written about them. There is no filtering journalist; the writing and the events here are intense, direct, first person. The lives and waters represented here range from Alaska’s far west Aleutian chain to the Gulf of Mexico to the northern waters of New England, out to the Grand Banks, north and east to the coast of Scotland. Collectively, the fishermen-writers have fished cod, halibut, salmon, sea urchins, crab, herring, shard, and swordfish. Some writing here have fished commercially for several season; others have spent much of their lives on the water. The rousing sea stories are here: the dramas of near-death battles, the sickening tragedy of lovers and friends lost to the waters, but this not the whole story. This collection represents the most holistic view of fishing to date: not just the dying, but the living; not just the obsessive doing of fishing, but the passionate being as well. Together, they’ll take you out on the deep blue. Hold on.