An old mariner's axiom has it that below 40 degrees latitude south, there are no laws; below 50 degrees, there is no God. The seas are no more hospitable at 57 degrees latitude north, where a frozen island outcrop called St Paul, Alaska, sits, stuck between Hell and Purgatory. The North Pacific is the birthplace of some of the world's biggest storms. And when low-pressure fronts from the southwest collide with nor'easters, they produce fierce winter storms with 70-mile-an-hour winds and 40-foot seas that can swallow the sturdiest vessels. And the place where this happens is pretty much where I landed for a two-week stint on a crabbing boat: in the middle of the Bering Sea, where the continental shelf drops from a depth of about 600 feet to more than 8,000. The upwelling of currents, combined with the influence of the Arctic, makes for turbulent seas. But it also makes for a nutrient-rich environment that is especially fertile for deep-sea dwellers like the Alaskan crab, the bounty fishermen risk themselves to haul from the ocean floor.
From Los Angeles, it takes four planes and two days to reach this frosty enclave, with multiple stops along the way on islands with names like Cold Bay (pop. 95). Through the porthole of the turboprop, the view spells out the desolate nature of the island. The barren, exposed terrain is void of trees, and the ever-present wind creates constant snowdrift, covering every surface.
Part of the island is a bird sanctuary, host to more than 250 migratory species, and in an effort to appeal to birders, the chamber of commerce brochure evokes a quaint holiday retreat. It is not. And there is nothing regal about the King Eider, part of a prefab barrack that doubles as the island's airport and only hotel.
Upon landing, I learn that the Wizard, the ship I've come to board, won't pull in to harbor for another two days. An airport employee suggests a visit to the local bar, the town's single attraction. Tonight is Friday, a good night at the bar, which is closed on weekends – by city ordinance and tradition – to curb the island's consumption. The dim lighting hides most of the stained ratty carpet, but the smell of weeks-old beer permeates the room. The sparse tables and chairs are taken up by mostly foreign workers from the nearby fish-processing plant. A coast guard spends a half-hour educating me on everything there is to know about beer. I don't drink but listen dutifully as inebriated locals, sporting colorful Mohawks, have a go at the nearby pool table and slur expletives at Obama.
The following evening, I go to the Coast Guard base for dinner. There, I meet Josh Shaffer, a flight mechanic whose fresh face belies 10 years of service. At this time last year, Josh was part of a dramatic nighttime search-and-rescue mission. Two fishing ships went down in the Bering. "We found the first crew in pitch darkness," he tells me gravely, "with 90-mile-an-hour winds and 40-foot seas." They had to abort mission because the winds were too high, and they were running out of fuel. The worst part was seeing the look on the men's faces as they pulled away. He pauses for a moment and shakes his head. "You never forget that," he adds.
When I explain that I will be headed out on a crab boat for two weeks at sea, Jason Evans, a pilot sitting with us, asks if I've been equipped with an emergency suit. I have. "Use it as a pillow!" they both blurt out. Later that night, I listen as the storm builds outside. As the windows rattle and the structure shakes, I visualize the Wizard tossed around like a cork in a fountain. I'd crossed the Drake passage, the wretched body of sea separating Patagonia from Antarctica, four times and gotten a taste of what they call the "Drake Shake" aboard a research vessel. But 40-foot waves?
I roll out my immersion suit and time myself getting in it. On the third time, I manage under one minute.