Reckoning with a history at sea — New book recalls coming of age amid commercial fishing

Atcheson book coverBy Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

Of Alaska’s population — seasonal and year-round — there exists a motley crew of diverse personality types, not the least colorful of which are those drawn to the Last Frontier to fish for a living. Many arrive low on money but high on the promise of an adventure at sea. Though they can be as different as all the variations of creatures in the sea, there is at least one similarity — they don’t forget their maiden fishing season.

Dave Atcheson, of Sterling, spent more than a decade commercial fishing, though he might be better known in the community today as a sportfisherman and the author of numerous fishing-related magazine articles, as well as the angler guide, “Fishing Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.” His early experiences at sea are one’s he’ll never forget, and are translated into his memorable new book, “Dead Reckoning — Navigating Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on the High Seas.”

“I moved up in ’84 and immediately went on the ocean without having ever seen it,” he said.

If this approach sounds a bit foolish, Atcheson, in hindsight, agrees, though now can put his harrowing survival stories, fish-out-of-water moments and other experiences while getting his feet wet in the fishing industry to good use in his book.

“It’s a memoir of my commercial fishing days, but there’s definitely a bit of coming of age to it as well. It culminates to almost losing a boat on the Bering Sea. I was nearly killed. It was a real life-changing experience,” he said.

Because of how personally attached Atcheson is to the stories, it took him awhile to be able to share them with others.

“The time is finally right. I knew the stories were all good, but I just needed some time to distance myself from them before I could write about them,” he said.

The book depicts Atcheson’s first taste of fishing life, at age 19, seining salmon out of Seward. He was working aboard The Lancer with a skipper, named Woody, who Atcheson describes as a vestige of the past with a personality as unpredictable as the sea.

“He was a crusty captain and a renowned screamer. There wasn’t a lot of teaching going on,” he said.

Working for a man who seemed to have salt water where compassion or patience should have run, Atcheson buddied up with the other deckhand, although this, too, was not an ideal situation.

“In many ways he took on the role of a somewhat harsh older brother and was my only friend aboard Woody’s boat. I later found out that he was wanted, at least for questioning, in a murder,” Atcheson said.

Following this experience Atcheson changed locales, seeking a more friendly and educational environment. He took a job set netting in Prince William Sound with Bob Linville and his family.

“He really took me under his wing. It was there, under his mentorship, I really gained the confidence to work aboard and even run boats myself,” Atcheson said.

The story coalesces aboard F/V Illiamna Bay, where Atcheson finds himself fishing on the edge of the Bering Sea, seining for herring with skipper Tim Moore, of Homer, and fellow deckhand Karl Kircher, of Kasilof.

“It’s a night in which life is nearly literally ripped away, violently, over the course of a long and harrowing night. Then, the hours and days that stretch into weeks repairing the vessel for the five-day trek home,” he said. “It really makes you appreciate each day and what you have.”

Atcheson wrote the book to appeal to a wide target audience.

“I think anyone who is intrinsically drawn to nature and the natural world, just as much as someone looking for an adventure story. There is a coming of age element, too. The lessons we all learn as we age. The difference, for example, between confidence and nerve,” he said.

The book has been well received since its release, including 25 out of 25 reviewers on giving the book five stars and praising Atcheson’s story-telling and writing abilities.

“It’s been fantastic, but also humbling,” he said. “It’s great when someone you don’t know well, and people you know, too, when you can see that they have actually been touched, affected in some way, by what you have written.”

* * * * *

Dave Atcheson will discuss his memoir, “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas” at:

  • 6 p.m. Oct. 23 in the multipurpose room at Kenai Peninsula College’s Kenai River Campus Resident Hall, and
  • 5 Oct. 22 at the UAA Campus Bookstore in Anchorage, with author Jeff Schultz presenting his book, “Chasing Dogs.” Both events are free and open to the public.

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Filed under books, commercial fishing, writing

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