Dead Reckoning: Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on Its High Seas

Dead Reckoning: Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on Its High Seas

by Dave Atcheson
Dead Reckoning: Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on Its High Seas

Dead Reckoning: Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on Its High Seas

by Dave Atcheson


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This is the true story of a journey to a seaside town and the always unpredictable torrent of dark escapades that accompany a life at sea. It’s a story of a world peopled by those who often live on the frayed edges of society, who shun the world in which most people thrive. It’s a story in which college students and “fish hippies” work in canneries alongside survivalists, rednecks, religious freaks, and deckhands with damning secrets in dangerous waters, driven by the need to feed an insatiable appetite for adventure.

This is the heart of the world Atcheson found himself in at the age of eighteen. Having never even seen the ocean, he took his first job on the Lancer with Darwin Wood, a man so confounding, so complex and so frightening, that it’s hard to believe Atcheson walked away from that job unscathed. Forced to buddy up with a murderer in order to cope, Atcheson began to question his deeply ingrained ideas of success and status. The resulting conflict would finally resolve itself fifteen years later, in the least likely of places: on the Bering Sea, aboard a boat in peril, during a night of terror that would reshape the lives of everyone involved.

Reminiscent of The Perfect Storm and Into the Wild, Dead Reckoning is not only an intimate look at life at sea, but also an insider’s view into one of Alaska’s small communities, and the myriad of upstarts, dropouts, and rogues that color its landscape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628736816
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 07/01/2014
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Dave Atcheson is the author of Hidden Alaska: Bristol Bay and Beyond and the guidebook Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. He has written for a variety of periodicals, from Outdoor Life to Boys' Life, and is a frequent contributor to Alaska Magazine and past contributing editor for Fish Alaska Magazine. He lives in Sterling, Alaska.

Read an Excerpt




I'd been in town far too long. Six months of slinging mochas to high schools girls and lattes to local business people was getting old. I'd tried to stay put before — at one point even made it to assistant manager, learned everything there was to know about roasting, brewing, and serving coffee. The job was a good fit, at least in the winter, because I like coffee — love it, as a matter of fact. Yet when the weather would start to turn and I'd hear the fishing was good, or later on when someone would call and tell me how much money they were bringing in, it was inevitable: I'd have to catch the next boat out and reap the rewards of the end of the season. Living by the tides, picking fish, not returning to my recurring role at the coffee shop until the fishing was long over and my earnings nearly spent.

One of my colleagues at the coffee shop told me about the job on the Iliamna Bay. In the summer, Marion fished a setnet site with her partner, but like me, she pumped shots of espresso to make it through the winter. She had intended to take the job herself but at the last minute decided not to. She referred me to Karl, who, like a lot of off-duty and out-of-work fishermen, hung out at the joint for hours on end. He was familiar to me — a family man in his early thirties with dusty hair. He owned a local setnet operation and made money in the interim deckhanding for halibut boats. Apparently, for the last several years, he worked as the skiff man — kind of an upper-tier position running a small boat that attaches to one end of the net when a seiner (in this case the Iliamna Bay) encircles a school of fish.

Like most jobs as deckhands, one often hears of them through the grapevine, and Karl was my contact. Karl talked to the captain, and afterward almost assured me I'd have the last spot on the boat. Of course, there was still the process of the introduction: the ceremonial meeting of the skipper. This process is much less formal than a regular job interview; questions and answers are usually traded over a cup of coffee or a drink, and the decision to hire based entirely upon the captain's gut. While today many herring fisheries are co-opted among all the participating boats, herring fishing in the late nineties was one of the last free-for-alls, and although I'd previously worked aboard tenders, which mainly entailed sitting around waiting before pumping fish aboard to be hauled, this time I was looking forward to being in the thick of it. Seining was the real battle for big money. To the uninitiated, it might resemble naval combat directly out of a World War II movie — a contest in which boats vie for position, usually in a small bay, while nearly as many spotter planes (one- or two-passenger aircraft circling clockwise), relay information such as where the schools of fish are and precisely where nets should be set. Meanwhile, tenders — the large collection vessels that transport fish back to the canneries — loom in the distance. Giant and lumbering, they wait for their assigned fishing boat to finish making a set; when this happens, the tenders carefully motor in, negotiating a web of outstretched nets, and sometimes a maze of rocks, in order to pump aboard — if the fishing is good — hundreds of tons of herring. Mass quantities of this small fish are then shipped to shore- and ocean-based processing facilities throughout the state of Alaska, and later on to Japan, where a premium is paid for the herring's golden caviar.

What made the process all the more exciting was the anticipation. It might take almost a week to reach the fishing grounds, and then days or even weeks while the Department of Fish and Game took samples to see if the roe was "ripe." The Department walked a tightrope, trying to determine the exact time the fish were ready to spawn and the eggs would be the tastiest. That's when they would call for an opening and the insanity would begin. A countdown and the jockeying for position, and then just twenty minutes of fishing! — enough time for fishermen to make just one set with their 600-foot seines. With the possibility of the herring quota being filled after only a couple of openings, it was one of the biggest gambles in fishing. Once a certain number of herring were caught you were done, your boat's chances for the year used up, along with all its supplies and thousands upon thousands of gallons of fuel, not to mention the crew's incredible outlay of time and effort.




It was a two-hour drive south through a string of villages. Some had names that derived from ancient native dialects — Kasilof and Ninilchik. Others, like Anchor Point, were named by early explorers, in its case by Captain Cook, who happened to lose an anchor there. None were completely free from the grip of winter. Patches of dirty snow clung to the ground amidst the standing water and mud of "break-up" — the drab half-frozen period, and Alaska's fifth season that lingers long after winter and precedes spring.

Although it was initially liberating to leave the ties of my regular, albeit intermittent job, slowly a tightness began to settle deep in the pit of my stomach. The feeling of unease reached its pinnacle as I rounded the ridge above the town of Homer — the surrounding mountains and incredible stretch of open ocean suddenly presenting itself in its untamed vastness. There was nothing sinister or foreboding about this tense feeling. In fact, it was nothing out of the ordinary — just the same unrest that always presented itself as a prelude to any long voyage. And in no way did it resemble fear. After all, I'd worked on many boats and had my share of "Oh Shit Moments," and although I was well aware of what could happen out there, I hadn't quite reached the point where I really thought it could happen to me.

What was happening now was something less dramatic and more immediate: a little touch of apprehension based on what I knew was coming. The complete loss of freedom, the tight quarters, the stink of dirty socks, and the unknown — specifically, the personalities I'd have to deal with. When aboard a boat, crammed into a 300-square-foot cabin with three other people, a deckhand must be hyperaware of his crewmates and their quirks and must be that much more considerate, or living together — or more importantly, working together — just won't work. Most good skippers must have a bit of the armchair psychologist in them. While finding someone hardy enough to handle the physical labor required is critically important, they also look for deckhands of even temperament — at least while they are at sea. It doesn't matter how much work a deckhand does; a bad attitude can quickly infect an entire crew, causing everything to unravel and work to become even more arduous, sometimes even to the point of grinding to a near standstill. But maintaining an even temperament at sea is part of the reason why fishermen have the reputation for such explosive behavior once on shore. Even the most mellow, well-adjusted deckhand must have a release.

Rounding the top of that hill, all I could do was try to swallow my tension and hope for the best. After all, I hardly knew Karl and hadn't even met Brad, the other deckhand. And I'd only been introduced to our skipper, Tim, once, and it was difficult to gauge just where he stood on the dictatorial scale. Every skipper is different, every boat a world unto itself. A boat is a small self-contained empire run by an exalted ruler — some benevolent and others not.

No, this usual flurry of nerves welled-up every time, fueled by past experience, dating back to my first boat, the Lancer, after which it was a wonder I ever went back aboard another boat and out to sea again.




It had been nearly thirteen years since I'd gone out on my first trip, and walking down the dock in Homer toward Tim's boat I was still wondering — did I want to be a fisherman? For lack of anything else I was, and despite the knot of nerves in my stomach, at least this time I wasn't entering a completely alien world. After all these years I even looked the part, wearing broken-in Xtra-tuf boots, Grundens slung over my shoulder. More than that, I knew what I was getting into and that I could do the job. I also knew many of the other fishermen. It was very early in the season and there were only locals on the docks. Most were family men or second- or third-generation fishermen, some who skippered the boats their fathers had owned. Most were professionals and could not afford to live — or had lived through and recovered from — the reckless, easy-come-easy-go life that had been the downfall of many first time fishermen.

I made my way to the Iliamna Bay, where it was lined up with other seiners. At forty-two feet, it was definitely not the largest of the bunch. It would indeed be a tight journey, first to an opening in Cook Inlet before a five day haul out west, through the Aleutian Islands and on to the Bering Sea, all on our way to Bristol Bay. The Iliamna Bay was an older vessel, but in tip-top shape. I would later find out that the skipper, Tim, was an inveterate tinkerer and onetime mechanic, who took great pride in the condition of his boat.

I first saw Karl stacking some line on deck, and then Tim — no doubt fresh from checking the engine. With barely time for a greeting, I joined the flow of work, helping Karl tote gear from Tim's truck onto the boat and finishing up various duties on deck. We stopped briefly when Brad arrived with another truckload of various tools and dry goods from last season that Tim had stored in his shop over the winter.

Brad was a bit younger than the rest of us, probably in his late twenties, with shoulder length hair and a freshly shaven face. He had worked on Tim's boat for most of last year's salmon season. Fairly new to Alaska and to fishing, he hadn't experienced anything like the insanity of herring fishing but was looking forward to it. He was bright and amiable, as was Karl, making me immediately feel silly for all the anxiety I'd felt on the drive down. But there was good reason for it, dating back to that first trip on the Lancer.

* * *

In the afternoon, after a break for lunch, we crew members set off together to run last minute errands. It was a group effort, shopping, roving the aisles, looking for anything and everything, from fruit to cookies, to enormous, bulk-food boxes of Cheez-Its — Karl's sworn remedy for the settling of stomachs on the roughest seas — absolutely anything we might crave and that might make our journey and our confinement over the next six to eight weeks as comfortable as possible.

"I always dread taking off when I'm sitting at home," said Karl at one point, "but once we start gearing up and getting ready I can't help but get excited." He had become more animated than I'd ever seen him in the coffee shop. There, he was so much more formal — especially when his wife and kids were with him — not really "one of the guys." But the camaraderie and the anticipation had begun to build in all of us, especially Brad, who would be heading north for the first time. "I can't wait to get out and see the coast," he exclaimed more than once. His enthusiasm was infectious, and my nerves were now completely quelled, replaced by this sudden bond — this compatibility and easy-going anticipation; it almost felt as if we were buddies preparing for a camping trip, which made all the work flow that much smoother.

However, I was caught a bit off guard when at the last minute we ducked into the liquor store. Most of the boats I'd worked on had been dry — no alcohol. My surprise must have registered.

"Tim's okay with it," Karl immediately explained. "As long as we keep it low key, and it's only when we're anchored up someplace calm after the work's done."

"And you're only allowed one," added Brad, though Karl gave him a look like that rule might be bent occasionally. "No, really," Brad continued. "Tim's pretty strict about that."

"As long as you don't get caught," said Karl, with a mischievousness that seemed out of character.

Not sure what to say, I shrugged it off and pitched in some money for beer and a couple of bottles of whiskey. Though I was as likely to tip a few as the next guy, I'd seen enough to know how quickly it could all turn around out there, even in calm water, and I certainly didn't want to have to rely on anyone under the influence.

Karl must have sensed my concern. "No worries," he said. "We're pretty careful. Tim's probably one of the most safety-conscious skippers out there."

He was right. There had been a big push by the Coast Guard and commercial fishing groups to make the industry safer, but Tim had other reasons to take it seriously.

The next morning I saw firsthand just how seriously Tim took safety when he gathered his crew around the galley table for a briefing followed by a walk-through drill. Tim was a big guy, balding, with a full, wide face, not tall but somewhat stout and, at least on the exterior, completely sure of himself — which a skipper should be if they are going to run a boat. It's a trait you want to see in your captain, someone who is confident in their abilities but not cocky. He was good natured and easygoing, but resolute as he listed where we each needed to go and what our duties would be if a man fell overboard, if there was a fire, or if the boat was going down. We discussed how to deploy the life raft, who would grab the EPIRB — the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon that automatically signals the Coast Guard — and when to don our bright orange survival suits. Bulky, buoyant, and insulating, these full-body "Gumby suits," while nearly impossible to move around in on land will keep you floating and alive in the water for many hours — hopefully long enough to be rescued. We even took them out to wax the zippers, and for kicks tested just how fast we could crawl into them, the goal being under a minute. It was good to go through these precautions, but we all hoped we'd never have to put any of them into effect.

* * *

Compared to my early days as a fisherman, things were really kind of low-key on the Iliamna Bay, and not just because I knew how to tie a knot and stack a seine. It went deeper than that, a connection I'd developed to the sea, perhaps, and to these guys — even though we'd just met. Seining is like being part of a team, the way you have to work fast and in unison, anticipating your teammates' moves when you lay out the gear, even the way tasks are delegated, the skipper controlling the flow, sometimes barking orders like a coach.

We all felt like this was a good fit, that we would work well together. It was obvious in the free flow of conversation as we went about menial tasks, passing the time with stories of how we'd arrived at this point, finding ourselves here on the deck of an Alaskan fishing boat. So as is often the case with fishermen, happenstance had landed us here, and once again I was astonished at the strange course life sometimes takes and how serendipity often dictates where we go and where we end up. In this instance, Karl and I had been steered on such similar paths, albeit his had begun a bit earlier. Karl and I had grown up not far from one another in upstate New York and had each made our way north between semesters at nearby campuses.

"It was really weird," said Karl, explaining the circumstances of how he first arrived in Alaska. "I'd flown into Anchorage with a friend from school and we just started hitchhiking, not sure where we were going. Some guy does a U-turn, crossing traffic, going out of his way to pick us up. I guess he wants some company, says he's going to Homer, suggests we go, and he even gets us a job on the slime line at the old Whitney-Fidalgo plant. Then, not long after that we strike up a conversation with this random guy and he happens to be from Plattsburgh, my home town. Out of all these people hanging around he happens to know my family and is good friends with my older brother, and he takes us to Clam Gulch and gets us on with the Osmars, setnetting."

"Funny how things happen," I said. "With me it was a guy at the Buffalo Folk Festival. A buddy and I were planning to take off as soon as school was finished for the year, and out of thirty thousand people at the concert, who should we sit next to but my buddy's long-lost childhood friend who happens to work every summer in the cannery in Seward. So that's where we were going."

As it turned out, we had both worked summers before moving north for good, imported our girlfriends from New York, fished and worked odd jobs, before eventually finding ourselves here together on the deck of the Iliamna Bay. And now we were preparing for an adventure that would not only continue our journeys, but would be a defining moment in our intersecting lives.


Excerpted from "Dead Reckoning"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Dave Atcheson.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Andy Hail ix

Introduction xii

Preface xv

1 Time to Flee (Into Battle) 1

2 The Usual Nerves 4

3 Welcome Aboard 6

4 Alaska or Bust 11

5 Spit Rat 15

6 Second Thoughts and Second Chances 17

7 A Great Opportunity 23

8 Gearing Up 25

9 So You Want to Be a Fisherman? 27

10 Confidence and Nerve 31

11 Setting Sail 35

12 False Start 39

13 The Old Man and the Sea 42

14 All the Wrong Moves 48

15 Making Ends Meet 50

16 Better than Prison 55

17 Ignoring Omens 62

18 Just Like a Real Fisherman 66

19 A Good Omen and an Early Lesson 74

20 Like the Pros We Are 77

21 Oh Shit Moments and Miracles 86

22 Attempted Piracy on the High Seas 90

23 Fish, Bears, Whiskey, and the Deal of a Lifetime 93

24 The Goods Are Odd 106

25 An Unwelcome Truth 109

26 The Onset of SWS and the Larger Whole 112

27 Cruising to the Sound (of the Engine) 116

28 The Deckhand from Hell 122

29 What Gives? 125

30 Playing the Odds 133

31 The Cycle of Life 138

32 The Edge of the Abyss 146

33 Sometimes Catching Them, That's the Easy Part 149

34 Cutting Losses 154

35 Hitting the Fan 160

36 Aftermath 167

37 The Long Voyage Home 175

38 New Beginnings 182

Epilogue 186

Acknowledgments 201

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