For Jason Vanderlip, 29, of Argentine Township, it’s all go, all the time, on his commercial fishing boat in Alaska, for months on end. If you’ve seen the show “The Deadliest Catch,” you’ll have an idea of the conditions he works in. If Vanderlip makes a mistake, people can get hurt, or worse, and all the while his family with his wife Sandra and four kids are counting on him.
Vanderlip isn’t on the popular show, but he knows the crew members, and even frequents the same spots they do. His crew of 30 turns out 340 tons of fish in less than 10 days. He frequently sees mountains, and flocks of bald eagles on his boat. “I love the mountains, it’s just amazing,” he said.
On the boat, he has broken toes, fingers, his arm, and sustained a few concussions. He has had his fingers and toes smashed by cases. These injuries were minor, but he has seen people get badly hurt. He saw one person fall 20 feet from the top deck, and land face-first. “The gear gets tired out after you’ve fished it so long,” he said. By gear, he means the vast network of heavy lines, nets and webs that haul the fish out of the water, that can break, injuring crew members in the way.
Tendonitis is a problem with the repetitive consistent motion. He has seen men tape the knife to their wrist because they could no longer maintain a grip. “If you want to make the money that’s what you have to do,” he said.
After nine years he has advanced up to being a “deck boss.” He spends most of his day mending web, and splicing cables that haul the nets out of the water. “It’s just about as fast as you can move your hands all day long,” he said. He takes a quick break every four hours if work is caught up. His regular work day is 16.5 hours. He wakes up an hour before his shift, and eats breakfast.
The boat is processing fish around the clock. If he’s lucky, his shift will end after 16 hours, but can stretch to 48 hours if the nets need frequent repair. “As a deck boss, your hours depend on your gear,” he said.
Vanderlip is in charge of keeping the complex nets together that haul up tons of fish everyday. The net itself is one quarter mile long, and it is composed of webbed sections and hundreds of fathoms of line. A fathom is around six feet, or an arm span. “It’s pretty heavy, especially when it’s wet,” he said. As a deck boss, he has to move quick and think on his feet. He has to make loops and knots in the line that will support hundreds of pounds of fish and webbing. If one of his straps break, it could have 40 tons of pressure behind it, and one of his six crew members that work under him could be hurt. “You could kill somebody,” he said. On deck, there is a lot of pressure on everything and everybody.
The job pays around $4,000 per trip. The length of the trip depends on how quickly they fill the boat’s freezer. Once the freezer is full, they head back to Dutch Harbor to drop off the load, then head right back out. The crew averages three to four trips per month.
They net fish like Yellow fin, Cod and Sole. His boat is an “H and G” boat, meaning head and gut. Using a type of table saw, the crew members who are processors cut the head and gut out, which are discarded. “You want to put as much fish through as you can,” he said. The body is saved and stored in large cubes. It doesn’t happen often, but because of the exposed blade, crew members can lose fingers in accidents. This was his first job on the boat.
Once the fish are collected, they are offloaded into semi trailers that end up on a boat to China or Japan. Some fish goes to Norway, and some goes to Russia, but most to china. Fish end up being used for a variety of foods, including imitation crab and lobster. “They use every piece of the fish over there,” he said.
Vanderlip’s last trip ended just before Christmas. Trips out to Dutch Harbor have been his main job for the past nine years. When he returns home on leave, he takes a week off, then works at a local slaughterhouse part time. “I get kinda stir crazy,” he said.
Being stir crazy can drive his family a little crazy too. “He’s always gotta be doing something,” said his wife Sandra. “If we’re not fast enough for him, he’ll just go build something.” While Jason is gone, Sandra has little contact with him, and this last trip was nearly one year, ending just before Christmas.
“It’s sad when he’s gone of course. It’s hard to get used to him when he gets here,” she said. “That’s the tug-of war that’s hard, especially on the kids.”
A roller coaster of emotions surrounds Jason’s career, with mounting excitement and expectations when he is on his way home, the adjustment of having him home, and then the sadness when he leaves.
“You cry for a week at first, but it’s gotten easier over the years,” she said. To better handle him leaving, she washes his laundry immediately, and picks up any reminder that he was there recently. “I just pretend he’ll be back in few days,” she said. After six years of being together, she knows how to cope.
The couple shares a love of cooking, and they have a dream of paying off their home, and opening a sandwich shop. Sandra knows though that he could also easily advance and become a ship captain, and lead the entire crew.
“Whatever future holds for him, I support his decision,” she said. “I hope he can come to terms in whatever he decides. They depend on him, but so do we.”
Until Vanderlip decides, it’s the pressure, the water, the mountains and the eagles for his daily life. “Working like that is a whole different experience,” he said.