Hard Lessons


Picture by Brad Assu
Picture by Brad Assu

The summer of 1964 I went commercial fishing as a deckhand on a West Coast Troller out of Ucluelet. I loved adventure in my youth and I still do. I had an uncle who lived in Port Albion at that time. He was employed in the forestry industry. As a child, my family would spend time during the summer at his home. I can still taste the pancakes he used to make. At that time there was no road access to Ucluelet so we would take the U-Chuck from Port Alberni and my uncle would pick us up in his small boat to take us across the bay to Port Albion. This was always a great adventure for me and during my stay I would be fishing for piling perch, cod and shiners off the government dock. 

During my stay at my uncle’s in Port Albion that summer, I walked the dock looking for a deckhand job on one of the many trollers that used the facilities there, selling their catch to the Canadian Fish Company. As luck would have it I got a job on a troller named the Valdez Isle. The skipper was great and I loved being out on the Pacific Ocean fishing the big bank; plus I never got seasick. In a short time I was pulling fish all day and the skipper would ice the catch. The only concern we had was when the rudder on the boat malfunctioned. The skipper tied a rope to himself and I anchored him as he lowered himself over the stern and managed to temporarily hook up the rudder, enabling us to run back to Ucluelet for repairs. We were fortunate to have calm seas, just a gentle wave-less swell. Later, as luck would have it, the skipper’s brother came out from Newfoundland and I lost my job. 

I had to look for a new boat to get hired on, and at that point I was offered a fully equipped 50’ troller by the manager of Canadian Fish. My skipper encouraged me to go for it, and said that I could fish with him and two other boats. They would break me in. I believe the boats were the Thetis Queen and the Johnny Boy. They were great guys and I was astounded by the offer. It was too big for me though; I was just a teenage kid and I declined. 

I landed a job on another troller, a 50’ beauty. It had a Crown Chrysler gas engine, which I had some reservations about because of the potential for explosion if the bilge is not cleared of fumes before the engine is started. Off we went on a three-week ice trip off Nootka Island. I didn’t know that the skipper liked his alcohol and he definitely didn’t have a pleasant personality. There I was stuck on this boat and I sure couldn’t walk on water. While he stayed in the wheelhouse, I was in the cockpit all day pulling fish, cleaning fish and icing fish. I ate the same thing three times a day every day: Mulligan Stew, and if I wanted a peanut butter sandwich he complained. Two weeks into the trip we were about three-quarters full when a big storm blew up and we had to take refuge in Friendly Cove. When we got in to the cove, there was the naval training vessel, the Oriole, a sailing ship. My skipper was paying too much attention to it and ran aground. He blamed me for not giving him notice, but he managed to back off the bottom.

Waiting out the storm in Friendly Cove, three other boats came in and they were all buddies, so they tied up four abreast and proceeded to drink heavily for the next three days. All I could do was row around in the dinghy and stay out of the way. At about 11:30 p.m. on the third night the weather had died down to navigable condition. The skipper decided we were going to Ucluelet, so away we went. He ran the boat out until we were off Estevan Point then said to me, “Kid, you have to take the boat to Ucluelet. I’m too drunk.” I don’t know exactly what time it was at that point but I do know it was pitch black and a new storm blew in. At this point I had about five-and-a-half weeks’ experience. Little did I know, this would be my Perfect Storm. The skipper said, “Watch out for the kelp beds” and went down to the f’c’sle and passed out. 

Like I said, this was my Perfect Storm. The wind came up with a vengeance, howling through the rigging like a banshee. The water was roaring past and around the boat and I realized I was in a grim situation. I went into another state of consciousness where every instinct I had was on full alert. I was holding the boat steady, running by spotlight and avoiding the kelp beds. I had been into the storm for two or three hours, the water kept getting bigger and bigger, and the wind louder. I took green water over the bow and flying water was hitting the wheelhouse windows. Water actually penetrated around the seams of the glass and wood into the wheelhouse. There I was – what was I going to do but stay calm and pray? That’s what I did. Throughout the storm I was climbing the waves when I saw a wave that was standing higher than the rest, and also a large kelp bed was coming in with it. As the boat climbed up this large wave, I had to navigate away from the kelp bed without having the boat get broad side to the wave. As I crested the wave, a blast of wind slammed me from the starboard side and heeled the boat hard over to port, ripping the starboard stabilizer out of the water and onto the deck. Being three-quarters full of salmon and ice was probably what saved the boat from rolling over. I had no choice but to engage the autopilot and go out of the wheelhouse onto the deck. I just did what I had to do. With water running around my ankles I picked up the stabilizer – and these are heavy – carried it over to the starboard side and carefully returned it to the water, being careful not to get my feet tangled up. I could have gone over the side so easily and that would have been it. There were no survival suits back then and no lifejackets on the boat. I then went back into the wheelhouse, grabbed the wheel and disengaged the autopilot. I continued south down Vancouver Island and by the time I got to Amphitrite Point the weather had settled down and I woke up the skipper. He ran the boat into Port Albion, off-loaded the catch and paid me 10%, which was down from the 15% I was paid on the other boat. Needless to say I quit, and his response was, “Don’t quit kid. You’d make a helluva fisherman.” 

“Not on this boat”, I said, and walked away. 

He couldn’t get another deckhand so he took his boat to Port Alberni and his wife got on board. While he was having the boat fuelled up and his wife was in the galley, he went to the bar and returned some time later. He was under the influence and didn’t turn the blowers on to clear the bilge of gasoline fumes. When he started the engine the boat exploded and his wife was fatally injured. 

I often think about that time in my life, the horrific consequences of addiction and how it destroys lives. 


Jim Swift is an artist, and an outdoor enthusiast since childhood who has enjoyed many adventures in the wilderness.