Upside Down

Paul Corbin came to Alaska many years ago to commercially fish for salmon.  The lifestyle suited him and he had many boats, caught many fish, raised a family and maintained a wilderness homestead in a remote area of southeast Alaska that would become Lisianski Inlet Lodge.  Here is his story, enjoy!

Upside Down

Alaska's weather is often like a woman.  Sometimes calm and peaceful while showing the beauty of the land and sea.  At other times she can change into a furious monster in no more than a blink of the eye.  The fisherman needs to always be always watching for these changes and be prepared for any surprises that the weather chooses to send his way.

In the northern latitudes, the ocean is referred to in the feminine sense; 'she' is calm today or she's getting rougher and looking real bad.  The fisherman also sometimes refers to his boat in the feminine sense.  Anyone in the business of making a living catching salmon always wishes for good weather on the ocean.  A day of flat calm with everything working well, no breakdowns and every line loading up with nice big king salmon is good.

When the weather becomes angry the sea comes to the fisherman in all sorts of moods, bringing high winds and huge waves, often times causing a fishing boat to sink with loss of lives.  The fisherman who finds safe anchorage to ride out the storm feels lucky, even if the storm lasts for days.

It was time to pull the gear and head for the harbor.  The sea was building and coming straight out of the southwest, lumping up and catching the troller on the quarter stern.  Enough of this, the fisherman thought, taglines were breaking and it was hard to keep up a decent trolling speed. He knew of a good harbor which was almost landlocked and figured he would head there and wait it out.  It took a while to get the gear in and by the time the fisherman had finished stowing the fishing lures the lump from the southwest had built up considerably.  He turned the boat towards the distant island where the harbor was and started running in ahead of the building waves.

On the way towards the entrance of the harbor, the fisherman started thinking about what he would do once he was anchored up.  First, he would have to ice down the king salmon which were in the checker on the back deck.  Maybe he would fix himself a little drink while cooking up dinner and then spend some time tying up new leaders and hoochies.  The sharks had been pretty tough on the bait hooks and hoochies in the last few days.  It would be nice to be in the quiet harbor, hearing nothing but the distant rumble of the sea and falling asleep in his bunk.  As the boat drew closer to the harbor entrance he could see white clouds of ocean spray shooting up from the huge black rocks on the beach.

The wave came from far out in the ocean towards the land.  It was traveling fast and building up unbelievable strength as it approached the shallower grounds.  It poked its head out showing its white fangs.  At first, it looked just like the other waves except that it carried with it much more force and speed.  In a matter of a few minutes, it would suddenly find itself in two fathoms of water just as the harbor entrance.  The impact would be like a semi truck hitting a brick wall at 80 miles an hour.  

The fisherman steered his boat past the first of the outer rocks and lined up on the painted markers showing the way to the inner harbor.  It would be nice to get into the harbor and have a drink he thought.  Soon he would be in flat calm protected water.  Focusing on the white markers painted on the distant rocks and looking straight ahead, he never saw looming up behind him, the huge wave.

The wave hit the quarter stern of the troller, lifting the boat up and flipping it over on it's back.  The fisherman suddenly found himself upside down while hanging on to the spokes of the ship's wheel.  At that moment he felt nothing except a quiet calm, his body suspended in space, floating about in slow motion in a dream world he couldn't do anything about.  So this is it! He thought.  I'm going to die!  In the next instant, the troller righted itself, amazingly still moving on its course for the protected harbor.  It was then that the fisherman came back from that unreal world and realized that the engine was still running and he had a chance to make it into the harbor.  He looked out to the back deck and saw that two trolling poles were broken off with trolling pole wire stays and chain dragging along with the boat, dangerously close to getting tangled up in the propeller.  Also, he saw that all the checkerboards were gone, including his salmon and the hatch cover to the ice hold.  It was then that he saw that the hold was half full of seawater.  God knows what was going on in the engine room!  Keep running boat! He thought.  We have to make it in!  

He had made it!  The boat was anchored in the quiet protected harbor, sea pump discharging water out of the hold and engine room.  The back deck was a shambles and broken trolling poles were floating alongside the hull.  Most of his fishing gear had been swept off and would have to be replaced.  There would be a lot of work to do in order to get back into the fishing business.  It could have been a lot worse he thought.  He heard a hello and turning, saw that Big John had rowed over in his skiff from his own boat which was anchored nearby.  "Looks like you might need some help" Big John said.  "I guess I could use some John, thanks".  

In the next day and a half, both men worked cutting new spruce trolling poles, each one 44 feet in length, they then peeled the bark off the poles, dragged them down to the beach and towed the heavy poles out to the boat with Big John's skiff.  Most of the rigging from the broken poles could be salvaged and was put in place on the new poles.  It was a lot of work and couldn't have been done without Big John's help.  Two days later the fisherman was back out on the fishing grounds. The ocean had calmed down and the fish were still biting.

Note: in the above story, I couldn't thank John Clauson enough for his help.  John had many of the tools needed and a light plant used for some of the drill work needed to prepare the poles for mounting on the boat.  Along with his help, he lost valuable fishing time, but he never complained and, as always, kept his good humor.  The event I write about is meant to show the other side of life as a commercial fisherman.  All of us have our stories to tell.  The Helen T was a 45 foot Tacoma Shipyard hull with close to 9 feet of draft.  It was a good boat and I often think that if it had been any other boat it may not have righted itself after being rolled over by the wave.  I'm glad it did because it didn't really feel quiet right steering a boat upside down.  Again, to you John Clauson, may you 'splice the main brace' often in Valhalla my viking freind.