Saturday, February 27, 2010

Mariners In Review: Working On The Edge

Spike Walker's tale of his adventures in the king crab fishery in Alaska have spawned a number or sequels, imitators, and even the TV show Deadliest Catch. Walker's tale is the original though, following the adventures of young Walker from his first gig in 1978 as a "greenhorn" on the Royal Quarry through the eight-year boom time of the Alaska king crab fishery. If a crewman got on the right boat during those years, he (or occasionally she, as Walker is quick to point out early in the book) could take home $100,000 or more for two months of work. But the work was hard, the hours long (sometimes days at a time with no sleep), and the whole enterprise occasionally deadly.

Walker begins by recounting the 1976 experience of the crew of the Master Carl, as told to him before he even arrives in Kodiak for his first hitch. As the story opens, the ship is in trouble and soon is on its way to the bottom, leaving the crew struggling in a life raft on the surface.
Once inside the raft, the crew members found that they were still tied to the sinking vessel. Each time the ship rolled, the keel flashed past them, the raft line came tight, and the shape of their raft contorted. They were in real danger of being pulled under, but no one could find a knife. Finally, in blind desperation, Magoteaux began chewing on the line in an effort to sever it with his teeth before the boat sank and dragged them all down with it.

"Then Tom [the captain] remembered he had a pocketknife," recalls Magoteaux. "But he had to take his [survival] suit halfway down to get at it. The waves were crashing in on us, and with his suit still half down, we held on to him as he leaned out one end of the raft. Though he got thoroughly drenched, Tom managed to cut the line or that would have been it for us! He got soaked, and with his suit half full of water, he never did get warmed up after that."

No sooner had they cut themselves free of their sinking ship than the typhoon-force winds whipped them off into the spray and darkness. Lifted and tossed by the heaving waves, and with the storm winds roaring constantly across the roof of the dome-covered raft, they could only drift and wait for daylight.
Some of the crew survive the perils of the sea only to be washed up on an Alaska beach, where they have to deal with a grizzly bear and, eventually, finding the bodies of shipmates -- including the heroic captain Tom --nearby. Walker doesn't need academic research on drowning or the effects of hypothermia a la Sebastian Junger for The Perfect Storm; he has firsthand knowledge from people who've been there and nearly lost their own lives. Fourteen people died at sea in the Alaska crab fishery the first year Walker went to sea.

Walker also gets into the strong and quirky personalities running and crewing the crabbing fleet in those days, and the hard drinking and heavy drug use while the crews relaxed in some of the more notorious Alaskan bars. You feel like you're in the middle of one the big booms Alaska is infamous for, like the oil boom a decade before, or the gold rush a century before that.

Walker is in many ways a typical mariner, and even his best sea stories start to sound repetitive after awhile. This is typical of life on any ship, though: routine and repetition of even some of the scarier moments. Even at his dullest moments, Walker puts you on the deck of that ship.

Walker also wrote Nights of Ice, a collection of sea stories about Alaska fishing boats in distress, and Coming Back Alive, about a Coast Guard rescue of a fishing trawler in trouble. Walker's telling other people's stories here, though; Working on the Edge is the best of the three.

There's a whole sub-genre of Alaska fishing boat books. Best bets are Lost At Sea by Patrick Dillon and The Last Run: A True Story of Rescue and Redemption on the Alaska Seas by Todd Lewan. The Deadliest Catch franchise has also produced two books: Deadliest Catch: Desperate Hours by Larry Erickson and Time Bandit: Two Brothers, The Bering Sea, and One of the World's Deadliest Jobs by Andy and Jonathan Hilstrand


  1. Capt. Earle - another book you should know about is SEIZED! A Sea Captain's Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World's Most Troubled Waters by Max Hardberger. The book will be published by Random House on April 6. I can arrange for Random House to mail an advance review copy to you. If interested, please send an email to Michael at with your mailing address.

  2. Capt. Earle- Spike Walker is one of the greatest embellishers on the planet (which I admire him for and once told him so). Below is a list of good reads I have read and recommend to anyone interested in commercial fishing in Alaska:

    Commercial Fishing in Alaska (Alaska Geographic) by Joel Gay and Penny Rennick

    Red Summer: The Danger and Madness of Commercial Salmon Fishing in Alaska by Bill Carter

    The Entangling Net: Alaska's Commercial Fishing Women Tell Their Lives by Leslie Leyland Fields

    Boats of Alaska: An Artist's Guide to Commercial Fishing Boats by Pedro Denton

    Alaska Blues: A Season of Fishing the Inside Passage by Joe Upton

    Pacific Troller: Life on the Northwest Fishing Grounds by Francis E. Caldwell

    Fishing Up North: Stories of Luck and Loss in Alaskan Waters by Bradford Matsen

    Following the Alaskan Dream by Marilyn Jordan George and Amber Dahlin

    Lost At Sea by Pat Dillon