Adventure on the Bering Sea
By Renee Carey
Published in News on February 27, 2011 1:50 AM
Most of Sonny Kilpatrick's days were spent below deck while on the fishing boat, the Alaska Warrior, in 2007.
MOUNT OLIVE -- Sonny Kilpatrick's fish story began in 2007, soon after he decided it was time to retire from nearly 30 years of teaching and coaching at Spring Creek middle and high schools. He was 57.
But this was not a story that involved a lazy river, a pole and some worms in a bucket.
Kilpatrick's adventure took him to the Bering Sea.
Having grown up on the Neuse River in Seven Springs, Sonny Kilpatrick was no stranger to the whims of nature. As a member of the Pricetown Fire Department, he helped people evacuate their homes in advance of the floodwaters of Hurricane Floyd, which nearly destroyed the village in 1999.
"Anybody who wanted to move, we moved them out of Seven Springs. We moved their stuff out," he said. "They said it wouldn't get there, but I knew better. I had been on thatriver too long."
But the usually placid Neuse-- hurrricanes notwithstanding -- was a long way from the raging and dangerous currents of the frigid Bering Sea.
And that is where Kilpatrick decided to look for his next adventure.
He joined a fishing boat -- much like those on one of those television shows.
The conditions were rough, he said, and the labor hard, but that was not the toughest part of his ordeal.
The hardest challenge to bear was the 12-hour shifts inside the ship -- no daylight, no human contact.
"It was depressing to me, so we would switch up (shifts) once in a while," Kilpatrick said.
Many of the crew members were Samoan and most were ex-cons who are on the fishing ships nine months or more a year, Kilpatrick said.
They were used to the life. He was not.
He began to look forward to mealtime, when he could speak to someone -- and see a little sunlight.
Kilpatrick's journey to Alaska began after his daughter, Jennifer Hartley, who worked at a sports equipment company in Raleigh, told him that a man came in during the summer and purchased a lot of cold weather clothes.
She asked him what he was doing and he told her he was going to Alaska to work on a boat as a ground fish observer.
That piqued Kilpatrick's interest, and within months, he was in Anchorage to complete an intensive three-week course to be certified as a ground fish observer.
Ground fish refers to the species of fish that live near the sea bottom.
"There were a bunch of young folks there and some older folks, but I was the only one of the older ones who passed," he said.
Ground fish observers are hired by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to watch fishermen's haul -- to record the size and sexes of the fish and the amount caught, and to monitor the fish populations.
Kilpatrick had at first hoped to be on a crab boat, but crab observer school did not start for a few more days. So to speed up the process, he chose fish instead.
Small houses were provided for the people taking the class or working for the company. Different people were coming and going every day, he said.
Kilpatrick said he would go to bed and wake up the next day and somebody different would be in the house.
It was summer when he arrived, and he remembers seeing gigantic cabbage because the days were so long.
"You went to sleep in the sunlight and woke up in the sunlight," he said. "The sun was shining so long that vegetables grew like crazy. The flowers were huge. You could walk around barefooted. When I came back, which was in late October, it was snowing and sleeting and it was cold."
He was assigned to the ship Alaska Warrior and was told it would be leaving in three days from Dutch Harbor and that the ship would be out until it decided to come back in.
"We were supposed to stay out 90 days or do 90 of work, that is what was on my contract," he said. "I worked for Salt Water Inc., which contracted for NOAA, which actually paid me."
Kilpatrick was onboard the ship for 42 days, rooming with men who "smoked like trains," in close quarters and surrounded by fish and water.
He was one of two observers on the 215-feet long ship that included a processing plant and freezer. The processed fish would be offloaded every few weeks.
Part of his job was to get 1,000 pounds of fish out of each catch. He used a large tub to collect 200 pounds of fish at five different random times as the fish were brought by conveyor to his work area.
Kilpatrick would open a gate on the conveyor and the fish would fall into the tub.
He had to identify and weigh the fish. A set number of the target fish had to measured then cut open to determine sex.
Some he had to cut the heads open and get the ear bones in order to determine their age.
Kilpatrick said he also had to ensure that certain fish and crabs that weren't supposed to be harvested had to be "treated nicely" and released. Most of them were dead when he found them, but they still couldn't be kept or cooked and eaten, he said.
The catch was dumped into a live tank. Kilpatrick said he didn't know why it was called the live tank since the fish were dead.
Seawater was constantly pumped in and out of the ship to move the fish around inside that tank.
"As long as you keep them wet they will slip and slide and go wherever you want them to," he said. "If you don't put water on them, they won't move too much.
"If a pump quit you could be neck deep in seawater especially at the back of the boat where I was working. Sometimes it would get chest deep and I knew we were fixing to sink. I figured the whole boat was full of water. I couldn't see how we could stay afloat. It was scary for a while."
He had to keep meticulous notes for NOAA, he said.
"Every day we reported to NOAA what our catch was, how many fish we caught, what kind of fish we caught," he said. "We had so much stuff we had to do every day. They pulled a net, a pelagic net, dragged it on the bottom and they pulled it and dumped it normally four times a day. Every time they dumped the net, one of the observers had to be there. We had to run down the net measure the length, measure the height, measure the width then we could get the volume."
Keeping up with the catch had a certain element of danger to it, Kilpatrick said.
"You had to run down that net and measure the net and when you go to down to the end of the net, there was nothing under you but water," he said.
And the last thing a fisherman -- or a ground fish observer -- wanted to do was fall in the Bering Sea, Kilpatrick said.
"If you fall in the water, you can just hang it up because by the time they can turn around and come back and get you, you are already unconscious," he said. "You don't have any safety lines. You have a life jacket on and you have a hard hat on to keep those cranes from hitting you in the head. These big cranes are what they use to pick the nets up with."
And there were other dangers, like the churning waves around the boat, Kilpatrick said.
"The water sometimes would come across the wheelhouse. Now the wheelhouse is 75 feet. Sometimes when the waves hit just right, it would crash over the wheelhouse and fall on you. You just drop right down and grab the net and hang on. Kiss those fish, whatever you need to do. Because you just don't go over. You don't go over because you don't come back."
Then there were the storms.
"The boat I was on, it was scary," Kilpatrick said. "There were several times that I got really scared especially when we first went out to sea. When we first went out to sea everything was calm and peaceful. We had not been out but three or four days and the captain said, 'We are going to a little squall tonight.' Well, squall I thought he meant just a little storm. I didn't know that he meant I was going to be squalling, but that was pretty much what was happening.
"We had 60-foot waves and 80-knot winds and that 215-foot boat was just tossing and turning everywhere. I got sick. I stayed sick for three days. It was the funniest things those guys had ever seen. Everybody on that boat laughed at me. I hung with it. Every time I said something about taking me back they laughed at me. They didn't carry you back unless you were dying or dead. And if you were dead they'd probably put you in the freezer and make you wait. It was scary sometimes."
Eating could be problematic on a boat in the middle of the Bering Sea -- especially for a seasick sailor.
After recovering from his illness, Kilpatrick noticed workers fighting over something coming down the line.
He couldn't figure out what they were doing.
"They would put them up on top of the skill saws used to cut the heads off the fish," he said. "Finally I looked up there to see what they were doing and it was shrimp.
"As soon as they got a few minutes of down time they'd take those shrimp, peel them and stick them in that seawater and eat them -- raw. I thought it will be a cold day before I ever do that. And it was a pretty cold day. I had gotten over being seasick and I was starving. I said now is the time to try one if I am going to try one. It is good. Those fresh shrimp, of course they call them prawn. That is as good as you can get."
The other workers also ate raw salmon -- a delicacy that Kilpatrick said he was never quite brave enough to try.
"The first thing that I ate on the boat I wasn't sure what it was, but I ate it because I was starving," he said. "The next day (the cook) fed the same stuff and I could not eat it. I never did ask her what it was. I was afraid. We ate octopus. If it was in the sea, we ate it. Some of it was dry and tasted like wheat straw."
Although he was prepared to stay the full 90 days at sea, Kilpatrick did manage to make it to land one time -- when the cook went inland for supplies.
After conning his way onto the truck, he managed to make his way to a phone and make a 45-minute call to his wife and his mother, who was celebrating a birthday.
"I was offered all kinds of money to stay there (on the island) and teach," he said.
But even the lure of free housing and utilities and a salary were not enough to entice Kilpatrick.
So, he headed back to the boat.
When his tour was over he was offered another ship the next day.
"I said, 'Well good. Is it going to North Carolina?' He said no and I said, 'Well I ain't going.'"
A visit to a doctor confirmed that he had had enough of sea life, and Kilpatrick was released from his contract, sent to Seattle for a week of debriefing and then sent home.
"I got home at the airport and was walking straight toward my wife and she is looking all around me to see if she could find me," he said. "I didn't shave. I didn't cut my hair. I didn't do anything for the whole time I was gone. I was a rough-looking character now. She didn't recognize me to start with."
Kilpatrick said Alaska is beautiful, but said he has no plans to go back to Bering Sea.
He has already had that adventure, and once was more than enough, he said.