I took my first step onto a drift net boat out in Ugashik Bay, stepping from the tender Westward onto the F/V Chulyen. The Chulyen had already delivered its fish to another tender and came over to the Westward to purchase supplies and receive a delivery of new nets. While the tender was anchored out and relatively stable in its position, the swells of the sea made for an interesting jump from the Westward onto the bobbing Chulyen. I tossed my bag over to the Chulyen‘s deck and scrambled over the side.
A typical drift boat is about 32 feet in length with a covered pilot house that serves as the engine room, bridge, kitchen, and lounge for the boat. Forward, under the forecastle or bow of the ship, are the crew quarters. With barely enough space to fit three narrow bunks, the crew quarters serves as bedroom and storage room. Getting into and out of your bunk requires a bit of flexibility and creativity. There is no toilet or shower; going to the “bathroom” involves sitting on a bucket out on the aft deck of the boat. The closed quarters force the skipper to come up with creative ways to use the available space. And it is in this total living space of about 8×10 feet that a skipper and his crew will spend six weeks or so without setting foot on land.
Drift boat life is all about waiting. Waiting until that noon or 3:00 announcement from Fish and Game about whether there will be an opener that day and, if so, how long it will last. Waiting at the preferred spot, ready to drop that net buoy when the opener begins. Waiting after the net is out to begin hauling the net back in and picking sockeye off the net. Waiting in line behind five other drift boats to deliver your catch. Waiting until that next opener. And then, repeating that cycle over and over for about six weeks or so. In between, during all the waiting, there is joking, telling stories, smoking cigarettes (everybody in the fishing community smokes – everybody), reading, and doing whatever else it takes to kill the time and get some rest.
But then, there are furious periods of activity. Once that buoy is down, the captain starts motoring the boat down range to let out the net, typically about 200 fathoms in length. A fathom is six feet, so, four football fields in length of gill net. Then, several times during the opener, the crew will haul in that net using a hydraulic winch, stopping frequently to “pick” sockeye salmon off the net and toss them into the boat’s hold below the metal plates on the deck. There, the sockeye will sit in bed of ice to be delivered to a waiting tender. Once at the tender, the crew will receive the crane hook from the tender (which also contains a scale to measure the weight of each bale of fish), secure the bale to the crane hook, and assist in directing the fish over the tender as it is lifted up out of the drift boat and over to the tender to be dumped into its chilled storage holds below.
For more images of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay, visit my Bristol Bay gallery.