Posted on October 19, 2021
I am off to sea again, a five week stint on a Kiwi deep sea trawler, after hoki on the Chatham Rise some two hundred miles off shore. I’ll be busy in the factory collecting lots of data for the scientist on shore. But part of my duties will involve monitoring interactions with the bird life. Its a lovely part of the job. I bought a nice pair of binoculars to take with me this time, auto-focus and designed for use at sea. I look forward to watching the albatross–such magnificent animals! Wing spans stretching to three meters, gliding in winds that would make me grab on to the nearest railing. Their sense of their surroundings must be so different than ours.
And, of course, I’m bringing my laptop to do some writing. So far this year I completed a book of short stories (out now), and a climate fiction/science fiction novel that will come out next year. The story below is from the collection. Watching those magnificent birds inspired Close Encounter. A flash of inspiration, maybe. It is a mere 300 words, what is known as ‘flash fiction’. I hope you enjoy, and I’ll see you real soon!
First contact, or any alien contact, is usually told with dramatic or fantastical story. But what if it happens more often than thought, and in a much more intimate fashion? Perhaps like in this instance, somewhere in the Southern Ocean.
The choice was easy this time. On a planet made up two thirds of water, the desire was strong to explore that vast wetness. And whom better to travel with than one of its largest and most majestic species, itself a fellow traveller? There was an attraction to its smooth white feathers and elegant large wings. Entering its vessel felt like a homecoming. Its consciousness made willing room. Together, we moved as one.
The ocean spread around us; an undulating body decorated with white froth. Everywhere its eyes searched was water, and yet it was home. We glided effortlessly. Without thought, the slightest movement of feathers kept our body balanced and on course. A wing dips, and we turn and descend, sea skimming beneath us. A slight tension of muscle, and we soar, only to dip and turn again. Sea approaches, wings pull in and feet gently slap the surface, skim for the briefest moment, and we sit on the surface, held by an endless hand. We know this hand well. It is home. We ride waves, up and down, to summit and then to valley.
And with a deft movement of beak, we feed. Again, and again, in frenzy and yet in no hurry, we turn and submerge and kick into the depths and our yellow tipped beak seeks out a flash and acquires it. We surface and repeat until we are full, until, with a slight flick of wings, we lift from the water and are once again in the air, our home. Tendons lock and currents carry. Hours pass, and oranges and pinks soften the horizon. With my gentle prompting, eyes gaze up, at the distant suns around which circle distant worlds, and it knows from where its guest has come.
Posted on March 2, 2021
10 Questions with Christopher McMaster
Christopher grew up in Northern California with a huge map of the world on his wall. When he got old enough, he checked himself out of high school, bought a backpack and travelled the Pacific and New Zealand. After 15 years in the UK and then Alaska—an incredibly beautiful place!—he returned in New Zealand with three passports in hand in a way only those circles tend to happen in life.
He currently teaches and crews on a double hulled voyaging canoe (waka hourua) teaching others to sail as he continues to learn, hosting school and youth groups. Recently, he accepted a post with the Ministry of Primary Industries in New Zealand as a fisheries observer, which involves monitoring fishing activities on the high seas.
Tell us a bit about yourself! Where do you call home and what do you write?
Home is on the East Coast of New Zealand, at a surfing beach called Wainui, but I don’t surf. Yet. I grew up in the mountains of California, but have grown very used to having the ocean out my back door. I really enjoy being on the water—on top of it in sail boats. I do some part time work on a waka hourua—a Polynesian voyaging catamaran, and just took up a post as a deep-sea fisheries observer for our Ministry of Primary Industries. That will mean weeks at sea, but also weeks at home.
I write mostly science fiction and speculative fiction. I recently wrote a short story using the team from a factory ship I worked on. I warned them (when they found out I was writer) that they would all end up as a combat platoon on a space ship. Such a wealth of characters! A deep-sea vessel is actually quite a lot like a space ship. It is a self-contained unit in the middle of a great expanse, with a single purpose, filled with outrageous characters. Hopefully this new work will help develop my craft.
2. What drew you to that particular style genre?
I grew up reading science fiction, especially Robert Heinlein, so I always looked up at the stars and wondered what was out there, traveling there through other’s words, and more and more in my own imagination. Growing up in Northern California meant sleeping outside a lot, with the milky way splashed across the sky. That’s a lot of space (literally) for the imagination to roam.
What I also liked about Heinlein’s writing, and the other authors I’ve read since, like Kim Stanley Robinson and even Peter Hamilton (for a couple examples), is that the worlds they create are plausible. I can see that kind of future unfolding, so I can relate better to it. It’s not a galaxy far far away, but something my great grandchildren might be involved in. I guess that gives me away as a Trekker rather than a Star Warser (what are they called?). I just finished book eight of The Expanse series. It is like that. Plausible. Possible. I aim for that in my writing.
3. What are you currently working on?
Last year I wrote a science fiction novel. My first novels were kind of on the speculative spectrum, and hard to pin down in some ways: alternate history/fantasy/something like that. My first degree is in history, so I finally put that to get use.
American Dreamer came out last year, published by Dreaming Big Publications, a small publisher in the US. Lucid dreaming involving time travel and manipulation by higher beings. It’s what the ancient stories and sags are all about, right? Tomorrow’s History should be out any time—it’s a kind of sequel (I wrote a trilogy of stand-alone stories), and God’s and Dreamers, the third book, will be published by year’s end.
But onto my sci-fi! It’s been fun writing. I set myself a goal of at least ten thousand words per month, a kind of ultra-marathon pace (you don’t sprint in those!) and by the end of a year I had a manuscript that had been beta read, improved, tweaked, all that stuff. Its title is MisStep and involves travelling across space through worm holes, and follows a main character who is one step ahead of the law and getting deep into an operation he has no clue about. Call it an inter-stellar drug deal gone very wrong. By the time he realises what he is being groomed for, the shit hits the fan and he has to use that training to … well, save the day, I guess.
I just finished the sequel, named Seeders, set twenty or so years in the future where a team sets out to find the original inhabitants of a planet they stumbled upon in the first book. I planned that out in my mind before Covid, so yes, it involves a pandemic, but I was not influenced by our current malaise. I gather some publishers don’t want to touch that subject. The planet the humans found was empty because a pandemic ripped through a thousand years before, which killed all mammalian type life. Some escaped in a generation ship, frozen in cryo-sleep. They didn’t have Step technology, but they did have other types of advanced technology, valuable enough to try to hunt down and find.
[Concept covers for MisStep and Seeders]
I’m playing with an idea for a book three. I want to write a war story. What if more of the original inhabitants managed to return and wanted their planet back?
The question was about works in progress and I talk about stories already written—but I haven’t quite decided what to do with them, and how to continue to develop them. Do I seek out a bigger publisher (which I would like)? Do I go through the relationship I already have with my smaller publisher? Do I self-publish and market? I’m still thinking about all that.
And while I am playing with ideas for book three, I find myself writing short stories and planning an anthology with a fellow traveller celebrating emerging writers in the spec-fic/sci-fi genre in Aotearoa. So stay tuned for a call for submissions.
4. What inspired you to write it?
I always said that the best way to get from A to B is to put A and B in the same place. Simply step from one to the other. My youngest daughter got tired of me talking about it and gave me the book Hyperspace by Michio Kaku. He’s a scientist that writes science for the lay person (or aspiring author). That was one inspiration. Another was actually working at sea with an insecure, bullying skipper. MisStep starts with our main character killing him (or at least being haunted in his dreams by the memory of doing so). I can’t say the desire to kill him and push him over board inspired me to write that sci-fi novel, but it may have been a log on the fire. If I ever see that guy again I will (if I don’t punch him) say ‘thanks for the inspiration’. I’ll most likely cross the street to avoid that interaction, because it probably wouldn’t play out in a polite way.
Another inspiration was drugs. Straight up. The main character finds himself part of an interstellar drug run. The drug is called Gods Living Room, or GRL. It’s kind of like DMT on steroids. It not only lets you experience a reality beyond any concept of reality, it lets you sit and relax in it. If that got back to Earth, and it was widely distributed … well … nothing would be the same. They wouldn’t just profit and be fabulously rich, they’d be considered prophets, our main character is told. I had fun researching.
5. Tell us about your writing process. Are you a plotter, panster or somewhere in between? How do you research?
I ain’t no panster. I let ideas percolate in my cranium, then start to draw pictures, then start to sketch scenes and chapters, drawing them on an A3 sized paper, then start to outline. Saying that, I also let shit happen. Sometimes I see that more is needed and I let that out. Sometimes I think I have planned a section, but things veer off. Maybe its like driving up a mountain road to Grandma’s house (she really did live in the mountains). I plot out the route, but there’s a tree fall, or a swollen river, or a huge plot hole that makes me detour or back track a bit. Does that make me flexible plotter? A plotting panster? A panting plotter?
And regarding research. I spent a lot of years as an academic researcher, which trained me to do that lit review first. But I will call on my assistant, Ms. Google, when needed, which is usually when writing. What does a 1970’s seedy bar look like? What line of the L do I take from this part of Chicago to that? I’ll also research experientially. I loved an article I read about a Minnesotan author who would try to experience what he was going to write. He wrote about the Mountain Man that was the subject of the film, The Revenant. The man had his legs broken and dragged his body for miles, eating whatever he could grab. Hell of a story, and Leo finally got his Oscar. This writer embarrassed the hell out of his kids as he spent hours crawling around the back paddock, eating bugs, whatever.
6. What’s the strangest or most interesting thing you’ve researched for your writing?
I am at the farmer’s market and I see a doctor I know. I stop him, and say I have a question. Listen, I say. I need to know what kind of drug to give to somebody I want make sleep for a very long time, like more than a full day, but not kill them, or make them so comatose that they wouldn’t even dream. How much of it would that be, by the way? And, wait, wait, I need to know what drug I would need revive them when I wanted to.
His wife will say hello when we pass each other at the market now, but he tends to avoid me.
7. What’s the most personal story/scene you’ve written and why?
I think it’s hard not to write the personal into story and scene. There’s one dream scene in American Dreamer that my brother will recognise, but not anybody else. I think a lot of characters are based on myself, people who have been close to me, or who I might have wanted to be. Most personal? I don’t think I’ve written it yet, but I will. As my skill improves, I can really see this creeping in. By exploring my own inner conflicts, my own doubts and dissatisfactions, unfilled needs or unmet dreams through my characters, wouldn’t they become more genuine? That might create a very fine line between self-indulgence or self-therapy and good writing. Maybe that’s why I say I haven’t written it yet. I can see the line, and I am not good enough, yet, to walk that high wire.
8. Who are your literary influences? In what way?
Now that you ask, I’m going to say Hunter S. Thompson and Charles Bukowski. They’re the devils sitting on that shoulder. My mom gently fed me authors from time to time, but I was always attracted to their bastard drunken and drugged children. Those guys didn’t self-censor, and they didn’t give a shit. I’ll never be like them, I sure don’t want that, but I will continue to aspire.
And cruising through Heinlein, maybe he’s on that shoulder too. His writing invited the reader to question what and why they believed what they did. “I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconception and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines,” he said about the book, Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s why I write—to shake loose and explore. I don’t think he would have had too much time for Hunter or Charles, but surely, he would have acknowledged the freedom of their minds. Faith. Culture. Belief. Reading, and writing, is dangerous to those. They are a very dangerous influence that allows us to question all of those.
9. What books are on your bedside table right now?
The Ministry for Primary Resources Observer Manual. Its there, but its so hard to pick up and read. Capsized: Jim Nalepka’s Epic 119 Day Survival Voyage Aboard the Rose-Noelle by Steven Callahan. I have a dream of owning a yacht one day and it will have a little library on board. This is one for that shelf. Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina. Oh my god, what a read. Its where I work now. Very scary. Also, great for that yacht library. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawkins. It’s kind of like Moby Dick. Something I always wanted to read, but, well, maybe soon. (Except that I finally finished Moby Dick, even if it took me almost 35 years). The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. A truly beautiful book, essential reading. Spend time with trees. Ask me yesterday and I could have added book eight of The Expanse.
10. Last and most important, where can we find your books/stories?
Check out my website, www.christophermcmaster.com, which will have links. My website is the building of my author platform, something that I am told is essential. Marketing is on the big ‘to do’ list. The big ‘how to’ list. Such a huge area! Can’t somebody else just do it? Build up an email list, they say. Sign up on my website and let me know what short story you’d like.
Posted on November 21, 2020
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!
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 $1400 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,” they answer. 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.
Posted on June 12, 2019
I’ve never held much stock in writing exercises for a writer’s group, but I’m in a writer’s group and there was a task. A short on the theme of lost and found. How short is short? I asked. In response I got a meme with a cartoon character prancing about in very short shorts. Funny. But not helpful.
So, I wrote a short, and read it to the group. Five hundred words, and a very formative experience. They enjoyed it, and I hope you do too. It was a nice warm up that morning as I worked on my novel—I’d say I’m ¾ through my science fiction story, MisStep. I know I’m getting near the end when I’m starting to sketch out the next book in the adventure.
The ship was nearly destroyed by a collision on their return to the convoy. Jens suspects it was not an asteroid but another ship. But at the moment they are limping back, trying to keep the ship in one piece. Once they take the final Step in their cargo run even more goes wrong, and they end up way off course.
But that’s later. For now, I hope you enjoy a small walk down memory lane.
Gold Rush Days
His foot was a short distance away. I tapped it with my hand. He stopped crawling.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
That’s the first time I felt it. A flutter, butterfly wings, a rapid beating in the middle of my chest. Leo always knew which way was north. He always knew where he was. Where we were. He was my compass.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Maybe we can try again,” he said. That was uncertainty in his voice. As if he was asking me what to do.
I shuffled backwards until I reached the branch in the tunnel that we followed. It was big enough to sit upright. Just. In the Gold Rush a miner had dug this looking for that vein of quartz that held all the treasure. He dug burrows into the hills, hunting, always hunting. Gold Fever. He had it bad. We had a fever, one hundred and fifty years later, exploring his diggings, deep in the hills under our homes. This one was a treasure, a true find. Wide caverns slumped down into crouching tunnels, which branched into crawl spaces just high enough and wide enough to work the elbows and the knees—if you didn’t raise your back too much.
Only now we were lost.
We had a simple rule. Right turns to explore. Take the first right. Then the next right. Then the next. An easy system. To get out, simply take lefts. Only today it failed us.
So, we tried again. Left, left, left. I tap Leo’s foot. Translation: what’s up?
“Dead end,” he says.
So, we try again. Left, left, left. I tap Leo’s foot. No need for translation.
“Try again,” he says. But I hear it in his voice. He is not only my compass, but my confidence. And that was not confident. It was afraid.
Scenarios flash by. Not my life, not the past, but the future. Months in the future, when decomposing corpses are found in a caved in, shut off section of an old mine, hidden in the foothills. And I feel it, that flutter, only it is not a butterfly any longer, but something bigger. Much bigger. I feel it rise from my heart, crawl its way up my chest, its talons digging in and pulling itself higher. I know that if it reaches my throat it will escape. It will rush out of my mouth, as a scream. A terror filled scream.
In the dark, deep under the earth, I grab it. I stop it. I push it down, back where it came from and back to where it can keep hiding. I know that if it comes out, I will not.
So, I tuck it away, hidden even from myself.
I breathe, slowly. Lying on my belly, on damp dark earth and stone, my elbows sore, my back scratched, and the soles of Leo’s dirty boots immediately in front of me. I tap his foot.
“Ok,” I say, starting to shuffle backwards. “One more time.”
Posted on April 28, 2019
I love going to Wellington—not only good restaurants, but heaps of used book stores. Arty Bees, Pegasus, Ferret—all within a few minutes’ walk. In each store I head to the science fiction shelves, and usually walk out with a book I’ve read before.
One of those was Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein. I think it was one of his first, published in 1948. I wanted a few samples of that classic SF style, because I find my sci fi novel emulating that pace and flow, to some degree.
I must have read Space Cadet when I was about fourteen or fifteen. It’s real boys own adventure stuff. Our hero Matt Dodson, probably fifteen himself, joins the Patrol, wanting to be an officer. His training is thorough. Some of it straight forward, some of it psychological. There is one scene where all the cadets have to do is stand over a bottle and try to drop a bean into the mouth of it with their eyes closed. It was actually a test of honesty, of character.
And of course, our cadet and his mates have to rise to the challenge when their own officer is incapacitated. Another test of character. I always loved that in stories. I think we all do, because we get to ask ourselves, “how would I conduct myself? Would I rise to the challenge?” We have opportunities—they just don’t seem as exciting as negotiating with the amphibian natives living in the oceans of Venus.
But reading it again, I am amazed at the impact it had. I’ve had no problem balancing on a waka, the double hulled Polynesian canoes I find myself working on. Then I came across the scene in Space Cadet where I learned to walk. Matt is on home leave and his brother pokes fun at him, saying he’s walking like a chimpanzee. Matt tells him that is how spacemen walk.
“You carry yourself sort of pulled in, for days on end, ready to bounce a foot off a bulkhead, or grab with your hands,” Matt explains. “When you’re back under weight, after days and weeks of that, you walk the way I do. ‘Cat feet’ we call it.”
I remember practicing walking with cat feet after that, every time I’m in an elevator I still do—softening the knees as it stops at the bottom. It’s the way I walk when the waka is rolling with the swell, and why I roll with it. One hand ready to grab when the gravity cuts in.
I’m sure a tour through all those novels I read growing up would be an interesting study in my psychology—at least to me. Call it self-discovery. I’m sure there will be a lot of ‘ah ha’ moments. “So that is why I do that, think that way, harbour that fantasy…”
But then again, who needs an excuse to read an old book?