A loud and unfamiliar ring from the bedside table jolted me awake. Fumbling for the cheap plastic phone in the darkness, I struggled to remember where I was. Then a blast of wind shook the house with the force of a small earthquake and I remembered: Unalaska, Dutch Harbor. The end of the Earth.
On the other end of the line, my new boss, Alex, spoke in a hurried tide of words.
“The Polar Sea broke loose from its mooring,” she said. “Ripped off part of the dock and hit Roger’s boat. You know, Roger, the city councilor. I don’t have a recorder. Come down to the harbor.”
Still half asleep, I bumbled my way out the door, recorder in hand. Though it was the middle of the night, fluorescent floodlights from the neighboring fish processing plant were bright enough to cut through the horizontal rain and light my way to the car.
I made my way down to the harbor, but I didn’t see a boat in distress, and I didn’t see Alex.
What I did see were whitecaps sloshing over the floating dock, and 40-foot boats bobbing like bath toys in a stormy sea.When I had arrived in Unalaska on a 30-seat propeller plane a few weeks earlier, I found the weather to be horrendous; this was worse.
Not sure what I was to be looking for, I called Alex back.
“Keep driving,” she said. “Past the small boat harbor.”
Dodging meter-wide potholes on the dark, dirt road, I thought back to what had convinced me to take a job as a radio reporter in Unalaska, Alaska. “You’ll be doing real reporting,” Alex had said. “Not just cutting and pasting HTML.” As I flailed for post-college purpose, “real” sounded like something I wanted.
Ahead of me, illuminated by a bright spotlight, the Polar Sea emerged from the storm. Stacks of king crab pots 30 feet high weighed down the aft deck as it bobbed in the heavy swell. This was definitely the antithesis of modern-day Google reporting. But suddenly, real didn’t seem like such an alluring prospect.
Real meant getting wet talking to people who would probably rather my recorder and I occupy ourselves elsewhere. Real meant engaging the world and its problems, not just reading about them over coffee in the morning.
I parked in the mud behind a line of pickup trucks and took a deep breath before charging into the rain.
Alex waved at me from the bottom of a long dock ramp. Behind her, Roger’s boat was like a school bus pinned to the dock by a 737. Eighty-mile-per-hour winds had ripped the crabber from its mooring and spun it around 180 degrees, right onto the councilor’s boat. Remarkably, it didn’t look like it had done much damage.
We climbed onboard the Commitment, taking care not to slip into the blackness between the dock and the deck. A crowd of men stood on the bow, observing the collision point. One of them commented that the winds seemed to be dying down and maybe they could move the Polar Sea soon. Another man clung to the outside of the Commitment’s deck rail, peering down at the hull until a massive gust of wind threatened to squish him between the two boats.
I hung back, letting Alex ask the questions. But as they talked, I could hear the sounds becoming a story: a sharp cry of warning, the men yelling at each other from their respective boats, the chatter of a walkie-talkie, the thunk of hull against hull, and then the empty howl of a fierce wind.
Stephanie May Joyce ’11 is a news reporter at KUCB in Unalaska, Alaska. A portfolio of her work can be found at www.stephjoyce.com.