On the morning of February 3, 1983, the Americus and Altair, two state-of-the-art crabbing vessels, idled at the dock in their home port of Anacortes, Washington. On deck, the fourteen crewmen--fathers, sons, brothers and friends who'd known one another all their lives--prepared for the ten-day trip to Dutch Harbor, Alaska. From this rough-and-tumble seaport the men would begin a grueling three-month season in one of the nation's most profitable and deadliest occupations--fishing for crab in the notorious Bering Sea. Standing on the Anacortes dock that morning, the families and friends of the crew knew that in the wake of the previous year's multimillion-dollar losses, the pressure for this voyage was unusually intense.Eleven days later, on Valentine's Day, the overturned hull of the Americus was found drifting in calm seas only twenty-five miles from Dutch Harbor, without a single distress call or trace of its seven-man crew.
The Wall Street Journal recently noted that last year "commercial fishing lost its place as the most dangerous occupation." If so, part of the reason must be traced back 15 years to February 14, 1983, when 14 men from the town of Anacortes, Wash., were lost in the Bering Sea. Sailing on the Americus and Altair, two of the most high-tech crabbing vessels of the time, and confident of fairly calm waters, they disappeared without even an SOS. Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and columnist Dillon brings his perceptive journalism skills to reconstructing the lives of the fishermen and their families and motivations--from the need to strike out for more dangerous fishing grounds, because those closer to home were depleted, to simple greed. The residents of Anacortes clearly knew the dangers--an obelisk in the harbor is inscribed with 96 names of fishermen lost over the last 50 years, more than three times the number listed on the memorial to casualties of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Dillon spent time with the families and followed both the subsequent investigation and the efforts to enact and enforce regulations. His prose is more poetic than incisive: At a basketball game at the high school, "the news came in like a draft under the door. When it reached the bleachers, each row stirred in succession, people bent like grass.... They stood, stunned, their faces frozen...trying to conceal their terror." This is a story of individuals, but it is also the story of an old, traditional industry pushed farther and farther offshore by heavy demand from top restaurants paying high prices. Author tour to the Northwest and Alaska. (Nov.) -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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July 18, 1999
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Excerpt from Lost At Sea by Patrick Dillon
A blip appeared on the green radar screen in the wheelhouse of the Neptune Jade, a 750-foot Singapore-registered freighter en route to the Orient. It was 12:15 P.M. on Monday, February 14, and the radar indicated the source to be located about twenty-five nautical miles northwest of Priest Rock and Dutch Harbor. Normal enough in this sea-lane, the vessel's captain noted. Except that the blip was not moving. The Neptune Jade was closing on the position, 24 nautical miles away.
The helmsman switched to a general radio frequency to call the vessel. If assistance was needed, they'd relay a call back to Dutch Harbor. There was no answer. The helmsman set his course directly toward the position of what might be a ship in distress. Since weather reports indicated a storm descending on the area, any broken-down vessel caught in open water would be in peril.
Three hours later, a crew member in the wheelhouse spotted an overturned vessel. The Neptune Jade's skipper took charge, guiding the cumbersome merchant ship within thirty yards--as close as he dared in a sea building with increasing winds--then circling. The hull appeared to be about eighty feet long. A red stripe ran horizontally along the bottom. The rest of the hull was blue. Curiously, there was no indication that the hull itself had been damaged. Aware that the Neptune Jade was too large to safely maneuver alongside, the captain circled again, widening the arc, and ordered his crew to look for survivors, or bodies, or debris. None was spotted.
The captain circled a third time, making an even wider arc. Finding nothing, he grabbed the radio and dialed the Coast Guard emergency channel and described what he and his crew were seeing. There was no reply. He switched radio frequencies, sending out a widespread alert to anyone within range. The captain was following an unwritten "good Samaritan" code at sea, which, because of distances and slow travel time, asked as many vessels within range of a distress signal to converge on the position to look for survivors.
The freighter Aleutian Developer was the first vessel to pick up the call, but it was running six hundred miles to the southwest. Over his own radio, the ship's captain relayed the Neptune Jade's alarm and the reported position of the overturned hull to the U.S. Coast Guard Communication Station in Kodiak: latitude 54 degrees 19.6 minutes north, longitude 166 degrees 54 minutes west. The time was 2:40 P.M.