The Viking II

June 5, 2010
By MeganN BRONZE, Beaverton, Oregon
MeganN BRONZE, Beaverton, Oregon
2 articles 0 photos 1 comment

It was the November of 1981, and it had been one of those miserable winters that made a man wish his crabbing crew worked off the coast of Chile instead of in the frozen Alaskan seas. This particular night was cold. It was twenty below zero, but felt like fifty below in the brutal wind. The crew of the 135 foot M/V Viceroy had reached 200 miles northeast of the Alaskan Pribilof islands. Jim had already been working upwards of ten hours that day, alternatively hauling up and tossing out giant crab pots while chipping ice during spare moments in twenty minute increments. If they stayed out longer than twenty minutes at a time, their lungs would get begin to freeze and they would stop breathing. However, if they let the ice sit too long, the boat would become so top heavy that even a small wave could roll them over. A person wouldn't stay alive in the water for more than fifteen minutes in a storm this violent. That's why the men tied themselves to the railing when they took sledgehammers and steel pipes to the ice, tossing dislodged chunks over the side, only to see it all replaced after the next wave rocked them, covering the boat with the ocean spray that froze immediately against the steel of the ship.

Despite the storm, spirits were up because it had been a good haul. The holds below the deck, between 150 and 400 square feet each, were full of Opilio crab, weighing the boat down as they finally turned back toward Dutch Harbor. The work was perilous and exhausting, but the pay was unmatchable. Eighteen hour shifts didn't seem so bad when you pulled in thousands of dollars for a four week trip.

This storm, however, would soon end Jim's crabbing career, no matter how well it paid. All night, the six-man crew fought the monster of the ocean, always threatening to take them down with the next brutal wave. The storm dulled their senses, allowing them to focus only on what was directly in front of them. There was nothing to notice anyway. Not much changed from one night to the next when commercial crabbing. There was only the blackness of the sea and sky, the whiteness of the ice, and the grayness of everything else. The wailing shriek of the tempestuous wind tossed around the shouts of the crew. Rain pounded viciously against the steel ship as if punishing the deckhands. Inside the muffled clamor, the men worked perpetually, losing track of time and sleep.

The process was unchanging (chip, haul, toss, break, continue) until the distress call came in from their sister ship, the M/V Viking II, on which worked three of Jim's close friends and three other men he had met in passing. The other crew wasn't faring as well in the storm, and they had lost engine power about fifty miles from the Viceroy. Jim and the others pulled in the remaining pots and immediately set off toward the other boat. The men prepared to meet the Viking II and assist them back to harbor, stopping their grueling routine for the first time in hours. The sea had attacked with a vengeance that night, beating them from every direction with thrashing, icy waves, but they couldn’t have imagined the sight they would find at the last known coordinates of the boat. Two empty life rafts floated where a ship should have been.

The crew never found out what had been the final catalyst of the disaster: a rogue wave bigger than the boat or the uncontrolled collection of ice becoming too heavy; it might have been a combination of both that rolled the massive steel trap over, dumping its contents into the frozen black depths of the sea and allowing it to be swallowed by the turbulent waters.

As soon as the Coast Guard arrived they started a systematic grid search to find and recover the sunken crew. Six hours had passed by the time Jim and the rest of the Viceroy men pulled two frozen corpses out of the wreckage. The Coast Guard found the other three bodies, as well as one survivor they flew into Anchorage while the Coast Guard medics and Viceroy crew tried to resuscitate the blue men.

The Coast Guard took the bodies, leaving them to return to shore and unload their haul. Twenty, thirty, maybe even forty hours had passed with no sleep when they heard over the radio, while unloading the crab, that the one survivor was dead.
At some point, everyone's luck runs out.

The author's comments:
I wrote this piece for a school project. It is the story of my step-father's last commercial crabbing trip. It opened my eyes to the dangers of the profession and helped me learn more about him.

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