Leaving Dutch Harbor, all boats pass Priest Rock. If you mention this sentinel to someone who has passed it, I’m certain almost each one would get at least a tingle in their belly. Some would have a fire with embers that die down slowly, but never quite extinguish. Those who have passed by without great incident may have a twinge of excitement that brings to mind the possibility of danger. Others – those who live with the fire, have returned from the Bering Sea changed. Perhaps they’ve come back without a shipmate. Perhaps they’ve been part of a search and rescue, or sometimes, just the search. Priest Rock is only a rock, but it stands as a symbol. For Bering Sea fishermen, Priest Rock is legend. Not for any daring deeds done there, or mythic struggles. Priest Rock stands as the guardian between this world, and that.
The weather on the Bering Sea is some of the most notorious in the world. Hurricane force winds pick up, seemingly without warning, and ships are lost yearly, many without apparent cause. When we hit a storm for the first time, I’m shocked by its violence. Sure, I’ve seen weather before. I’ve been knocked around and bruised from shin to shoulder. This is different. The boat feels like a pinball machine, I am the metal ball being shot around inside. We go over 30-foot waves, crest, and slide down the other side. That part is somewhat predictable; it’s the waves that hit our beam that get me. They come without warning and slam into the side of the boat. I rarely have time to grab onto something, so am thrown across the galley, stopping when I hit whatever happens to be on the other side. Times like this, I’m grateful for a small work area. But people still have to eat. When it gets really bad and it’s too dangerous to work with hot food, there are sandwiches and cold cereals. Nevertheless, I still have to open the refrigerator. Try as I might, I can find no systematic way to open the refrigerator door, grab what I need, and close it before something is thrown across the galley. I try to manage the task by working with the roll of the boat. Sometimes it works. It’s like a Tango with a malicious partner – keeping just enough tension between the wave and me at all times, while following my partner’s lead.
The refrigerator door faces the stern, so I stand in front of it, unlock the clasp that holds it shut, and put my hand up against it to keep it closed. As the boat hits the crest of the wave, I move my hand to the handle. Just as we begin the trip down the other side, I open the door and look frantically for what I need, but many times it’s shifted during the last roll. If I’m lucky, I grab the item before beginning the trip back up the next wave, which forces me to close the door to wait until we hit a crest again. Most times I am not so fortunate. It can take five to six waves to grab one item. Many of the condiments are in the door, and so thankfully maintain their position, but everything else is subject to re-arrangement. The real problem occurs when a beam wave hits while the door is open, or I misjudge the duration of the trough. Things begin to fly out and onto the galley decks. They roll and slide everywhere as I scramble to pick them up. One by one, I gather them and place them in the sink until I’ve found them all. Then, the process begins again to put everything back – one or possibly two items at a time. After that, I can return to the former job of locating items to take out. If I’m really lucky, I can find a sought after item in the same trip as I am replacing an item.