When Sterling author Dave Atcheson moved to Alaska from upstate New York at 18, he was searching for adventure. Without ever having seen the ocean, he took a summer job as a deckhand on a commercial fishing boat out of Seward – a decision that changed the course of his life.
Along the way he met a “rough and tumble” cast of characters from working in canneries with college friends he calls “fish hippies” to enduring a constant barrage of torment from a crotchety skipper. Fast-forward 15 years Atcheson encounters a harrowing night of terror on the Bering Sea aboard a boat in peril.
Atcheson, author of Hidden Alaska and the guidebook Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, has a new book out, “Dead Reckoning: Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier Courting Tragedy on its High Seas.” The novel is a true-life story that intertwines three of Atcheson’s experiences in a 20-year period of commercial fishing in Alaska.
It is a coming of age story about life as a commercial fisherman but also explores deeper themes of finding the meaning of life after a near death experience and finding connection in the natural world, Atcheson said. The book gives people a better understanding of different type of commercial fleets from set netting, drift fishing and seining, he said.
Atcheson, Evening Education Coordinator at Kenai Peninsula College, has written fishing articles and is a contributor to Alaska Magazine and Fish Alaska Magazine. His latest book is a departure from his previous work and allowed him to be more creative than writing an informative article or essay.
“I made it read like a novel even through it’s a true story,” he said. “It’s fun to do creative non-fiction as opposed to writing an article or essay. Making different stories coincide was a challenge.”
The story begins in the summer of 1997 with a small crew aboard the F/V Illiamna Bay, a 42-foot boat herring fishing in Bristol Bay. Atcheson was a seasoned veteran, 15 years after he moved to Alaska. The boat sat near the edge of the Bering Sea, a place a boat its size should have avoided but sat there because that was where the fish were, he said.
With one tender full of 80 tons of fish anchored on the bow, the crew waited for another tender to unload more fish when the weather turned. It got dark and harsh waves washed over the stern of the boat, he said.
“We probably had a couple hundred tons of herring between us and a tender all tied up,” he said. “At one point it went from saving the fish to saving the boat. We knew we were in big trouble and had to save the boat.”
The crew started to cut lines to cut the weight of the fish when a gear flew off and a boom broke. Lights exploded and crashed onto the deck, which was covered in hydraulic fluid from the broken gear. Atcheson was caught in a net and thrown across the wheelhouse. The ordeal lasted for nearly 12 hours and the threat of losing the boat and their lives loomed large, Atcheson said.
“We were all contemplating our lives and what could have happened. It was an awful experience,” he said. “It was traumatic and violent and made a big impact in my life.”
Atcheson describes the ordeal through interviews with former crewmembers Captain Tim Moore and deckhands Karl Kircher and Greg Gabriel who all remembered the incident differently, he said. In the early chapters he uses flack backs to tie in two alternating stories from how he got his start commercial fishing before reaching the climax of his near death experience.
Atcheson said he might never had made it through his first season fishing without befriending a fellow deckhand Mark, whom Atcheson was told was wanted for murder. After starting out working in a cannery, a job came up on a boat prior to the opening of the setnet season. Atcheson took the job but soon found the working conditions nearly unbearable. The captain of the boat Darwin Wood, was a fiery man that yelled at his crew.
“I thought my name was goddamn it Dave,” he said. “It should have tipped me off this guy needed two deckhands just before the opening. It’s a wonder I stayed on the boat.”
Atcheson said Mark became like an older brother to him despite the two having completely different lifestyles. Things all the experiences Atcheson had with all the characters he met he gained a deeper understanding of how people end up working at sea.
The book also follows Atcheson’s experience set netting in Prince William Sound with the Linville family from Homer. Atcheson said Bob Linville became a mentor to him and taught him a lot about fishing. Linville convinced Atcheson to continue fishing after his near-death experience.
It took the crew five days to return to Homer after the traumatic incident and when they got to port, Atcheson received a call from Linville who had broke his leg and needed someone to captain his boat to drift the Cooper River. He accepted the job and said it was good that he went back out to fish so quickly because he might never have returned to it otherwise.
“I described in the book feeling like nothing could bother me (after the near death experience),” he said. “You go through that and its like nothing can be that bad.”
Atcheson said he thinks people will find his book more realistic than other books he’s read about Alaskan fishermen that are made out as heroes conquering the sea.
“I don’t care how tough you are if you have spent time out at sea you have been afraid at some point,” he said. “Some of that fear makes you wonder if you are doing the right thing with your life.”
The book Dead Reckoning is available at River City Books and sold on Amazon. The book includes an audio version. Atcheson will hold a book signing Wednesday, Sept. 10 from 6-8 p.m. at the Kenai Fine Arts Center.
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org