Lacrosse is easy for Andrew Bourke these days. Diminutive in stature, the 5-foot-7, 165-pound senior never had it easy on the lacrosse field -- until recently. Constantly battling with Division I college players much taller or heavier than him, Bourke has earned every minute of playing time he gets as a reserve attackman for No. 16 Denver, a program he grew up idolizing as a Denver resident. But after working the past three summers as a deckhand on a deep-sea fishing boat off the coast of Alaska, lacrosse now seems like a walk in the park to Bourke.
"Taking a coach's advice is one thing -- there's room for error," Bourke explains. "When you're a deckhand, if you don't listen to what someone says, you could be in serious trouble."
That's the situation Bourke faced aboard the F/V Spirit -- a commercial fishing boat for the Juneau-based Alaska Glacier Seafoods company that supplies Costcos all over the country -- each of the past three summers. As fans of the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" reality show can attest, deep-sea fishing on the high Alaskan seas is, to put it lightly, risky business. What reeled Bourke in, however, was the fact that it is also a highly lucrative business.
"I was at school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County [UMBC] my freshman year [before transferring to Denver as a sophomore], and I was looking for a summer job," Bourke recalls. "My best friend, Alex Horne, told me his uncle was captain of a boat [for Alaska Glacier Seafoods] and that he might be able to get me a job. It paid $10,000 to $12,000 for two months' work."
In other words, despite growing up in a landlocked state and carrying a fish-catching résumé limited to the occasional fly-fishing outing, the money was too good for Bourke to turn down. Having spent a summer working for Alaska Glacier himself, Horne warned Bourke about some of the dangers and long hours that are part of the job (though less so in the summer than in winter, when "Deadliest Catch" is filmed). But simple words of warning could not fully prepare Bourke for his Alaskan adventures.
"There's no explaining it until you get up there," Bourke says. "The atmosphere is very intimidating. Everyone has been up there their whole life, so being a greenhorn -- especially coming from the lower 48 [states] -- you're looked down upon."
Immediately after arriving at the Alaska Glacier port his first day on the job back in June 2005, Bourke had to hop on the F/V Spirit as it set out on its first haul. One of three deckhands tasked with fishing duties, Bourke -- ready or not -- was quickly thrust into action.
"It was overwhelming, but exciting at the same time," he says. "They expect you to know what you're doing, so I got yelled at a lot. But I was used to constructive criticism from lacrosse."
From there, Bourke says, it was all a learning experience. Fishing primarily for five types of salmon -- Alaska Glacier sets an annual goal of catching 1 million pounds of sockeye, chum, pink, king and coho salmon per summer -- Bourke had to learn how to cast a gill net, how to empty the fish into a hold, how to keep the fish fresh by blanketing them in bags upon bags of ice. Though there were days when the temperature reached 70 degrees and the seas remained calm, Bourke had to learn to work through the days when the weather was harsh and the ocean was frighteningly choppy.
"The hardest part was not getting injured and keeping your wits about you during bad weather. There was a 15-year-old kid last summer [on a different boat] who lost two fingers, and some people lose their lives out there."
While no one has been seriously injured on Bourke's boat during his three summers on the job, all deckhands must fend off exhaustion and at times unbearable soreness to get the job done. Some days Bourke would work 24 hours straight, and even when he was finally able to retreat to his tight sleeping quarters, his hands were sometimes so sore that he would lie awake contemplating the next morning's pain.
"All the work on the boat is physical work," Bourke says. "You're tying knots, shoveling buckets full of ice -- doing everything with your hands. In the morning my hands would be so cramped I could hardly open them. It's the worst feeling I've ever had in my life."
Still, there is a reason Bourke returned to Alaska for two more summers. For starters, there are few offseason weightlifting regimens that compare to lifting 200 yards worth of salmon, king crab and halibut-filled nets all day for two months. Bourke estimates that he gained between 10 and 12 pounds -- mostly of upper-body strength -- every summer. Plus, having worked hard enough his first summer to earn the respect of those same co-workers who initially dismissed him as a clueless outsider, Bourke was made head deckhand his second summer aboard the F/V Spirit. In fact, as head deckhand last summer, Bourke guided the F/V Spirit to an Alaska Glacier record haul of 13,000 pounds of salmon.
But above all, the satisfaction of knowing that people all over the country -- the world, in fact, since Alaska Glacier exports some of its hauls to China -- are able to enjoy the fish he helped catch is what kept him coming back. "Everyone on the [Denver lacrosse] team loves to give me slack when we go to the grocery store about seeing the fish that I caught," Bourke says with a laugh. "But knowing you're supplying all those people -- it is very rewarding."
His strenuous summers have paid dividends on the lacrosse field, as well. Having played in just five games for the Pioneers in his first two seasons since transferring from UMBC his sophomore year, Bourke has already played meaningful minutes this season in the Pioneers' dismantling of Colgate in their Feb. 16 season opener. Though he knows that even as a senior he is little more than a role player for the Pioneers, Bourke isn't afraid to mix it up with the big boys once he steps on the field.
"I'm not really afraid to do anything anymore," he says. "Those last three summers have given me more confidence. There's nothing I won't try now because I'm intimidated or whatnot."
Pioneers coach Jamie Munro marvels at Bourke's all-out play. "He's totally fearless. He's a little guy who's not afraid to come across the middle and take a hit. He's not a starter, but he's a real smart player, and he's very competitive to get on the field. He's like a big kid who's always got a smile on his face. My 5-year-old daughter has a big crush on him."
And thanks to the grueling nature of those Alaskan summers, Bourke's work ethic is second to none. "It was the most real-life experience I could ever imagine," he said. "Basically, it's the lifestyle of the hardest-working people in the world. It taught me tons of life lessons."
Lessons Bourke plans to carry with him -- wherever his next port of call may be.
Chris Preston is a staff writer for the Shelburne News and a frequent contributor to Varsity Magazine. He can be reached at ChrisPreston@shelburnenews.com.