Breaking Out the Survival Suits

Some years ago I was crewing on a halibut longliner out of Seward, Alaska. It was in the month of June, and our gear was all baited and ready. We had departed Seward at midnight for the long run to the halibut grounds in the Gulf of Alaska. I remember waking in the foc’s’l as our boat passed out of Resurrection Bay into the wide North Pacific, feeling the lurch and sway of the vessel. What I didn’t know was that the skipper had had too much to drink the evening before our departure, and the new sway of the boat was about to put him to sleep at the wheel. What woke me next was our violent collision with the rugged and remote coastline of the Kenai Peninsula. The impact rocketed me out of my bunk, and I was on my feet before I was even awake, scrambling up the ladder into the pilot house to see what on earth had happened. The only thing I could imagine was that we had hit an iceberg. Instead I found us pried against a pinnacle in the half-light of dawn, being slammed further toward the cliffs with each passing swell. It was a gruesome sight, with no apparent way out. I felt a deep, visceral wave of nausea as I registered the severity of our situation. I knew in a flash the likelihood was very high that I was about to die.

We managed to get a distress call off on the radio as we set about launching the life raft and breaking out our survival suits. With the boat taking on water fast, we had no time to lose. To make matters worse, the life raft got lodged in the gear anchors that were set along the gunnels, and we were unable to break it free. Our only remaining option was to swim for our lives and hope that we, too, would not be dashed on the rocks.

The skipper proved worse than useless. Still drunk and no doubt delirious with grief and shame, he clung to a false bravado and refused to put on his survival suit. He even mocked the rest of us for doing so. And throughout the ordeal, one of the other crewmen stood passively on the stern. An old Norwegian who had fished halibut his whole life, all he would say was, “If its my time, its my time.”

That was definitely not my attitude. I had a new six-week old daughter at home, and could not bear the thought that she might grow up without a father. I was going to fight to the last breath. As the ocean broke over the gunnels and swept into the galley, we made our move, leaping overboard and swimming for our lives, leaving the skipper and mate to an almost certain death. As we gained some distance from the chaos of crashing swells and pinnacles, I could see the dim lights of a longliner in the distant murky dawn heading our way. For the first time I began to think we might actually survive.

In the end, we all did make it. Even the skipper and the old Norwegian were rescued in a daring maneuver to scoop them off the sinking vessel just before it went down. I was pulled from the ocean by a halibut longliner out of Petersburg, my hometown, and knew the skipper and crew well. It is hard to describe the joy and relief that swept over me when I reached the safety of the deck. In the days that followed, as I made my way home from Seward to Anchorage, to Juneau and Petersburg, I felt elated and utterly alive in a way I never had before.

I tell this story because I think we are all on that boat now. Some of us just don't realize it yet. Our climate crisis is a collision at sea writ large. Some of us seem still to be drunk, unable to grok our situation, even mocking those around us who are now pulling their survival suits out of the lockers. Some of us are standing passively on the stern, paralyzed by disbelief amid the growing chaos, and doubtful that our small actions can make a difference anyway. Some of us are still sipping our morning coffee in the galley, refusing to even acknowledge that we have hit the rocks.

But for us, there is no other boat we can call in to the rescue. This is the only ship we have. Our actions now are our only survival suit. If we are not part of the bucket brigade, if we are not manning the pumps, when are we likely to do so? After the ship has already sunk beneath the waves?

The pinnacle we have hit is a huge one, no doubt about it - bigger than anything we have seen before. None of us saw it coming, and the temptation is strong to pretend it isn't real. Denial and despair are sirens still singing from the rocks, calling us closer to our demise. The allure of their song is mesmerizing.

But deep in our heart, we know that this time we must respond with the full measure of our lives. This time we won’t likely get a second chance. There is so much that we CAN do, and there is literally no time to lose. If we want to deliver our ship safely home to our children, this is our moment to show up on deck, fully alert, fully informed, fully engaged. This is what we have been rehearsing all our lives to do. This is the time to see what we are really made of.