The worst part about working on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska is waking up from a brief nap between shifts and realizing it is still the same day it was when you fell asleep. You remember, with horror, you still have another 10-hour shift to work before the day comes to an end. On top of that, the sun barely rises in the winter, so the entire thing tends to seem like one long drawn-out, dark nightmare that never ends.
I wasn’t made for this kind of work. A college dropout just trying to make some money so I could restart my life, I lacked the rural neglect that seemed to make all of my co-workers harder than month-old bread and surly as hell. I only got into commercial fishing because an uncle had said it was what he called “cocaine money” — and that he could get me on a boat. Being a 145-pound weakling who could barely muster a sparse lip of stubble who thought finishing a 5K was a nearly impossible physical task with having absolutely no commercial fishing experience, I couldn’t have been a worse job candidate, but I somehow, by some miracle, got hired to fish on the Erika Lynn vessel.
I would quickly find out why I was hired. The captain of the ship, a grizzled man who lit one Winston with the other during all waking hours, had spent the past three years in a bottle of Wild Turkey. His wife had left town with his kids and ran off with another man that he perpetually referred to as a “long hair” and apparently this resulted in him losing the scent for halibut we were supposed to be catching. In our rare downtime, he would pass the time inhaling smokes and reading about the only two things he seemed to care about: viciously hardcore porn and gun magazines. Because of all this wonderful environment, pretty much no one would work for him anymore.
The halibut haul had been so light for the first couple of months, despite working 20 hours a day like a beaten dog in frigid temperatures, I was only going to take home a paycheck similar to one I got working part-time at Subway in high school. This realization made every wave of cold seawater that would slap me across my face as it crested the deck of our 30-foot vessel sting that much more.
To make matters even worse, I did not have a single soul to confide in. The other deckhand, Jeremy, was well-meaning, but a tragically stupid man of about 45 who mostly told me about how I should be getting young pussy every night. This was especially annoying since I knew he had gotten married at the age of 22 to the first woman who would ever have sex with him while sober. The first mate, Brett was an Iraq war veteran who was never really mean, but was simply too scary to ever really interact with. He had this terrifying habit where he would kill time on deck by picking the calluses off of his fingertips with a Victorinox knife and eat them. The one time I ever really had a conversation with him, he told me about how he used to keep his nails long in Iraq so he could literally rip out an enemy’s throat with his hands if it came down to hand-to-hand combat. He said this is a tone that heavily suggested that he had done it at least once.
Despite the overall gloom of the season, this night should have been a joyous occasion. A rare eight-hour break in the fishery to let some of the halibut run escape to freedom served as the perfect time for us to enjoy the “victory steaks” we had stashed in the freezer as a planned treat towards the end of the season. The perpetual flooding of my mouth with saliva that developed as soon as I could smell the things searing on the stove served as a serious indicator my body was in dire need of the comfort of some protein that wasn’t from the sea.
Things started to go downhill from here. All of the biggest problems of the season all seemed to collide at once in a perfect storm. Captain Bligh’s permanent glaze of Wild Turkey had led to him neglecting the boat in the off-season, so the electrical system was breaking down about once a day, plunging us into helpless darkness. It happened again just as the steaks were reaching a perfect medium-rare. I didn’t care at the moment at first. I would eat my steak in candlelight as if we were at a romantic French bistro, but it was not to be. The chop of the furious winter sea that had been torturing us sent a wave just as Jeremy was finishing up the steaks. The sudden tilt of the galley and Jeremy’s lack of coordination led to the steak flying off of the flat top stove and onto the floor that was flecked with sludge, fish scales and Copenhagen-tinged loogies. The sickening seasoning instantly coated all of the steaks like a pan sauce.
“You gotta be shitting me Jeremy,” I cried out in true heartbreak.
Jeremy scrambled to the floor as the boat righted and collected the now filthy steaks.
“I’ll wash them,” Jeremy assured.
“The water’s out with the electricity down genius.”
“Then I’ll wash em up with paper towels. I don’t give a shit, just go grab the guys and tell em it’s ready.”
My assignment of rousting our captain and Brett from the bowels of the ship down in the engine room was not a pleasant one. It meant that I had to venture back out into the cold of the exposed deck in my long johns and climb down into the bowels of the ship to relay information to the two saltiest people I had ever met in my life.
I wasn’t looking forward to seeing either of their bearded faces when I walked out onto the exposed deck and saw something that made me stop on the icy slick of the deck.
There appeared to be a beacon of blue light bobbing in the swirling darkness of the waves that churned just off the side of the boat. I focused in on the scene for a few moments and could make out the glimmer of bright orange cutting through fog. It was an unmistakable sight for someone who worked on a fishing boat – a survival suit bobbing like a fishing lure on the water.
“Hey. Hey. Hey,” I screamed out at the waves as I sprinted to the side of the boat where the suit was.
Closer to the sea, I could confirm it was a survival suit and a man’s eyes appeared to be staring out from the head of the thing. I reached down to the floor where we had a long hook usually reserved for pulling in nets and jabbed it out into the waves. However, the man in the suit didn’t seem to make any moves towards the safety rod and despite screaming towards the galley for help from Jeremy, I remained helpless on the deck by myself.
A fresh wave obscured the suit, but the sudden pressure that was coming back from the end of the rod told me that something had been hooked. My calls to Jeremy quickly turned to grunts of exertion as I used all of my limited might to pull in the rod and whatever was latched to it on end.
With my last ounce of strength, I fell backwards and pulled the rod back with me. On my ass, I watched the orange mess of the suit tumble over the edge of the deck and land hard at my feet. From my seat on the cold steel of the deck, I could see the glass of two eyes staring back at me from the only opening in the suit.
I had failed to catch my breath, but I jumped up onto my feet and squatted next to the man in the suit. I peered down into the two little eyes that stared blankly out of the suit.
There appeared to be no signs of life.
“Dead,” was the only word that came out Brett’s mouth after checking the vitals of the swollen, gray body.
Stripped of his survival suit, the cold dead of the man lied there on the deck clad in his soaked white long johns with his thin brown hair slicked back behind his sunken eyes. He looked to be about 50, flecks of gray just starting to make appearances in his facial hair, the wrinkles upon his forehead exaggerated, I could see the faint outlines of tattoos upon his chest through his wet long john shirt.
“Where do we put him?” Jeremy asked the group.
“Throw his ass back over the deck,” the captain puffed back.
I was used to the calloused cold of these rigid men, but even I was shocked by the captain’s frigid stance on the dead man at our feet.
“Come on,” I spouted out.
The captain glanced over at me with dismissive eyes, but Brett delayed his first puff of a freshly-lit Winston so he could interrupt the captain.
“We aren’t doing that,” Brett spoke up. “Guy’s a fisherman just like us. We aren’t letting him get turned into fucking seal shit. We’re taking him in once we get the boat running. He’ll get a proper burial.”
No one was going to try and disagree with Brett. The captain silently slunk off back to the engine room and Jeremy and I stood silently while the former Marine finished his cigarette and tossed it into the waves.
“You guys go get that body into the mud room. I’m gotta go fix the engine.”
The mud room was a cramped little room where we would change out of our deck gear before we entered the galley. It had room for just about four bodies. There were two living and one dead in the room when Jeremy and I drug the body in placed it face up in a corner. The two of us tackled the horrific task of putting the wet body back into the survival suit. We were thankfully able to do it in one swift motion and then zipped the thing back up.
“I got the steaks all cleaned,” Jeremy said.
“You can have mine. I don’t really have much of an appetite anymore for some reason. Wake me up when they get the engine running again,” I said and walked back into the galley.
Back in the recesses the bunk room, I stripped off my wet long underwear in the light of a single flashlight and slipped into the comforts of my sleeping bag, my body shivering in the scratchy material of the inside of the sleeping sack. I flicked the flashlight off and drifted off into the first restful sleep that I had gotten in days.
The world was still dark when I awoke. I had no idea how long I had been asleep as the power outage had knocked out my alarm clock, but it didn’t feel like that long.
Groggy and completely unaware of what day or time it may be, I stumbled out of the bunk room and through the galley. Out the back window of the galley, I notice a faint hue of daylight upon the horizon. The handful of daylight hours would be coming soon. This told me that I had probably been asleep for quite a while. I was instantly terrified that the rest of the crew was going to be pissed about my long slumber, but the power of the boat didn’t appear to be restored, so it probably didn’t matter.
Figuring I should check on the progress in the engine room as quickly as possible I resisted the lingering smell of the steak in the galley and headed towards the back deck. This would require going through the tight expanse of the mud room that was serving as a temporary morgue. I held my breath before I stepped in, hoping to avoid exposing myself to the smell of death for the first time in my life.
I closed my mouth, but not my eyes while traversing through the mud room and was glad that I did, because I noticed something that made my blood run colder than the Bering Sea that our vessel was bobbing up and down in. The survival suit we had put the body back in rested on the ground empty. A trail of cloudy water led from the empty suit back into the galley.
I stood in the mud room for a few moments, trying to collect all of my shocked senses before just putting my shoulder down and bursting through the galley door. My first sight inside the galley would be another shot of ice water to my blood.
Slumped over the dining table of the galley was Jeremy. His throat slit, his head slammed down upon a shattered plate of half-eaten steak, his blood spilled across the broken ceramic plate, across the wooden table and down upon the floor where it pooled next to his dirty boots.
My body seemed to know that I had little more time to absorb the scene and when I heard the sounds of rustling come from the bathroom that lied between the bunk room and the galley, I dashed into the mud room and then out to the back deck barefoot and barely dressed.
The thought of the captain’s king’s ransom of firearms he housed up in the captain’s quarters washed over my brain when I jumped out onto the deck and slipped on the icy frost of the cold steel. I had never fired a gun before, but the thought of grasping one in my hands seemed like the only defense I could muster at the moment. My heart and brain raced with equal fervor as I scrambled back to my feet and heard that the rustling that had been in the bathroom had moved to the mud room.
I clumsily made my way to my feet, jumped up onto the ladder that led to the top deck and the wheelhouse where the captain kept his quarters and his impressive stash of weapons. Once on the top deck I dashed towards the captain quarters door and stopped dead in my tracks once I saw the thing wide open, the flimsy door flapping in the wind.
Positioned in his captain’s chair with his throat slit much in the same way that Jeremy was down in the galley was my now former boss. Apparently, he thought firearms would be his solution to the problem as well as he still clutched a pistol that pointed helplessly at the floor in his death grip.
I knew that the captain kept his impressive bounty of weapons in front of where his feet would sit when he sat up in his captain’s chair commanding the boat against the waves. I had seen them before out of the corner of my eye when I had had conversations with him up in the wheelhouse, always feeling uneasy that he could quickly reach down and choose from about 10 different guns to blow my head off with.
I put my head down, ducked into the captain quarter’s and dropped down to my hands and knees at the feet of the dead captain. I couldn’t really see in the nearly-non-existent light, but I was able to grab hold of what felt like a handgun to me.
Just as I wrapped my fingers around the thing, the feeling of something dripping upon the back of my neck caused me to jump and I threw my body around, gun in hand, to get a face-to-face with the frozen mug of the captain. I slapped my hand upon the back of my neck and whipped it back around to see that some drops of his blood had just splattered down upon me.
I screamed and tore out of the captain’s quarters just as a stiff gust of wind crested the top deck and nearly knocked me down. When the gust left my vicinity I heard the faint sound of a splash of water off the west side of the deck. I took off in the direction of the sound, where the ladder down to the west side of the back deck resided.
As soon as I finished climbing down the ladder I saw Brett standing in the developing light of the day. He stood there staring out into the waves of the west stroking his beard and looking like a mix between a UFC fighter and a philosopher.
“Brett,” the name tumbled out of my heaving mouth.
Brett didn’t say anything at first, he just pointed out into the waves.
“Can you see that light?” he asked, pointing out what looked to be a tiny beacon bobbing in the morning fog.
I could see it. It looked just like what I had seen when I brought the body onboard, a little blue LED light twinkling in the dark waves.
“That fucker tried to cut me in the engine room. I tried to tackle his ass, but he ran up here. I’m guessing he jumped his ass over the edge before I got here,” Brett mumbled so calmly it was fairly creepy.
“He killed Jeremy and the captain,” I said in hysterics.
“Yeah, but he didn’t fucking kill me.”
Brett stared out at the light for a little while longer and then spit off the side of the deck. He turned around, revealing a long gash that cut through his white long johns. He walked past me silently and headed off in the direction of the engine.
“Come on, we need to finish getting this piece of shit going again so we get the fuck out of here.”
I casually answered Brett, but didn’t immediately follow him to the engine room. My eyes stayed on that little LED light, a break in the waves revealing that it was attached to the same bright orange survival suit that had come aboard with the body earlier. My eyes lingered on the thing wondering about the human contents in the suit as it drifted away into the horizon.
I followed Brett into the engine room once I saw that suit finally leave my vision. We got the boat running again after a couple more hours of work and took it right into port.
The cops didn’t believe our story when we told it to them and I cannot entirely blame them. There were no recent reports of any fisherman going overboard in survival suits. No one turned up in a survival suit in the days following our incident and no one else reported anything similar to what happened to us or even seeing someone floating in a survival.
Brett and I were held by the police in the miniscule village of Dutch Harbor for months as they tried to investigate the incident, but to no avail. After a long, torturous stay in a dilapidated motel at the edge of a tiny frozen village where I spent most of my time avoided the Alaskan press that was hounding me, they let us go. My lawyer told me they wanted to try us for the crime, but could not find a single shred of evidence against us and Brett’s giant gash was a nice piece of evidence in his favor. For me, my lawyer flat out told me the cops simply thought I was too soft to commit such a vicious and personal crime.
Thinking back on it, I should’ve taken that as a little bit of an insult, but instead rejoiced and left Alaska as fast as I could, promising myself that I would never return even if I was offered “cocaine money.”
I received a call from the state a few months after the incident. It was my lawyer from the case. He called to inform me of the first real break in the case. A stray survival suit had been found, but its contents were not what I had expected. There was a body inside, but it was the body of the captain. My lawyer went on to explain that the police had recently revealed something that they had held back during the investigation. They had only found one body on board — that of Jeremy Haller. They found no body in the captain’s quarters where I told them I had found the dead captain.
My lawyer told me something that still haunts me to this day and never really leaves my head for more than a few minutes at a time. The theory that he presented me just before he hung up particularly haunts me at every moment.
My theory is that the guy who came on your boat and killed the other guys stuffed the captain into the survival suit and put him to water so you and Brett would think he jumped overboard. After that, I think he hid onboard till you got close to shore and then slipped out before you docked and met the cops. Most importantly though, I think he’s still out there.