Sailing in Alaska
Dean Martin: Is he as good as I used to be?
John Wayne: It'd be pretty close. I'd hate to have to live on the difference.
There's always a man faster on the draw than you are, and the more you use a gun,
the sooner you're gonna run into that man.
I never entered a saloon of the old wild west with a Hawaiian shirt and a pink baseball cap, but I surely felt that way the evening I moored at Pelican, Alaska, with a sexy sailboat that did not smell of salmon. I was just out of place, and supposedly belonged to another world, of city slickers who used the sea as a playground in comfortable season, like a boxer who just punched balls or a hunter using an M16. To add insult to injury, the mast stuck higher than the trollers’ stabilizers, and that did not gain me any high five. An outcast, deserving minimal attention, who was utterly unable to buy a single bloody silver in one of the world’s salmon capitals. That was distressing, really. First of all because the place was a small marvel, ducked near the bottom of a gorgeous fjord, Lisansky Strait, open on the main entrance of Alaska’s inside waters. Then because it was a lively and genuine small village without tourists, gift shops and cruise ships belching thousand of yellow-trousered, beer-bellied yanks. Third because I just felt an inexplicable liking for fishermen, and every single finger of the 163 inhabitants, all of whom wearing trousers but only two thirds being men, was devoted to speed up the salmon’s journey from the ocean to the supermarket shelves. I loved Pelican so much, in effect, that I foolishly decided to come back with guests aboard during a cruise between Sitka and Juneau. But by then I had grasped how to face the natives and I knew I could draw as fast as they did…
The gods were favourable that day and something livelier than a fresh breeze was blowing up the inlet towards Pelican. Trollers were on their way back home from the wealthy grounds and banks of Cross Sound. I knew I had my chance and I was not going to spoil it. I explained my plan to Patrick, a tort lawyer from Colorado who forgot the existence of fear in the forests of Vietnam, and he backed it wholeheartedly.
We had began with a territorial campaign in the fog off the entrance of the fjord, by tacking restlessly among busy boats, claiming our territory in order to reach the entrance with a seriously leaning boat. Then we moved to a more psychological warfare: grossly over canvassed, we were doing nine knots and a chinaman, but we could keep the pace of the trollers, and even gain some ground on the more loaded ones. We could notice from the increase of exhaust smoke that the campaign was having a discreet success. But we all knew that the final battle was to be fought in the harbour, Pelican’s main street, where all activity takes place – with the one notable exception of Rosie’s Bar.
Cinco de la tarde. Dead bushes were rolling around. Three knots, no-wake policy enforced by the harbourmaster/sheriff.
We had to draw very fast. We flew full main and genoa into the port at 9 knots on a course dead straight towards the fishing boat moored at the southern end of the harbour, the engine revving idle just in case of mistakes. Once in the middle we rolled the genny, while keeping our course towards devastation. Few yards off the boats, we steered full helm to port, thus achieving a swift 180 degrees turn into the wind, we let the halyard go, the main fell silent on the deck and we found ourselves few inches beside the transit dock, to which we made fast. That was all. I settled my heartbeat from heart attack to normal, and began to prepare dinner. Not ten minutes went by when a slight knock on the hull broke the journey of a 5-pound king from the hull of a grey fishing boat to our galley, accompanied by a wide smile from the responsible of the not-too-premature salmon departure. The menu was rapidly altered and a section of the beast devoted to sashimi. We invited the fisherman, who we soon discovered was a wealthy accountant in his previous life, and I soon discovered that American big shot lawyers are no lesser men when it comes to slaughtering a fresh salmon on a galley sink for immediate consumption after a quick dip in soy sauce. In the meantime the fisherman had found comfort on the chart table seat and was observing the massacre in the most perfect disbelief.
‘You aren’t going to eat it like, that… I mean… you know… like… raw?’
‘Why not?’ said the terror of Colorado’s health service (he used to sue medical doctors for their errors…), while gulping a conspicuous piece of red meat.
‘But… but… it’s….. like… raw…’
‘So what?’ said I ‘try a piece’ and I forwarded a piece of slimy tail dripping soy sauce towards the incredulous accountant. Had it been a rotting sewer mouse his expression could not have been different, but he gulped it nonetheless. Macho culture.
Seconds passed, during which the amateur-cut sashimi travelled along the oesophagus, and the slaughtering continued on the sink undisturbed by the noise of the oven, where 6 thick salmon steaks were pinking in a broth of butter, white wine spices and onion.
‘I have been fishing salmon for 22 years. Upon my word. Never tried this thing raw’
‘I was an idiot’
Few hours later the operations were transferred to the trollers cabin. This was centred on the engine. A brand new Japanese diesel mounted in a 1958 hull. The crew consisted of the captain and a deckhand, a 22yo girl from the lower 48. There was no engine room. Or better, there was nothing else except the engine room, being the berths right thereby. The silencing system was built of pure air. Wine prevented my memory to retain that conversation, but I have dim memories it was an old ‘engine vs. sail’ thing. The man was ready to cross any ocean with his diesel, while I was not even thinking about leaving a harbour without sails. None of the contenders gave away a single inch, and we all crashed to our bunks happy and sure of our own point of view. We also exchanged the classic Alaskan stories, made of whale & bear close encounters, maddening tidal streams, unexpected gales and secret anchorages. Indeed the grey hull of the fishing boat once attracted the affection of a young humpback calf, who though he found an older brother and attached himself during the night to the vessel. As one can easily imagine, a fishing boat rolls differently with a 10-ton whale hugging it, so the man felt something strange in the morning and one can imagine his surprise when he saw the thing there.
But these things happen in Alaska.
Everybody knows that.
The following morning Pelican was totally different. No one came to greet us, but everyone said hallo along the ‘street’ (a boardwalk suspended on the water’s edge), with the same ease and tone they would use with a long time pal. If we stopped to watch the activity in a troller, an invitation for coffee or beer was surely forthcoming. The harbourmaster did not charge the berth. Invitations to Rosie’s were normal. A fisherman still using a sailboat for his toil confided me that the previous night’s manoeuvre was… noticed. I came back to Pelican other times, and it was like going back home.
From that day onwards Cadeau met many fishing boats, and every time it was a meeting among peers. Memorable encounters were entered in the logbook in the remotest islands of the Galapagos archipelago, the winter harbours in the Mediterranean or the dreadfulest corners of the Patagonian Channels. True, most of the fishermen I met were not masters in business administration by upbringing, on the contrary I had sometimes the feeling I was going to be killed on the spot, but there are no real class differences at sea, and it’s a fact that a fisherman is the fastest to achieve that particular relationship with the water that surprises so much those who do not live on the sea.
Fishermen don’t swim. None desires to and most cannot. After many thousand miles I came to understand why. It’s not, as land dwellers might imagine, like a perpetual hangover, a reaction to excessive sub ministration of wide watery expanses. It’s not overdose or tiredness. It’s much simpler and basic. It’s indifference. A desire to deal with it in the swiftest, more efficient and briefest possible way, diminishing the contacts with saltwater to the bare minimum. Fish is found in the sea, therefore at sea we must go to catch it. Sailors like sailing and travelling, therefore sooner or later they have to go at sea to pursue their end. Still, the sea is not an obstacle, nor a container. It’s a given fact, a reality we cannot come to terms with so we do our best to make fishing easier and crossings faster. Sunsets, waves, gales and the romance of the sea are things a fisherman better appreciate from land, if he does. I don’t think we have to write treaties about this. It’s simple and easy to explain. Who lives and works on the sea appreciates, loves, respects and talks about something else.