The Happy Apparition of Saint Janet

We are tied up at Baranof Warm Springs. Just before 4 am I hear the Chatham winds off our stern collide with the powerful current of the roiling waterfall beyond our bow. The dock lines are moaning, rubber fenders whining, the timbered float itself protesting. I need retie and protect Rob’s ingenious dock ladder from finally meeting its match and being ground to splinters. I force myself from the berth, up the companionway and onto the dock and with a sad pang realize that the splendid Saint Janet is gone!

Last night as dusk was seriously setting in – it had to have been after 10 pm – a beautiful small wooden seiner had pulled into the bay. It was perhaps 45 feet with classic upward sheer at the bow and a low rounded stern. It was newly painted with a bright white hull with varnished woodwork. Fine Roman lettering in green with yellow highlights announced “Saint Janet – Lopez Island, WA.” A modern flybridge had been added without compromising the classic lines. So completely shipshape: rigging, deck fittings, lines – everything! With its bead-like white and yellow floats coiled carefully over piled nets, Saint Janet looked more like a floating jewelry box.

The seiner’s skiff was released and went ahead so that a man on the dock could receive the lines thrown by the rest of the crew. There was just the right size space at the head of the float. As the crew stood ready with lines, the skipper leaned out of a window on the flybridge and calmly told each member exactly what to do. With the rush of snow melt playing with the bow, coordination was of the essence. I’d guess that the three youngest – two men and a woman – were green and only the skipper and mate had fished previous seasons.

When all lines were around the toe rail and Saint Janet was edging in, I asked one of the crew how long they’d been fishing. “We started at 4am,” he said jubilantly. The warm soak in the hot tubs that their skipper has so carefully planned would be a fitting finish to their day. I bid them a good warm soak and went to bed. In the morning I hoped to talk about their beautiful ship from their beautiful island so far away.

The skipper of the Saint Janet is clearly special. All day I have been reading Bering Sea Blues, where author-commercial fisherman Joe Upton talks about skippers and their crews with these words:

“When the seiners came in to deliver their fish to the Sidney, there were always one or two skippers who wanted to know who had been the high boat for that day. If it wasn’t them, they were clearly unhappy. You also sensed in their crews that an unhappy Type A skipper often makes for an unhappy crew. And then there were others, usually good steady producers, whose boats and crews just seemed to be together and happy. It was almost like the zen of commercial fishing: you knew that it was going to be cold, shitty and dangerous, but there was an attitude, maybe even a consciousness, that would enable you to get through it easier.”

Soon three new seiners come into the bay for rest and recuperation. F/V Kalleste drops anchor, Archangel rafts to her starboard and eventually Sea Breaker ties up on her port side. Tethered alongside or at the stern are their three inboard diesel skiffs. So you have on one anchor a whole fleet, a fishing village of fifteen people, in this case all related first by blood, secondly by friendship. The skiffs come and go bringing tired crew members to the docks, either to soak in the tubs at the bathhouse or in the sulpher springs, hotter and higher up the mountain.

Suddenly in early evening, a commotion brings everyone out. Two young men have jumped in and are swimming toward the docks, a most unwise move as 50º waters cause rapid hypothermia. A skiff driven by one of the skippers follows. Shaken, the driver stops to pull in a nephew and meets a cousin at the dock. “I didn’t think they would do it,” he says. Both seem fine: we tell them to run for the hot tubs at the top of the dock: they seem to have forgotten about them, mental fogginess begin one of the sad effects of hypothermia. As they sprint off, we follow them with our eyes until they safely reach the bath house. Relieved, the skipper take the skiff back to get them warm clothes.

Although there are seine openings only on Sundays and Thursdays, these boats will be out for two weeks, rather than spending the fuel to return to Sitka. It looks like this crew will benefit from the time to learn, get into a routine and figure out how they will work together.


1 Response to “The Happy Apparition of Saint Janet”

  1. 1 Linda Sails July 11, 2012 at 7:49 am

    I love how you bring in the local story and make the event personal. excellent writing. Only wish I could have come and joined you.

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