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Lost at Sea

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Overview

On February 3, 1983, the men aboard Americus and Altair, two state-of-the-art crabbing vessels, docked in their home port of Anacortes, Washington, prepared to begin a grueling three-month season fishing in the notorious Bering Sea. Eleven days later, on Valentine's Day, the overturned hull of the Americus was found drifting in calm seas, with no record of even a single distress call or trace of its seven-man crew. The Altair vanished altogether. Despite the desperate search that followed, no evidence of the ...

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Lost at Sea: An American Tragedy

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Overview

On February 3, 1983, the men aboard Americus and Altair, two state-of-the-art crabbing vessels, docked in their home port of Anacortes, Washington, prepared to begin a grueling three-month season fishing in the notorious Bering Sea. Eleven days later, on Valentine's Day, the overturned hull of the Americus was found drifting in calm seas, with no record of even a single distress call or trace of its seven-man crew. The Altair vanished altogether. Despite the desperate search that followed, no evidence of the vessel or its crew would ever be found. Fourteen men were lost. And the tragedy would mark the worst disaster in the history of U.S. commercial fishing.
With painstaking research and spellbinding prose, acclaimed journalist Patrick Dillon brings to life the men who were lost, the dangers that commercial fishermen face, the haunting memories of the families left behind...and reconstructs the intense investigation that ensued, which for the first time exposed the dangers of an industry that would never again be the same.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Susan Salter Reynolds Los Angeles Times Book Review A gripping account...Lost At Sea is a better book than Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, even more thrilling, more mysterious.

Rinker Buck USA Today Dillon meticulously recreates the events leading up to the 1983 capsizing of the Americus and Altair...[and] artfully chronicles the lives of the lost fishermen and their families.

Sudip Bose The Washington Post Book World A meticulously detailed narrative, pieced together with the deft touch of a suspense writer — a fine accomplishment.

Tom Walker The Denver Post Patrick Dillon's deftly written Lost at Sea is more than just another man-vs.-the-sea story. It's an engrossing, evenhanded look at how greed, negligence, naivete and downright stupidity can lead to tragedy when man and nature collide.

Newsday
A riveting account of a tragedy that claimed the lives of 14 fishers in the Bering Sea.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The Wall Street Journal recently noted that last year "commercial fishing lost its place as the most dangerous occupation." If so, part of the reason must be traced back 15 years to February 14, 1983, when 14 men from the town of Anacortes, Washington, were lost in the Bering Sea. Sailing on the Americus and Altair, two of the most high-tech crabbing vessels of the time, and confident of fairly calm waters, they disappeared without even an SOS. Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and columnist Dillon brings his perceptive journalism skills to reconstructing the lives of the fishermen and their families and motivations--from the need to strike out for more dangerous fishing grounds, because those closer to home were depleted, to simple greed. The residents of Anacortes clearly knew the dangers--an obelisk in the harbor is inscribed with 96 names of fishermen lost over the last 50 years, more than three times the number listed on the memorial to casualties of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Dillon spent time with the families and followed both the subsequent investigation and the efforts to enact and enforce regulations. His prose is more poetic than incisive: At a basketball game at the high school, "the news came in like a draft under the door. When it reached the bleachers, each row stirred in succession, people bent like grass.... They stood, stunned, their faces frozen...trying to conceal their terror." This is a story of individuals, but it is also the story of an old, traditional industry pushed farther and farther offshore by heavy demand from top restaurants paying high prices.
Newsday
A riveting account of a tragedy that claimed the lives of 14 fishers in the Bering Sea.
Michael Parfit
Lost at Sea will inevitably be compared to The Perfect Storm....If anything, Lost at Sea is more ambitious. Junger told a simple story of storm, death and rescue; Patrick Dillon wants to follow his tragedy's shadow into the far reaches of consequence. -- The New York Times Book Review
San Jose Mercury News
A sensitive memorial to young man killed needlessly in their prime.
Wall Street Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Patrick Dillon explores the disaster with obvious admiration for the men who suffered it and compassion for those they left behind.
USA Today
Dillon artfully chronicles the lives of the lost fisherman and their families.
Denver Post
More than just another man-vs.-the-sea story....An engrossing, even-handed look at how greed, negligence, naivete and downright stupidity can lead to tragedy when man and nature collide.
LA Times Book Review
A gripping account....Lost at Sea is a better book than Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm -- even more thrilling because it is more mysterious....Rich, historic and compelling, like the sea itself.
Kirkus Reviews
A taut, heartbreaking story of fishermen who died at sea, the subsequent mare's nest of an investigation, and congressional maneuverings over maritime safety bills, from Pulitzer-winning journalist Dillon (The Last Best Thing). Fishing and the Pacific Northwest go hand in hand: many boys there are still raised to read the tides, anticipate the mood swings of the weather, and recognize the tonal variations of foghorns. It's a place where fish were once so thick you could harvest them with a pitchfork. The first part of Dillon's book is the story of a fishing company in a small Washington town, its development and the personalities involved, and then the loss of 14 local men as two of its boats capsize in the rude waters of the Bering Sea. Fishing is a death industry, Dillon reminds readers, and decent cash returns invite risk-taking of the most outrageous sort, but these boats were supposedly superstable, and the fishing company had a plum reputation as a safety-conscious outfit. Part two shifts into investigative-journalist mode as Dillon reports on the inquiry into the loss of the two boats, the toll it took on the families, and the tortured permutations the truth took as it made its way to the surface. The circumstances combine with Dillon's deadpan reportorial style to make the death of the 14 men generate a field of gloom and sadness that is painful to witness. And irritation is added to the pall in part three, as Dillon recounts the families' efforts to get legislation passed to insure greater safety requirements for fishing vessels, over the vested interests of politicians, lawyers, and insurance companies.

Dillon's fine book tells us its the same as it ever was:men at sea equals men at supreme risk.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684869094
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 8/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 457,735
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.43 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Patrick Dillon is the Adventure and Sailing Events Programming Director at QuokkaSports, Digital Sports Entertainment. He has won numerous awards, including a share of the Pulitzer Prize in 1989. His columns and essays have appeared in many publications throughout the nation, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Fast Company.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

On a clear March day in 1982, just off False Pass three hundred miles west of the Alaskan Peninsula, an alarm sounded in the engine room of the fishing vessel Antares. She was out of Anacortes, Washington, two thousand miles to the south. Steve Carr, the twenty-five-year-old engineer, climbed down the stairs to investigate. When he reached the engine room it was filled with smoke. He could tell by the thick, oily smell that the fire was coming from the hydraulic system that supplied power to run the winches on deck. He called the wheelhouse on the vessel's intercom and reported this to Kevin Kirkpatrick, also twenty-five, the captain and a lifelong friend. Kirkpatrick immediately throttled back and then shut down the work on deck, directing the crew of five to go to their fire-fighting stations. Carr donned a mask and an oxygen tank, armed himself with a carbon dioxide extinguisher, and plunged back into the engine room. Gradually, on the wheelhouse monitor of the engine room, Kirkpatrick could see the smoke clearing. Within minutes Carr called again over the intercom and said it appeared the fire was out.

    Kirkpatrick gave the crew a break. They gathered around the galley table and ate a meal, each of them worn out by the rush of adrenaline but still tensed for the sound of another fire alarm. None came.

    Before getting under way, though, Kirkpatrick and Carr headed back down to the engine room to assess the damage the fire had caused. When they opened the hatch, the innards of the Antares erupted. The rush of fresh oxygen had acted as a bomb for the still-smoldering fire.

    Kirkpatrick scrambled up the stairs to the wheelhouse and sent out a distress call on his VHF radio. He stayed calm and went by the book: "MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY," he repeated, before giving the vessel's name and call sign three times. He reported his latitude and longitude and that there was a fire on board. He reported the number of crew and gave a description of the 123-foot Antares. He waited for a response. In the meantime, several crew members climbed up the stairs into the wheelhouse. The fire was completely out of control, they told him. He repeated the distress call, and when a German fish-processing vessel just ten miles away picked it up and said it was heading in his direction, Kirkpatrick radioed back that he and his crew were abandoning ship.

    As they had been trained, the six-member crew lay on the floor of the ten-foot-wide wheelhouse and wriggled into their thick neoprene survival suits. None took more than two minutes. They lowered the two life rafts into the water, making certain the rafts were still tethered to the burning vessel. Then, one by one, each of them plunged into the thirty-two-degree sea and paddled awkwardly toward the rafts, helping each other aboard. They could see the hull of the Antares glowing like a dull red coal at the waterline. When the heat became too intense, they cut the rafts loose. The German vessel arrived within an hour and the exhausted crew was helped on deck. All survived. But the Antares was destroyed, burned from the inside out as if by an enormous oven fire.

Weeks later, back in Anacortes, the Antares's owner, Jeff Hendricks, negotiated to sell her for pennies on the dollar for scrap. Less than five years old, the Antares was one of the first of a generation of sophisticated new American fishing vessels. She had cost nearly $3 million and had taken a year to build. In a good season Hendricks could count on the boat to earn as much as $2.5 million. Now he was lucky to see $25,000 from the scrapyard, plus an insurance settlement. But under tow, on the way to port, the burnedout husk of the Antares sank in two thousand feet of water two thousand miles from home. With it, Hendricks's fledgling four-vessel fleet suffered a serious blow.

    Named after the brightest star in the constellation Scorpio, the Antares had been born out of Hendricks's optimism and exhaustless ambition. When she was completed in 1977, the Antares secured his standing as the top vessel owner in Anacortes and one of the top fleet owners in the Pacific Northwest. During the previous three years Hendricks had proven himself with his first two boats, the Sea Star and Alyeska, built by Fairhaven Industries up in Bellingham. He had taken advantage of low-interest loans the government was offering prospective fishing-vessel owners to build them, and they had done so well in the Bering Sea that he was able to use them as collateral for financing the next venture.

    In the mid 1970s, optimism was running so high about the newly discovered crabbing grounds near the Pribilof Islands, in fact, that Hendricks persuaded Dick Nelson and Bob Gudmundson, two Fairhaven managers who had overseen the birth of his first two boats, to break away from the company and start their own.

    "Anacortes was ideal," Nelson said. "It had deep water and a low bank. There was already a shipyard facility there on property owned by the port."

    There was also a three-hundred-foot dock, seventy-five feet wide, and a track for drawing vessels out of the water for repairs or sending a new hull down the ways. It didn't take much convincing for a new partnership to be born, and it didn't take much persuading for the town to make a sweet lease deal, especially since Hendricks had already commissioned the building of three big boats. In Anacortes, new jobs were a rare and welcome opportunity.

    Nelson and Gudmundson opened shop on January 2, 1977, and within two weeks, two dozen locals were at work on Hendricks's first order. On spring nights that year, the Dakota Creek Industries shipyard at the foot of Commercial Street in Anacortes was ablaze like a giant fireworks display. With their soldering guns and oxyacetylene torches, welders fused metal to metal, sending millions of sparks skyward, announcing the birth of Hendricks's newest and first homegrown fishing vessel.

    Hendricks had big plans for his new boat. He wanted the Antares to be just a little bigger, deeper, and longer than the Sea Star and Alyeska and other Pacific Northwest boats that had been patterned after the deep-sea tuna seiners that plied the Pacific from San Pedro to Hawaii. He wanted this new boat specifically designed and equipped to challenge the Bering Sea. The Antares would be all steel, with a square bottom and square stern, a stiff-ribbed, stiff-backboned vessel of a hard chine designed to snap back fast on keel with every roll. At 123.5 feet long and 32 feet wide, with a depth amidships of 14 feet, and 32 feet from the main deck to the top of the mast, she would be subtly larger than the previous boats. Like the others, her wheelhouse would sit forward and her bow would be slightly rounded, flaring upward from the bulwarks. The lightship hull, or shell, would weigh 195 tons with just over a 10-foot draft. Like her sister vessels, her hull would be sky blue, flaunting a distinctive white-winged emblem.

    In the Dakota Creek shipyard, the Antares began as a sketch hand-drawn by Jeff Hendricks. The sketch was translated into blueprints by the Seattle-area designer Jacob Fisker-Andersen, a Danish immigrant with a respectable pedigree as a vessel architect. The blueprints were then projected and drafted to full-scale drawings in a barnlike drafting room at Dakota Creek. Every component of the hull--the keel, the ribs, the scantlings (cross sections), bulkheads, fuel tanks, and fish tanks--had a matching life-sized drawing that could be laid out on the floor of the drafting room.

    The paper pieces were then translated into steel. At this stage the 123-foot fishing boat was no different from a child's model. Every component was prefabricated, a puzzle with all the pieces ready to be pressed into place. They had only to be matched against the drawings.

    The keel was laid first. The backbone and balancing point of the boat, it looked like a big steel box--six feet long, four feet wide, thirty inches deep. Once the box was lifted onto stilts the ribs and cross sections were synthesized onto it by the crane operators and welders, the master craftsmen. The ribs were attached, seeming to spring from the keel as one organic sculpture; then the cross sections were lifted into place for welding. It took an entire month for this skeleton to take shape.

    The bulkheads followed, section by section, giving the hull its outward physique. When all but the last piece of steel skin was in place, the workers would gather by the boat. The last piece was called the "whiskey plank," referring to the keg of whiskey that was traditionally opened once a vessel was finally complete. At Dakota Creek a keg of beer substituted for whiskey, and a company softball game usually followed, with the community invited to join.

    "The boat went from being a thing to something real. It developed, blossomed, and grew," Brad Breckenridge, a crane operator, recalled with pride. "I had been fishing on boats in Southeast Alaska. But now I was building boats twice as big. It was just amazing. And the people would come down and watch it all happening. It was wonderful when you saw people you knew, people you went to school with, members of your own family, coming by to check things out."

Jeff Hendricks's boats were built for one thing--efficiency. Most of the space was either for storage or for work, but Hendricks had an eye for detail, too. He picked out the black-walnut trim for the Antares's wheelhouse and three crew staterooms, each of which had built-in clothing drawers, a desk, and high wooden bunk railings to hold a sleeping crewman in during even the worst storms. He chose the color of the interior walls and the Formica counter and galley table himself. He ordered a microwave oven and a VCR and made a note to include all the latest available movie videotapes. The wheelhouse contained all the latest electronic gear--a magnetic compass, a gyrocompass, two automatic pilots, a new sonar system--to give whoever was handling the Antares the best possible chance to navigate, find the crab, and bring them to the dock.

    "Up until that time there was a tradition that you don't build something to experiment with," Gudmundson, a former boatyard welder himself, recalled. "But Jeff Hendricks was different. He was an innovator. At the time of the launch it was a tremendous feeling."

    It took nearly a year from the time Hendricks sketched the Antares until her hull hit the water. Once she was afloat, the crane operators lifted the fourteen-thousand-gallon-deep centerline fuel tanks, the four double-bottom fuel tanks, and six wing tanks--as well as four big crab tanks--into the bowels and set them in place. Before the big Caterpillar diesel engine was installed and workers moved in with miles of electric cable and pipe, she would be measured from various points along the waterline to the deck, accounting for the square mass of hull that lay under the water. This would determine her displacement, or actual weight in the water. It was the first of many baseline measurements that would key the estimates of her inherent stability and dictate where to configure her fuel tanks and holds and how to balance her loads.

    Once the displacement was figured, a series of critical stability tests would be conducted to determine the material strength of the hull and its inherent equilibrium--in other words, the vessel's seaworthiness.

    To underscore the significance of these tests, the Coast Guard had determined that when severe weather or human error was ruled out, material failure, or the lack of a vessel's innate stability, accounted for eighty-five percent of the known reasons vessels were lost at sea. In the 1970s, the losses had been staggering--$60 million annually. An average of one hundred fatalities had been reported every year for the five years preceding the birth of the Antares, and the numbers would climb in the five years following her launch. One out of every two fatalities was linked to capsizing or material failure. And yet for every death whose cause was known, another of unknown causes was categorized by the Coast Guard as vanished.

    The first stability test took a full day. Since there was no nautical equivalent of the wind-tunnel test aeronautical engineers use to measure stress resistance on new aircraft fuselages, boatbuilders relied on a simple test. The technique was ancient and crude, but no one had determined a way to improve it. After a plumb bob was hung on deck, a crane operator loaded thousands of pounds of concrete weights in various locations, moving them farther and farther out on deck. Each time the load landed on deck, the hull would roll with the impact and return to a level position, and an engineer would record the time the vessel took to right itself. Each time the vessel rolled, the lead weight on the plumb would swing in an arc, which measured the angle of the roll.

    This process was called "inclining," and it established a vessel's baseline stability. In other words, it pinpointed where the vessel's true center of gravity lay, its inclination to right itself from a roll, and how severe a heeling the vessel might withstand and still sail on. Everything else about the vessel--the number of crew members and crab pots carried, the amount of fuel and how it was distributed among a dozen tanks of various dimensions, the amount of equipment, supplies, and spare parts--would be determined relative to this measure.

    Once a vessel was inclined, its designer would calculate the guidelines that would make up its "stability letter." This letter, kept on board, recommended how a skipper should load and balance his vessel to avoid a danger point, usually a roll in the vicinity of thirty to thirty-five degrees. Anything beyond that angle might cause a large vessel, particularly a tall one or one with equipment or cargo stacked high on its decks, to act like a building in an earthquake. The more the building sways, the more the center of gravity is raised and the heavier the top becomes, until it reaches a point of toppling under its own weight. The common nautical expression for this phenomenon is capsizing.

    Every stability consideration had an effect on another. With a modern stability report prepared by an expert, a captain with a handheld calculator had merely to plug in the variables--including numerical values for weather and possible icing conditions--to determine how much he could carry on or below deck. The nautical term for this balancing act was trimming, and few captains trimmed exactly from the book or exactly alike. Captains often relied on their experience and instincts as well as how a vessel felt beneath their feet. No stability booklet could account for all the variables. Trimming, then, was about individual seamanship and therefore a great source of pride.

    Even though the safety of a vessel and the lives of its crew rested on stability, a stability letter was not mandatory in 1977, when the Antares was built. In fact, the only mandatory precaution the Coast Guard required of commercial fishermen at that time was that all vessels carry life preservers. Still, the insurance companies preferred stability letters, deeming them cautionary notes from which to assess whether a captain was in compliance when claims of damage or losses were made. Jeff Hendricks had insisted on them, not only because they satisfied the insurance companies, which had far greater influence over his operation than the Coast Guard, but because they satisfied his natural curiosity, too.

    "He spared no forethought," Gudmundson said. "He insisted on safe, secure vessels. And once you were safe and secure in the Bering Sea, you could take that vessel anywhere. Jeff was a highliner."

    When she was finally outfitted and launched, nearly a thousand people turned out to see the Antares take a turn around the harbor. Each speaker that day agreed: A new era in U.S. commercial fishing was being launched. The Hendricks boats were thoroughly modern, the very best examples of what technology and wherewithal could do to make America competitive on the high seas.

    "There was community pride in the air," said Gudmundson, the shipyard owner. Even the traditional purse seiners and gill netters, Francis Barcott among them, tipped their caps as the boat pulled away from the Dakota Creek dock. "It looked like a floating city," one fisherman remembered.

    Even before the newest Hendricks vessel headed north to Alaska, another was being planned. Jeff Hendricks's goal was to have a small but state-of-the-art fleet. Six months after the Antares was launched, the Dakota Creek shipyard began work on a sister vessel.

    The Americus would be cut from the same design and the same steel as the Antares. Duplicating the Antares pattern would allow the Americus to be built in nearly half the time, and, Hendricks reasoned, since her hull would be virtually identical, the costly and time-consuming stability tests would be unnecessary. The Americus would simply use the same stability report that had been calculated for the Antares. There was beauty in efficiency. Efficiency provided competitive advantages in technical ways traditional fishermen had never dreamed of.

    If anyone had any doubts about using one stability report for more than one vessel, the Americus's performance on her maiden voyage in 1978 would have erased them. She filled her crab tanks within the first twenty-eight hours of arriving on the crabbing grounds in the Bering Sea. Each deckhand made $14,000 in just over one day. When the Americus arrived back in Anacortes weeks later, the young men on board had more than $50,000 each and they paid cash for new cars and trucks. Hendricks's next duplicate vessel, the Altair, was all but paid for and nearly completed in the boatyard.

Ironically, Hendricks had not wanted to be a career fisherman, at least not when he was growing up in Ballard, a Scandinavian enclave of Seattle. Never a particularly good athlete or standout scholar, he had hoped be a commercial-airline pilot, but a heart murmur prevented this. In truth, he had already learned about the hard side of fishing from his father, who had come from a small farming-fishing village in Norway and had sailed to the North Pacific in primitive open-deck schooners in pursuit of halibut and scallops. "Hard? You want to know how hard it was?" his father, Sig, had often asked when young Jeff started to complain. "We had to pee on our hands to keep them warm."

    When he was five years old, Hendricks witnessed the harshest consequence of the fishing life. His brother, who was seven, had been playing on the wharf at Fishermen's Terminal in Seattle while their father worked on his fishing vessel. A heavy mast under repair had rolled off a pair of sawhorses and struck his brother a fatal blow to the head. That memory, indelible, would govern every fishing safety consideration in Hendricks's career.

By the time he had graduated from high school, Jeff had fished in Alaskan waters often enough with his father and his uncle Olie to know what life as a fisherman entailed. Instead, he opted for a local community college and perhaps a career in real estate. He also met and married a classmate, a young woman from Anacortes. Her name was Linda Atterberry, one of three sisters from a well-connected Anacortes family.

    Hendricks did go into the real-estate business but at exactly the wrong time. The aerospace industry had taken a downturn, hitting hard the giant Boeing airplane-manufacturing company, the largest employer in the state of Washington. With Boeing hurting, the economy of the entire Puget Sound region suffered, and residential and commercial real estate collapsed. In 1972, when he was twenty-seven, Jeff Hendricks decided to return to commercial fishing.

    The great salmon catches had long since passed when Jeff and Linda Hendricks arrived in Anacortes that year. The smells of brine, creosote, pitch, and sawdust and the high-pitched whine of the mills' saws and the canneries' steam thrusters had all but disappeared as well. There were only two canneries left. There was only one mill. The local salmon-fishing fleet had dwindled, as had the fish in Puget Sound.

    There were many reasons for the decline of the local fishing industry, but most could be linked to the swift advance of technology and the drive for greater profits in a booming market. For example, nearly twenty years earlier, Marlo Puretic, an Anacortes fisherman of Dalmatian descent, quit complaining about the endless days of hauling nets by hand in the cold waters of Puget Sound and fashioned a piece of gear that could do it for him. Puretic designed a power-driven pulley, a simple-looking aluminum shell containing a series of grooved, hard-rubber rotating wheels. These sheaves would receive the lead or messenger line of the seine net and, when power from a diesel engine was applied, move the line up and over and down, pulling everything--cork, rings, web, weights--along.

    The device was called the "Power Block," and a Seattle boat designer immediately snapped up the prototype and put it into production. Not only did it mean that fewer men were needed on the boats, but that they would be doing relatively lighter lifting, too. Moreover, it meant that nets could be dropped deeper and hauled farther than anyone had ever imagined. The results were threefold: The local fleet, armed with greater technology, descended on Puget Sound and nearly fished its waters out within a decade. Concurrently, the device helped open the world's deep waters to fishermen from Alaska to the North Sea. It was easy, then, for the ambitious boat owners to turn their backs on Anacortes and the depleted Puget Sound fishery. Hundreds of local fishermen, who had been hired simply to haul lines by hand, were let go.

    "With the Power Block, guys started taking more chances. You figure you could set and haul quicker," remembered Ivan Suryan, a retired Anacortes fisherman and Francis Barcott's cousin. "In the old days you hired Croatians, even the young boys. They all had worked for their fathers and relatives. They already had experience and knew their jobs and knew how to work. Even with the Power Block, you had to be very tough. But those guys began disappearing in the 1960s and 1970s. You saw a new breed...."

    Still, in its heart Anacortes remained a fishing town when Jeff Hendricks arrived in 1972. A handful of fishermen, those lucky enough to land jobs on the big boats bound for Alaska and the Bering Sea, could still make big money--as much as $100,000 during the three-month crabbing season. The others fished local waters or did what they could to mask their disappointments.

    As the economy of most of the state of Washington was falling in on itself, the king crab around the Kodiak Basin had also all but disappeared. Desperate, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began listening to prospectors who were discovering abundant catches farther out to sea. Jeff Hendricks's uncle, John Jorgensen, a second-generation Norwegian from Seattle, was one of the more successful and enlightened among them. While fishing near the Pribilof Islands in the spring of 1972, Jorgensen made a huge catch of blue king crab. The more-common red king crab were also plentiful. At the end of that prospecting season, more than one million pounds of king crab had been landed in those newly tested waters. Jeff's father, Sig, and his uncle Olie went to the banks and secured the seed money for a new crabbing vessel for Jeff.

    The new crab boom also marked a turning point for U.S. fishermen. The stakes had risen along with the financial risks, and only those willing to up the ante could compete. Private business syndicates formed with the help of banks and corporations. The federal Production Credit Association, modeled after farm-subsidy programs, was soon offering $80 million in low-interest loans to prospective boat owners who might revitalize America's commercial fishing industry.

    The Hendricks family's timing was near perfect, even as other local fishermen were facing economic disasters. For years, native tribes had argued that commercial fishermen had used modern technology to deprive them of salmon and steelhead destined for their fishing grounds--the spawning rivers flowing into Puget Sound where their ancestors had woven nets from dried stalks of stinging nettles, fashioned hooks from hemlock branches, and harvested fish from dugout canoes more than nine thousand years earlier. Tribal lawyers cited a 120-year-old treaty guaranteeing the tribes their fair share of the harvest, and George Boldt, a federal district judge, was sympathetic. In 1974, Judge Boldt reaffirmed the treaty and defined "equal share" as fifty percent of a yearly quota of salmon destined to pass through traditional native fishing grounds. The most important provision stated that the tribes were to be allowed to take the first fifty percent of the total salmon catch. Local gill netters and purse seiners such as Francis Barcott would be forced to sit on the beach until government regulators declared that the native tribes had harvested their quota. The Boldt decision is cursed by local fishermen even today as it undeniably drove thousands of them off Puget Sound, into heavier seas and heavier weather in Alaska.

    The Boldt decision confirmed what Jeff Hendricks had already speculated--that fleet owners who hoped for success would have to fish further out in the Bering Sea, where competition among foreign fleets was already fierce. Hendricks understood the risks and knew success would come not so much through risk-taking as through a shrewdly conceived, disciplined business approach. Fortunately for Hendricks and other U.S. owners, Senator Warren Magnuson, a powerful Democrat from the state of Washington, had been taking seriously complaints from his constituents that foreign fishing fleets backed by their governments had for years been robbing an undercapitalized U.S. industry right at its own shoreline.

    Finally, Magnuson sponsored a law that would prohibit foreign vessels from fishing within two hundred miles of the U.S. coast. This, in effect, would make coveted fishing grounds the exclusive province of the U.S. fleet and would also raise the enforcement responsibilities of the Coast Guard. In addition, the law provided for big loans with little interest to vessel builders, the only collateral being the very vessel the loan financed. The Magnuson Act, signed by President Gerald Ford in 1976, was heralded as the next best thing to rearming America. In fact, the law served a narrow special interest, a group of fishermen-entrepreneurs who would quickly amass the capital to launch bigger and more technically advanced vessels capable of virtually clear-cutting the fishing zones near America's shores. The new law did nothing to lessen the competition for limited fish but only shifted the competition, favoring wealthier boat owners over smaller, subsistence fishermen.

    The very next year, the year the Antares was built, the catch of king crab by American fleets within the two-hundred-mile limit nearly doubled from just two years earlier, for a total value of nearly $86 million. In a very short time Jeff Hendricks would evolve from a reluctant fisherman into a risk-taker, a hybrid hunter-entrepreneur. He would put others--including his own brothers-in-law and neighbors--through the same risks. And together, they would prosper.

When the Antares burned in the spring of 1982, Jeff Hendricks was well on his way to becoming a top fleet owner. During his ten years in the business he had also realized that to succeed, he would still have to sail beyond the two-hundred-mile protected zone and compete with foreign fleets. In order to compete he also would have to adapt.

    For the past six years, he had heard of the success the Russian, Japanese, Norwegian, and even German vessels had achieved in converting from crab catchers to fishing trawlers when the crabbing season was over. These vessels, some as long as two football fields, were dragging trawl nets for pollock, which ran in huge schools near the bottom of the Bering Sea. These fish were not delicacies brought fresh to the docks for restaurants and dining rooms but were processed at sea into frozen fillets for fast-food restaurants or pressed into fish paste for surimi, a Japanese product used to make imitation fish or crabmeat.

    Hendricks realized the potential for profit: A huge biomass of protein, worth more perhaps than salmon and crab combined both in tonnage and dollars, was swimming around in schools in the Bering Sea. He was also aware that foreign fishing vessels had a head start in capitalizing on the emerging global demand. As early as 1979, Hendricks was sketching out conversion plans to give his vessels added value as both crabbers and trawlers capable of fishing nearly year-round. By the time his newest boat, the Altair, went after her first crab early in 1980, he had already committed to becoming one of the nation's first fleet owners to undertake a nearly year-round fishing season.

    "Things would never be the same...." Hendricks would recall. "The old romantic days of the subsistence fishermen who would go up there from Newport, Oregon, or Seattle or even Anacortes were over. You had to diversify."

    Determined to surpass traditional commercial crabbing operators, he dispatched a few promising crew members to Nova Scotia to observe Canadian trawling techniques in the North Atlantic. He negotiated with a Japanese company to receive and process his catch in a joint venture, something the Magnuson Act did not discourage. He ordered new winches and net reels and stern ramps for his vessels. In early 1981 the first trawl-gear fittings were done at Dakota Creek. More than five tons of additional equipment was added to four of his five vessels: the Alyeska, Antares, Americus, and Altair. (Hendricks also owned the Alliance, a 103-foot vessel built solely for crabbing, and, because of its smaller size, did not convert it.) In December of the same year the vessels underwent a second conversion for more trawling gear, adding heavier winches and drive motors, cranes and cables totaling 21.92 tons for each vessel. The vessels were now committed to double duty. Again, Hendricks was in the right place at the right time, and his business instincts were about to pay off.

    By 1982 the king-crab catch around Kodiak Island had fallen to just over one million pounds, and boat owners who were not equipped to fish farther out were put out of business. By 1983, the Kodiak king-crabbing grounds would be closed altogether.

    Hendricks's vessels had already bypassed the Kodiak crabbing grounds. In the spring of 1982, his fleet enjoyed a successful crab season farther out in the Bering Sea. Each vessel had to trim far differently because of the added weight of the trawling gear, but each captain had adjusted well, eliminating a number of crab pots to compensate for the loss of deck space, resorting to new fuel-carrying configurations, and even experimenting with flooding the crab tanks to give their vessels more gentle rides. The nearly thirty tons of added gear had forced the captains to experiment with their own seamanship, and each had come through the season not only without hazard but with a plentiful catch, too.

    The trawling season had been another story, however. Hendricks's crews were inexperienced, the weather had turned bad, and the catch was disappointing, especially compared to the tons the foreign fleets were dragging in. Hendricks knew he and his crews needed more experience, and his vessels needed to add even more equipment.

    There would be another inducement for expanding the capabilities of each vessel by the spring of 1982. For the foreseeable future his organization would be crippled by the loss of the Antares. Hendricks had been counting on her to pull in between $2.5 million and $4 million worth of crab and bottom fish that year. His remaining vessels--the Alyeska, Alliance, Americus, and Altair--would have to take up the slack.

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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2001

    Gripping, Thrilling

    Lost At Sea is a book that you can't put down. Patrick Dillon makes the book seem like you were right there when the Americus and the Altair went down. I would reccomend this book to anyone!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2000

    Compelling--Gripping--Truthful

    Dillion gives a realistic description of the lives and tragedies of the men and families involved in the disappearence of the Americus and Altair. Illustrating how the fishing industry is not just a means of income but a source of family and community pride. Where the loss of life is not viewed as romantic or just a statistic, but a fact that happens everyday.

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