Earlier this year, a friend passed a job offer on to us: a summer on a research vessel in Alaska. It was a private vessel chartered by a group of NOAA scientists studying whales. A four-month stint, traveling the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and the polar ice caps of the North Pole.
For the galley, the vessel was to be totally organic with an emphasis of gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan and lactose-free diets. This was totally out of my comfort zone but we could not pass up the opportunity to see and experience Alaska, so my husband, Capt. David Erickson, and I went for it.
We arrived in Seattle on June 10 and were brought down to the boat where we met Capt. Mark Dixon, a yachting captain who was also going to be part of our team. The boat was a 165-foot retired crabbing vessel named M/V Aquila, which was used in the TV show “Deadliest Catch” as a chase boat a few years back. Definitely a commercial vessel.
We provisioned as much as we could in Seattle and set out a few days later on the inside passage of Prince William Sound. Almost immediately, one of the owners called me up to the wheelhouse to see my first glimpse of the wildlife: a family of Orca whales and a few humpback whales frolicking in the water, jumping and splashing about. It seemed as if a humpback waved at me.
We picked up the first set of scientists in Sitka and were off for 28 days in the Gulf of Alaska. I quickly got into a routine; up at 4 a.m.; finished at about 10:30 p.m. Three meals a day were served family style, but with several food allergies and dietary restrictions.
The scientists were wonderful and we all got along like family. Occasionally, I got to the wheelhouse for a peek at Alaska’s grandeur. The scientists were eager to explain everything I saw and the different behaviors of the marine life.
We dropped off the first set of scientists in Kodiak and headed back to Sitka for three weeks of salmon tendering. When the salmon fishing boats maxed out their tanks, they would unload onto our vessel and go back out. When our holds were full, we went in to the processing plant, offloaded, rinsed and repeated. Five or six vessels would come to us a day, sometimes more, mostly at night and into the wee hours of the morning.
I only was required to cook for the crew, but we had a friendly competition with other tendering vessels for which of us gave the fisherman the best service and goodies. The owners of our vessel were very competitive so there was no way we were coming in second place. Challenge accepted. Being the only chef in the entire fleet, my job was to provide baked goods for the fishermen while trying to ward off my own crew’s stealthy hands.
But I was rewarded. We were fishing for pink salmon and the fisherman didn’t want the king salmon they sometimes caught, so guess who got all the king? You guessed it; we did. With an average weight of 65 pounds and anywhere from three to eight king salmon a night, I was busy gutting and filleting salmon, handing out goodies and making espressos for anyone who needed one. During the day, in addition to the three meals, I was brining and smoking salmon, and baking breads, brownies and cookies.
The last night of the tendering job, I had hoped it would be slow, no king salmon to fillet, not many cappuccinos to make. Of course, that didn’t happen. In fact, that was the biggest night with more than 20 kings coming into the galley. Thank goodness David stepped in to help fillet. I don’t think I have ever seen so many huge fish.
With all that said, though, I still had the time of my life.
Once the tendering equipment was unloaded in Sitka, we were back off to Kodiak. I had called ahead to a local grocery store for provisions. I was a little nervous about what to expect, so as soon as we landed, I set out to take a look at their offerings and to meet the manager. I was pretty impressed with the store. Nothing gourmet but lots of fresh produce.
The manager assured me our order would be filled with quality ingredients. We were leaving on a 40-day trip with a couple stops in Nome, which is more like a village with slim pickings for groceries.
It was a mad race getting all the provisions on board and put away quickly before we left. And unfortunately, the produce was lacking immensely. I had 8 watermelons, 7 of which I had to toss since they were pure mush inside. This was the stage for most of the rest of the produce. Since the charter contract stated that fresh fruit would be served with breakfast and raw vegetables with each meal thereafter, this presented quite a challenge.
I was disappointed but what could I do? We were off to the polar ice caps of the North Pole.
Ten days to Nome, 20 days out in the polar ice caps, back to Nome and 10 days back to Kodiak. Luckily, we had a walk-in refrigerator with a dehumidifier so I carefully tended to my produce. Everything had to be gone through daily, wrapped and re-wrapped to extend its life.
This was definitely the biggest challenge of the trip.
One day in the blur of days out at sea, we were all called to the wheelhouse to see a school of killer whales, at least seven of them, which had separated a fin whale calf from its mother and were killing it. They bashed into it and on top of it, trying to drown it. Blood was everywhere. The killer whales were teaching their young ones how to hunt so they postponed the death of the calf.
I wished we could have shot it or something to put it out of its misery, but I was reminded that it was part of the circle of life, a part I would rather forget.
We stayed there more than four hours watching and finally left before they had finished. This had never been caught on tape before in this region of the world, so the scientists spent all their time recording and watching. I had to treat one scientist for hypothermia after standing outside too long.
And one day in the polar ice caps, toward the end of our journey, several went out in the small boat with David at the wheel. Suddenly, the man-overboard alarm sounded. The small boat had overturned a couple miles from us. A whale had smacked the boat with its tail and catapulted it into the air. One by one, they climbed on top of the boat. The water was 33 degrees Fahrenheit and hypothermia was a real danger here. They were dressed in cold weather gear but not immersion suits.
We got to them fast and got them warm. All five scientists and David were uninjured. We were lucky. After that, we abandoned any more tagging of the animals.
Homeward bound we were. We arrived in Kodiak and the scientists disembarked. We were finished, and I had one of those exciting, once-in-a-lifetime adventures. The work was hard but I wouldn’t have traded my summer for the world.
Chef Jacquelyn Patnode has been in the yachting industry five years and works as a chef/captain team with her husband, Capt. David Erickson. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.