Rower survives ocean capsize to fish Bristol Bay

Jun 22, 2018

Ask fishermen what the worst-case scenario on the water could be, and many might say going overboard. One greenhorn in Bristol Bay’s commercial salmon fishery faced that nightmare in a rowboat near the Bermuda Triangle. KDLG’s Austin Fast caught up with him in Dillingham before the start of the season.

Greenhorn deckhand Jordan Hanssen threads corks onto a gillnet at the PAF Boatyard in Dillingham before the 2018 sockeye salmon fishery gets underway.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

On a strikingly sunny afternoon in the PAF boat yard, Jordan Hanssen of the F/V Mr. Fox was just getting his feet wet. He’d been knotting cork after cork onto gillnets for two days.

"The corks float and the leads sink. That's how it works — that's just what I've been told. I don't really know. I've never seen it work myself," he laughed.

Hanssen may be new to commercial fishing, but he’s no stranger to the water. After rowing competitively at the University of Puget Sound, he rowed boats the length of the Columbia and Mississippi rivers and he raced a 29-foot rowboat across the north Atlantic Ocean in 2006. That’s about 3,200 miles from New York City to Falmouth, England.

"We had no idea what the hell we were doing. We were all 23 and had no deep-water experience or yard experience, and we just kind of had a lot of optimism and hardheadedness," Hanssen said.

Seventy-two days after Hanssen’s team left New York, they set foot on British soil. They won the race by 10 days, setting a Guinness World Record for the first unassisted row from the mainland United States to the United Kingdom mainland. They’d lost almost 150 pounds among the four of them because they misestimated how much food they’d need for the adventure.

A few years later, Hanssen and his buddies were back at it, planning a longer trip from Senegal in west Africa to Miami. They partnered with the Canadian Wildlife Federation to study the ocean and promote conservation in 2013.

"We had tons of scientific equipment on the boat that were just soaking up data the whole time," Hanssen said. "Temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, dissolved CO2. We were running psychological studies, sleep studies, and basically testing as many things as we possibly could given that environment and the fact that it's extreme."

However, it wasn’t meant to be. Just east of the infamous Bermuda Triangle — again 72 days into their journey —  Hanssen says all it took was two square waves at a bad time to capsize the rowboat and put the four men’s lives in jeopardy.

"We were on Dateline. If you Google 'Dateline' and 'Capsized,' you can see their dramatic rendition of capsizing," Hanssen said, sounding amused.

Hanssen really downplays the danger. He says the U.S. Coast Guard diverted a car carrier to rescue them just 12 hours after capsizing.

"The boat could handle big, rough water. It's just that these two waves that hit us were kind of funky. And they hit us like a one-two punch. We were in the middle of shifting people in and out of the cabin, and by the time I saw the wave and by the time we were in water and everybody was OK, it was between 10 to 15 seconds. 

We had all the right tools. We had four PLBs (personal locator beacons) — one on each of our life vests. We never really had to deal with a lot of fear because we knew things were working. If we'd been out there another 24 hours, I think it would have completely changed the game.

The scariest part of that night was climbing from the life raft up a 45-foot rope ladder in 6-foot seas into this car carrier," Hanssen said.

Even though that ladder made him nervous, Hanssen said rowing across the ocean isn’t as deadly as people think.

"The majority of the time, it is really, really chill. It's a lot of work. It's very consistent, but you get to see the ocean and all of its flavors. You're going so slow that it's really hard to miss things," Hanssen said.

Among those things — Hanssen described a superpod of dolphins. What looked like a line of whitewater crashing over the horizon turned out to be thousands of animals rushing past.

"They were everywhere. They were as far as we could see. You could look down under the water, 15 feet deep, you could see it was just stacked with dolphins. It was loud. You could hear them clicking and chirping to each other. It was an overwhelming experience of wildlife. It was like being in the middle of a stampede," Hanssen explained.

Another time, Hanssen slipped in the water to swim alongside pilot whales the size of school buses. Flying squid flopped down on the boat as a welcome addition to their diet once quick-fried in a bit of coconut oil.

Without light pollution, a beautiful nighttime rainbow — or moonbow — spread across the sky after a squall. Hanssen says that’s the most profound thing he’s ever witnessed. He was looking forward to getting out on Bristol Bay for a very different adventure.

Several years ago, a chance meeting at a Seattle boatyard brought together greenhorn deckhand Jordan Hanssen (left) and his skipper, Tyone Raymond of the F/V Mr. Fox (right). Hanssen was preparing for an ill-fated rowing trip across the Atlantic Ocean as Raymond worked on his commercial fishing boat.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

"It's something I've wanted to do for years. I've heard about this fishery for a long, long time. It seems really fun and challenging, and there's something like an athleticism around it. Like a race-type vibe that you can see," he said.

All around Hanssen, deckhands are putting in long hours preparing for when they’ll be picking fish out of nets for 24 hours or more out on the bay. Hanssen said it’s a privilege to “choose your hard.”

"People are happy when they're doing things that are challenging in one way or the other. But especially if you can choose it. If you challenge yourself consistently doing things that you like, when you don't have a choice and something's really hard and crappy in your life, then you can take some of those lessons and apply it to that," Hanssen said. "Everything seems a bit more important when you’re on a boat and you’re surrounded by water because things really, really matter. There’s no half-assing it."

There's no doubt Hanssen will find the challenge he craved out there fishing Bristol Bay. Once the season ends, he said he’ll find a cheap place to disappear over the winter near Seattle to finish writing a set of novels.

Watch the Dateline episode featuring Hanssen and his team here. Contact the author at austin@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.