Survival At Sea

Submitted into Contest #127 in response to: Write a story about a problem with no good solutions.... view prompt


Adventure Thriller American

It was a frigid blustery day, with the steel gray sky spitting rain. White caps were beginning to form across Edna Bay in Southeast Alaska and the temperature had dropped to just below freezing overnight, making the coming day’s task much more difficult for 47 year old Matt Crawford and his 14 year old son, Isaac.

Native Alaskans, like Matt and his family rely on subsistence fishing for salmon, to help them to survive the hard Alaskan winters. They don’t have access to a grocery store like most Americans in the lower 48. They have to survive off of what the land will give them. Due to over-fishing and by-catch dumping by large commercial trawlers the number of salmon has become smaller and smaller each year.

 These trawlers are not even Alaskan owned and operated. They are based out of Seattle and owned by large commercial interests. By-catch is created by trawlers dragging large nets across the bottom of the ocean scooping up everything that gets in front of them. The trawlers are only permitted to keep the fish they are targeting, such as Cod. Everything else gets dumped back into the ocean, with most of it being dead by the time it hits the water. This last year NOAA Fisheries /Alaska recorded more than 20,000 king salmon and over 500,000 pink salmon being dumped. Not to mention all of the halibut, rock fish and crabs that also get dumped overboard. The tribes have brought the issue up over and over again each year with nothing being done about it. Matt felt that this year had been worse than any year he could ever remember since he first began fishing with his dad as a small boy. He crinkled his forehead in frustration at the thought having to leave this land one day where his family has lived and died for generations. All because of the commercial greed.

This thought weighed heavily on Matt’s mind as he and Isaac carried their gear down to the boat and began loading it. The old wooden docks normally covered in green moss now had a thin coating of ice and water on them making walking extremely difficult. Isaac slipped and fell while carrying a heavy load of gear and nearly ended up in the frigid water of the bay. Fortunately, Matt was close by and was able to grab the back of the boy’s Grundens to stop him from going into the water and ending their last chance at getting some fish for the smoker before winter set in.

Matt knew that no sane fisherman would dare go out on the water in this weather; it was just too dangerous, especially with his son on board. However, Matt’s family had managed to bring in only about a third of their normal subsistence catch so far this year which left him with no choice but to chance it. The two of them finished loading their gear and Matt climbed into the cabin to start the boat’s motors and warm them up. 

While the motors were warming up Matt looked over his maps trying to decide where they would have the best chance of scoring a nice load of salmon, while at the same time doing their best to stay safe from this nasty weather. The winter storm was blowing out of the southwest so Matt decided to head for the straight between Kosciusko Island and Warren Island. He could tuck into that straight right behind Warren Island and use the island for protection from the wind. Stretching his nets out between the two islands would allow him to catch any salmon swimming through there on their way to the Stikine River, one of their few natural breeding grounds left that haven’t been devastated by the open pit mining in British Columbia.

“Cast off the dock lines,” Matt hollered at Isaac. As Isaac did so the boat began to slowly drift away from the dock with the current. Matt placed the boat’s transmission into reverse and eased his steering wheel toward the port side, bringing the bow around to face the open water of the bay. Once the bow was fully clear of the dock Matt shifted the transmission into forward and slowly eased the throttles forward. The boat began to move toward the choppy waters of the bay. As the boat cleared the “No Wake Zone” of the harbor Matt eased the throttles forward toward their maximum bringing the boat up on step and increasing their speed to 25 knots. The boat heaved through the heavy chop throwing icy saltwater spray over the decks and fishing gear. Matt and Isaac had to hang on to keep from being tossed around like ragdolls in the small cabin. It was so cold they each had to take turns scrapping ice accumulation of the boat's small windshield so that they could see ahead.

Once they cleared the bay and reached open water Matt turned the boat starboard to head in a southwesterly direction toward their destination. The open water proved to be even rougher than the bay. They soon discovered that they were facing 8 to 10 foot rollers. Matt had to adjust the boat’s speed to try and stay in between them and not catch one at the wrong time. Doing so would be the equivalent of allowing the boat to hit a concrete wall at 20 miles per hour. The result could be catastrophic for both boat and fishermen.

After 45 minutes of bouncing through the heavy seas and getting soaked with icy saltwater spray they reached the point on the southern tip of Kosciusko Island where they began to thread their way through some smaller islands so that they could turn back northwest toward their destination. It was here in the heavy seas that Matt had to be particularly careful because of unmarked rock outcroppings that could rip the aluminum hull of his small boat to shreds, leaving him and Isaac in the icy waters of the Gulf of Alaska. In these conditions they could only hope to survive for minutes at best before hypothermia set in and they both drowned.

“Look out, rocks on the port side,” hollered Isaac. Matt turned the wheel starboard just in time to avoid them. Unfortunately, this move put them sideways between two waves. The oncoming wave hit them without warning and rolled the small boat almost all the way over on its side. Both, Matt and Isaac were thrown up against the inside wall of the cabin. Seawater had spilled over the deck and down into the bottom of the boat. Some of their gear had been washed over-board and the bilge pumps were now working overtime. It was too little too late and looked as if the boat was about to sink.

“Start bailing,” Matt yelled at Isaac while he worked at getting the small boat turned back into the waves. Another broadside hit like that would definitely put them on the bottom. Isaac grabbed a large empty bait bucket and frantically started to a bail. Between Isaac and the two bilge pumps working full bore they began to make progress and the boat slowly rose in the water and began to stabilize.

Matt seriously considered turning back, especially with the loss of some of their fishing gear. That would mean heading back into the rough waters they had just come through. He decided to press on, in hope of finding calmer water behind Warren Island. Maybe they could make it into a protected cove and get to shore. Once there they could start a fire and dry out while waiting for the storm to move on. By this time they were both soaked to the bone and beginning to shiver uncontrollably. Matt knew this was the first sign of hypothermia setting in. He cursed the big trawler companies and their greed for putting him and his son in this position.

Just then Isaac cried out,” there Dad, there’s the island straight ahead!” Matt peered through the rain and saw Warren Island about ½ a mile straight in front of them. As they drew nearer the water began to flatten out and the winds died down. Matt steered a course north along the shore of the island until he found a small cove they could tuck into. As they entered the cove they noticed it was surrounded by snowcapped bluffs which helped to protect it from the weather.

Matt and Isaac found a gravel beach perfect for them to land on. Jumping out, Isaac grabbed the bow line and tied them up to a large tree trunk lying across the beach. Matt cut the engines and they were left in silence.

After securing the boat with an extra line just to be safe Matt and Isaac started gathering firewood. They built a large fire near the downed tree so that they could sit with their backs against the tree and use it for a protection. With the help of a little diesel fuel from the boat they were able to get the fire going in no time. Matt retrieved some fresh water and coffee from their supplies on the boat, along with a wool blanket and some rope. Placing the water in a metal pot they soon had hot coffee to help warm them.

The two stretched the rope between two tree branches close to the fire. They took their wet clothes off and hung them up to dry. While waiting they huddled together under the blanket and drank some more of the hot coffee. It didn’t take long before both were fast asleep.

January 05, 2022 02:05

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Karen Lethlean
03:32 Feb 13, 2022

I found this story enlightening. I want to know more about fishing and the islands. Sorry about the delay, but I am only just catching up with emails. Thanks for making it so clear to me.


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Kathryn Mofley
17:23 Jan 11, 2022

As an Alaskan myself, of course I loved your story! Well done👍🏼


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