As he steered his speeding twenty-six-foot gillnet boat Marlene out across the Copper River Delta in Alaska's Prince William Sound on a gray, windblown afternoon in 1981, Skip Holden could not have known that within hours he would be engaged in a hellish struggle just to survive, nor could he have imagined how many lives would be so profoundly affected by the outcome.
Bold and enterprising, but never reckless, "Holden," as his friends like to call him, was looking forward to doing what he did best, and that was to net salmon.
Eight years earlier, Skip Holden and his wife, Marlene, had set out from San Leandro, California, to hitchhike to Alaska. They headed north, holding a sign that read ALASKA OR BUST! They arrived in Cordova nearly broke, found work together in a local cannery, and, in a month, managed to save twelve hundred dollars. They bought a twenty-foot boat for exactly that amount. They lived on it, fished off of it, and used a bucket for a toilet.
It was a romantic, albeit bare-bones, beginning in the rugged little fishing village located in a wind, sprawling land bursting with boomtown opportunity and colorful characters. There was a local stripper namedTequilla, whose writhing style of dancing naked was known to cause almost a riot as lonely, affection-starved fishermen trampled one another for a closer look.
Then there was Machine Gun Betty. She was a large Indian woman who worked as a bartender at a local watering hole. Her way of dealing with a rowdy crowd of drunken fishermen (who refused to leave at quitting time) was to pull out a Thompson submachine gun, level it on her rambunctious patrons, and order them off the premises. "It's closing time! Get the hell out!" she'd say as the bar emptied.
During those eight years of hard work as a commercial fisherman, Skip Holden had seen some sights--such as the time the Fish and Game Department opened the season up in the fjord near Coghill Point, and he and his fishing pals had netted one million sockeye salmon in a single week of red-hot fishing.
Named after Skip's wife, the F/V Marlene was known in fishing circles as a Snowball bow-picker. She had a six-foot-high reel mounted in the center of her foredeck. This spool-like contraption was designed to feed the one-thousand-foot-long gillnet off her bow and reel it back aboard via the same route.
Along the way, Skip had learned a few things about the nature of successful fishermen, too. Foremost, he had learned not to try to be like anybody else: The best fishermen fished according to the dictates of their own personalities.
As a rule, Holden worked alone. More of a hunter-type person himself, he liked to motor past the main sandbars (where most of his more conservative fellow gillnetters chose to make their "drifts") and out through the surf. He enjoyed fishing the deep waters of the open ocean. When possible, he liked to intercept the fish well before they reached the main branch of the river, something at which he was quite adept, now having the self-assurance of a seasoned fisherman, one who had paid his dues and acquired a fair amount of fishing savvy along the way.
Armed with little more than a compass and a Fathometer, he roamed as far as ten miles out from the wild and ever-changing sixty-mile-wide delta of sandbars and tidelands known as the Copper RiverFlats, fishing the salmon-rich waters as far out as Cape Hinchinbrook.
Some fishermen didn't like the stress of making "sets," laying out their gillnets and fishing out in the open ocean. They generally fished the inside waters. They didn't seem to mind fighting the crowds, or having to pull their gillnets back aboard every few minutes, then run back up the line, lay them out again, and start from scratch. By contrast, Skip Holden liked to fish the deep, outside waters. He liked the sight of free, open spaces and uncluttered horizons. He'd been raised that way. When he was a boy, sailing off the California coast, his father had taught him the art of navigation, as well as how to keep a ship in good repair and how to tie the rope knots that were essential to life at sea. Most important, his father instilled in his son the belief that shallow water is a fisherman's worst enemy.
It was the going out and coming back in over the sandbars at entrance channels, especially those at Softuk, and Strawberry, and Egg Island, that local fishermen feared most. Let an out-rushing tide confront a strong flow of onshore wind, and the waves can really stack up.
Even for Skip Holden, getting trapped out on the open sea in a sudden blow was something to be avoided if at all possible. Let him receive a warning over the local CB fishing channel announcing that the sandbar was closing, and Holden would rush his net aboard and make a mad scramble in over the building breakers before they closed him out. Once inside the punishing surf line, he would wait out the storm in the shelter of one of the tideland coves carved out of tens of miles of sandbars by the thirteen-foot tides that flooded in over the area several times each day.
Miss the closing, get cut off by a sudden storm, and a fisherman would have few options, all of them dangerous. Left unprotected by island or berm, caught tens of miles from Cordova, a fisherman could either jog into the storm and weather (which might last for several days and nights) or make the near-impossible journey around the thirty-mile length of Hinchinbrook Island, running broadside to the storm winds and waves crashing ashore the entire way. Lose an engine, throw a prop, and you would be history.
Regardless, Holden was always hanging it out there, working on theedge. Unlike some wanna-be fishermen, however, Holden had the touch. And during the season, it wasn't unusual for him to intercept as much as four thousand dollars' worth of the migrating fish in a single week.
On that gray day in 1981, Holden had already gone for two days and nights without sleep, standing anchor watch, waiting out the past few days of blustery weather in a featureless, godforsaken reach inside Softuk Bar. It was no big deal, really. Gillnetting the flats had always been a young man's sport. And Holden could go for days without sleep. But when the winds finally did calm down, he thought, That's it. Time to go fishing, and, pulling anchor, he fled out across the bar.
Once at sea, however, Holden soon found himself idling up the high, sloping faces of the unusually large swells lumbering in toward shore. Enormous as they were, the swells weren't breaking, and he drifted over them one by one, the bulging waters passing smoothly underneath him. It was the air around him, however, that spooked him. The enveloping air had turned "eerie calm, like out of breath," as he put it. It was a little like entering into the eye of a hurricane. Skip Holden had never experienced anything quite like it.
Shortly, the sky grew dark, and as the unexpected storm intensified, strong winds burst up the scene. Blowing directly in against the outrushing tide, the winds soon whipped the sea into a cresting frenzy. In only minutes, thunderous breakers began collapsing across the entire width of the bar, effectively closing off any possible retreat.
Still, Holden was determined to give it a try, and so he maneuvered into the roiling waters of the bar. He had managed to weave his way past several rows of breakers, when, in the gray-black of the dim evening light, he spotted a single white lightbulb mounted atop the mast of another salmon boat. Having learned of Holden's plight, a fellow fisherman had apparently left the safety of his snug anchorage and was now motoring back and forth just inside the breakers, trying to guide Holden into the deeper waters of the main channel, through at least five thousand feet of breaking waves and lathering foam.
Maybe I can make it through this, thought Holden, focusing on the challenge at hand. Now, should I go around this breaker and throughthat one? he asked himself as he pushed ahead. Is it deeper there? What's my Fathometer reading? Uh-oh--too shallow. I'll try this way.
Finally conceding defeat, Holden fought his way back out through the marching rows of breakers, then began motoring down the sixty-mile delta of sandbars and bordering channels.
When he arrived at the channel leading past Egg Island, he found stiff seventy-mile-per-hour winds driving heavy seas ashore, and the bar closed. Without one of the powerful VHF radios on board with which to call out, he was forced to rely on the comparatively feeble power of his CB radio.
"Hey, Phil, what's happening?" he radioed his good friend Phil Thum. "Is there a way in? Do you see any way in there?"
"No, I don't think you can get in, Holden. It's breaking all the way across the bar here."
The entire time he talked, Holden was jogging along the outside edge of the sandbar at the Egg Island entrance, quickly looking for an opening in the surf. Either I find my way in past Egg Island here, he thought, or I'll be out here all night. It's now or never. He cruised up and down the bar, but was unable to find anything like an opening.
"I really don't see any way in there," Holden radioed Thum finally.
"There is no way in," cut in the anonymous voice of another fisherman.
And suddenly, all cross-chatter on his CB radio ceased, followed by a dead silence. Holden caught the full measure of what this meant. Everyone listening knew that there was no way back, and that in the building seas, the trip out and around Hinchinbrook Island would be pure suicide. His only hope would be to try to jog into the storm, however long it might last, however severe it might be.
Well, this will be good for a laugh with my buddies back at the Reluctant Fisherman saloon in Cordova, he thought. Old Holden thought he could beat Mother...