Karaoke in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
The amplified strains of an acoustic guitar waft through the UniSea Inn Sports Bar & Grill. One might expect an establishment owned by a seafood processing company in Dutch Harbor, Alaska – 800 miles southwest of Anchorage way out in the middle of the chain of ice-rimed volcanoes that comprise the Aleutian Islands – to be a hole-in-the-wall, but the joint is decent in a nice-but-not-too-nice kind of way. It lacks the charm of The Grand Aleutian Hotel down the street, which UniSea also owns, but is several steps up from just about everything else in town. Aside from the hotel bar, the only other place to drink in Dutch Harbor is at the airport, which could easily be mistaken for a supermarket loading dock.
The sports bar isn’t fancy, but it features several multi-purpose rooms, a medium-sized dance floor, and a take-out window where guests can order all the $20 hamburgers, $20 French-dip sandwiches and $20 plates of chicken wings they desire – everything is expensive in Dutch Harbor. There’s even a sushi bar in the back, where we started our evening several hours ago.
The clientele is mostly male, mostly fishermen. They wear the clothes they’ve been working in for who knows how many days. Weeks-old beards, knit caps and rubber boots are the uniform of the day. An engineer in our party hasn’t bothered to scrub the oil and grease from his hands. And why should he? He’s only going to get them dirty again tomorrow when his boat, the F/V Seabrooke, heads out to the Bering Sea for the last trip of Opilio – aka. snow crab – season.
We’ve come to watch one of the Seabrooke’s crewmembers sing karaoke. Tom is a clean-cut kid from Ohio. He’s in his late twenties, but his boy-next-door appearance fools people into thinking he’s younger than he is. He’s made a good choice for his first number. ‘Night Moves’ by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band is a crowd pleaser with a simple opening that starts out slow and escalates in power and intensity. If karaoke is group nostalgia, then there is no better song for resurrecting ruined romances, missed opportunities, bitter grudges and failed endeavors than ‘Night Moves.’ It’s a song about a girl, framed as an elaborately staged exercise in reflection. The singer looks back at a time in his life when he had everything his heart desired and he didn’t even know it. In the song, this reverie is triggered by the sound of thunder, an elemental chord that serves as a reminder that life is short, regrets are long and death is final. It’s an algebra that anyone who has gone out to the middle of the ocean and wondered, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ intuitively understands.
Tom’s mates from the Seabrooke clap their hands and call out his name with rapturous glee. You would never know that earlier in the day, these same men suspended Tom from a crane thirty feet above the deck while he held a sign that read ‘HORN FORGOT TO DO DISHES.’
Horn is short for ‘greenhorn’, i.e. ‘indentured servant’. This season, Tom is one of two greenhorns on the boat. When it comes to the Seabrooke, ‘season’ has a double meaning: it applies to both the length of the fishery that is currently open as determined by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the latest series of episodes of Deadliest Catch, the show on the Discovery Channel that has put Dutch Harbor on the map and helped make the men here in the sports bar paragons of masculinity.
I came to Dutch Harbor to accompany the Seabrooke on its final trip of the season. When I was in the navy, I spent six months cruising the Western Pacific. But that was twenty five years ago and the Bering Sea is anything but pacific. Bad weather and boat repairs have conspired to curtail my visit to a few days, and I’m leaving Dutch Harbor in the morning. Scott Campbell, Jr., captain of the Seabrooke, has decided to treat me to a show.
Tom is not performing under duress. This isn’t a continuation of the hazing he experienced earlier that day. Tom knows how to sing and enjoys being up on stage. He’s got chops. Campbell, who goes by ‘Junior’ and knows a thing or two about the limelight, has been boasting about Tom’s ability to carry a tune all night, as if his greenhorn’s skills were an extension of the Seabrooke’s supremacy in the Alaska fishing fleet. It’s a long way from the Mandingo scene in Django Unchained, but we’re in the same theatre.
Tom skillfully navigates ‘Night Moves’ and transitions into the croonier parts of the number with ease. When the song reaches its climax and its powder keg of nostalgia is blown to smithereens – ‘I remember, I remember, I remember!’ – the crew from the Seabrooke thumps the table and hoots their approval. Tom comes down from the stage – it’s always a comedown – and is high-fived, fist-bumped and handed a fresh beer. When I was in the navy, we called greenhorns ‘FNGs’: short for ‘Fucking New Guys,’ but in this closed-off world, this brotherhood of the Bering Sea, the FNG is me.
When I first arrived at Dutch Harbor, a chain-smoking Vietnamese cannery worker named Nuk took me to the parking lot where the captains park their vehicles so I could use Junior’s truck to explore what little of the town that wasn’t buried in ice. It was a small cramped lot stuffed with four-wheel-drive pick-ups – the only type of vehicle I’ve seen on the island – marked by extreme weather and profound neglect. These castaway vehicles were doomed. They were never going to get off the island.
Perched on the edge of a dumpster at the lot’s entrance was a raggedy-looking bald eagle. I’d never seen one of these creatures before and I hauled out my iPhone and started taking photographs, somewhat disappointed that its appearance wasn’t more majestic. Granted, that’s a hard look to pull off on a dumpster, but this eagle looked like a scavenger. Everywhere I went I saw more of them: on lampposts, atop church roofs, clinging to the rigging of fishing vessels. Later, when the Seabrooke arrived and started offloading its catch of Opilio crab, several dozen eagles swept in to investigate. The fuckers were everywhere. By my second day on the island, what had seemed extraordinary had become commonplace.
There are three types of karaoke singers in Dutch Harbor: fishermen, processors and observers. Fishery observers make sure that the resources are being protected and report any violations that they observe. These men and women tend to be young, idealistic graduate students who are interested in the environment. There isn’t any animosity between them and the fishermen they are paid to spy on, but they keep to themselves. Their song selections betray a certain degree of irony: Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. They are mostly interested in fucking one another or getting over having fucked one another. This is my observation.
Cannery workers come from all over the world but especially from places that are heavily invested in aquaculture like Louisiana and Vietnam. There are a lot of Vietnamese in Dutch Harbor and they, too, keep to themselves. They prefer love songs, ballads that most of the fishermen have never heard of before or forgot even existed. The Vietnamese perform these songs shyly and demurely. They are ambivalent towards the audience and the audience is ambivalent towards them. I suspect they sing simply so that their Vietnamese coworkers in the cannery will have music to slow dance to.
Although there are a few women (and one gargantuan Samoan shemale) sprinkled among the observers and processors there are no female fishermen at the saloon tonight. Yet the fishermen sing with the greatest gusto. They strive for verisimilitude, for intensity, for passion. They are going for it. Whether it’s imitating Bon Scotts’s strangled growl or having the rap parts to Kid Rock anthems memorized, these fishermen aren’t fucking around.
After a few lackluster love songs from the South Asian section of the sports bar, Tom is coaxed into signing up for another song. A waiter brings over a platter of fireballs – a shot that consists of Cinnamon Schnapps, Bacardi 151 and Tabasco. This happens several times as the hours accumulate. I don’t drink alcohol any more and turn down shot after shot. Someone gets wise and buys me an energy drink that I don’t refuse, and the long colourful cans started piling up on the table. I drink them, of course. If I was the kind of person who knew better than to consume 50+ ounces of carbonated stimulants over the course of a few hours it wouldn’t be necessary for me to abstain from alcohol in the first place.
One of the crew members from the Beauty Bay, a boat that Junior used to work on back when he was a greenhorn, buys a round of drinks for the table. As one of the captains featured on Deadliest Catch, Junior is instantly recognizable to even the lowliest greenhorn, and they are eager to make an impression. Everyone in Dutch Harbor has an opinion about the show. Some, like the captain I sat next to on the plane out of Anchorage, despise Junior for admitting last season while the seas were heaving and the cameras were rolling, that he wanted to be ‘legendary’. Junior catches a lot of flack for that line, especially from other captains, almost all of whom are considerably older than Junior. But the young men of the fleet look up to him. They, too, want to be legendary, and karaoke night at the UniSea Sports Bar is their best shot. All night long they come over to the table to shake Junior’s hand, to say hello, to buy the Deadliest Catch captain a beer.
The Beauty Bay lost their greenhorn this season when he got his hand mangled in the bait chopper, an injury that was as bad as it sounds. Bait-chopper accidents are common in the fisheries, the equivalent of meat-slicer mishaps in a deli, except most delicatessens don’t pitch and roll and take forty-foot waves.
When one of the fishermen starts belting out ‘All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Out Tonight’, it feels like a prophecy come to life. The performances have degenerated into sing-alongs with anywhere from two to four people on-stage at a time and full-throated audience participation. Shots arrive. Beers are freshened. It’s not quite the opening scene in Das Boot, but we’re getting there.
There’s a desperation in the room I haven’t felt since I was an underage sailor in San Diego, California, and the only two places to drink were the Enlisted Men’s Club aka. The Scuttlebutt, or across the border to Tijuana. The Scuttlebutt was cheap and close but no women, reputable or otherwise, ever went there. TJ held more possibilities for mingling with the opposite sex but it was dangerous and off-limits to military personnel after 10 p.m. A trip to TJ meant pulling an all-nighter that often ended with a few hours of rest in a cheap motel that came with the girl that you paid to have sex with. Most nights we went to The Scuttlebutt and watched music videos on the big-screen TV and got ferociously drunk on cheap beer that only amplified the loneliness we strove to annihilate.
The vibe in the sports bar is listing toward trouble. These young men have become accustomed to spending all their time with other young men. They are no longer adept – if they ever were – at being around women. They are like boys who have been given a reprieve from reform school: they’ve imagined this moment of freedom countless times, but now that it’s here they’re not sure what to do with it. To say there’s a lot of testosterone in the room is like saying water is wet, but instead of working up the nerve to talk with the handful of available of women in the bar, most of whom are now sitting at our table, the fishermen pour their passion into Bloodhound Gang, Bonnie Tyler and Styx’s prog rock power ballad ‘Come Sail Away’ with a poignancy that simply isn’t achievable in the landlocked states of the Lower 48.
One time my ship was doing war exercises with the Australian Navy in the Indian Ocean and during a maneuver that required the two vessels to steam side-by-side at the same course and speed, a pod of dolphins caught up with us and swam in the peculiar wake created by two ships running alongside one another. Some joker onboard our ship got permission to crank ‘Come Sail Away’ over the 1MC for everyone on deck to enjoy. Every time I hear this song, I think of dolphins.
The boys having the least amount of fun at the sports bar are the crew of the Seabrooke. It’s unusual for them to be in port during the season, especially when they’re so close to finishing. If there wasn’t a Caterpillar mechanic in the Seabrooke’s engine room repairing one of the generators, they’d be on their way to the Opilio grounds right now. Drinking beer and singing songs beats working, but they’re still partying with their boss, which comes with a certain degree of risk, as we’ll soon see.
Junior, on the other hand, is having a blast. In between posing for photos, ordering pizzas and drinking shots, he coaches the singers on the stage. ‘Don’t look up at the screen!’ he commands. ‘When you look at the words, the song dies. You gotta sing from the heart!’
The boys from the Beauty Bay are crowding around our table – to do a shot? take a picture? It’s hard to say. Someone leans to port when they ought to be steering to starboard. A table topples over and bottles slide to the ground. All empties. No harm, no foul, but it’s enough to provoke the ire of the Beauty Bay’s skipper: ‘Everyone get back to the boat! Now!’
It’s a scene that’s been playing out since men started risking their lives on the sea and the captains, the men who practically inspired the term ‘patriarchal authority figures’ aren’t shy about exercising their power.
The fishermen, these brave and foolhardy men, these lost and lonely souls, slip into their jackets. They look down at the floor as they come to terms with the realization that this is how their night will end.
The boys from the Seabrooke shake their heads and look away. This is what happens when you go drinking with the skipper.
I ask Tom what song he’s going to sing next. He acts coy, won’t tell me. I’m the only one at the table he doesn’t have to give a straight answer to. Earlier that morning, he’d been much more forthcoming with me. He’d told me that he wasn’t sure if he was coming back for another season. I asked him why and he offered the usual complaints about the long hours and lack of sleep. We were in the Seabrooke’s wheelhouse and he turned to the windows where the sun was coming up a little after 9 a.m. ‘It’s so lonely out here.’
When it’s Tom’s turn to sing again, he goes up on-stage and croons a country number I’m not familiar with (i.e. all of them). Someone tells me it’s a song by Kenny Chesney, which may or may not be true. It doesn’t matter. Tom is intimate with its lyrics. He doesn’t look up at the monitor. He closes his eyes and sings from the heart.
The bartender barks last call and the karaoke DJ counts down the songs. Junior goes up on stage with one of the observers, a portly fellow with long hair and a thick beard who looks like a cross between Zach Galifianakis and Willie Robinson of ‘Duck Dynasty’ fame, a comparison that delights the skipper to no end. Midway through the song they are joined by one of the deckhands from the Beauty Bay who has snuck off the boat to return to the bar, which reminds me of something I would do back when I was in his shoes. I’d like to tell you the performance is glorious and unforgettable but it is neither. We’ve been in the bar for seven hours and I am beyond over-stimulated. I marvel at how the Seabrooke’s crewmembers are able to do it. I suppose when you’re used to twenty-hour workdays, seven hours in a bar doesn’t seem like such a long time, but wow.
Junior picks up the tab and pulls an Irish exit, i.e. leaves without saying goodbye to anyone. I’m caught off guard, but the crew is used to it. When the Seabrooke is in town, lured by a hot shower and reliable Internet connection, Junior often crashes at the hotel in one of the rooms booked by the Deadliest Catch’s producers. It’s one of the few places he knows he’ll be off camera and left alone. For Junior, a night of karaoke is another episode for people like me to edit and spin into a story. Tomorrow, he’ll drop me off at the airport and send me home but for him it will be business as usual in one of the world’s most legendarily unsafe workplace environments.
At the end of the night, there’s a disturbance outside between a drunken cannery worker and a reasonable cop. An off-duty bartender hustles the crew to her rented room above the bar. After two days on the boat, the bartender’s room smells like a boudoir. She invites us to sit down on her bed, make ourselves comfortable. The fishermen are single but drunk. I am sober but married. Tom is already asleep. There are no buyers for what the bartender is selling. The fishermen leave the sweet-smelling salon, pile into Junior’s truck and return to the boat for cold pizza and dreamless sleep.
I go up to the wheelhouse to charge my phone. I sit in the captain’s chair and imagine towering waves, lashing spray. I’m so wired I can still hear ‘Night Moves’ looping over and over again. Convinced my mind isn’t playing tricks on me, I locate the source of the song: an iPod left on repeat. Before we went out to the sports bar, Tom had snuck up to the wheelhouse to practice. Karaoke night was a way for Tom to recapture what he’d left behind. It might not be much, but out on the lonely waters of the Bering Sea, it was everything. That’s when I know: Tom isn’t coming back for a second season.
I let the music play and go below to my stateroom. In the navy, staterooms are found only in officer’s country. The enlisted men sleep in berthing compartments. The crew call this stateroom the ghetto, because it’s reserved for visitors and greenhorns. I crawl into my bunk and I’m transported twenty-five years into the past. It all feels so familiar to me. A homecoming of sorts. The smell of fresh paint and old hemp lines. The way the sound of metal-on-metal registers as I open a watertight door. A sailing vessel is a poor substitute for a home, but back when I was a young sailor who dreamt of being legendary and longed for an end to loneliness, it was the only one I had. As I slip off the lines that moor my mind to consciousness and drift out into the protected waters of my memories, I can almost talk myself into believing that the years since I’d left the navy are nothing but a long, beautiful dream, the dream of wondering what my life will be like as a civilian, a dream that is on the verge of ending. The sound of the generator vibrating through the bulkhead is my karaoke machine and I remember, I remember, I remember.
All images by John Ruland.