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Crew training class prepares deckhands for Bristol Bay fishing season

Deckhand and Gabe Dunham AK Sea Grant.jpg
Corinne Smith
/
KDLG
A deckhand trainee gets checked out by instructor Gabe Dunham before a test swim in the Dillingham harbor

Bristol Bay commercial fishing is known to be fast-paced and profitable. But that comes with challenging conditions and unexpected danger. Ahead of the season, a deckhand training course drew new and returning crew-members to cover essential skills like knot tying, operations, safety training and more.

Crew-members in training put on bright red emergency survival suits and leap off the dock of the Dillingham harbor into the water.

Left, left!

Teams of three awkwardly swim in the semi-inflated suits, but they quickly pick up the motions.

The trainees are practicing emergency safety drills as part of a deckhand training course offered by Alaska Sea Grant and University of Alaska Fairbanks. It covers essential skills like knot tying, net mending, and fish picking. The crew course started about four years ago, and has trained roughly 150 crew members around the Bristol Bay region. The safety training is according to the Alaska Marine Education Association curriculum. Over the three day course, they drill skills on land and in the water.

“Ok now get in the chain position, captain in the back!” Tav Ammu, one of the instructors, instructs from the dock. The trainees swim together in a chain formation, efficiently moving toward the dock.

“It allows them to move much more easily using that technique," Ammu said. "And then also the huddle position, which is where a group will be together and they circle up to conserve as much heat as possible.”

Deckhands in chain formation.jpg
Corinne Smith
/
KDLG
Deckhands practice swimming in a chain formation, more efficient in an emergency and keeps the crew together

In a real emergency, like a storm or boat accident, it can be cold, loud, and chaotic. But trainees have practice donning survival suits in under a minute, swimming and rescuing each other with a life ring effectively.

Heather Rounds steps out of a red survival suit after a practice rescue. She’s from Brooklyn, New York, and has fished for several seasons in Southeast. This is her first season in Bristol Bay.

“I think just like generally having an awareness of all these safety protocols, you're familiarized with everything in some capacity, even if it's like very brief, that just gives you an overall confidence," Rounds said.

The U.S. Coast Guard members paid a visit to Bristol Bay harbors in Dillingham, King Salmon and Egegik in early June and completed roughly 350 dockside examinations. The voluntary program began in 2019. Its goal is to prevent accidents through safety gear inspections, like survival suits, flares and fire extinguishers.

Coast Guard Petty Officer Chris Houvener says even though fishing crews are busy, these inspections are an opportunity to review and hopefully prevent any accidents.

“A lot of times you require these safety items, but most folks hopefully don't actually have to use them." Houvener said. "So in that case, you know, it might have made some of the fishermen out there realize that, well, maybe I need to get some training. Or if I have an expired fire extinguisher, maybe I'll take it to the beach and try training with it with my crew, that kind of thing.”

Houvener says there was a particular focus on fire safety this year. He says smoke detectors are an important safety measure.

“Smoke detectors are not a required item, it's not something that we check for, but I'd probably be a good safety item to have on board just as another layer of protection," he said.

Each boat that passes the inspection gets a safety decal valid for two years - this year that was roughly 275 safety decals. He says they hope to increase that number of prepared vessels each year.

At the Dillingham harbor, new deckhand Ryan Grzelak pulls a crewmate to the dock in a life ring. He’s from Chicago, and this is his first time fishing in the bay. He echoed the feeling of preparedness after the training.

“It's really helped give me a little bit more confidence before going out on the water. In this whole industry that seems very rough and tough and kind of like, you know, you're in or you're out or whatever, you know, it's helped me wrap my head around what I actually need to do, and how to do it effectively," he said.

Deckhand harbor.jpg
Corinne Smith
/
KDLG
Trainees practice putting on survival suits in under one minute, and jumping in the water

With newfound confidence, deckhand trainees head out to take a final exam and then to their first fishing season in Bristol Bay - now better prepared to make it a safe one.

For more information and training videos on how to keep yourself and your crew safe this season, visit amsea.org/resources. To contact the US Coast Guard in case of emergency call (907) 428-4100.

Corinne Smith is a reporter and producer who grew up in Oakland, California and on her family’s horse ranch in rural San Rafael, CA, a contrast that nurtured a deep appreciation for the complexities of identity and belonging, and connection to place, land and the natural world. She began her reporting career at KPFA in Berkeley, first as a general assignment reporter and then as lead producer of UpFront, a daily morning news and public affairs show. In 2020, she served as the summer reporter for KFSK in Petersburg where she first got hooked on Alaska stories. For the last year, she's been a general assignment reporter for KHNS based in Haines, and thrilled to experience a new part of Alaska and cover the Bristol Bay fishing season this summer with KDLG!