by Kathleen Kaska
"This Caribbean adventure is not what I thought it would be.” — Steve Orsini.
You’ve probably watched a few episodes of the reality TV series, Deadliest Catch, showing fishermen braving the icy waters of the Bering Sea during the Alaskan king-crab season from October through January.
The king-crab fishing industry originated in Seldovia, Alaska in the early 1920s, but it wasn't until the 1950s when innovative gear and fishing techniques caused the industry to take off. Kodiak became the hub. By the 1960s, rectangular steel pots replaced older round pots used to store live crab until they could be offloaded, allowing for more efficient use of deck space. This caused the industry to experience another surge in production. Crab boats became suddenly in high demand, and building had begun in several boatyards across the country. Today’s crab boats, like those seen in the Deadliest Catch, are sturdy, seaworthy vessels. But that wasn’t always the case. Like in many new and fast growing industries, early equipment evolved and improved over time.
In 1969, local Steve Orsini and his friend from Astoria, Oregon, were looking for temporary jobs during the college Christmas break when they learned about a prospect that could put cash in their pockets and offer a new adventure.
Bender Shipyard in Mobile, Alabama, had just built two 100-foot commercial crab boats. Each boat had two 700-pound storage tanks secured to the deck. The owner of the vessels needed a crew to assist the captain and engineer in delivering one of the boats, the Scottie, from Mobile, through the Panama Canal and on to Seattle for final outfitting before sending it to Alaska. The idea of cruising through the calm, clear waters of the Caribbean while earning a few bucks appealed to Steve and his friend. Because of their previous experience in the fishing industry in the summers in Southeast Alaska, they were hired.
The Scottie’s trip to the Panama Canal was expected to be an easy one. The weather was bright and sunny, and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea were calm. But as soon as they were underway, an unexcepted Nor'easter blew in. Steve had experienced bad weather and turbulent seas before, but this storm developed into one of the worse he’d ever encountered. Forty- to fifty-knot winds caused one of the crab tanks to fill with water because a valve was left open by mistake while the boat was still in the shipyard. Also, the lazarette wasn't secured properly, and the entire back of the boat began to fill with water. Soon one of the booms used to haul the crab pots had broken loose was swinging freely toward the starboard side. Yelling for help and dangling from the cargo hook over the mad Caribbean was the engineer. In a heroic attempt to save the guy, Steve and his friend grabbed ahold only making the situation worse. Fortunately, the engineer gathered his wits and managed to get the potential disaster under control. The captain was struggling to hand-steer the boat when a rogue wave hit from port, knocking the boat onto its starboard side and shattering a sliding glass window, causing a deluge of water onto the bridge.
“There was a moment, no more than a few seconds—although it felt like hours—that we hung there, the boat tittering on its starboard side, when I wondered what I’d gotten myself into,” says Orsini. “If the boat had sunk, we’d have been trapped inside. There was no satellite communication back then, and no telling how long it would have taken to discover that we were goners.”
And it turns out the captain, though a gregarious fellow experienced in operating crab boats in coastal waters, had navigational skills poorly suited to the open sea. There were times when they weren't sure where they were.
Despite the storm waves, the crew managed to get the Scottie to the Panama Canal. But since the autopilot steering had malfunctioned, maneuvering through the canal wasn't easy. It was later discovered that the problem was caused when the hydraulic rams had come loose—another one of many mechanicalsystem problems that plagued the boat.
At this point, Christmas vacation was ending, and Steve and his friend returned home. The Scottie, however, was stuck in Panama where it had to be rebuilt. It finally completed the journey to Seattle, and on to Alaska. But it sunk less than a year later.
For more details about the adventures of the Scottie, and Steve Orsini’s soon-to-be-published book, listen to our upcoming podcast interview with Steve. We’ll be announcing the date and time soon.
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