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The Absurdity Factor: An Interview with Lisa Cummings About Working on an Alaskan Fishing Boat

Part 1

Q: Do you want to start with the guy you were dating?

Lisa Cummings: Sure. I guess that sort of started the whole thing. I was in Bozeman, Montana, at Montana State University.

Q: And your boyfriend’s name was...

Lisa: Ty. It’d be really funny if he’d happen to see this on the Web. He was always the storyteller, not me. Anyway, he wanted to go to Alaska—he’d seen this ad in the newspaper, and of course I wanted to go with him, so I dropped out of school and went.

Q: You just left.

Lisa: Yeah, I just left. We had to be in Seattle by January first to meet the ship where it’s docked in December.

Q: And why did Ty want to go on the boat?

Lisa: Because it was time for another adventure. He was the boy who chased adventures and dreams, I was the girl who chased dream-adventurers, and Alaska was the adventure/dream of the moment.

Q: So, when you got to Seattle...

Lisa: We got right on the boat, and went into the galley. We were two of the last people to get there.

Q: You just had to show up, and you’d have a job?

Lisa: No, we did have an interview. With this guy—he was Yosemite Sam’s absolute spit-and-image, real-life counterpart. He had this huge red mustache, and red hair, and the lisp…no, he whistled when he said his ‘S’es. Or wait, not Yosemite Sam...the character from the clay-mation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer—Yukon Cornelius! The name of the ship was the Stellar Sea.

Q: The interview was in Seattle?

Lisa: No, Montana.

Q: This guy travels to universities to recruit people?

Lisa: He must, in December, when the boat is docked.

Q: Did you have a sense of what he was looking for, in recruiting employees?

Lisa: I wasn’t sure if he’d want me or not, because I was imagining it being a rough ‘n’ tough, burly-guys-on-a-boat sort-of-situation, and I didn’t know if I’d quite fit in.

Q: Not being either rough or burly.

Lisa: [laughs] Right. But he seemed to think if we were motivated enough and had some sort of work ethic, we’d have no problem. I think he was taking pretty much anybody who wanted to go. There were actually quite a few girls on the boat. A lot of college students. If we showed up at the interview and seemed at all interested, and if we got ourselves to Seattle by January first, we had a job. We stayed docked in Seattle for a little while, painting and scraping, and doing maintenance. At one point, Ty and I were thinking of jumping off—just leaving altogether.

Q: Because the boat was in bad shape, or the crew...?

Lisa: No, because we were like that. Just as easily as we had jumped onto the boat, we could have jumped off and gone down the coast, ended up in California, doing whatever. I guess it must’ve been the way the tides were... we were out on deck, seeing how close the docks were, and we both thought of the same thing at the same time. We could just hop right over, and nobody would know. We even ran down to our rooms to pack a few things...but I talked him into staying.

Q: Because it was too far to jump?

Lisa: No, it wasn’t too far. It was just that up until that point, I really hadn’t accomplished or completed much of anything in my life, and I thought that this was something I could do and finish. Just three months. I thought that if I stuck it out, I’d be relieved and free then to not finish whatever I wanted for the rest of my life.

Q: So, eventually the boat takes off.

Lisa: Then we leave and the sail, or the cruise or whatever you call it, the trip up was really beautiful. We would sit on the helicopter pad on top of the boat at night and count shooting stars or meteors, dozens of them. You could lay there and look up and you’d see them all over the place. It was really cool.

We stopped in Squaw Harbor, an island of two inhabitants—Bob, the dock-keeper, and his dog—on the way up, because they had warehouses or storage docks for...

Q: For distribution and storage for the fish?

Lisa: No, we had cold storage on the boat for the fish, and we sold a lot to the Japanese right onto another boat. We had to stop there and load up—machinery and supplies and boxes and stuff. But I didn’t do very much of that. You got paid hourly, so you punched in and out, and during the non-processing/down-time you could work as much as you wanted or not at all. Obviously you didn’t get paid if you didn’t work, but we didn’t care—we explored the island instead. It was beautiful. I guess there’d been a small community there in the 70s, but now it’s deserted, except supposedly for a few cows-gone-wild roaming around, and of course Bob and his dog. We took pictures on the way up and back, but not while we were working because there wasn’t much to see.

It’s really beautiful, and so immediately striking how untouched everything is. Obviously it’s a lot of water, and land in the background.

Q: And this is a view down from your boat?

Lisa: Onto one of the catcher boats. There was a television show about the ten most dangerous jobs, and this was number one, working on the catcher boats. It’s so cold, and there’s the ice floe, and they’re trying to catch as much as they can as quickly as they can. so they’re awake for as long as it takes, and there’s only a six or eight man crew.

Q: They don’t recruit kids from universities.

Lisa: No.

Q: These are professional fishermen.

Lisa: Exactly. When I was there and the season opened, the first day was really cold, and a couple of boats went down, and that’s common. It’s so cold you can’t survive very long in the water. We had these polypropylene suits called Gumby suits. We had drills where you had to stop whatever you were doing, get to your suit, put it on half-way, and go to your life-station on deck within a certain period of time.

Q: The idea is that the boat is sinking, and you’re going to go to your locker and put this thing on and go to your station.

Lisa: Right. And it will keep you alive until you climb into this raft/tent thing and wait for rescue.

Q: So the rafts have, like, a lid?

Lisa: Right. I had a dream that the boat was sinking, and I wasn’t cold, but the main thing of the dream was that it sank so fast. I remember that I was feeding the sea lions and that as soon as I felt that initial lurch, I immediately knew that I wouldn’t be able to get far enough away from the boat, and it was already pulling me under. And in my dream I was just amazed at how fast everything sank.

You can see in the picture all the ice built up on the catcher boat, and so the guys, at the same time they were catching, they had to get the ice off too somehow.

Q: Were you scared on the boat?

Lisa: Not really. It was a big and fairly posh processing boat, which didn’t move all that much once we got to St. Paul except to one or the other side of the island when the weather turned ugly.

Q: And you assumed the crew knew what they were doing.

Lisa: Yeah. A lot of people got seasick on the way there, but I didn’t.

Q: OK. Your plan was to spend three months up there working and then come back.

Lisa: Right.

Q: This was for crab season.

Lisa: And codfish. That was the first year they processed cod on that particular boat. We had special training. They rearranged all the machinery. And I’m in some training video demonstrating how to grade cod roe.

Q: Really? How do you grade it?

Lisa: Oh god, I can’t remember. It looks like how you would imagine two lungs, full of cream of wheat. If you slice it open, then it gets all over you. We had orange suits that we wore. See? This is Ty on the last day of crab season, and if you can see, [laughing] he’s put a cigarette in the crab’s mouth. He’s sharing a smoke because he’s so happy it’s the last day.

Q: How big was the boat? How many people worked there?

Lisa: If I remember, like 350 feet. There must have been a skipper, and then maybe 10—or 12? 15?—deck hands, who worked for the boat. And then Tom—that was Yukon Cornelius’s name—everybody else worked for Tom. Sometimes there was a conflict there.

Q: How many people worked for Yukon Tom?

Lisa: Something like 150 to 200.

Q: Really! So, 10 people worked the boat, and 200 processed fish.

Lisa: Yeah. When crab season starts, it’s a 24-hour thing, and it’s shift work. I think there were 16 hour shifts, sometimes less if you didn’t get one boat right after another. You’d get up, grab something to eat in the galley, get ready and go down the stairs, and put on all your rain gear and punch in. I think you’d work two hours, take a 15 minute break, work two hours, take a half hour lunch, work two more that for sixteen hours, and then you slept and got up and did it all over again.

Q: It’s not like there was much to do on the boat otherwise.

Lisa: That’s exactly it, and that’s why you were able to make money—because you didn’t spend any.

continue to part 2

Copyright © 2002 Cynthia Closkey & Lisa Cummings