A Commercial Fishing Family’s Worst Nightmare.

One subject I don’t spend a lot of time writing about on this blog, although it’s a blog about fishing families, is the ever–looming threat to fishing families of deaths and disaster at sea.

You may have heard by now about the Lady Cecelia, a trawler out of Oregon, that went down (sank) in a matter of seconds seventeen miles off the coast of southern Washington, taking all four crewmembers with her. Unless you have a direct tie to commercial fishing and fishermen, you may have shrugged off the story and the catastrophe as just another boat, just another crew, just another run of bad luck in the industry.

But when you are profoundly connected to the industry and you look at a picture like the one included in the article, you stop. You stare. You look intently into the face of one of the men that was lost and you see your own husband, your dad, your brother. If you are a fisherman, perhaps you halt for a moment, seeing yourself.

You continue to look at the picture and see the two-year old boy, dressed just like his daddy in Xtra Tuffs and orange rain gear, sitting on Daddy’s lap on the boat. Your heart overflows with grief and sorrow that this daddy, whom the child clearly adores, is now lost. Maybe in the little boy you see your own little son or daughter, your grandchild, or your nephew.

One reason I don’t write much about the potential for and reality of tragedy in our profession—one of the world’s most deadly professions—is because I can’t. The thought is always in my mind as I go about my day and drift off to sleep at night. Having already lost my brother-in-law fifteen years ago to the sea during an Alaska crab season (you can read a bit about him here), the memory of that horror and disbelief lives on in my heart. I don’t like to bring it to the forefront by writing often about it.

As a grandchild, child, wife, sister, and mother in a fishing family, and as someone who has actually fished, I have to get distance from the risks and possibilities. I can’t dwell on the “what ifs”. I have to stay focused on the day-to-day; my children to care for, a household to maintain, pets to feed. I stay busy with my children, my activities, my friends, and family.

Sometimes, though, I wonder. What would I do if I received word that George was lost? If one of the crew was lost? If the entire boat was gone? How would I tell our children? What would I tell them? How would we ever continue?

I think of the practical aspects. Would I keep this house and find comfort in the memories and familiarity of it, or would I find it too large, too sad, and decide to sell it? What would I do about the business-end of things? Our operation is rather involved and complicated, especially for a family fishing operation. Would I understand how to handle the IFQs? What do I do with hundreds of crab pots, a locker full of longline tubs, lines, seine nets, gear, permits, documents, and loans? Besides family, who would I trust to understand and help me in these matters?

I was in my early 20s when my brother-in-law, Danny, died. He and my sister had recently been married and they did not have children. All these years later, I still remember the way well-meaning family and friends, all who’d come to lovingly offer us comfort and condolence, spoke quietly among themselves. I remember one comment I heard again and again.

“At least they didn’t have children.”

As I heard this repeatedly over the days and weeks following the accident, I wondered about it. I’ve continued to wonder about it through the years, going over the comment in my mind and looking at both sides.

“At least they didn’t have children.”

What would be worse, I’ve wondered? Having to look into the precious faces of your young ones and tell them they no longer have a living father? Would it be better to not suffer that grief? Or is it better to have a living piece of your spouse still in the world in the form of little ones with his laugh, his expressions, perhaps even his character?

Last night, our children (Eva, 6, and Vincent, 4) overheard bits and pieces of George and I quietly discussing the tragedies of this week (a total of six fishermen in separate accidents who died at sea on the Washington and Oregon coasts). In particular, the children wanted to see the picture of the fisherman and his son; we did not show it to them.

We knew that if they saw the picture of the fisherman sitting on the boat with his little one in his lap, they would see their own daddy. They would see the other fisherman daddies they know and love; Bryan, and Brett, and Johnny, and Oscar. If they saw the picture of the little boy, they would see themselves and each other. And they would be scared, and they would cry, and they would worry.

But I’ve looked at the picture dozens of times. I choke back tears in silence away from the children, because only the mommies and the daddies should worry. We may keep that worry in the back of our minds or deep in our hearts, we may not talk about it, and we don’t often write about it, but we do. We worry.

All the time.


  1. Yes.

    Beautifully shared, Jen, and all too true. I understand that we all stumble on knowing how to comfort those experiencing unimaginable loss, but I’d find “At least they didn’t have children” to be a hollow, infuriating platitude indeed. May we all keep doing what we can control – careful maintenance, sound judgment, rigorous safety trainings and survival gear – and hope for the best in what we can’t.

    • I think you’re exactly right on all counts. That kind of statement, while made with good intentions, did ring hollow and somewhat ignorant at the time and still does. Odd that I’ve never asked my sister her thoughts on the subject, but I probably never will. I also agree that we all have to keep doing what we can with what we can control! I have to trust that everything is in place and everyone is always vigilant and doing what they can. Other than that, I have no control. I’m not there, and there’s nothing I can do from here. All I know is if anything did happen, I’d hear about it instantly. Like my dad always says, “Bad news travels the fastest” and “No news is good news.” It’s been proven true time and again!

  2. I’ll never forget the crappy comments/statements throughout the last 15 years of living with and growing through grief…and I’m sure others have had to listen to similar “less than thoughtful” comments after any sudden loss of a loved one….BUT children should be free of adult worries and fears as long as possible. Whether someone grows up with their parent fishing, as a pilot, in the military, etc. those fears are always there – its important to keep a childs simple and pure view of life as long as possible.

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