“I am going to work on a fishing boat.” Letters from Amanda, Part 1

25 06 2012

Hey friends – Amanda is our special pen pal for the summer, as introduced in this post. I’m grateful to her for sharing her first-time fisherman perspective with us, and hope you’ll join me in welcoming her to our community here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dear Hooked,

Thank you so much for the opportunity to write.  I have found something really special about telling folks in Sitka that I am going to work my first summer on a fishing boat.  I’ve seen a lot of faces light up with warm, nostalgic smiles and I’ve heard many an exclamation that lets me know I’m about to have an experience to cherish. I have been received with nothing but support and have been told many times that I am “going to have so much fun!”  For this and a few other reasons, I feel motivated to write about my experience and I am grateful for an outlet here.

I’m working on a fishing boat this summer. I’ve never worked on a boat, I’ve never spent more than a night on the water, and I’ve never even really caught a fish.  I grew up in a suburb of Seattle and went to college in Bellingham, Washington. I’ve spent the last four years doing various types of social work.  I’ve worked with developmentally disabled adults, divorcing parents, and most recently children with mental health issues.  It is safe to say that with the emotional exhaustion these jobs have caused, I’ve often idealized a kind of work that is demanding in a different way.  This is part of the fishing job appeal.

When I moved to Sitka, just like so, so many before me, I was instantly charmed by the harbors and the fishing culture. The descriptions are so quaint they are cliché, the bobbing of boats, the smell of old wood, fish, and diesel, the back drop of trees and mountains.  It all appealed to me in a distant way because I knew nothing about it. I was struck by the camaraderie among fisher people who always seem to have something to talk about; a big catch, a boat maintenance issue, an upcoming season opener, they have a language that can only include those among the trade.  The social savvy side of me has always wanted to participate in the conversation, especially with a scruffy young fisherman or two, but this is the kind of talk that you can’t fake.  You don’t talk about it unless you’ve lived it.

Herring season amplified this to a degree I was not expecting.  That time of year, late winter and early spring, brought a lot to Sitka and to me by default. Not only did I see two months of the most beautiful weather I have seen in Alaska, but the town collectively woke up.  People got out on their bikes and hikes, dug up their garden beds, and went out to brunch.  The days were noticeably longer and the town filled with new people, including a charming herring seiner who I happened to become acquainted with.  We shared each other’s company for a few weeks and hearing him talk (complain, brag, joke…) about the season was really interesting to me. It provided me with moments to learn from somebody who spoke of something he clearly cared for and knew about.  There is so much experience behind this kind of knowledge.  I won’t resign all the credit to this adorable fisherman and his unyielding habit of helping friends and friends of friends, but I did mention to him that I liked the idea of working on a fishing boat.  Soon enough, we could barely walk down the harbor without him facilitating a new introduction.  And for some reason, I got some job offers.

The job I accepted is working for the salmon season on a “tender boat.” This is a big boat that transfers fish from the trollers out at sea to the processing plant on land. My job is to cook for a crew of two men plus myself, write the “fish tickets” (receipts), and miscellaneous deckhand work, like navigating the boat or sorting incoming fish.

Stepping onto the Nichawak [not the boat’s real name] for three months has me worried about a number of things.

Safety: I can be pretty clumsy, what if I trip or get tangled hurting myself or jeopardizing the safety of two other people?

Isolation with two people I barely know, what if we don’t get along?

I’m so inexperienced, I’m certain I’ll surprise the captain a time or two with what I don’t know.

I’m good with direct, clear instructions but I know there will be times where I’ll feel like I’m learning another language.

I’m worried about my gender identity. I cherish my femininity but I know that in a male dominated culture, there will be constant attention drawn to it.  I will have to find a balance, I don’t want to covet my femininity but I don’t want to act upon it as if I’m obliged.

I know there are things I didn’t mention here (the physical and psychological toll of long work days, the nights awake in the wheel house, the massive cargo of dead fish, killed without hesitation).  But overall I hope that it sounds like I’m fairly aware of what I’m getting myself in to.

Ultimately the reason why I am fishing is this. I have a college degree, 25 years of life, and some tools I’ve picked up along the way. But I have no direction.  There are a few things I know I’d like to do and be and make in life but at this point, I go wherever experiences are to be had. Experience means newness, challenge, lessons, and eventually wisdom.  So whether I’m ready or not, I greet this experience, the Nichawak, tomorrow.





15 responses

25 06 2012
Julie Farrar

I always admire people who can jump into an adventure like this. I like to travel and experience new people and new knowledge/skills. However, I’ve never been one to feel the impulse to step out into the void like this. So I sit here at my computer in France (a less adventurous adventure) and say “Good luck!”

25 06 2012
Carol Lois Haywood, pacific marine artist

I will be following this series holding my breath and loving every moment I bet. Thank you!

25 06 2012
Vicky Wood

Be Well Amanda and have some fun!!

25 06 2012
Patrick Dixon

This is a great idea. Brace yourself Amanda, you’re about to experience a life-changing summer! Be safe. Go slow. Ask questions.

25 06 2012

As a female second season deckhand troller, here are some things I learned from last year to this year:

Bruises: My legs and arms were completely covered in bruises after the first month from not knowing the boat and being clumsy and bumping into various things. My bunk was only a foot and a half from the ceiling, so it took a while to remember to “roll” out of bed instead of sit up.

Feet: The bottoms of my feet peeled off from working in sweaty boots for hours at a time. This year I brought extra socks on board and change them whenever possible. I also go barefoot whenever I can to give them some air. If showering at the harbor or any other public place, I always wear flip-flops. Foot fungi is communicable.

Boat terms: Head, not bathroom. Galley, not kitchen. Feed, not bait balls (sports fishing term). Line, not rope. Bulwark is what people call the thing on the dock you tie the line around (except the actual term is bulrail, thankyouverymuch). The cleat is the other thing you tie a line around that looks like two horns. … I spent my first season annoying my skipper asking questions every time he was on deck with me. “What’s this? What’s that? And what do you call this? And what’s that for?”

Docking: This was the most nerve-wracking thing about last season. I have some sort of knot tying dyslexia. I used to spend minutes on a half hitch. And if someone wanted me to tie a bowline, I was like, “This is the worst day of my life.” So, I took a little skate of line around with me wherever I went and practiced tying the same knots over and over and over. Now I’m a fair half-hitcher, but every once in a while, I’m like, “What the heck do I do with this thing?” The other thing about docking is anticipation and preparedness. Does everyone have the lines they need? Are the buoys where they supposed to be? Are they high enough? Are they low enough? Am I running the line forward or aft?

Female stuff: Tampons float – never throw them overboard. I take baby wipes with me also and my own little trash bag for female products.
Yes, sometimes, I get a little bit of extra attention because I am female, but this usually works to my advantage rather than disadvantage. (I think I’ve been really blessed with the kind of folks I’ve met around here.) There has been unwanted attention, though, usually from seiners who haven’t seen females in weeks. I ignore them. Things have never gotten so out of hand that I have felt threatened, but I do carry a knife with me at all times.

Also, I’ve observed that men tend to handle anger more outwardly on a boat than say, in an office? My ex, who I fished with a few years ago, used to take a gaff and slam it on his deck if his lines got tangled. I’ve seen and heard captains cussing out their crews over the dumbest things just because the they (the captains) were having a bad day. I’ve been cussed out a few times too, but it’s usually been for the right reasons. Either way, I try not to take it too personally.

After the summer, it took me a few weeks to stop using the f-word for every expletive and every descriptive adjective. I felt the need to be outside more than ever. I wanted to stand rather than sit. Ice cubes in my drink were some sort of godsend luxury. And indoor plumbing? I’d flush the toilet twice to see the water run down just like a cat does and I’d let the faucet run the hot water for as looong as I wanted. Overall though, having the experience changed my physical and mental state for the better.
I hope this summer is going to be as awesome for Amanda as it was for me my first time round.

25 06 2012

My god, Holly – SUCH a great response! Permission to copy as a post of its own?

25 06 2012

Granted. I hope I get to deliver fish to Amanda! Those short female bonding moments when you’re out at sea for weeks with the guys are the best.

25 06 2012
A. Waterclerk

Dear Amanda – Good luck with your first season. I’ve worked decks for nearly twenty years, on fishing boats as well as tenders, so I have a few helpful hints. In order of importance I’d say these are the critical points: Safety, working your a** off, not taking anything personally, being hyper aware of your surroundings. Action will be all around you as well as above you and often below you – cranes moving brailer bags with a ton of fish overhead, totes of ice being filled or dumped, multiple people moving fast on a wet slimy deck. You might want to keep a bandanna around your neck for wiping your glasses – they’ll fog up, get slimy, etc. You might consider some way to keep them from falling off… I know people like their fish hats but I’ve found a head band keeps my head warm but doesn’t restrict my vision overhead.

Tender Paperwork/ fish weights:
Usually the crew that weighs the fish will holler out the weight to you (the writer of fish tickets) and you will holler the weight back – so everybody knows that the correct weight was heard. If you’re not a hollerer, you’ll become one – in a good way. TIf you don’t hear a weight clearly – NEVER guess – ASK for the number again.

Fish tickets:
This is a critical document. GET THE WEIGHTS AND PRICE RIGHT. This is how the fisherman gets paid. Put the numbers in the right place on the ticket – king salmon weight in the king salmon “box”, cohos, pinks etc in their box. I know that sounds absurd but you’d be surprised…The fish ticket is a document used by many people, from the fisherman, to AK fish & game, to the tender skipper, to the fish plant. Take great care with accuracy on this form. Errors here waste everybody’s time to a ridiculous degree. Write clearly and firmly; the fish ticket has 3 or 4 sheets that the writing has to be legible on. Get the right statistical area and place name fished on there. Ask the skipper for the ADFG “charts” that show these statistical areas and common place names. You will endear yourself to everyone if you are meticulous with this document and the fish checks – believe me.

Cooking: Keep it simple. You’ll time everything perfectly and then the whole fleet will show up to pitch fish. Buying fish comes first so meals will get cold most of the time. It’s OK.

Demeanor: The people selling fish have been up working since 3 a.m. and all they want to do now is get the fish sold so they can shower or fall in the bunk. Every fisherman appreciates a smile and someone who knows how to do their job well. Be seriously conscientious with their fish ticket and their paycheck, thank them for the fish, wish them a good evening. These things matter so much more than you might think.
Best of luck to you.

Wishing you fish!

26 06 2012

I’m not a fisher person but I can recommend one thing: Arnica Gel – for the bruises and knocks and muscle aches. Cheers to you, Amanda!

26 06 2012

I’m fascinated by Amanda’s story and can’t wait to about her fishing adventures! Good Luck

26 06 2012

piece of advice. stick it out. it’s sweet in the fall when the geese start flying south. don’t overthink. it is irrelevant that you have a college degree. no one thinks of a hold as containing dead fish. think of it more as being the livelihoods of those that sell to the tender. that hold of fish represents the absolute BEST of what a fisherman has to offer! when translated to a check those fish become food on the table for the fishing families. fuel. ice for the hold. bottom paint. moorage. fishing gear. And not the least: gourmet grub for the end consumer. most fishermen fish for the lifestyle not so much for the money. fish are the most precious commodity in the world for them. never forget: they risk their lives to put those fish in the hold. fishermen do respect the fish. they are also very good at compartmentalizing. don’t make the mistake of thinking they don’t care. they’ve got kids at home. wives anxious to hear from them. bills to pay. sometimes they care too much. they find ways to cope with the pain. self-medicating. withhold judgement. for boats that have been out at sea, the tender is a godsend. encourage the skipper to have icecream for the fishermen that sell, they will pay a premium for it. tomatos are like gold. a head of lettuce is silver. a chicken, an incalculable luxury. if you play your cards right, you will be revered because you represent the hearth & home. be safe yourself. Take the safety drills seriously! I was on a troller once that delivered the last load of fish to a tender that went down in Cross Sound. One crewmember was lost. The rest were rescued in their survival suits but will never be the same. Don’t talk about this too much. learn to compartmentalize. enjoy. every. minute. if you make it through your first season, YOU will never be the same. accept that. keep up with your writing. a journal. a journey. and good luck!

27 06 2012

Good luck, Amanda. I’m looking forward to following your adventure. With someone like Tele rooting for you, I’m sure you will do well!

27 06 2012

Good grief… You guys are THE BEST. Thanks to all for your cheerleading (and tremendously helpful, generous advice!) I don’t know when Amanda will be able to get online and have enough leisure time to reply, but I’m sure we’ll hear from her when she gets the chance.

And Amanda? I have to confess your last paragraph choked me up a bit. Thank you for your courage, heartfelt sincerity, and openness – both in your general approach to life and your willingness to share your experience here. You’re an inspiration, my friend.

13 07 2012

Thank you so much for all of your support all! I am so flattered that you are excited about what I have to say! It’s been about three weeks now and I’ve been so eager to respond to you all and to get another post out. This is the first time I’ve sat down at a computer for more than 5 minutes since I’ve been here. I currently have about a half hour, not enough time to produce a post that is written with the attention that it deserves. I’ve got pages of journals to turn over and will do so as soon as possible! I sincerely appreciate everything you’ve all had to say and wish I could respond to you all individually.
A few quick lists, I’ve got to get this out:
Biggest challenges: KNOTS!!@!!#$#@!, fish tickets and the simple but tedious math that goes along with, learning to sleep in only 3 hour increments, projecting a positive attitude when I secretly want to complain, not belittling myself internally when I mess up, forget, or have to be told and re-told something that seems so simple

Biggest rewards: a wonderful crew of supportive individuals, cooking for people who are open to creativity and experimentation, endless mountain ranges and morning light, a day off at Baranof warm springs, the sheer amount of things to observe and take in, the massive about of skills and information I’ve learned and will never forget, all the sources of inspiration

Proudest moments: completing a 21 hour work day, lowering the anchor (using the hydraulics) for the first time, learning the language (the times are fewer and fewer when I look someone in the face after being asked to do something and say “I don’t understand the words that you just said”), finally being able to tell a Coho from a Sockeye from a Pink from a Dog, working a full day, cooking for three, cleaning the galley and sinking in to bed with an aching body and a nourished spirit

More to come! Thanks and thanks again! Blessings to you all and especially you, Tele!

1 10 2012
From Greenhorn to Graduate: Celebrating Amanda’s First Fishing Season « Hooked

[…] journey. From an April morning when I overheard a young woman  say she wanted to go fishing, her pre-season anticipation, thefirst challenges and triumphs, a mid-season struggle, to these concluding reflections, […]

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