Mel Stenson

Long before the Discovery Channel brought the “Deadliest Catch” into our cozy living rooms, Mel Stenson spent his winters living the reality of pulling frozen cages bursting with crab from the frigid, dangerous waters of the Bering Sea.
Over the course of his 30-year career he has felt the power of the ocean as it slammed him unconscious to the deck. He has seen it take his friends and a brother. He knows firsthand what it feels like to watch his boat sink, leaving him to tread water for as long as his strength would allow with no floatation device and not knowing if help would arrive in the 11 minutes that only the strongest can survive.
“There were only three of us on the boat and we were just 200 yards from shore when we sank,” Mel told me recently, but swimming that distance in rain gear and boots is impossible in 32-degree water. “The boat didn’t have life jackets and we couldn’t get to the survival suits by the time we realized we were sinking. So we tied buoys around the captain’s girlfriend and he and I had to swim for it.”

“The scariest part was not knowing if anyone was coming. We put out maydays but we didn’t know if anyone would make it,” he said, adding that in Alaska when a boat gets a mayday and has a reading, there is no hesitation. “You cut gear and go as fast as you can. That’s just what you do.”
At the end of his strength and talking to God, Mel was still 100 yards from shore and about to go under when help arrived. “When they pulled me out I was stiff,” he said. “The captain made it too and the girl bobbed like a cork all the way to shore.”
These days all boats have life jackets for every man and other features that have made crab fishing not as deadly as it was when Mel started in 1980. “Now they have sea walls but when I started there were just rails and so you had no protection from the waves,” he said. “And they just dumped the crabs on the deck so when a wave hit, you had to run all around chasing the crabs. They have a lot figured out now.”

Mel helped figure the industry out having worked on the first boats that cleaned, cooked, froze and packaged the crabs on board rather than having to take them ashore for processing. “I like to think I am pretty good at it,” he said, explaining that he often ran the factory side of the boats he was working on. The Russians thought he was good enough to hire him as an advisor in 2000.
In 1958 the Russians had planted king crab in the Barrents Sea but waited to harvest them until the late 1990’s by which time they were running rampant and the Russian fisherman needed the experience of an Alaskan crab man. Mel was their man.

   “It was a great job. I didn’t have to do any work, I just told them where to fish, how to rig their gear and taught them processing quality control,” he said. To the Russians it was worth $600 a day. “It was amazing at first. I went ‘these crab are huge’. We would knock down 12 tons a day.”
It was an unregulated feeding frenzy that got out of hand. The first year there were 2 boats, then they added 4 new ones the next year, then five more and then five more. Then they allowed some American boats capable of bringing in 22 tons in a single day.
“It really pissed me off. These guys on the boats were my friends and they were working for peanuts, maybe $20 or $40 a day,” he said. “At the end, they would come to me and say ‘Mel, where are all the crab?’ and I told them that they were all in boxes, we caught them all.”
It was a good run while it lasted, but in the end it was just a 6 year stint in a long career that has taken him all over the globe fishing off Uruguay and South Africa and on top of Russia on the Pacific side where he once made $64,000 in 18 days.
Of all the seas he has fished, the Bering in Alaska is the wickedest and most deadly. “We were down fishing the Gulf when Hurricane Danielle blew in and we didn’t even stop fishing,” he said. “In Alaska they have hurricanes, they just don’t call them hurricanes.”
“The seas are steeper up there,” he said. “The scariest day was Savage Sunday in 1990.” The waves reached 80 feet and the wind hit 100 miles per hour. Five ships sank and the maydays came one after the other. “We would run up to the top of a swell and then turn back down and just hope the wave didn’t come down on us. I was scared and I’d been fishing for 10 years.”
But the harshest day on the Bering Sea came 4 years later during another bout of rough weather. Mel was working in the factory below when the distress signal went off and so he ran on deck to find that his younger brother Joe was overboard in the 30-foot seas.

“Every one was throwing him lines and stuff because that’s what you do. I threw him a buoy and then I saw his head go down. I said, ‘that’s my brother out there’,” he said. So while the others watched, Mel grabbed a life jacket a dove in. “I swam my ass off but I could never get to him.”  Meanwhile, their oldest brother Steve ran to get a survival suit and he jumped in and was able to reach Joe.
“They pulled me back in and told me Steve had Joe. They covered me in blankets and took me to the galley. They reassured me they would revive Joe,” he said. “Then Steve came down and said “what are you doing sitting on your ass?’ He didn’t know I’d been in the water. I said ‘where’s Joe? They told me you had him.’ And Steve said ‘No, I lost him.'”  Mel ran back on deck and put on a survival suit but it was too late, Joe had slipped away.
In the years since, Steve succumbed to diabetes and Mel is the last of the three brothers. This winter Mel took a two month course and passed his able seaman test. He is waiting to be called down to the calmer seas in the Gulf and go to work as a sailor.
“I can still do it but it’s a question of how hard do I want to be on my body,” he said of the crab fishing.
And then there is his mother who has always looked after her big tough fisherman.”You make sure you mention my mother, Beverly, and my sister, Cheryl and her husband Steve, because they have really supported me all this time,” he said to me. “It didn’t matter where we were, they always sent us cookies and great cards and letters. Mom always gets my mail and takes care of my bills when I’m fishing,” he said.
“You tell them she is a great lady that she loved her three ornery boys and would do anything for us,” Mel said as he finished talking. And I would add that she instilled in her sons that same love of family to the extent that they would do anything for each other.
Comments
  1. Anonymous says:

    Mel passed away, I don’t know the details and the obituary hasn’t posted. I was looking for something and came across this article.

  2. Randy Kittilstved says:

    I do not understand! Did Mel Pass? And if so, what happened?

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