Capt. Jack

Have you heard of “The Deadliest Catch” TV show, where fishing crews risk their lives in angry seas to bring fish to our tables? Captain Jack Molan wasn’t on the show, but he’s been captain of some of the show’s vessels and other boats. He knows what it’s like to get caught in a storm in freezing waters and wonder if he’ll get his crew out alive.

With his special brand of leadership that unifies crews, in ten short stories, Capt. Jack shares his adventures in ferocious storms in the book he released in mid-September.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: My Thirty Years in the Bering Sea

Below, with permission, I posted the story he wrote about how tenacity got him the job that would threaten his life at times, but he would truly find his passion. Enjoy!

 

LIFE AT SEA

 

At age thirteen, my mom walked me onto the train in Sacramento, California. “Say, ‘Hi’ to Grandma and Grandpa and my sister,” she said and gave me a quick kiss.

This photo of Union Station is courtesy of TripAdvisor

At Union Station in Portland, I found my grandparents waiting for me. Grandpa shook my hand as Grandma said, “You’d
like to worry me sick, Jack Molan.”  Then she smothered me in hugs.

From the train station, they took me to a Greyhound bound for Seaside, Oregon. In two hours, I got off the bus and inhaled the salt air. My pulse picked up in anticipation. Soon I would see what I came for.

My auntie pulled to the curb in a huge Pontiac LeMans. “Oh, I’m so glad you came to stay with us,” she said, but I didn’t plan to spend much time at her house. Each day, on her way to work, she’d drop me with a sack lunch at my true destination. I’d come to hang out at the south end of Seaside, at the cove where I could watch the surfers ride the waves.

I stood on a boulder the size of a small car, spellbound, after hiking a mile over slick, smooth rocks to Second Point. Spindrift blew off waves two stories high that roared past me like locomotives. The white water exploded like bombs going off, the rocky shoreline rumbling under my feet. Smooth, gray faces pitched in perfect peeling curls. I knew this place would someday either give me the ride of my life or a horrible drowning.

Ancient spruce and fir trees formed a lush green wall behind me. Brilliant white seagulls skimmed the water’s surface, not for food but to play in the rainbow of refracted light in the spray, out-running the thundering breakers. The pulsing ocean both frightened and thrilled me.

“I’ll be a surfer and live by the ocean,” I swore on the rock that day.

By the time I graduated from high school, our family had moved to Tacoma Washington. I left my home in Tacoma at seventeen and moved to Seaside, Oregon. Initially, I flopped on Auntie’s couch but quickly landed a restaurant job. Within a few weeks, I bought a Mercury Comet for a hundred bucks and rented a room in a small beach house with a couple of surfers. A job came up at a fish cannery, so I left the restaurant to work on a clean-up crew.

The slimy, smelly job paid better than dish washing, but the night shift is what I valued most. When I got off work, I could jump in my Comet and go hit the waves. I never once considered college. “I can go to school if there’s something I want to learn,” I would say when people asked about my plans for the future.

At the cannery dock one day, I helped offload a shrimp boat, breaking up the ice and scooping out pink crustaceans with my white plastic shovel. Buzz, a deck hand, sat nearby on a wooden crate against the railing, smoking his Camel non-filters and bragged: “I made twelve hundred bucks this week.”

“What?” I stopped shoveling and squinted into the sun at him. “You made that much in a week?”

“Oh, yeah. It’s been rocking. I’ll bank thirty grand by the end of the season.” He took a long drag on his cancer stick. “I just have to stay out of the bar.”

I’d busted my butt working overtime that week and earned a quarter of what he made in three days. “So, Buzz, what do you do all winter?”

“Ah, the guys with families fish dungy crabs, but I go to Mexico—six months on, six months off.”

I leaned on my shovel, dumbfounded. I’d just found the brass ring. Money and time—time and money. I wanted both. That summer, I turned twenty-one and decided my next job would be on a fishing boat.

When the surf was flat, I walked the docks looking for an opening. One day, I met a captain whose boat reflected his pride. The decks smelled of bleach from a recent wash-down. The ropes were hung up, the nets stacked neatly, and the fishing gear organized. His crew was painting deck boards, joking and laughing as they worked. I knew this boat had a reputation as a top producer and was thrilled the captain would talk to me.

“We don’t need anyone. I’ve had the same guys for years.” The captain pointed across the marina to a derelict scow that had rust stains running down the side of the hull, paint peeling off the wheelhouse, and a crew in filthy clothes. “That pile of crap is looking for help, but be careful, kid. I know you’re hungry for work, but don’t do it. Good boats rarely need help, and bad boats always need help. That boat is a widow maker.”

His advice probably saved my life, more than once. I still quote him when young people on the docks ask me about work.

Later that summer, my big break came. I got hired on Pegasus, a brand-new shrimp trawler. The shiny blue hull and spotless gray decks made the boat a real standout—queen of the Astoria fleet. As a greenhorn, I made less, but I couldn’t care less. I had a job on an awesome new boat.

I worked hard, jumping to do things the out-of-shape deck boss avoided. At twice my age, he’d been passed over as skipper. He felt he should be in the wheelhouse, not on deck, and sometimes he took out his frustration on me. I ran up ladders and crawled out in the rigging to untangle knotted lines. I hopped in the hold and waded through waist-deep ice, stacking fish. Nothing stopped me. I asked endless questions about nets, cable rigging, diesel engines, the shrimp we were catching, the weather, other boats, and how to navigate. The grizzled deck boss started calling me “Grasshopper”, referring to the character who always asked the master questions in “Kung Fu”, a popular TV show at the time—and the nickname stuck.

That fall, when fishing season ended, a rusty Chevy Impala, stacked with new bright orange, red, and yellow Lightning Bolt surfboards from Hawaii, pulled into the surfers’ parking lot. I met the owner, David, who had a wide grin and an infectious laugh. At the campfire that evening, long after the others had left, David and I sat on a big driftwood log, still in our wetsuits, and I marveled at his tales of king crab fishing in the Bering Sea.

“We don’t sleep, and the weather is insane. Boats stacked high with crab pots roll over, and big waves punch in their windows. If you live, you make big bucks,” he told me. “I’m leaving to surf in France in a few days. In January, I gotta be back in Seattle to fly to Alaska to fish on the Royal Viking. The crew made a hundred ten grand on deck last year.”

And I thought: I could buy a house in Seaside for forty-thousand.

When spring came, I saw David in a local restaurant. “Hey, you want to come see my new house?” he asked with that giant grin of his.

I followed him through deep green rainforest where big older homes dot the coastline. David had bought five acres on the Tillamook Head sea cliffs, overlooking the best surf spot in Oregon.

“I take off for Dutch Harbor, Alaska in a few days,” he said, gazing out at the ocean. “Should only take a couple years to pay this off.”

“Take me king crabbing,” I said. “I’m ready anytime.”

David laughed. “You can try Seattle, but no one I know is quitting or hiring.”

I was determined to land a job on a king crab boat. My chances may have been slim, but I paid eight-hundred dollars for a ‘66 VW Bus and took many two-hundred-mile trips from Seaside to Ballard, near Seattle, Washington, where the Alaska crab fleet docked in the offseason. Sleeping in my bus at night, I spent the daylight hours walking the docks, using all the charm and energy I could muster to get a job, but no one would talk to me.

One evening, after a long day shoveling shrimp on the Pegasus, I stopped by my auntie’s for spaghetti dinner. “Oh, honey, some guy named David called,” she said as she passed the salad bowl. “He sounds like a fun guy. He left his number.”

I sprang from the table and grabbed the phone.

“Hey, Jack, I just got a job on a new 123-foot Marco king crab boat, so new, it’s not even built yet, and I’ll be captain,” David told me. “It’s named Columbia.”

“Oh, wow,” I said. “That’s awesome!”

“You told me you wanted to go king crabbing. Were you serious?”

I swallowed hard. “Ah, yeah, absolutely!”

“You need a day or two to think about it?”

“I just thought about it. I’ll go.”

He chuckled. “Good. You’re my only greenhorn. You’ll make less money, but you can work up to full share.”

I was so stoked, I’d have gone for free.

Wife, Joanne, on the beach

Joanne and I had fallen in love, but I needed a real job before I could marry her. “He’s a surfer and a fisherman,” she’d tell her friends. One calm evening as we walked the docks she told me, “Fishing is an honorable way to make a living.” And she had my heart.

My Scandinavian beauty has a strong adventurous spirit, and she looked forward to the fisherman’s life. After my first king crab season, we were married. I had just turned twenty-five, and she was twenty-six.

Joanne loved to come to Alaska with me. We spent months on the Columbia exploring much of the state waters, chasing salmon runs. She cooked for a small crew and took watches. Each summer, we’d venture together, taking in the beauty and magnificence of the Alaskan coastline in a storybook romance.

After three years, many thought Joanne would choose to stay home when our son arrived. “Having a kid isn’t going to slow me down,” she would tell people.

The next summer, she stepped off the plane and strolled over the gravel walkway in Dutch Harbor with our eight-month-old strapped to her back. Aboard the Columbia, our son traveled up and down the inside passage as well as crossed the Bering Sea and northern Pacific Ocean. To prepare meals in the galley, Joanne carried Gustav in his baby backpack. Gus’s favorite game was to be put in the walker, hold up his hands, and giggle with joy as he scooted across the room, banging into walls as the boat rolled. The salmon fishing fleet learned we had a baby onboard, and soon we had fishermen coming to hang out with us and our little boy.

But in the next few years, we had two little girls as well. Joanne decided to stay home with our children in Cannon Beach, Oregon. We had a home built there that her father designed, using cash along the way to pay for materials and labor.

The Columbia, Jack’s first boat as captain

Seven years after David hired me, I became captain of the Columbia. I knew I was made for the position, but the job required me to be away from home for ten months of the year. After so many months away, I worried our son and two younger daughters wouldn’t remember who I was. The thought tore me up. I was good at my job, but I had to prioritize my family.

Gratefully, the boat owners and managers arranged for me to rotate with another captain. I worked two months on and two months off. My original idea to fish, make a good living, and have time off became a reality.

When Gus, our oldest, was eight years old, Joanne and I decided he needed more time with me. Toward the end of third grade, we pulled him from school, so I could take him to Alaska. The school district and some of Joanne’s friends thought we were crazy. “What better thing could a boy do than be with his dad?” Joanne would ask.

Gus was a natural. He loved everything about the fishing life. He learned navigation using paper and electronic charts. He hung with the crew splicing lines and mending nets. He helped scrub the deck, including scraping and painting the bleeding rust. Keeping track of other boats’ movements with me intrigued him. Watching whales and sea-lions thrilled him. Catching huge numbers of fish excited him. He enjoyed everything about those first four months, and every summer afterwards, he begged me to take him to the Bering Sea.

When our daughters were younger, Joanne sent them to cousins’ houses in California. The girls bonded with their relatives while Joanne ventured north for a few weeks in the summers, cooking for the crew and spending time on the Columbia with Gus and me.

Bristol Bay gillnet near the Ugashik River. Credit: Carl Johnson (pewtrusts.org/bristolbay) (PRNewsFoto/The Pew Charitable Trusts)

At thirteen, Gus began gill-netting salmon in Bristol Bay and continued throughout his high school years. When Gus went off to college, he felt trapped and emailed: “Dad, I seriously don’t know what I’m doing here. I just talked to one of my professors, and I make more money than he does.”

I wrote back: “Son, the option to return to fishing is always open. Try to hang in there and finish college.”

Gus did graduate from college. He even got a job on land—and only lasted six months. Gus returned to fishing as a deck boss on a large trawler. Within five years, he earned his master’s license and became an alternate captain on a Bering Sea trawler. (FYI: Gus is the guy pounding the ice on the book cover.)

Our middle child, Ahna, at twenty years old, worked a salmon season on land in Bristol Bay. During the summer months, the office in the town of Naknek is the center of the salmon universe. She helped fishermen with housing, meal tickets, fishing licenses, and travel arrangements. I could call her on the radio and get fish reports, and though I couldn’t visit her, knowing she was close was somehow comforting.

 

Jack, Joanne, daughter Kirdy

Our youngest daughter, Kirsten, first came to Alaska the summer she turned seventeen. She worked in the galley by herself on the Columbia, keeping us all fed. Kirdy also grew into being a good tendering deckhand, offloading the smaller gill-net boats’ salmon into our large holds. She adapted quickly to sea life and became a favorite of the fishermen delivering their catch. I noticed longer lines at our boat as the Columbia provided the only opportunity to exchange a few words with a cute blonde on deck. A few years later, she worked onshore in Naknek at the “egg house” boxing up salmon eggs, spending sixteen-hour-days on her feet. She met some great kids but seemed happy    when the season ended.

After Joanne cooked on the Columbia for twenty-five or more seasons, she joined me aboard a 115-foot Arctic research vessel, the Norseman II, a completely different boat and geographical area for us both. The Arctic was a place I’d always wanted to experience, and I knew the vessel and its owners.

A converted king crabber, the boat housed up to thirty individuals. Two cooks alternated twelve hours on, twelve off. They fed thirty people three meals a day, prepared an additional midnight meal, plus they baked bread, cookies, and made ice cream. The job was hard work, but Joanne loved it.

Norseman II, science vessel

Together, we enjoyed watching ice floes, walrus, polar bear, and whales. I piloted the Norseman II from Point Barrow, the most northerly town in Alaska, east into Canadian waters. We skirted the Russia/United States border for days, maneuvering through the ice. I took the boat four hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, a thousand miles north of Dutch Harbor, into seldom traveled territory, completely new to us.

Joanne’s job was physically demanding, but I dealt with the weight of responsibility for keeping the scientists and crew safe. With endless foggy days and ice floes constantly changing, shifting, stopping, and rotating, I’d monitor ice movement from satellite reports, aerial searches, and a few scant ships’ reports. With daylight 24/7, we worked around the clock. I couldn’t escape the exhausting mental exertion of monitoring and navigating to reach our destinations without getting stuck in the ice, nor could I relax my vigilance. After the two-month season, I felt like the stuffing had been knocked out of me.

Still, Joanne and I committed to a few more summers on the Norseman II. Our final season, our youngest daughter, Kirsten, signed on with us. Joanne and Kirdy both cooked amazing, delicious food for the thirty people aboard the research vessel. Kirdy started in the galley at seven in the evening to relieve Joanne and clean up the dinner dishes. When Joanne came on at seven in the morning, she’d clean up the breakfast dishes and begin preparing lunch. Day after day, no darkness, endless work. In 2016, we declined the offer to run the Norseman II for another summer season.

Nowadays, Gus fishes pollock in the Bering Sea, he’s married, has two children, and they live a mile from Joanne and me in Bend, Oregon. Both Ahna and Kirdy have since moved on to other careers. Ahna lives in Los Angeles, has a job in marketing, and is married to Zach, a cinematographer. Kirdy is a director for kids’ camps in Bend, Oregon and is a gifted video editor, although she is tempted to go back to the sea.

In 2016, instead of the research vessel, I chose to run TV’s world famous “Deadliest Catch” vessel, the Cornelia Marie, from Seattle to Alaska for salmon tendering season. Casey and Josh, the regular captains, wanted to take off the summer months, and I looked forward to beautiful bays full of salmon with Joanne in the galley, rather than dodging treacherous ice floes. But running a famous boat for a season is a story in itself. I recently received a call from Sig Hansen to run his boat, the famous captain of the Northwestern, also a vessel on the “Deadliest Catch” TV show.

“I’d love to help, Sig,” I said. “But I’m committed to speaking on the Princess Cruise ships.”

“Are you kidding me?” He laughed. “Oh man, why would you want to do that?”

I’ll always think fondly of those thirty years as a Bering Sea captain. Recently, though, I’ve chosen a different path, writing and speaking, so others may benefit from my years bouncing around on the ocean, both literally and figuratively.

For now…

If you’d like to read more, you can get the book here.

About the book, one review said:

A compelling read and an unbeatable introduction to the reason servant leadership pays off in high stakes situations. Captain Molan protected his crews, and they performed for him. Everyone did well. This is a book for every manager and business school student. It represents a cool and competent approach to success in an uncertain, high risk, high reward landscape. The only disappointment was reaching the end of this book. The hope is that more of the same is in the offing.

And there are 90-some other 5-star reviews to choose from!

Captain Jack is one of my editing/coaching clients, and he’s been a blast to work with!

Check out his social media sites. He offers free amazing photos of things like bald eagles flying in the wild and lots of other goodies.

www.https://jackmolan.com

https://www.facebook.com/JackMolanPhotography/

 

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