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Exclusive Excerpt: Dead Reckoning

An exclusive excerpt from Dave Atcheson's book, Dead Reckoning (Skyhorse Publishing, July 2014), a book that provides an intimate look at life at sea, offering an insider's view into one of Alaska's small communities, and all of the upstarts, dropouts, and rogues that comprise it.

Dead Reckoning

Attempted Piracy on
the High Seas

Lancer, July 1984

When it started off, I had planned on a leisurely day, settling in with the Sunday paper and a coffee. That’s when I saw Mark’s car approaching.

“Just tell Woody you couldn’t find me,” I told him when he suggested I go along. He said we’d scout for some fish, pull one of Woody’s shrimp pots, and maybe try some sport fishing. It’ll be fun, he assured me, a pleasure cruise. “Besides,” he said, “the old man’s seen me, and I don’t want to go alone. You have to come.”

“What about Ray?” I asked.

“That’s just it. He’s missing and Woody thinks we’re going to jump ship too. He’s sure Ray’ll be back, but I think the old man just wants to keep tabs on us.”

So there I was, heading east out of Resurrection Bay, in the opposite direction of where we usually fished. At least it was sunny and calm, and the doom that always accompanied us seemed less intense, maybe because we were just going for a boat ride, ­supposedly. And by mid-afternoon, anchored in a secluded cove, sunning myself on deck, I almost believed it. But with my head ­nodding, and drifting on the verge of actual comfort—something rarely experienced on the Lancer—I began to hear the calm water break all around me. At first it was just a few scattered splashes, which quickly crested into pandemonium. 

“What in the hell . . . ?” Woody emerged from the cabin, eyes groggy and looking out of place without his cap, bald head glaring in the sun.

“Fish,” called Mark from the fly bridge. 

“Goddamnit,” cried Woody, “they’re all over the place. Humpies.” Pink salmon, everywhere, as far as the eye could see—the ocean literally going black with them. Pinks, or humpies, are the smaller more oily cousin of the sockeye, and were worth only about a quarter a pound to the sockeye’s dollar. Still, that would be about ten grand if the Lancer were full of them. I had no idea of the ramifications of what we were about to do, it being Sunday and for all intents and purposes we were fishing without a permit.

“Let’s go,” said Woody, all at once. “Clear the deck, get the skiff ready.” 

Ignorance was a flimsy veil and would never stand up in court, nor would the excuse that I was just following orders like some fishy lackey of Hermann Goring. Still guilty in the eyes of the law, and rightfully so. Nevertheless, I watched as Mark set out in the skiff and my pleasure cruise, my afternoon of leisure, went to hell—as I should have known it would. 

It started off easy enough, closing off our circle of gear as we’d done repeatedly over the last several weeks. However, when Mark handed his end of the seine off to me, there was no one to hand off the leadline to or to gather the web in between. The tide had begun to turn and the wind had come up—only slightly, but enough to push us slowly toward shore. We were like a sports team with a man down and pitted against the elements. With Woody taking over Ray’s job, we were temporarily stranded without a helmsman and a consortium of wind and water was conspiring against us, swinging the boat and blowing one end of the seine underneath us. Adding to the confusion was a swarming mass of ten thousand fish seething inside, placing an incredible force on the whole set up—net, boat, and skiff. Then, in a single moment, the net tightened up, the block squealed in protest, corks dangled in midair, and the Lancer all at once tilted to one side against the strain of the net and its unlawful bounty. Woody could no longer contain himself. 

“Goddamnit,” he screamed through clenched teeth, cursing not only me and Mark but the fates, the Karmic forces of nature that now threatened to topple us. With Mark back on board we all pulled hopelessly at the gear. Irretrievably stuck, we would have no choice but to cast one end of the seine loose, releasing our ill-gotten gain, and patiently wait for the incoming tide to free our net. This fiasco consumed the very last of my free afternoon. Waiting for the tide, Woody’s anger turned sullen and Mark dejected, and all of us would have a lot of explaining to do if the wrong person happened to sail or fly by.

When the net did finally come back on board it was damaged beyond immediate repair, needing to be replaced when we reached town. That left me still on the Lancer at midnight, hauling the new seine on board. At least we hadn’t wound up behind bars.

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