Life at sea

Life at sea

By Dave Duffy

Dave Duffy
December 24, 1999

Before I ever started Backwoods Home Magazine , I wanted to be a commercial fisherman. But somehow I never took that first step. Instead I fished whenever I could, usually from a dock because I always lacked the money to buy my own boat. But still I dreamed about how wonderful life could be on the ocean, pulling in one big fish after the other. Other people lived my dream, and one of them was Frank Caldwell, a
commercial salmon troller for nearly 40 years who operated his boat from Alaska to California.

A couple of months ago Caldwell sent me a copy of his 143-page book, Pacific Troller , which is the matter-of-fact account of his fishing life at sea. He had no idea who I was, other than I owned a magazine that occasionally reviewed books of a self-reliant nature. But he hit the bulls eye when he sent the book to me. Not only has Pacific Troller become one of my favorite reads, but I’ve asked Caldwell to write about his self-reliant fishing life for our May/June issue.

Pacific Troller is not meant to be an adventure book, and to many readers it probably will not read as one, but I brought my lifelong dream to the book and to me it is a fascinating, adventurous account of 40 years chasing salmon and other fish on the open ocean. From huge catches that brought top dollar at market to giant storm waves that chased his and other boats back into whatever shelter they could find, it is the story of the many fishermen who risk their lives, who are away from their families for weeks at a time, and who live a totally self-reliant life in pursuit of fish and adventure.

As book production goes, it is not a prime specimen. A 5 ½ x 8 ½ paperback, many of the photos are poorly reproduced, and it is fairly brief for the $15.99 cover price. But it has a couple of beautifully detailed drawings showing how a fishing troller is outfitted and how the trolling poles and rigs are used. I committed those drawings to memory, just in case I need them in my dreamy future. And not only is it a good apprentice course
in salmon trolling, but Caldwell’s writing style is positively captivating.

Anytime I feel overworked and stressed out, and right now the Christmas season is a stressful work season for me because BHM’s next deadline is January 5, I grab the book and look through Caldwell’s eyes
and live the life I often think I should have lived.

Coincidentally, as I write this, one of my brothers–Hugh–is continuing to live his life at sea, at least partially. He is in the process of sailing his 42-foot ketch, which is a double-masted sailboat, back to Annapolis Harbor in Maryland. He’s lived aboard the boat for about 15 years, and single-handing a vessel that big is no simple task. I think he is practicing for an as yet undefined adventure.

Hugh and I have been talking for two years about sailing his boat back to our ancestral home in Ireland. I was all for it initially, but I’ve dragged my feet. The main stumbling block I’ve identified at present is that it appears to be prohibitively expensive to get life insurance to protect my wife and four children in the event the boat sinks during the voyage. And yes, I must admit that I’m a bit afraid of the perils that would be part of such a trip, such as a sudden storm with 30 to 50-foot waves that could cast me among the sharks and freezing temperatures of the North Atlantic.

Hugh has been sinking money into his boat, named Ranger, for a year, getting it seaworthy. He says it’s capable of doing a complete 360, that is, going completely upside down in a storm and righting itself with the momentum of its heavy keel. Its cabin is, of course, sealed against the sea, and, like Caldwell, Hugh is a skilled captain.

The fisherman’s life seems romantic, as does a cross-Atlantic trip with my brother. But Caldwell describes some pretty harrowing and uncomfortable times in a cold, wet ocean, as well as a time when a fellow fisherman was swept overboard and lost into a churning sea. One fishing boat, in Caldwell’s account, simply vanished in a storm, with a massive search failing to turn up a trace. It’s fascinating stuff to read and dream about, but maybe that’s as far as I can go.

We’ll soon see I guess. My brother’s boat will be ready in another six months to a year. If one day he says to me it’s time to “fish or cut bait,” I may discover I’m just a bait cutter meant to only read books by people like Frank Caldwell. Maybe that’s the reason why I never became a commercial fisherman, but became a publisher instead. Whatever, we’ll all get to read Caldwell’s account at sea in the May/June issue of BHM.

Caldwell’s book is available directly from him (autographed copies) at Anchor Publishing, 1335 West Eleventh Street, Port Angeles, WA 98363. E-mail: It’s also available online from Trafford Publishing (not autographed) at Toll free: 1-888-232-4444.

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