North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters

North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters

by Sig Hansen, Mark Sundeen

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New York Times bestseller

"A chronicle that reads like a collection of your crazy buddy's bar stories about his crazier old man." –Outside Magazine

The action of the hit Discovery Channel series DEADLIEST CATCH combines with the personal saga of a Norwegian family in this memoir adventure tale of commercial fishermen on the Bering Sea

In the tradition of Sebastian Junger and Linda Greenlaw comes Captain Sig Hansen's rags-to-riches epic of his immigrant family's struggle against deadly Alaskan seas, freezing shipwrecks, and dangerously brutal conditions to achieve the American Dream. For Captain Sig Hansen and his brothers, Norman and Edgar, commercial fishing is as much a part of their Norwegian heritage as their names. Descendants of the Vikings who ruled the northern seas for centuries, Sig and his brothers learned to fish from their father when they were boys, just as their father had learned from his father. And after twenty years as a skipper on the commercial fishing vessel the Northwestern Sig has lived to tell the tales.

This is the story of a family of survivors; part memoir and part adventure tale, North by Northwestern brings readers on deck, into the dockside bars and into the history of a family with a common destiny. Built around the gripping tale of a deadly shipwreck like The Perfect Storm, North By Northwestern tells the multigenerational history of the Hansen family, a clan of tough Norwegian-American fishermen who have become modern day folk-heroes.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312672546
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/12/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 521,427
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Sig Hansen is the captain of the commercial fishing vessel Northwestern. He has been featured on Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch from the pilot through every season of the show.

Mark Sundeen is a contributor to Outside, New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Men's Journal, and McSweeney's. He is the author of The Making of Toro and Car Camping.

Read an Excerpt

North by Northwestern

A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters

By Sig Hansen, Mark Sundeen

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Captain Sig Hansen and Mark Sundeen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-9377-7



My grandfather had a scar that ran all the way down his leg from hip to ankle. He used to come over from the Old Country to fish in Alaska. When I was a kid he was too old to do much hard work, but he liked to come anyway, just for fun; an old-timer who wanted to be with his family. He had been fishing herring and cod since he was a boy.

My grandfather had the accident on a supply ship on the North Sea. While they were putting a hatch cover down he got his leg caught in the opening, and this giant steel lid — the hatch — fell on it, and split his leg from top to bottom.

When we visited Norway that year, he was on crutches, walking back and forth in the living room trying to recover. The stitches were still in. It was a gruesome wound, like something you'd see on Frankenstein. He really got mangled. My brothers and I kept staring. Of course it scared us, but it wasn't so traumatic that we decided crab fishing was too dangerous. We knew it was part of the job. He just got unlucky.

His name was Sigurd Hansen, and that's who I was named after. My other grandfather's name was Jakob, and when I was born, each grandfather thought I should be his namesake. My parents debated. In Norway, even if you didn't choose a relative's exact name, it was considered an honor to pick one that began with the same letter. So my parents settled on Sigurd Johnny Hansen — with the middle name pronounced Yonny. Even though it's an honor to be named after my grandfathers, I can tell you that when you grow up in America in the 1970s with a name like Sigurd Johnny, you're going to get a lot of black eyes.

I was born in 1966, in Ballard, the Scandinavian part of Seattle, by the ship canal. All my parents' friends were Norwegians, and fisherman. There were a few Swedes and Danes, but other than that we didn't really socialize with anyone else. My parents didn't have to speak English much. They didn't go to PTA meetings or things like that. My mother's English wasn't great. My father was gone nine months out of the year fishing, so my mother was home with us kids and didn't get out to the broader public much. All she needed to know in English was how to get by at the grocery store — how much things cost and how to pay for them. In first grade they sent me back home with a note that read: TEACH HIM ENGLISH. STOP SPEAKING NORWEGIAN.

Right about the time I was born my parents moved out of Ballard to the northern part of Seattle to a bigger house with a yard. A lot of the Norwegians of my parents' age were moving north, too. This small community was a great place to grow up. When my brothers and I walked to junior high school we'd stop by our cousins' house and walk the final blocks together. We went to the Rock of Ages Lutheran Church in Ballard. In elementary school and Sunday school there were a lot of Norwegian kids, and we spoke the language to each other. Sometimes we'd ride our bikes all the way down to Fishermen's Terminal in Ballard to check out the boats. Our fathers were all fishermen. A lot of us would go back to Norway for the summer or Christmas break, and run into each other back there.

Just like normal American kids, my brothers and I were on soccer and baseball teams, played in the school marching band, and sometimes even babysat to earn spending money. We also knew we were different. We knew we were Norwegian, and we knew we were fishermen. Mom says she always knew I would become a fisherman. In school while the other kids learned A-B-C and 1-2-3, I would draw a boat and a crab pot and a black swirl coming out of the smokestack.

I got my first chance to see my father at work in Alaska in 1978 when I was twelve. I rode the Northwestern with him from Seattle across the Gulf of Alaska to the Aleutian Island chain. It was a one thousand seven hundred-mile trip that took more than a week, and most of the time I was terribly seasick. From there we motored another four hundred miles north through the Bering Sea, three days without sight of land. We finally dropped anchor off St. Matthew Island — a deserted outcropping in the far northern Bering Sea, right by Russia. Bizarre formations of volcanic rock rose up from the shoreline. Since it was summer near the Arctic Circle, the sun only dipped below the horizon for an hour or so and the skies never darkened. I was wide-eyed with wonder. Suddenly my world of the Seattle suburbs had expanded into something vast and strange and full of adventure. My dad's life as an Alaskan fisherman — to me an abstract concept that he'd talked about for years — was suddenly vivid and real.

We fished blue crab that year, but I was just a kid and not much use. What seared a stronger impression on me than the actual fishing was the thrill of exploring this exotic new world. At one point the fishermen went on strike and we were laid up in harbor with 150 other boats. To pass the time, a few of the other kids and I took a skiff and ventured onto the island. We found deer darting across meadows of wildflowers and rams roaming the rocky hillsides. We discovered a stream so thick with Dolly Varden trout we were able to scoop them up with our bare hands. We wanted to fish the lake that the stream poured into, so we returned to the ship and crafted a reel by wrapping dental floss around an old strawberry can. We bent nails into hooks and sharpened them in the grinder and splayed bits of polyfiber line into lures. We returned to our lake and tossed out our lines with a bit of lead for weight and pulled in those Dolly Vardens one after the other. It was the height of summer and the weather was warm.

Another thrill of that summer was to finally see in action all those beautiful crab boats that I'd been drawing pictures of for years. My friends and I took the skiff from boat to boat and climbed aboard to meet the crews and have a look. A lot of the guys were friends of my father; if they weren't, they were still friendly and welcomed us aboard to check out the wheelhouse and the deck gear. We pored over every inch, as if we were in a museum. I remember a crabber called the Neptune. That big wheelhouse, all painted black and white, looked like a race car. What a beautiful boat. By the time I was fifteen I knew every boat in the fleet. I'd see them on the horizon, and I could pick them out just like that. The older guys on the crew would just look at me, shake their heads, and say, "How the hell can you see that far?"

Probably the most important part of that summer was getting to work alongside my father and the other men who would become my lifelong mentors. They were larger than life. Dad's friend Oddvar Medhaug worked on deck that summer. He was a classic Norwegian — hardworking and stubborn, from the same mold and same town as my dad. In later years he would become one of the most successful skippers in the Alaskan fleet — what they called a highliner — but that summer he was still a deckhand. I idolized him. When he came down from the deck to wash dishes in the galley, I snapped pictures of him, as if he were a celebrity.

After two months, I had to get back home to Seattle for junior high school. They dropped me off on St. Paul Island, another rock in the Bering Sea. I had to overnight by myself. The bar was next door to the hotel. The natives and fishermen were drinking and it started to get pretty wild and very loud. I could hear bottles crashing and fights breaking out. Only twelve years old, I was terrified and hid beneath the window in my room. In the morning I flew to Cold Bay, which is a tiny outpost at the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula where the Aleutians start. There was nothing but an airstrip and a store and a few weather-beaten buildings. Then Anchorage, then Seattle. It took a couple of days.

The summer of 1978 was a huge adventure filled with hardship and fear and wonder and excitement that left me wanting more. I had discovered my ambition: I wanted to be a fisherman — and a man — like my father. From that point forward, my life became a quest to prove myself a real fisherman in his eyes.

The next summer I went to Norway and fished with a third uncle named Hans. We fished for cash, and he'd pay me some spending money under the table. Once I turned fourteen, in 1980, and was confirmed in the church, I felt like I was an adult, and was ready to get out of Seattle and find adventurous work. So I left school early that summer and went gillnetting for red salmon up in Bristol Bay with John Jakobsen. He was a friend of my dad's from Karmoy — a hell of a great fisherman and a mentor. John didn't hire many greenhorns, but he made an exception for me as a favor to my dad, and because I already knew my way around a boat.

Before I left, my father took me down to the supply shop and bought me boots, raingear, and a duffel bag. He even tried to buy me one of those floppy orange southwestern hats, like the old fishermen wear, but there I drew the line. As much as I wanted to emulate him, I was just too young to dress like an old-timer. The Old Man even helped me pack my seabag. He paced around the house, and double-checked my gear. I could tell he was nervous about me going up to Alaska without him, but he never said a word about it. He wasn't the type of guy who easily expressed his emotions. Instead, he gave me the type of fatherly advice one gets from a stoic old Norwegian fishermen, "Keep your mouth shut, do what he tells you, and everything will be fine." Then he put me on a plane and I flew north.

Bristol Bay is the southeast corner of the Bering Sea, formed where the Aleutian Peninsula juts out from the Alaskan mainland, a few hundred miles west of Anchorage. Fed by a number of coldwater rivers, Bristol Bay is the richest salmon ground in the world.

John's boat was the Jennifer B, a thirty-two-foot aluminum boat with a blue hull and a white deck, and old tires lashed to the rails like bumpers, so it could bob against docks and other boats without getting damaged. Most of the boat was deck, with a tiny wheelhouse above and four bunks below. The entire crew consisted of John, another older man named Bjarne Sjoen, and me. We spoke mostly Norwegian while we worked.

The minute the season opened, Bristol Bay was chaos, with hundreds of boats competing for the millions of salmon making their run. The whole season lasted only five or six weeks. We fished for short spells, depending on when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game called an opening, which lasted twelve, twenty-four, or thirty-six hours.

Like the rest of the fleet, the Jennifer B was a drift netter. A drift net is a huge, flat rectangle made of mesh — 450 feet long and 10 feet tall — that hangs in the water like a curtain. Picture a gigantic tennis net. We slowly unfurled the thing from a drum on the stern, and once it was in the water, the top edge — called the cork line — floated on the surface while the bottom edge — the lead line — sank below. Fish can't see the mesh underwater. Their heads pass through the holes in the mesh, but their bodies are too big. Their gills get stuck, and they are caught.

We set three nets, let them soak, and then hauled them aboard. While John Jakobsen manned the wheel, Bjarne and I hauled the net and stacked it on deck, trying to keep it from tangling. If the fishing was good, we'd find three hundred salmon in each net. If it was heavy fishing, we could find as many as a thousand. The real work began when the net — teeming with flopping fish — was stacked on deck. Bjarne and I started fish picking — rifling through the nine thousand square feet of net and pulling the fish. We picked as fast as possible without damaging the salmon. The faster we picked, the more fish we caught, and the more money we made.

In addition to my father's admonition that I keep my mouth shut and follow orders, I'd been given two very wise bits of advice that I've carried with me ever since. First, one of my dad's friends had said, Never let the other guy beat you. So I worked myself ragged. It didn't matter that I was just fourteen — I picked those fish as fast or faster than the grown men. Second, my grandfather's advice was to get as much sleep as I could, whenever I could, since I'd never know when I'd sleep next. So I did. Captain John would tease me because if we had a twenty-minute run I'd hurry down to my bunk and close my eyes. Once I even tried to sleep in my raingear.

For a kid like me trying to become a real fishermen, the most memorable part of Bristol Bay was the nights at the docks, hanging around with the guys I idolized. If the tide was high enough, we'd tie up at the docks, and all the old-timers would get together and tell stories. Along with John Jakobsen, a lot of my dad's friends from Karmoy were there, like Oddvar Medhaug and John Johannessen. I wasn't the only young kid. John Johannessen's sons, Lloyd and Norman, who were a few years older than me, worked up there as well. Eventually my brother Norman worked a few seasons. So we had a multigenerational Norwegian community, and what we kids wanted most of all was to be men like our dads.

While the old guys were sitting up in the camp, the kids were hanging out on the boats. Now and then we'd steal a couple of beers from their cooler. We'd sit around the wheelhouse trying to act grown up — sipping beers, smoking cigarettes, and looking at Playboy. One night John Johannessen walked in. Because I was a greenhorn — and because they knew my father — the older guys hazed me, a tradition probably as old as fishing. Johannessen took a sidelong glance at my beer. He joined in the conversation as if he hadn't noticed what we were up to. "I used to chase your dad home from school," he said. "He was just a little runt. Everyday I'd beat him up."

Then when he thought I wasn't looking, he stealthily tapped his cigarette and dropped the ash into my can of beer. He was as smooth as a magician, his sleight of hand so subtle that I thought I'd imagined it. There was no visible evidence on the can rim. I kept watching out of the corner of my eye, and sure enough he did it again, using my precious pilfered beer as an ashtray. So now I had a dilemma: Do I complain that he ruined my beer, and then have to explain what I was doing drinking it in the first place? Or do I just do what I imagined a real man would do, and drink up? Holding my breath to not taste it, I picked up the can and chugged down the warm suds, the cigarette ash scratching my throat on the way down.

At the end of the season, I got my first official paycheck. It was a couple thousand dollars — more money than I'd ever seen. I didn't even know what to do with it. My parents helped me set up a bank account, and I decided to save it all. Even at that age, I was frugal. Then Dad explained to me how income tax worked. He said there were two options: I could skip from boat to boat, and avoid filing returns, and maybe they'd never catch up with me. Or if I wanted to be a part of the system, a real member of the fishing industry, I could file with the IRS and start paying taxes. Of course I wanted to do what he did. So at age fourteen I cut my first check to Uncle Sam. It sucked.

I fished with John Jakobsen for half of four summers, all through high school. I was a hard worker and it wasn't long before I was being paid the same as the guys twice my age. As soon as spring arrived I'd be hanging out at John's house, around the corner from my family's house in Seattle, shooting pool, talking about fishing, just itching to once more get on a plane for Alaska. After salmon season I'd get off that boat and go to Norway to fish mackerel and cod.

Where I really wanted to be was on the Bering Sea. Salmon fishing was fun, and the money was good, but in my mind, crab fishing was the major league. That's where the big boats were, that's where the captains were making big money, and that's where my father was.

When I was fifteen, my father hired me as a greenhorn deckhand on the Northwestern, and I returned to St. Matthew. I worked elbow to elbow with guys I idolized and felt like I had finally arrived. Fritjoff Peterson was a few years older than me and had been working on deck on the Northwestern since he was sixteen. He was huge, about six and a half feet tall, and he went to the public school in Ballard when most of the Norwegians had moved up to the suburbs. He was born in Norway, and one of the only European kids in the school. Being that big, being named Fritjoff, and speaking with a funny accent made him a target. Everyone wanted to fight him. So his parents were glad to ship him up north as soon as possible where he fit right in. Pretty soon he bought a Corvette — I guess that meant he was making cash like a real crab fisherman.

Another one of my mentors on the Northwestern was Mangor Ferkingstad, a Norwegian who was born on the East Coast but grew up in Karmoy fishing on the North Sea. When he was twenty he came to Alaska and started working for my dad. Like a lot of guys from the Old Country, Mangor loved American muscle cars. With his earnings he bought a souped-up old Cougar. Later Dad lent him money to buy a Monte Carlo that he still has today. To this day Mangor and I are like brothers.


Excerpted from North by Northwestern by Sig Hansen, Mark Sundeen. Copyright © 2010 Captain Sig Hansen and Mark Sundeen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

1 Son of Norway 11

2 Karmoy Dreams 45

3 Ballard, America 75

4 North to Alaska 111

5 Let the Kid Run the Boat 145

6 Dutch 179

7 A Fleet Is Born 209

8 Boom and Bust 241

9 Lights, Camera, Fishing 263

10 Deliverance 291

Acknowledgments 305

Index 307

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