Gone Fishing

I thought I’d try a new type job, deep sea fishing. It sounded attractive–one month on, one month off. But I found out that one month was enough to near break me … sixteen hours work a day, shifts eight hours on and eight hours off, around the clock, day in and day out, down in the factory below deck. This is a longish entry, a journal of sorts I kept on board meant as a Christmas card filler. I hope you enjoy!

Gone Fishing

Employee number 20591

***

It’s the 19th. I think. Days and time lose a kind of meaning when the boat is the world and the days and nights are dictated by shift times and not sun and stars. It is Day 2, I think. Prepping the boat for yesterday, watching the previous catch lifted out of the hold by the stevedores, and then filling up the hold with what we will need—empty boxes, food, new washing machine. I lifted that down narrow stairs and into the laundry with a big Tongan lad. It’s his first time at sea so he was a bit nervous, hearing too many stories about sea sickness. Oh, this is Day 3. Day 2 was more loading, getting gear sorted, PPE type stuff. We left harbour this morning at 9am, steaming out from Dunedin. My watch started at 5am. Lots of waiting, some action when the deck hands needed help with mooring lines, more waiting and then factory prep, induction, muster drill, a crew meeting where the skipper tells us we’re after ling (a type of fish I know nothing about, other than it is a fish.)

Driscoll is the Tongan. He says his name so softly everybody asks him to repeat it several times, having a couple of guesses along the way. He has a few small kids, grabbing this opportunity for some solid pay. I imagine that will be hard for him—from what he said he seems a hands-on dad, coming home from night shift to be greeted by his boy who wakes early. He started that conversation, so it must be playing on his mind.

He looks a bit worse for wear now. He asked a couple times about the open sea, and now he is starting to know. I didn’t tell him it’s still pretty tame out there.

So, hand over, shower, lunch, bunk. Repeat—Repeat—Repeat—Repeat. Substitute breakfast or lunch or dinner. It’s seven hours before I am on again, so I should lie down. Fish might arrive then, but maybe the shift after. Then us newbies will learn what that is all about.

***

Sleep—Wake. It is still the same day. Dinner is served when I expect breakfast. I went to the ‘wheel house’ to get my Wi-Fi password and user name. Vaun, the skipper, showed me where we were and all the records of lines that have been laid in the past—previous fishing spots. We’re under the limited size for fishing boats. Those over 46 meters can’t fish within 25 miles of shore. The Aukaha is 45.2 meters, a deliberate design feature. There were heaps of lines on the computer monitor, records of previous sweeps by the fleet of ships. Vaun was telling me how we’ll hit a spot with no lines, a secret spot he wants to investigate. It’s all different up top here in the bridge, calm, comfortable, high tech.

The locker room is close to the opposite—a space lined with benches, open and named boxes on the wall for our gear, a small tea station, the door out to the back of the ship, a door and stairs down to the factory on the deck below, a door in the corner leading to a toilet. The watch is sitting around. There is no catch so there is little to do. It might be the last shift like that. Us newbies practiced putting on survival suits—a loose wet suit for the entire body. A condom for you when you are truly fucked by the sea, was my thought.  

Tyler got up quickly and headed for the toilet. We could hear her heaving. “She was fine last watch,” I said. “She was still half cut,” Marah answered. Some crew really tied one over before we left. She’s feeling it now. Last watch she and I tightened conveyor belts. She was a little surprised I knew how. “Just like a motor cycle chain,” I shouted over the noise of engine and machinery. She is still heaving. Shit to start a trip feeling like shit. Being at sea actually keeps some people healthy. No way to drink yourself silly out here.

My cabin mates are Oban, a lad right out of school, from Wanaka. His only water experience is waka ama paddling on the lake, but he seems fine, a hard worker. I notice he started introducing himself as from there but stopped. Wanaka is a very wealthy part of the country, and he is not with people from wealthy families. Astute kid. Below his bunk is David. He has a bit of experience, a young guy I ‘tap out’ fifteen minutes prior to shift end. I won’t see them too much—they sleep when we work and vice versa, and the strictest rules on board, at least one of them, is that you don’t go into your cabin when you are on watch and they are sleeping. Harri sleeps above me. I think he is sound, skilled, confident, not too quiet but not loud. Its his first time on the Aukaha, but not fishing. David plays the know it all and Harri ignores him in a way that lets David know (if he can read it) that Harri isn’t buying. I like his technique. Just as well they don’t work together on the same shift.

The watch supervisor is Ana, a sharp young Tongan woman, no nonsense but considerate and considered. First impression, anyway. She said she may start me at weigh station. Who is left? Marah, experienced hand, twenty-eight-year-old woman who is quality control. She has been at this for five years. Mohi, a newbie like me. And Driscoll, another newbie. Riki is the freezerman. Big guy. Amiable. This is Tyler’s second year. She swears like a sailor.

Ana, Marah, Tyler, Riki, me, Harri, Mohi. Driscoll.

The sea has picked up. A bit like riding a horse at times—up and down. The bow just hits a wave, crunch, and white spray is all that is seen out the messroom windows.

***

Up again. “Good morning,” I say to the cook. It is noon. Soupy sea outside, a huge flock of gulls following the ship. The nets must be down, probably the second haul. I’ll process that with my seven shift mates. Ceaseless up and down all shift and all rest period. Harri has red rimmed eyes at the end of shift. He is quiet because he is sick. At 9pm we knock off. I watch the corridor rise and fall, buckling. I turn the corner towards the mess, turn around and go to my quarters. I’ve felt about 90%, 80% if I’m honest. I enter the room, head for the toilet. The door is open and Harri is heaving, retching. “Move over!” I say, and he shifts to the shower drain and I take the toilet. I let it come. Once, twice, third time and I am emptied. It just wanted to come up. I leave the bathroom and Oban is there, getting something from the room before he starts his shift. “We’re having a party!” I tell him. Harri continues retching while I try to drink some water and get into my bunk. I sink luxuriously into the mattress as the ship sinks into the swell, comforting, soothing press, then as the ship rises, I float up. I try to hold onto gravity but fail. I sink, rise, and spend hours in and out of a light sleep. Breakfast or lunch next. I’ll give it a try.

***

First haul. Kit up: orange coveralls that make me feel like a prisoner, plastic sleeves, hair net, gum boots (steel tipped rubber boots), ear muffs, go down stairs, put on gloves and larger rubber apron. I stand next to David and he starts to leave. I say, “Show me what you’re doing.” He tells me to ask my supervisor. Not the deal, bud, I think. “So, you’re not going to show me?” I ask. My tone makes it a challenge. So, he does. I need a couple guys to show me better as the first hour goes by. The first haul has lots of by-catch. Ana is a good supervisor. She watches the floor as she works, pops up at an elbow when needed to show better technique, how to sharpen a blade, to demonstrate. I ask, “What is this station called?” I see why she wonders why I ask. A short pause before she yells (it is all shouting down here to hear over machinery): “Gutting by-catch!”

Machinery is humming, music is blasting, ear muffs try to stifle it all. After another hour and a half, we finish what the last shift left. Skipper moves on for almost two hours, maybe to try another secret spot, maybe back to a known one, but we watch through the aft door from where we sit in the locker room as the net is hauled up. We kit up—sleeves, hair nets, etc. etc. and go down stairs as the ling come, which is what we’re after, and for the next five hours we gut at my station. Knife in the anus, slice up the headless carcass, rip all the guts out, then cut out the leathery swim bladder. That’s the tough part, the part that wears the hand down. It’s evidently worth more than the fish for some Asian market. I’m told it earns $140 per kilo, where the fish worth $5. But the fish has much more meat and weight. It takes about 150 fish to make a kilo of these white leathery strips. Then it’s tip the fish down the shoot to the second wash and grab another. And another. And another ‘til smoko—15 minutes to catch your breath, bullshit, smoke ‘em out back if that’s what you do. Then back down until I see David appear to relieve me.

Shower—Food—Bunk. Wake at 4am to eat, and back to the locker room to prep for another shift.

***

I dream vividly: I am in a secluded part of a neighbourhood. The houses make a cul-de-sac. The Queen of England is with Harry and Megan. She has waited for a private place to talk to them. She really lays into them, how they are spoiled and take money for granted, expecting it to be given to them, how they act inappropriately, like Hitler salutes at parties. I think that Wendy might like to see this, but my phone is not working and besides, that would be bad manners. This is their private moment. I leave the lane and sit in a chair at a grass verge, looking at the green and the sky.

There are no fish in my dreams.

***

Some time to write—but this cuts into my recovery time. It has been several shifts. The body has gone from rebelling, literally, walking to the sump pump from a station and emptying my gut. No real nausea, just feeling 80%, then just knowing it was time. The boat was really moving, up and down, back and forth, climbing a hill with a box of fish heads, then sliding down the hill. Next shift I kept everything down. Shift after as well. This last shift ended and I felt almost human, had a shower, ate some nachos, talked a bit with Harri. He is 20. Ages come out today. I guess I look fit for an old guy. He dropped out of a diesel mechanic apprenticeship. He could always go back to it. He said his placement wasn’t that good. “Worse than gutting fish?” I say, and sound a lot like my dad when I was that age and he was worried about me not going to University because I was making what seemed like good money labouring. We both know (my dad and I) how dumb kids are.

So, I have less than 6 hours to doze before our 9pm to 5am shift. It’s easy to lose track of day or night, days, weekends, whatever. The ling here is finished and rumour has it we’re onto another fish. Ling are labour intensive. Gut, cut swim badder, collect heads, gut heads and weigh (6.9 to 7.4 kilo per tray). Doing everything repetitively reduces any “gross” factor. I am elbow deep in fish guts making a joke with the deckhand next to me. It’s just an action. The machines continue their hum, the music continues to blare, sound is dampened by ear muffs. Smoko is a marker as well as a relief. It divides the shift into three parts and gives a nice respite. Ana has been good, rotating us every third of a shift. Fish heads, gutting and packing. I see what another catch entails. No heads, for one. Only ling heads are kept for the Asian market. I think of some Chinese granny making fish head soup as I dump another of the disgusting things onto a tray.

We had a nice break today, 1.5 hours into shift we have an early smoko. It took an engineer cutting off his finger for us to get it. We neared Stewart Island where he was taken off board. Another plus was the reception on our phones. That was a real treat!

I am falling asleep now. Sleep takes all precedence.

***

Almost feeling normal after a shift. It takes the body a few days, but I’m getting there. Shift was varied, different catches and Ana rotating me to various positions. Gutting, heading machine, hoki fillet sorting. That is fast paced! The fillets roll down the conveyor and you quickly weigh each, putting them down the right slot. Very clever engineering throughout the entire operation. Then we finished a haul, hosed everything down, had a break and waited for the next haul. There is a lot of harvest, but also a great deal of waste.

Tyler talks fast. She is 22. I asked her what the fish with the pretty eyes was that I was cutting up down below. First, she laughs at my description. Then she says, “Go sha.” I ask, “What?” and she repeats, “Go sha!” I have to ask somebody what she is saying. “Ghost shark.” The shift is relaxed as we newbies pull our weight. Question I start to hear more frequently: “Are you coming back?” Quite legitimate question, more time should be spent training those who will. The crew needs skill. I say, “I’ll have to talk to HR about pay.” Ana nods. “Trainee pay is shit,” she agrees. That buys me some time. I helped her push the trays, using a big T bar, sliding them into the freezer shelves. “You’re strong,” she said. The work is making me feel strong, on my feet 16 hours a day, using my arms all the time.

I returned to my cabin after shift and heard a noise from Oban’s bunk. His light curtain was closed so I pulled it back to peek inside and tell him he’s late. He should be in his clothes now, relieving the last shift. He got up. I asked him how it was going and he said, “I’d say it was interesting, but it isn’t!” I was actually thinking it was kind of interesting, today at least. But he has a point. I seem to zone out as I butcher fish. Think about it too much and you might not want to wake up and get out of your bunk.

Temango is a deck hand from Kiribati. When the deckies are done topside they come down to the factory and help. I enjoy working the gutting line beside him. I pick up tips, learn new skills, but I think it is his humour, a lightness in his smile that is good to be beside.

***

Oban’s favourite part of his shift, he tells me, is the 15 minutes before the hour when I come to tap out David. It’s his signal that it is soon over. He sees me, smiles, and I point at him like he’s won a prize.

***

I’ve waited until the end of the week to write more in this. It’s the 2/3 mark. After this next shift it should be one more week fishing until we begin to steam home. Topped off with two days of cleaning instead of the usual routine: go to locker room, change into orange coveralls, white hair net, plastic sleeves (the latest batch is really cheap, leaving marks on my skin and slipping down), tap out David. I’ve settled into three basic station, but mostly two. The four ‘boys’ make two teams and we rotate between gutting and heads (we’re back in ling territory). Mohi and I are one team, Driscoll and Harri the other. Heads involve collecting the heads that drop in a bucket after they are sliced off by the machine operator at the first station after the ‘pound’, the area the net is emptied into. We use a hook to drag the box to another station (usually where hoki fillets are sorted), where the remaining bit of gut is pulled out, placed in trays and weighed. I hate ling heads. The gutting line follows a wash, a round tank the headed carcass is dumped in. A big rotor scoops some out and delivers them to the conveyor that brings them down the line. Slice, gut, remove swim bladder. Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. If we’re caught up on heads, or if OB (the factory manager) isn’t cutting off heads, one of us can join the by-catch line or help in packing. OB is extremely fast at removing heads and we can never keep up with him. Packing is very physical and Marah hammers away at it hour after hour, checking quality as well. I prefer packing—it’s like a gym workout, a little varied, and, I realise, as far from the fish as possible. All you deal with are the finished bits.

I get the question again: “Are you coming back for a second trip?” My polite come back has been: “I want to get through this one first!” Riki asked me again yesterday. I just laughed. “I guess that’s a ‘no’,” he said.

This morning he sees me writing in the messroom. “Ah, you’re geeking out on us,” he says. “You know I’m a geek.” I reply. “Do you want the good news?” he adds. “We’re out for another two days.” “Yes!” I fist pump, although my thoughts are closer to the swear words that regularly shoot out Tyler’s mouth.

The net is being hauled up as I eat lunch or breakfast or dinner or whatever meal it is. No eggs and bacon so it must be one of the latter two. That means my shift gets to work their balls off processing while the last shift are cleaning and waiting. Such is the luck.

***

Rumours. Plans change. Home the 9th. Home the 11th. Home the 18th.  The boat is waiting for a dry dock in Lyttleton. It can’t come out until the other boat leaves it. I wait until things become more certain, if they ever will. It’s not how I like to work, plans changing by the day, but I have absolutely no choice in the matter. Grunt it out. No point grumbling. I caught a scent of that from a few on the other shift as I was leaving. A joke about taking the life boat and leaving. A more direct: “He doesn’t know what he is doing.” I didn’t ask who ‘he’ was. None of my business. We’ll see. It would be nice to have some Wi-Fi, to communicate with home. I tried to phone from the bridge using the satellite phone, but while Wendy was clear, I, to her, was just static. “So just talk to me then, seeing that you’re the only one that can,” I say. But all she heard was crackle, and she probably thought that’s all I heard too. I was excited, flight going to be booked for home, the 11th. I tried to tell her to check my emails, but probably just caused worry—why a call from the Southern Ocean? Crackle, static, crackle. But promises of technology once again remain empty. My Wi-Fi never worked so I gave my password to Riki. It seems to work on everybody elses’ phone.

But it’s just as well she couldn’t hear. The flight was never booked.

I encourage some rumours. I got called to the bridge during a couple shifts, a welcome little field trip. Seems I gave them the wrong bank account number and payroll needs an accurate one. After that, Tyler is wondering what’s up. Marah tells me Tyler thinks I’m a spy. “Who for?” I ask. Marah shrugs. The company. Or MPI (the Ministry of Primary Industries), or Sea Shepherd. “Yeah, tell her one of those,” I say. Clayton, an older hand on the other shift, just assumes I recently got out of prison. Why else would I be working a job like this? I like the fact that everybody has a story, and that all the others know is only what you (or they) decide to tell.

***

There’s a definite feeling of being on the downside of this climb. Over the hump. I went down the factory did a little jig when I saw the other shift cleaning up. No ling! No more ling heads! We had a couple hours before a ton of barracuda showed up. We dusted those off, then cruised all shift while the net was down. There’s talk of docking in Dunedin to unload the fish. Oban dryly suffixes all news with, “Apparently…” We trust no news. It is so good to rest the body. My phone worked long enough to receive a few messages and then it faded again, but a real treat!

***

We watched the net be set by the deckies as it coincided with smoko. All eyes out the back hatch as the net flowed off the stern. The heavy weights clank as they roll off the deck, just as they clank as they rise. I hate the sound. “Last haul of the trip,” we hear over the loud speaker. Vaun from the wheel house. Eyes in the locker room roll. He has said that on previous trips and then tried to get one more in. We go back to the factory, don arm sleeves, gloves, aprons and back to work. I have been packing all shift, farthest I can get from pound without working the freezer, Riki’s domain. Half way into the work Vaun is suddenly standing beside me. He reaches out his hand, and for a moment I don’t want to take it and get his bare hand dirty, but I do and he shakes mine. He says, “Well done, we’re done fishing and steaming home.” A thank you. He has gone around the factory, the first time I have seen him down here, doing the same to each crew member. It is a very nice touch. “You made my day,” I tell him. My cold has seemed to have broken, three days or shifts or whatever of sinus blockage and dragging myself through 8-hour shifts, drugged up on Sudafed and the odd lemon when I could find one. David shows up on time, our hand over. On the way out I slowly look around the place, I gently touch a ling carcass, (yes, the ling seem to have a habit of showing up every time I think I am done with them) and I go up the stairs. After last smoko Ana said to me, “Well, soon this will just be a bad memory.” “Everything is a memory,” I answer, though I couldn’t adequately convey what I wanted to say or felt. It wasn’t all bad, it was just tough. ‘Bad’ would be a judgement on her, and the team’s, lives and work. No, not a ‘bad’ memory.

We were about 200 to 240 miles south east of Stewart Island for those last hauls. Ocean as far as the eye could see. Maybe after the next shift we will be in phone range, but I am sure it will be longer.

Clean up starts tomorrow. The vets say it is the worst part of the trip, but admit it has a nice feeling. Home soon! They started out talking about their planned party at Riki’s, a party they started planning on about Day 1. Talk then was of binges and nights out. At sea they are disciplined, focussed and extremely hard working. On land, at least when they return, they drink themselves sick. Locker room conversation moved on from alcohol, straying into religion, dreams, the economics of cannabis legalisation. Then there was a lull, Week 3 I think, when we all seemed too tired to talk much. Smoko was mostly just hot drinks and ciggies outside. We’re out of disposable cups. Riki told me before the lull that he is usually no good on land, that it was too easy to get back into bad habits, like drinking from morning on. I like working with him, and his sense of humour. I don’t think I would want to live with him or be his flatmate.

As clean up starts tomorrow I am up writing and even thinking of watching a movie a bit of a movie on my laptop. Sure, it will be eight hours of work, but not the stressed processing and packing of tonnes of sea life. No ling guts, no ling heads, no hoki fillets.

***

My smell is returning—a good sign regarding my cold. Maybe not a good thing for clean-up.

Land! I am amazed at the ease of the transition. Most of the crew went into town. I joined them for a couple pints and then caught a taxi back to the ship to sleep in a room by myself in a bed that didn’t move. The boys came in at 5am, so I got up for breakfast. Stevedores start unloading at 7am. About 12 hours of that and we start steaming towards Lyttleton.

Before leaving the boat, I walked into a conversation with Oban and Mohi about the ethics of industrial fishing like we had done. Oban had no idea that he was going to work in a factory like this. He said that fishing with a hook the fish at least did something to earn being caught. But trawling with a huge net, all they were doing were swimming around. And the mechanical efficiency of the slaughter, the dispassionate processing! He wondered about the Nazi death camps and that efficiency. There! He said the thought aloud, one that flitted through my mind these past weeks as I, too, dispassionately played a part in dispatching so much life, not even thinking about it after shift, easily leaving any images in the factory below. I looked around to see if any crewmates might have heard his musings, caring more about their feelings than any fish. Marah was nearby, but out of earshot. She is a very tough young woman, but with a huge heart. Just not for the fish? That’s just a job. This type of normalisation—did the camp guards leave all images at the gates? Is the comparison even legitimate? Oban wasn’t comparing humans to fish, just looking at steps and attitudes towards life. “My mom is a vegan,” he said. “I get that a lot more now.” Neat kid, planning to study music and oceanography starting next year.

A day ago, I had my meeting in the wheel house with Vaun and OB. They asked how it went and if I was planning to sign up again. They understood when I declined. Vaun said it was really hard when we reach fifty. Most employers don’t even consider you. I know that, but physically, and pay level, I couldn’t find it sustainable, which is one thing I wanted to find out. I found out. My body is sore in many, many places, and this pay is worse than a grocery store clerk. I made a point of thanking him and passing on my compliments of Ana as a supervisor.

I started calling Ana ‘Sarge’, as we made up a bit of a platoon. Her corporals, Marah and Riki, privates Tyler and Harri, buck privates Mohi and myself. I liked being a private, doing what I’m told, trying to do it well, going to where I might be re-allocated to fill a gap. Ana talked about applying for land work. I told her, “When you see a job, apply for the position above it. That’s the one you’re qualified for.”  Her smile was a small gem that day. I didn’t talk about that during my ‘interview’, just how impressed I was and how lucky I was to be placed in a good team. We didn’t bicker or bitch, and we were well led. I think it was different on the other shift. Vaun signed my sea time book, 28 days noted as deckhand. That’s a big chunk of what I need to advance my inshore skippers license. Good of him to do that—he knew that was the other reason I came aboard, taking the chance to fill a temporary vacancy in his crew. “Maybe it’s like child birth. After a time of forgetting what it was like, the woman decides to have another. Maybe I’ll give you a shout when I need more sea time.”

But I doubt it.

 ***

Vessel worked: Aukaha, built in 1997 and sailing under the flag of New Zealand. It’s carrying capacity is 1746 t DWT and her current draught is reported to be 6 meters. Her length overall (LOA) is 45.2 meters and her width is 12.62 meters.

Area during period of service: Southern Ocean, SW and SE of South Island, New Zealand

Ship Operations: Trawling (deep sea)

Ling are found at depths between 300 and 500 metres. They appear to be mainly bottom dwellers and at times can inhabit burrows on the seafloor. … Ling are mainly caught off the southern South Island coast and on the Campbell Plateau.

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