PASADENA—Of all this year's college graduates with freshly-minted rocket science credentials, it's a safe bet that none has spent more time in a fishing boat than Carrie Garner.
A graduating senior in aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology, Garner has spent nearly every summer since she was 15 on the family's commercial boat, scouring Alaskan waters for red salmon. And after she packs away her diploma in June, she'll once again be bound for Seattle to join the four-member fishing crew that includes her mother, her uncle, and an old family friend.
Once in Seattle, the four will sail the family's 32-foot salmon gillnetter to Alaska's Bristol Bay for four to six weeks of around-the-clock fishing, with no trips to shore, no recreation to speak of, very little sleep, and not very many showers.
"It's a lot of hard work and long hours," says the 21-year-old Garner. "But we work well together, and we all get along, which can make a huge difference."
Garner is a deck hand on the boat, a job that entails such demanding physical duties as handling the 900-foot fishing net. Her mother is co-owner of the boat and also a deck hand, and her uncle is skipper. Her father, meanwhile, stays back in Seattle to take care of the business end.
Since the Alaskan fishing industry is tightly regulated, the commercial crews find it economically necessary to work literally 24 hours a day during the short open seasons. This can mean for Garner 18-hour shifts of setting out the nets, hauling them back in, picking the salmon from them, throwing the fish into bins, and then repeating the process.
The break in the routine comes when the bins are full and the crew unloads the catch onto a boat called a "tender," which in turn hauls the salmon to a processing plant or cannery. Recreation, as such, is pretty much limited to occasionally tying up with a couple of other boats so that two or three crews can have a get-together.
"It's kind of the version of Bristol Bay social life," she says. In all, it's a grueling summer, but a profitable one, nonetheless. If it's a good year for red salmon, Garner departs the boat in late July with $6,000 in her pocket—all for a few weeks of backbreaking work.
"I should point out that not everyone makes that much money," she says. "A deck hand who's never fished before would have a smaller share of the profit, so he might make just $3,000."
Though the family business is profitable, Garner has set her sights literally higher. In mid-May she finished up all the requirements for a private pilot's license, and is already making plans to pursue an instrument rating and commercial pilot's license.
She's not sure what the future holds, but for now definitely intends to spend lots of time in the air—and earn a living from it.
"I tend to take goals one step at a time," she says.