Friday, May 30, 2008

Deadliest Catch in the Southern Ocean

Here's a story I came across this morning in the Ukraine Observer. It's entitled "Getting Gonta" written by Alex Frishberg about the story of two Russian fishermaen, Nikolai and Alexi and their boat "Gonta" venturing from Vladivostok to Perth, Australia. It's a fairly long, well-written article for a newspaper. (I assume that Ukraine Observer is a newspaper.) It somehow reminds me of the Discovery Channel show "Deadliest Catch" and even a touch of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea". I don't think those were intended by the writer. The following description of their adventure in the Southern Ocean is something I found exciting to read:

. . . It was 3:23 a.m. in the predawn cold, and there was nothing for Nikolai to do but to stare into the endless darkness. Strange anxiety was brewing in his mind. What object would they collide with? Will he see it in time? Nikolai felt a premonition that something would happen to them. It was the most disturbing feeling that simply would not go away.

Looking ahead, he saw a large black cloud rolling towards Gonta from the south-west. At the same time, the waves were becoming more turbulent, rising in height each time. High on the crest of a wave it seemed like Gonta was on top of the world. Then she would plunge down the back side of the wave, hit bottom, and bury her bow into the next on-coming wave. The deck was barely visible in the foam of breaking seas as she would make its way to the surface again and again.

"Get up, Alexei, get up!" Nikolai shouted, but there was no reply. From the cockpit Nikolai looked out over the deck and saw what looked like a wall of water coming at him. The wave exploded against the hull, filling the air with salty spray. Next, the bow pointed up to the low black sky and then dived back into the wild sea. Nikolai screamed again from the top of his lungs, "come up here and help me, God damn it!"

He was frightened out of his wits, and for good reason: on such huge waves, boats can easily slide out of control as their bow digs into the sea and flips one end of the boat over the other, destroying the mast in the process. Recovering from this disaster would be nothing short of a miracle. The wind was blowing hard against the sails and put a tremendous train on all the rigging. Instinctively Nikolai knew that he had to quickly reduce sail, otherwise Gonta would snap its mast.

"I'm here," Alexei finally stuck his head out. "What? A storm?"

"Grab that rope and let it go! Now!"

At first, they tried to get the jib down without dropping it into the water, but it was very hard. When the bow came up, they would bring in as much as they could before the next wave would hit. The clouds were so close to the sea that everything was like a huge gray mass. In the darkness, Nikolai and Alexei could not distinguish the waves from the sky or clouds.

The Southern Ocean is a very lonely and primitive place. Having crossed the Trans-Siberian railroad, Nikolai and Alexei thought they knew a little about wilderness, but none of it was so huge and so far away from other humans. If anything happened to them, however slight or serious, assistance was completely out of the question. The fear they felt in the howling, near-hurricane force winds, was overwhelming at first, but the thought of being killed when they are thousands of miles away from any help, sailing in the freezing, black, mountainous seas, gave them the necessary courage to survive. In the freezing wind Alexei and Nikolai would work their way around the deck, always holding onto something solid with all the strength they had, praying that an on-coming wave would not throw them off balance and wash them overboard, to be eaten by the giant squids that lie in wait beneath the surface.

For hours Nikolai and Alexei would struggle at the wheel through the dangerous and chaotic cross-seas that followed quick changes in wind direction. One time, the wind increased until it was blowing close to hurricane strength, sometimes gusting to eighty knots. This whipped up monster waves that grew to seventy feet, like fast-moving seven-story high-rise buildings. They would surf down these waves, almost out of control. Those were very long runs, with Gonta flying along, surfing down those giant swells. Standing at the helm, Nikolai would try to ride them out as far as possible, as if he was hoping to stay on one wave all the way to Suez Canal.

That first night of the storm was unimaginable. The visibility was terrible and they had trouble opening their eyes because of the constant wash. Alexei and Nikolai simply could not see where they were going. The next day the storm center had passed and the wind speed dropped to 45 knots, which seemed like a calm day.

Yet other low-pressure systems kept overtaking Gonta, one after the other. Each came with the usual quick wind rotation from northwest to southwest, blowing at around fifty to fifty-five knots, as the cold front crossed over. Each enormous wave could have easily sunk the boat, but instead, Alexei and Nikolai would ride it out before being picked up by the next giant. And each time, Gonta emerged triumphant after a yet another trial by wind and cold, ice and breaking waves, always riding the edge of catastrophe.

In the end, each man had his own approach to sailing. At night, while on watch in the middle of mountainous seas, Alexei would eliminate sails, reducing the speed. Other times, when Alexei was asleep and Nikolai felt especially adventurous, he would drive Gonta at an angle with the wave so that speed was not reduced and the boat looked like a windsurfer. When the storms finally passed, they were way out in the Southern Ocean. No airplane or ship could reach their position. Only other vessels at sea could help them if something had gone wrong. There was nobody but themselves to rely upon. By that time, however, they were no longer afraid of the howling wind or the turbulent ocean waves.

Neither of them dared to say it out loud, so as not to jinx their luck. Yet it's something both Alexei and Nikolai firmly believed in. Namely, that Gonta was indestructible. It was made to bob through storm after storm without a scratch. Otherwise, they would have surely sunk to the bottom of the ocean during the very first night.

I enjoy reading it, but, as a desk sailor, I am certainly glad that I don't have to ever worry about experiencing it!

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