It takes some maneuvering to break free of the ice that has built in the harbor, but soon the Wizard makes out to sea. The engines hum and the sodium vapor lights of St Paul fade in the distance. From inside the galley, the pitching and rolling remind me of my dinner of fried cod and gravy. I breathe deep, hoping to keep it all in. We will be steaming for 10 hours, to set the first pots, 80 nautical miles or so from St Paul. From that point, the crew of eight will rotate, working 18-hour shifts for around-the-clock fishing, until the holds are filled. With six hours of rest between shifts, which includes food and bathroom duties, sleep time can't be wasted. I pass out in the upper bunk of the "boar's den," the stateroom I share with Monte. At 5 am, the light comes on, and my roomie tells me that we will soon be "on the crab." I wake up to the unmistakable scent of fish. I have slept surprisingly well, considering the rolling and the nagging worry that I'd fall off my perch to the ground below.
It is dark out, and a blizzard covers the deck with freezing snow. But this won't last. "If you don't like the weather," Freddie tells me, "wait five minutes." Freddie, the massive, Mohawked deckhand turns out to be a teddy bear in a brick-house body and the hardest worker onboard. This is his fourth season on the Wizard, but he is an 18-year veteran. Within minutes the clouds part, and the moon cuts a reflective path in the choppy, steely-black seas. Today is my day of learning. There are 20 seven-by-seven-by-three pots, stacked on deck, waiting to be set. A 20-foot crane lifts one of the 1,000-pound steel cages and hauls it to the launcher, a metal table that hangs over the ship's starboard edge and tilts the pots overboard. Once on the launcher, the pot is secured by two sliding hooks to prevent accidental slipping in rough seas. Three large cod have been affixed inside, along with ground sardines. Six hundred feet of line is pulled out of the pots; the launcher slides the pots overboard; the line is tossed behind it; and the buoy follows. All this happens in rhythmic harmony, at a brisk pace set by the moving ship. Over and over again.
Words are rarely exchanged on deck: The repetitious nature of the work and bulky cold-weather gear do not make for a chummy environment. Occasionally, when an unusually full pot is hauled on deck, the crew will howl just to break the monotony or Freddie will launch into a brief warrior dance, a Samoan-inspired gyration, to lighten the mood. A nor'easter is moving in, and the temperatures plummet, more ice accumulating on deck. But the slippery ground does nothing to interrupt the sequence of the men on deck, even as the ship is pitching and rolling on the building seas. As I shuffle over the ice, I secretly wonder how long it will be before I land on my butt. Eventually, a string of 15 to 30 pots is set and "soaking."
Then the whole process happens again, in reverse, this time with crab to sort – up to 800 per pot. "Everything on this boat is an assembly line," Monte confirms. But the monotony is deceiving. Each movement has been refined to its essence, optimizing purpose and efficiency. The precision is the special sauce. And no one here is shy about correcting you, especially Keith, who's perched in the wheelhouse and armed with a loudspeaker. Instructions can be painfully barked at greenhorns because an error here, big or small, may affect everyone down the line and break the timing that's the backbone of this operation. Success is not just measured by the catch, but by how efficiently it has been caught. From behind an array of screens and electronics, that responsibility mostly falls on the captain, and his mind never stops computing. After decades of practice, Keith makes effortless the work of integrating fuel data, pot locations, weather predictions, math, charts, surveys, experience, and instinct, referencing all of it into an estimation of what the biomass might look like on the ocean floor. And where it's moving. This he does while maneuvering 499 tons to the buoys in 30-foot seas and 65-mph winds, while discussing the crucial need to protect the ocean's fisheries. The respect of his men, who all pitch in for fuel, food, and bait, relies on his performance. His accuracy accounts for energy saved and, ultimately, more money in everyone's pockets.
My first real shift begins at 6 am on my workday. Stepping out onto the deck is like entering the arena. First, we wait under the heatlamps in the "wet room" for the engines to rev down, signaling the first approaching buoy on a string. Once the hatch opens, the elements hit you all at once. And it's on. In single file, the crew manages the icy deck, braving snow and the 60-mph freezing north winds in pitch darkness, while the sea throws in all directions. A big wave breaks over portside spraying the deck with heavy drops. Seconds out of the hatch and the deck crew is glistening in freezing seawater. The plastic hoods prevent a full soak, but the dousing does wake you up. The captain maintains the ship's higher portside to the wind, shielding the deck from most of it, but the accumulating ice is a good indicator of the wind-chill temps: Spray sticks to exposed surfaces and almost instantly freezes, caking the ship with "the white stuff."
Yesterday, water had dripped inside my rubber gloves, soaking the woolen liner, and the cold is now grabbing hold of my hands, sending a throbbing pain to my fingertips. Lesson number one: Make sure the liners dry overnight! While I shake my hands to promote circulation, Freddie shouts instructions over the wind. "When the line is thrown overboard, don't lift your feet from the deck!" This is just one of an array of useful tips for avoiding a litany of hazards. I am told of the deckhand whose foot was caught by a descending line and pulled overboard. Apparently he used his knife on the line on his way to the bottom, but cut the wrong end: The buoy was found, but the pot and the deckhand were lost to the sea. Most accidents occur from falls, or random equipment failure that can send a 1,000-pound pot wildly flailing off a crane in heavy seas. "Never stand under the crane," Monte tells me. A heavy block of frozen spray can suddenly break off, hurling 50 pounds of ice onto the deck, and easily kill a man. Injuries run the gamut from flesh wounds to broken bones or internal trauma.
Lenny Lekanoff, 53, is the oldest crew member and a seven-year veteran. His gestures are masterfully efficient, often utilizing the boat's roll to reduce effort. In a job where repetition is the key factor, this can trim the daily slog by 20 percent. By contrast, a greenhorn's zealous energy will quickly get ground down, while the toll on the body grows. That would be me. The hands are the first to get hit. The minute motions required to tie knots, click, flip, strap, and sort a few hundred times every hour are quick to manifest a burning sensation in my left wrist that soon spreads to my right. The stress on the tendons and ligaments is a common ailment they call "crabber's claw." Sixteen hours into my 18-hour shift, I can barely lift the 40-pound cods, let alone set them inside the pots. The pain is excruciating.
Too proud to complain, I count the minutes until the midnight hour, and the end of the seemingly endless shift. With pain radiating from my wrists, I choose to suck it up, a mistake commonly made by newcomers.
The fate of the greenhorn is a tantalizing feature on many of the show's episodes. The cameras stalk his every move, looking for priceless moments like him tossing his cookies. The new greenhorn is 28-year-old Robby Schlosstein, whose brother, Roger, is a deckhand. He flew up from Tacoma, Washington, to replace the greenhorn who tangled with Freddie. "I got the call on Friday and was in St Paul on Sunday," says Robby. "I had no idea what to bring."
Five days in, he can barely open his hands, his body aches, and the crew is riding him pretty hard. "Roger went through it last year, and he really suffered," he tells me. "But he came out on the other side and walked away with almost $60,000 [for three months of work]. Where else do you make that kind of money with no training?" I ask Keith what he thinks of the new guy. "Right now, he's like a deer in the headlights," he says. "Everything is coming at him. I don't like to make predictions, but on average, one in 20 finishes the season. Of those, most of them don't come back."
As my shift draws to an end, I find a few seconds in the sequence between pots to sit on the buoy and get a load off. Lenny smiles and gives me the thumbs up: It seems I have identified one of the coveted windows to relieve fatigue. No sooner am I on my feet and feeling momentarily refreshed, when I am thrown to the deck by a wave that washes overboard. Josh, the on-deck cameraman, is swept off his feet and lands next to me. His camera slides nearby. We never saw it coming.
I get a sample of every position on deck. Aside from running the crane, which requires specialized and critical skill, tasks rotate between deckhands depending on mood, preference, and ability. But the pungent bait station is the greenhorn's domain, and I get my share of that: the hooking, the hanging, the tossing. I also throw the hook, the buoy, sort crabs by the thousands, and never once get sick. When my shift ends, I am almost too tired to eat. The fish stench that fills my pores is but an afterthought.
The boys honor my effort and seem genuine when they ask me to stay. Would I join their crew? Not a chance! My wrists, for one, would not allow it. A week after my shift they still burn with pain. Monte is not shy about the physical toll. "Everyone who works the deck hurts," he says. "And if they tell you differently – they're lying!" Back in the wheelhouse, Keith negotiates 30-foot seas and our second storm in one week. The ship's four holds have been filled with crab, and we head to Dutch Harbor to unload. We will be steaming in rough seas for 24 hours. Multiple 18-hour shifts make a solid case for burying yourself in your cot. The ship is throwing in all directions, and any other activity is unpleasant. There are no poker games or wild drinking binges. The crew doesn't convene to eat the fresh cod I cook for dinner; it's slowly picked at by invisible takers, emerging from their rooms long enough to flip through the one magazine. By the end of the week, everyone seems to know exactly what kind of Rolls Royce Beyoncé received on her 25th birthday.
I ask Keith how this trip compares with the norm. "It's as good a trip as we want," he tells me. "The fishing was strong; we've had a smooth sail, with no incident. That's my number one responsibility." Steve's ambivalence is notable. To say that he wished for trouble might be a stretch, but his hunt was disappointing. In his defense, a cruise where all goes well and everyone gets along might help the good times, but not the ratings. "A little dull on this trip but not unusual. We had the greenhorn..." His thoughts trail away without much enthusiasm. Just then, word comes over the radio that another boat from the fleet is in distress: Its engines are sputtering, and failed electronics onboard are hampering communications. Its young captain faces tough, potentially critical decisions with a boat fully loaded, in the storm we just weathered. That is real-life drama and what the show thrives on: It will likely get the lion's share of that week's episode. But last week, on the Wizard, they had a fistfight leading story....
As I step off the Wizard, in Dutch Harbor, I feel depleted. Robby smiles for the first time in a week. He made $9,000 in nine days, and it looks like he might make it back. The crew is pulling for him, which is heartening. As I drive away, I see Keith walking on the muddy road of Dutch Harbor, his head down, caught in thoughts. Probably running numbers and computing strategies in his head. Ready for another go at the seas. The Wizard will unload approximately 365,000 pounds of crab from this run alone. The sale value at the processing plant is around $850,000. Maybe not the penthouse, but definitely not the outhouse. ['Deadliest Catch' airs on Discovery Channel on Thursdays at 9 p.m. EST]
Visit our photo gallery for more pictures from Sebastian Copeland's Bering Sea trip with the 'Deadliest Catch' crew.