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  Patrick Dillon

I grew up at the edge of the water on an island in Puget Sound and was convinced that this provided the greatest vantage point in all the world. We faced east toward the Cascade range and the city of Seattle that lay compactly beneath the mountains, and we overlooked the great shipping lanes that brought commerce from the Orient or from just about anywhere else on earth that we could imagine.

We could monitor the tides and currents, the changing wind, the rain squalls, the flight of birds and the run of the fish, and we could even assess the fisherman's luck. At night, we could count the running lights of the wooden purse seiners and know the salmon were in season. We would hear the diesel engines groan and know just when the work had begun, that the great nets were being lifted and spread and lifted again.

We would listen. And voices would come across the water. Many we did not understand. They were the voices of Slavs, Swedes, Norwegians, Croats. But we could discern curses and harsh judgments from shouts of encouragement or exultings of momentary good fortune, and we knew what to look for in the faces of the fishermen in town in the following days. Usually, the faces registered disappointment. It was a byproduct of being a fisherman. They lived within certain limits that the cycles of nature and luck brought. And thus fishermen did not talk much of their work, at least not expansively, and not to just anyone. Among themselves and those they trusted, they would complain that they had little to show for all their work and mean it. As we eavesdropped at the water's edge, what we witnessed led the rest of us who were not fishermen to guess what the fishermen meant when they said theirs was a hard life.

As time wore on, the number of running lights out on Puget Sound diminished as the catch withered. And the voices grew fewer. We heard that the fishermen were leaving in search of fewer disappointments--to the North Pacific and Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea.

When they returned after their long seasons, many had something to show for their efforts. But their faces registered something altogether different, a hardening we had not seen before even among young men. The fishermen described the huge seas and paralyzing cold, endless work days and extreme dangers, and their stories took on savage tones. The stories from "up North" were repeated down at the "Bloody Bucket" tavern and the fishermen would buy drinks for the listeners, who would repeat them in turn. And the more stories got repeated, the more a local mythology prospered.

A successful season involved more than a jackpot catch. It meant surviving. And that was often chalked up to nothing more than luck. The fishermen seemed resigned to their fate, sometimes boasting about it sardonically, and in that sense, they became their own worst enemies.

As the seasons lengthened and the number of fishermen who left safe waters for the most dangerous working conditions in the world grew, the number of deaths grew by such a proportion that no other industry, not even mining or logging, would compare. Yet the fishermen resisted any and all efforts to impose safety standards. It was partly an economic consideration and partly a matter of ignorance and pride, but they let themselves become vulnerable to the dangers of the seas.

Then, one day in 1983, America's worst fishing disaster claimed fourteen lives.

Lost At Sea is this story. Of a single disaster that unmade a myth and changed America's commercial fishing industry forever. Of a small fishing town that sent its best young men to sea and was left to suffer the loss of the innocence that had been in its soul for over 100 years.

I began writing Lost at Sea in 1994, after being inspired by a book by the late author Norman McLean. The book was Young Men and Fire. In it, the author attempted to retrace the fatal decisions and missteps that led to the death of twelve young smoke jumpers in a forest fire in Montana in the late 1940s. I had heard of a disaster in the Bering Sea in 1983 in which fourteen young men from the same small town set off from a port in the Aleutian Islands and were never seen again. Ironically, they were aboard what were considered to be state-of-the-art fishing vessels, highly capitalized and armed with the very latest in technology. Still, they were no match for the sea.

I was determined to investigate the events leading up to this disaster, the greatest in modern fishing history, and to try to understand the element of fatalism that seems to pervade most small fishing communities. To gather material, I lived among the victims' families in 1994, gaining insights into the history of the community and the histories of each of the families that sent their sons to sea and reconciled the rest of their lives when the boats did not come home. I spent hundreds of hours interviewing the families and those connected to the fishing industry. In the winter of 1995, I signed on as a crewmember of a crab boat, captained by the son in law of one of the victims who commanded one of the two vessels that had vanished in the Bering Sea eleven years earlier. During the forty-five days I was at sea in the Bering Sea, I experienced some of the harshest weather and most dangerous work undergone by anyone.

The book follows the development and demise of commercial fishing, as it evolves into the nation's deadliest and least regulated occupation. The narrative moves from the high seas into government hearing rooms as investigators try to understand how two ostensibly unsinkable fishing vessels vanished without as much as a single SOS between them.

The book also traces the hazards of conveying family tradition and common sense into the lap of technology, without compensating for even the smallest of potentially fatal margins.

Finally, it traces the triumph of one single-minded woman who, after losing a son in a horrific accident, overcame governmental and industrial opposition to bring about the first law in history governing commercial fishing safety on the high seas. It is a story of shameful neglect, greed, grief, guilt and human values set against some of the most dramatic circumstances imaginable -- hundred-mile-an-hour winds, forty-foot waves, subzero temperatures and nearly unimaginable working conditions.

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Copyright © 1998 Patrick Dillon.

Photo of Patrick Dillon copyright © Anne Dowie.