Three years ago, independent agent Patrick Schilling was trapped underwater in the cabin of a sinking commercial fishing boat in Alaska, fighting desperately to force open a door against the weight of the ocean.
“The whole thing filled up with water,” he said. “I had to keep swimming up to the engine room [which contained an air pocket] … I was taking gulps of air and swimming under and was just pushing as hard as I could to try and get that door open.
“I had my rain gear on and I couldn’t really move. I was pushing as hard as I could and nothing happened, and that’s when I thought: this is it.”
Schilling miraculously survived, and has since swapped his fishing net for an agent’s desk. What used to be three-month stints out at sea have been replaced by a regular 9-5 desk job.
“It was such a huge turning point. It’s the only time in my life that I thought I was going to die,” he said. “It just kind of shook me up for a while. It made me more sure that I wanted to continue pursuing a career in insurance.”
Schilling, who now manages personal lines insurance at Malone Insurance Agency in small town Homer, AK, said there are elements of his former life he still misses – but overall he’s happy to have settled into a more stable, and safe, insurance lifestyle.
Having grown up in a “very small town” near the coast in Oregon, Schilling chose not to follow his friends into university. Instead, he travelled for a period, and then set his sights on life as a fisherman.
“The nice thing about commercial fishing is you work really hard for a short period of time, and then you’re free,” he said. “That really appealed to me. It was really, really hard but I kind of had my freedom.”
In a good summer, he could make a year’s wages with about five months’ worth of work, and then he could travel.
Schilling worked seven summers on the Alaskan fishing boats, mostly chasing salmon out of Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound. Every year, for about three months at a time, he’d be at sea – always within sight of Alaska, yet rarely returning to shore.
Eventually, though, after marrying a local girl from Homer and having a child, he started looking at insurance. A buddy of his from Oregon had begun working for his father and invited Schilling to head home and give it a shot too.
“At first I was so gung-ho about doing commercial fishing as a career,” he explained. “The more I did it … it seems like a lot of money, but you have to keep dumping money back into it [for boat upkeep and fishing licences]. It didn’t seem like it was going to be stable enough – some years it’d be really good, and some years it was just terrible.
“It got to the point where I didn’t see myself fishing forever, and if I wasn’t going to then I needed to find something new.”
So he earned his qualifications and started selling in Portland, Oregon. But, finding commissions hard to come by in his first few months, and needing to provide for his young family, Schilling agreed to work one final two-month stint back on a friend’s boat in Alaska.
It was to be a disastrous, near-fatal decision.
“I just had to make something for my family. I fished one last summer as a deckhand. It ended up being this this huge life-changing thing,” he said.
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“Our boat rolled over. I ended up getting stuck under the boat for like five minutes. It was a long ordeal. It wasn’t even a rough day, we were just going back into port and we had some fish on board … and a weird wave hit us and in like two seconds the whole boat flipped over upside-down.”
The captain and one deckhand got out of a window, and Schilling held a door against the in-rushing water long enough to help another deckhand get out, before the water pressure slammed the door shut. The boat flipped over, but a pocket of air in the stern prevented it for sinking completely.
Taking gulps of air from the inverted engine room and swimming down to push against the door, Schilling was fighting against the full might of the sea.
Eventually, having taken another breath, he swam down and the door finally gave – the water pressure inside having equalized with the water outside. Then, he had to navigate the ship’s sinking fishing nets as he fought his way to the surface.
When he popped up among the waves, only the ship’s upturned hull was above the water. As his buddy pulled him from the water onto the hull, Schilling said, “I just remember being 100% out of energy. I was just done.”
After that, he knew he was never going back out. He soon found a job at Malone, and he lives with his wife and three children.
His sea adventure is not entirely complete, however - though he manages the agency’s personal lines, Schilling has also begun dabbling in commercial insurance
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