Having lived at the beach for a considerable period of my life, I have had the opportunity to see the ocean in many of its various forms. Sometimes the waves are calm and the wind is nonexistent. At other times, thunderstorms appear on the horizon, the winds pick up, and the sea grows angry. Then there are the hurricanes, where the only people brave enough to get near the shore are curious onlookers or the surfer wanting to take advantage of the large waves.
But I haven’t seen anything even remotely resembling what Alaskan fishermen have to put up with. The Bering Sea is a goldmine full of fish and crab that sings a siren song to those willing to brave its 40-foot seas, rogue waves, hurricane-force winds, hull-crushing ice, and below-freezing temperatures for huge paydays. To work on the Bering Sea as a fisherman is lunacy at best and an obituary at worst. But if it weren’t for the efforts of these men, there would be no king crab legs to purchase at the grocery store.
Made into unintentional celebrities by the hit program Deadliest Catch, brothers Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand are co-captains of the fishing vessel Time Bandit. They brave the elements, manage the crew, and catch crab—lots of it. In their book Time Bandit: Two Brothers, the Bering Sea, and One of the World’s Deadliest Jobs, they provide a unique perspective of what it takes to be a fisherman in this remote region of the world.
One of the first things the reader discovers is that Time Bandit is really three stories in one. Johnathan begins by describing a terrifying scenario he finds himself in: adrift in the ocean with no radio, no cell phone, a dead motor, and low batteries. What’s worse, he’s heading toward the Shelikof Strait, a place Captain Cook described as having “the second worst weather and currents on earth, after Cape Horn” (p. 5). This would make for a good novel in its own right, but there’s more.
Johnathan and Andy also provide the reader with a fascinating account of their childhood, one spent playing with “eels and crabs and dog sharks” (p. 11) while repeatedly surviving broken bones and brushes with death. For example, Andy attempted to fly into space in a trash can propelled by fireworks, while Johnathan jumped from a ship and spent the next six weeks living in a shopping cart due to his injuries. They both “lived [danger] without knowing what it was . . . and it felt fine” (p. 57).
The one point of strength the two had growing up was their late father, a tough, no-nonsense guy who pushed his kids to the brink, then pushed a little more. He had the two put on survival suits one day and had them swim to a point a hundred yards away. As they struggled, almost dying in the process, they heard him say, “Until you are dead, you never quit” (p. 56). In another situation, the boys found that someone had stolen one of their outboard engines. Johnathan then stole a pair of oars as retaliation, but Dad didn’t like this, telling him, “You are no longer my son. You are out of the family” (p. 56). Johnathan then spent the night sleeping outside in freezing temperatures before finally realizing his error and returned home.
In real times, the two brothers are quite different. Johnathan is still reckless, recounting a story of how he singlehandedly outran a fleet of Russian naval vessels in an attempt to redeem four pots of crab he dropped in Soviet waters. Andy is more of a family guy, living in Indiana and running a farm. But each year, the two meet in Alaska and take on the Bering Sea once again.
At this point in the book, the reader is brought onboard the Time Bandit to discover the perils of crab fishing firsthand. It sounds easy—drop 800-pound metal pots into the water, wait a while, then pull them up brimming with king crabs and opilio crabs. But that doesn’t account for the constant barrage of waves (some up to 40 feet high), blinding sea spray, sub-zero temperatures, and the frigid water that can kill a person not wearing a survival suit in less than five minutes (Johnathan tells some sad stories about fisherman he picked up out of the water, later to have them die because their body temperatures had dropped too low). There are also time constraints and quotas to meet while getting along with other crew members in close quarters for work shifts exceeding thirty-six hours. The injury rate on a ship is close to 100 percent, but unless it’s serious, the crew keeps working until the job is finished. Only then can they claim their share of the profits.
One interesting thing about Alaskan crab fisherman is their spirituality. Johnathan shares that “No one who works on the sea can help but have strong spiritual beliefs” (p. 52). This makes perfect sense for reasons already mentioned, but what exactly does he mean by ‘spiritual beliefs’? The book provides no real answers to this, other than Johnathan’s declaration that “I made my own peace with God and do not push my beliefs on anyone. I do not care what people choose to believe” (p. 72). I’m sure the apostle Paul thought differently when the ship he was on got caught in a storm similar to those on the Bering Sea (minus the freezing temperatures) in Acts 27. Paul had warned them earlier not to take the journey, but they insisted on going anyway. The storm was so bad that the crew passed ropes under the ship to hold it together, later throwing cargo and tackle overboard. Yet in the midst of the storm, Paul shared with them his faith in Jesus, telling them that nobody was going to die. And sure enough, they all made it to the island of Malta in one piece (but not the ship).
We will face storms in our family, personal, and business lives at some point. Since this is the case, we need to have strong spiritual beliefs—notably in God, who created the winds and waves and controls them as he wishes. If Jesus can stop a storm with his words and can walk on the water, what does that say to us? What faith should we have on the high seas of life?