By Amy Silverman
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In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago, the aged Cuban fisherman, redeemed himself through long-in-tooth courage in the face of defeat. A triumphant allegory, sure, but Ernest Hemingway had it wrong about one thing: No one lives long enough on the sea to become an old man. You just become old at an early age. I know. I just met a 26-year-old club DJ and student here in Phoenix who's aged a lifetime after just four seasons on a Northern Pacific fishing boat.
It was 1996 when Chris Robson nearly cashed it in for the first time. Robson was an upstart deckhand in his second season on the Harvester Enterprise, a 188-foot fishing vessel that trawled for cod and pollock in the waters of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea.
The day was a typically cheerless one, heaving and wintry, and tarnished with the inescapable foulness of dead fish and diesel, a day as good as any for a routine harvest of Alaskan pollock. The huge trawl, used to exhume fish 20 tons at a time, rolled from the hydraulic net reel and into the water. The net itself is like a giant sock, 15 to 18 feet wide and 60 to 80 feet long that goes along the sea floor sucking up nearly everything in its path.
As the net dropped from the sloping ramp in the ship's stern, Robson was standing nearby. A plaited steel "spaghetti" strap connected to the net lashed out and hooked on to Robson's life preserver. There was quick movement. The weight of the net guaranteed enough pull to snap Robson back-first onto the steel deck. It then yanked him side to side toward the stern. His helmeted head bounced off the deck like a basketball in the hands of an amateur. Robson could see the boat disappearing in front of him and deckhands signaling the bridge with closed fists, the sign for the captain to bring the vessel to a stop. He could hear shouting, a muffled strain of Norwegian, Japanese and English as the mesh line pulled him down the ramp, down to darkness. Within moments, he was in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, tangled in the net. The water's metallic, hypothermic sting felt like certain death. He figured he was as good as gone.
The ocean moves at a different pace than a ship or its net, and the Alaskan waters are, of course, severe and unforgiving. The trawler steadily yawed, undulated and pitched into steep swells, redefining for Robson fate and God and despair and evil and hope and joy.
His body temperature took a tailspin plunging toward hypothermia. A gutsy Harvester fisher known only as Greycen slammed on his survival suit, moved fast and made it down and off the ramp to Robson. Made it in time to jump into the ocean, pull his knife and cut him from the net.
Hot water bottles were placed in Robson's armpits and crotch. The captain instructed two beastly Samoan men to disrobe and lay atop him to restore body heat.
Commercial fishing, including the sea and air rescue teams that support it, is historically the nation's most hazardous industry, riddled with traumatic injuries and fatalities. More people die on fishing boats, per capita, than in any other job in the U.S.
"I could have gone home for that," says Robson. "I could have won a lawsuit, easily. Those kinds of things you shrug off because you are a man. It makes the others think you're a tough-ass."
There were times Robson wanted to bail. He felt hollow inside, spiritless, like he was running on fumes. His depression was the consequence of a job that's an obstinate mix of triumph and loss. Robson found an end to his struggle. For one thing, he'll be married soon to a woman named, of all things, Angela Troutt.
"Talk about your irony," he says, laughing. "I go fishing and look what I bring back. For some reason, fish is my thing."
The couple's four-month-old son is christened after the man who had Greycen stenciled on his gear, the man who saved Robson's life.
Robson is somewhat strapping, thick-waisted but not fat, with a mess of Syd Barrett hair. He has trouble keeping his left eyelid up, gives the impression that he's tired, or bored. He talks in a kind of stoner-ease, like he's got it all figured.
After high school, Phoenix started to take on a bleak complexion for the precocious skater kid. He spent a year at Yavapai College. He traveled to Seattle to hang with his older brother George, who had a job on the fishing boats making bank. He told the younger Robson that all he needed "was a strong back."
Robson applied at a number of fishing vessels, but none called. On his 18th birthday, he was arrested for having sex on Jimi Hendrix's grave.
Finally, Tyson Seafoods called.
Over a fish platter and beer, Robson explains how he negotiated life on a commercial fishing vessel, a factory trawler. When he went to work on the Harvester, he describes himself as a "skinny skater kid who ran with a crowd that liked to mix it up." A boy trying to be a man.