‘Deadliest Catch’ has nothing on local boat crews
Commercial crab fishing can be lucrative for those with experience and a bit of luck.
Commercial fisherman Lucinda Williams measures crab on the Brookings-based vessel Freya: “It’s a man’s job. It definitely is.” Submitted
One boat from Brookings Harbor brought back enough crab in one haul to earn more than $200,000 during the opening days of the current season.
But that kind of payday comes with a potential price. Each time the commercial fleet goes out in Crescent City or Brookings, every crew member knows that danger awaits.
Just ask Mike Griffith. His hand was severed at the wrist in February 2004 when it caught in an electric pulley used to haul crab pots from the bottom of the ocean.
Griffith’s hand was trapped between the rope and pulley. A U.S. Coast Guard utility boat was deployed to bring him to shore, where he was taken by ambulance to Sutter Coast Hospital and then on to Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco via Cal-Ore Life Flight.
It didn’t keep the longtime fisherman from going back to sea.
Griffith, who has had a commercial license since he was a youth, is 37 and a crew member for the Njord, driving the boat.
“It’s a dangerous deal,” he
admitted. “You know it’s dangerous so you just learn to accept it. It’s not something to concentrate on.”
The risky work done locally is sometimes overshadowed by Alaska crabbing.
“The West Coast Dungeness fishery is more dangerous than the ‘Deadliest Catch,’” said Crescent City Harbormaster Richard Young, referring to the Discovery Channel show that follows crab fishermen in the Bering Sea.
Although sea conditions are typically more extreme for Bering Sea and Aleutian Island crabbing, the much larger vessels can handle it, Young said. The smaller vessels used for Dungeness on the West Coast raise the risk, giving the fishery a higher fatality rate than Alaska’s.
The inherent hazards of crabbing were a “big motivation” for the Crescent City Harbor to offer temporary docks this year after the permanent docks were wiped out by a tsunami last March.
“We wanted to provide as safe a place as we could” during this interim season, Young said.
Griffith first went to sea with his father, and said his own 13-year-old son is considering following in his footsteps.
“It’s a family thing. The first time I went out, I couldn’t imagine anything else.”
Debbie Spencer has the same attitude. Now 46, she’s been a commercial fisherman for 24 years, starting with her dad as a kid just as Griffith did.
“All fishermen are adrenalin junkies,” she said. “That’s what we do. When I’m out there, my friggin’ blood is pumping.”
Her dedication to the job got her into trouble recently. Spencer was welding crab pots before the season began and hit her finger with the welder, cutting it severely.
“I Super Glued it together and it was healing fine, then I started fishing,” she said.
The finger became infected, but Spencer didn’t want to stop fishing because the first weeks of the season are the most lucrative.
“I took a razor blade and sliced it open because I was in such pain and wanted relief,” she said. “It’s still an ongoing wound. The joint is eaten out and at the very least I’ll have to have the knuckle amputated.”
She had surgery Dec. 27 and another procedure is needed.
Spencer knows that a damaged hand is far from the worst thing that could happen. In 1996, her brother Richard Riegel, a 22-year-old commercial fisherman, died after his boat was hit by a rogue wave and capsized.
“I’m glad to just lose a knuckle,” Spencer said.
Her brother’s death prompted her to stop commercial fishing for four years. She took other jobs, such as working in a mill and Freeman Marine Equipment Inc. in Brookings
“I have four kids,” Spencer said. “I thought, what happens to these kids if I get killed?”
However, she missed the thrill of being on the ocean and eventually returned to commercial fishing. Spencer now is captain of the 48-foot Hecate, owned by her father.
“I said, what are you doing? You’ve already got that job that you love. At least if I get killed, I’ll go with a smile on my face.”
Lucinda Williams is another woman lured to the sea despite commercial fishing’s dangerous nature. This is the third commercial crab season for the 41-year-old single mother of three.
“It’s a man’s job. It definitely is,” she said.
Williams has not suffered the losses that Griffith and Spencer have, but she’s been shaken up a few times. Earlier this season, for example, a big swell knocked her against a shelf in the engine area. Blood ran down her face, but she kept working and came back the next day, too.
Williams lives in Grants Pass. She is staying in Brookings for commercial crab season because it’s more lucrative than her other job of janitorial work at a rehabilitation center. She hopes to stay here for tuna and salmon fishing after crab season ends.
The daughter of a U.S. Coast Guard father, Williams said she’s always been drawn to the ocean. She shows her passion with a dolphin tattoo on her stomach and a starfish tattoo on an ankle.
She is a crew member on the 35-foot Freya, owned by Capt. Benny Westbrook. He met Williams at a Brookings watering hole a few years ago and she quickly accepted his offer of a job.
Westbrook has been a commercial crab fisherman for 17 years. He said the most dangerous part of each day comes while crossing the bar when swells are coming in.
The Brookings Harbor bar is safer than those in Newport or Charleston, he said, because it can be crossed in minutes rather than a half hour.
Weather is always a concern, though.
“We try not to be out when it’s bad,” Westbrook said. “Nobody wants to be out there when it’s nasty.”