A day in the life of an Alaskan fisherman

Joined May 24, 2009
Sleeping on a fishing vessel isn’t like any other sleep one might ever experience.  Crammed up in the bow are four awkward bunks by which accommodation is not unlike sleeping in a large drawer--if that drawer was separated from the Alaskan waters by a thin fiberglass hull.  Despite the infrequencies of being in a state of dryness or warmth, sleeping in the bunk of a vessel is the best sleep one could ever ask for.  If one is sleeping on a fishing vessel then one is likely working on that fishing vessel and so one is exhausted and is rocked quickly to sleep by the waves.  My phone’s alarm wakes me up at 5:00 AM.  The rest of the crew is still sleeping and if I’m quiet will be for another hour.

My particular vessel is called the “Star Wind” and I am her cook.  I break out of the cabin and on to the deck.  The diligent Alaskan summer sun is half up.  As I’m relieving myself off the starboard side of the ship I begin to plan the day’s menu.  This particular day I’m extra excited because yesterdays exploits yielded one of my favorite ingredients: a big juicy octopus. Octopi are escape artists so I saw fit to narrow his odds by cleaning him last night and putting him on ice.  We also managed to pull up a trespassing shortraker rockfish. 

For breakfast we are going to have a simple dishes-free meal of homemade bagels smeared with smoked salmon mousse and roe and a large Spanish omlet.  The bagels and mousse are already prepared and I grab them out of the galley and start the coffee.  I mix some liquid smoke into the mousse.  The bagels are sliced and lightly toasted over the propane powered range.  At this point in the season we are catching chum salmon which have fantastic roe.  I select a promising looking female from the fish hold and harvest what to the rest of the world is a luxury.  By this time the smells of toasted bagels and coffee are stirring up the crew.

While guys climb out of bed and start their morning routines I begin the omelet.  The only knife I brought on this boat is a 270 mm Misono carbon steel sujihiki.  Ultimately that’s the knife I chose because its my weapon of choice for filleting fish and is functional for everything else as well.  I chop an onion paper thin and toss it in the cast iron skilled and begin cracking eggs.  I add a little evaporated milk to the eggs and mix them with a fork. I dump a third of a bag of stale jalapeno potato chips into the pan and pour in my eggs.  Not your average omelet but representative of boat life.  While the omlet bubbles away I start measuring my flour and yeast in order to make bread for tonight.  Now all I need is salt and water.  A coffee can with a string is used to pull up some seawater and shortly after I have the beginnings of bread dough.  The omelet is done so I slice it and ration it out to the crew.  Breakfast is served.

The captain of the crew is an Alaskan.  He’s not overly picky but I can tell that much of my cuisine is lost on him.  The first time I ever cooked for him (Blood orange crusted halibut with tomato caper salad) he instantly took his plate and topped it with potato chips and tobasco.  His favorite part about my cooking is the costs cut by having someone who makes things from scratch.  To each his own.  Our skiff man is another young Alaskan also isn’t picky and despite coming off as a hillbilly probably has the most discerning palate of the group.  The final crew member is a long time friend of mine.  They like the food for the most part and really enjoy telling other fishermen and friends about the haute cuisine they’ve been getting on the boat.

During breakfast the captain announces that we’ll be heading to a new bay.  This means we’ll have a lot of down time today while we’re traveling.  Our only duties are to keep an eye out for any fish and also to drive the boat in shifts.  For me it means getting ahead on the next few days worth of food for when I’ll be busy stacking nets and will only have only a few spare minutes preparing food.

Given all of the time I’ll have today I decide on sushi for lunch.  They actually love it when I make sushi and I try to make it often.  No other time in my life will I have unlimited super fresh fish with which to practice my technique.  Salmon are unfortunately too risky to serve raw without first being frozen.  But I’ve got a few filets of sockeye vacuum packed in the freezer from earlier in the season.  We’ve also got a small halibut filet that one of our crew caught with a pole during some downtime.  While the fish is thawing in the galley my attention is turned towards my new rockfish.  Yesterday afternoon a line was put through its gill in order to easily separate it later from the salmon in the fish hold.  I pull the poor guy out.  He died over night, suffocated on slime from twenty thousand pounds of salmon crammed into one little room.  He is scaled, gutted, and filleted.  I can’t help but wonder how old this ten-pounder is.  Rockfish can live well over a hundred years although this one is way too small for that.  Normally I wouldn’t I save his carcass for fish stock with which I’ll make bouillabaisse tomorrow.  My bread dough is risen so I punch it down and start forming loaves.  Into two loaves I fold a small jar of sliced kalamata olives and leave all of the dough to bench proof while the tiny oven preheats.  Before the bread goes into the oven I brush it with egg whites and top with grated parmesan cheese and dried rosemary.  I can’t wait to serve it with the bouillabaisse tomorrow.

With some help from my friend and crew member sushi rice is cooked and seasoned in the pressure cooker, fish is seasoned and cut with my trusty sujihiki and by noon a sushi feast is ready.  The meaty strip of halibut is marinated in miso, mirin, and honey before being slightly seared using a butane torch to caramelize and glaze the outside.  It is then sliced into sashimi.  One of my beloved octopus tentacles is sliced thin and served atop a Yukon gold custard and is seasoned with pimenton and olive oil.  A small variety of rolls are crafted with big chunks of raw rockfish and salmon down the middle and salmon is sliced into triangles and rolled into roses of sashimi.  Tea is served and the crew digs in.  I arrange some sushi for the captain on a plate and bring it up to the wheel house. 

After lunch its my turn to drive the boat.  Using the radio I give instructions to the rest of the crew who are playing cards to keep an eye on my fish stock.  Driving the boat is a simple task of following the GPS, avoiding any rocks shown by the navigation software and watching for other boats.  While I’m up there I’m thinking about the family and beautiful girlfriend that I left behind and also about what I can make for supper.  Our routine is to eat relatively late, 9:00 or so.  I decide on Paella featuring my friend the octopus, as well as scraps from the rockfish.  Soffritto is made up ahead of time and canned as I use it often in my cooking.  Paella is perfect for a boat.  Aside from the saffron, which came from my own stash, it’s cheap, filling, and makes few dishes.

When my time is up I return to the galley and start my octopus in the pressure cooker.  I begin making caramel sauce on the stove and also whip up some custard using egg yolks, evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and vanilla.  Using coffee mugs as flan molds I portion out the mix and pop them into the oven.  While the octopus cooks away to the rhythm of the pressure cooker and the flan cooks and then sets in the very small fridge, I occupy myself by playing cards and writing a hand written letter to my gal.  I try to do that once a day even though she gets them all at once because I can’t mail them until we stop at a harbor.  She just wants to know that I’m thinking about her, which I am.

When people begin snacking too hard I know I’d better start the Paella.  The tiny propane grill on deck is unsuitable for cooking paella but I fire it up anyways to mark and char the octopus which is now very sweet and tender.  The paella will be cooked in two cast iron pans which barely fit on the compact range.  They need to be slid around often for an even socarrat to form.  My soffritto goes into the pans with a healthy dose of olive oil and then the bomba rice.  The cooking liquid I first pour in the pan is seawater and then switch to fresh water.  The grilled octopus, rockfish, and Serrano ham find their way into the two heaps of rice and soon they have towels covering them signaling to the crew that food is almost done.  The smell has probably been driving them crazy.

I serve the paella with part of the morning’s bread.  Fantastic.  The toasted rice at the bottom is delicious.  The octopus and rockfish are so fresh—nobody eats like this.  I pour myself a glass of brandy and water and sit down with the crew.  Everybody is full but I bring out the flan anyways.  Its sweet and light.  Everybody finds room.  After supper I clean up my mess and head back to my bunk.  If I weren’t here right now I’d be doing the same thing only for customers who I’d never meet.  I’d have access to fresh ingredients that won’t last over the course of a two week trip out at sea but I wouldn’t get to catch my own ingredients!  I’d also be making about four times less money.  I’d also get to be with the people I love.  I’m already ready for the season to be over although when it is I know I’ll miss the ocean, the mountains, the midnight sun, but most of all—the food.
Joined Aug 13, 2006
Sweltering in Rome's summer heat, and sleep deprived, you make it sound extremely appealing to be on a fishing boat in Alaska, with all that wonderful food.  Thanks for your great description, benway.  The crew is really lucky. 
Joined Jan 2, 2007
What a wonderful insight to a life most of us will never know. You have a real gift for writing. I'd like to think we'll hear a lot more from you! Thank you.
Joined Dec 23, 2000

Teriffic, lucid, and exciting narrative. If you'll sign an agent contract with me, I'll submit this to FTV (or maybe a better channel) as an outline for a TV series that would make a whole lot more sense than most of what they're doing.. Seagoing chef and his recipes!

Actually, it would make a teriffic companion to the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch about crabbing off Alaska. I've watched that a few times, though it seems repetitive - catch one crab during a storm and you've caught them all. Also it's not that exciting to me, having spent three years on a destroyer, which is a little bigger than the average fishing boat... but not much. None of my time, thank God, was in Artic waters. /img/vbsmilies/smilies/redface.gif

Seriously, I would look forward to more of your descriptions of cooking/crewing on an Alaska fishing boat. Thanks for spending the time to share this with  us.

Are you working on a cookbook? If you are, I hope you're moving faster than BDL! /img/vbsmilies/smilies/tongue.gif

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Joined May 24, 2010
Just this morning I was looking longingly at the few remaining fishing boats still moored in town, thinking of doing exactly this. What qualifications do you need to work on such a boat and how did you find your crew? Do you go back to port often enough to have many fresh vegetables? What's the food storage situation?

A lovely read, please write more if you can find the time
Joined May 24, 2009
Thanks all for the kind words!

MikeLM, Not sure anyone would want a cookbook containing boat recipes.  Not many situations in life do you have very few pantry items but infinite seafood.  The thoughts are flattering though.  Also, if a chef is a cook who leads other cooks then the term chef doesn't suit me.  BDL's profile says that he's a former chef but as far as I can tell he is still leading hundreds of cooks all over the world, myself included, meaning I couldn't carry his toque.  I won't be writing a cookbook anytime soon.  At least nothing of value.

Cadmium, its something you've got to figure out.  Many people find these jobs simply by walking the docks at a lucky time.  I was introduced through the friend mentioned in the story.  He was introduced through another mutual friend.  We go out for a few weeks at a time so fresh produce doesn't last long.  I'll hit a farmers market right before we go back out and plan the whole menu around those items in order to use them up quickly.  There is plenty of dry storage, a dorm sized refrigerator in the galley, and a chest freezer strapped to the deck.  The story was written about 12 days into a fishing trip so we would have been out of fresh veggies and milk but still had eggs.

I'll be back at sea soon and will have have plenty of time to write more.  Thank you all again.
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Joined Dec 23, 2000
Well, Ben...

I guess I would have to admit that a cookbook with recipes beginning

"Prepare a baby octopus, caught 40 minutes ago..."

would have a relatively limited audience.

Again, and quite seriously, I hope very much that you will favor us with your nice descriptions of your unique experiences in the Alsaka fishing fleet!   Well, unique for 99.99% of us, anyway.

Thanks again for your time and effort.


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