From Greenhorn to Graduate: Celebrating Amanda’s First Fishing Season

1 10 2012

Exciting news, friends – Hooked’s guest writer Amanda has completed her first season in the commercial fishing industry! New readers, I urge you to take the time to catch up on Amanda’s journey. From an April morning when I overheard a young woman  say she wanted to go fishing, her pre-season anticipation, the first challenges and triumphs, a mid-season struggle, to these concluding reflections, she’s got a wonderful story and it’s been an honor to have her with us. A green deckhand’s experience is never easy; many newcomers don’t stick it out. Please join me in congratulating Amanda on a successful first season!

*****

Dear Hooked,

My contract is officially over. The weather has turned and the salmon in Chatham Strait are few and far between. I am back to life as a land dweller, grateful for regular access to news and local produce. Tender life feels very distant, especially being down in the Lower 48. By the time I stepped off the Nichawak, I couldn’t wait to talk about something other fishing. Anything other than fishing. Out on the water and tied up at the harbor, it seemed that all talk was of fishing hot spots and the latest boat project.  Now, down South, I find myself looking for opportunities to talk about fishing and feel giddy when given the opportunity to explain the difference between seining and gillnetting, or how to operate the Nichawak’s hydraulic booms.

Some mornings I wake up with phantom pains in my thumbs, as if I’ve just spent a long day “slingin’ cohos.”  My hands are a bit more scarred and my calluses are rougher, as I had hoped they would be.  My upbringing in the suburbs is something that I think is reflected in the look and feel of my hands.  They are mostly smooth and clean, a dead giveaway.

When I was a kid, my dad would assign me yard work chores. I spent more time complaining about them than actually doing them. This truth, embarrassing as it may be, brings me to one of the biggest challenges that I faced this summer: my attitude.

A week into the troll opener in August, we were on our third straight day of work without sleep. In these three days we bought over 90,000 pounds of fish, Skipper Sal, Gerald the deckhand, and me.  I think it’s fair to say that these are difficult working conditions.  That third morning, I remember the sun rising, the sky must have been bright and beautiful.  But I don’t really remember that beauty.  Mostly, I remember being vaguely aware of the colors around me and being pissed off.  I felt the scowl on my face and I heard myself snap at Gerald, “I’ve got this, back off!”

I was tired and sore, I was hungry and overworked, and I had yet to realize that this did not entitle me to be grouchy, nor did it entitle me to snap at my crew. Times like these (yes, this happened more than once) I had to tell myself, sometimes even out loud, to change my attitude, relax the muscles in my brow, get rid of that snarl on my face and get over myself.

Suffice to say, in the beginning I had idealized this experience.  Parts of the dream were realized.  I watched whales breech 30 feet from the boat. I learned everything I could, from telling apart a coho and a sockeye to operating hydraulic cranes. I conquered ratchet straps, I tied clove hitches, I navigated an 80-foot boat around Chatham Strait. I experienced glory and pride and accomplishment.

But there is no getting around it; parts of this experience were just shitty. They weren’t fun, they were hard. I learned a lot about myself this summer and some of these things were difficult to face, severe realities.  I let “grouchy” get the best of me. I have opinions and nothing to back them up. I have too much pride.

Pride.  Such a stimulant, such a barrier.  How did I get to be a person with so much pride? Why is it that I hated asking for help? Why did I balk so much at the idea of someone correcting or compensating for my mistakes? Why could I push myself to work harder and be better only to prove that I could? As busy as the tender life is, there was plenty of idle time to consider these questions.  Yet I never seemed to figure it out: where does pride come from?

This winter I will work in the high desert of Washington State, tending to horses and learning about life as a ranch hand. As of now, I will return to the Nichawak, possibly working for Sitka herring (the fishery where I first discovered fishing!) and probably for another season as a Southeast seine, gillnet, and troll tenderwoman.

I think about why I want to return. I try to remind myself that it is because of certain privileges in my life that I even have an option. I have the privilege of being able to choose what I will do next and make a choice based on a desire for personal growth.  For me, a bit of guilt is inherent in this fact, but I won’t be constrained by this.

So, I think I will choose to go fishing again.  There is still self-reflection to be done, there are skills left to learn, and then there’s good old fashioned pride, a nagging reminder that next year I can be better.

– Amanda

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“This Fishing World is an Observer’s Playground; Observation is my Ally.”

8 08 2012

Hey friends – if you’ve been following the story of Amanda, our first-time fisherman guest writer, you may be as eager for her latest update as I’ve been. The frenzied life of a tender deckhand hasn’t allowed much land time (and even less internet access), so I was thrilled to find this post in my inbox. If you’re a new visitor, please do catch up on her pre-season anticipation and her first check-in; she’s got a wonderful story. Be well – T

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I’m taking it all in. We’ve been tendering for over a month now, running out to the fishing grounds, buying and unloading fish from both gill-net fishermen and seine-net fishermen. We are finally being sent to tend to the trollers.

For too many reasons to list, troll tendering is much preferred by the Nichawak’s skipper. I’ve gathered that the main difference between troll tending and tending to net fishermen is the way the fish are handled. Gillnet fishermen unload thousands of pounds from their boats at once, seiners unload tens of thousands. Too many fish to sort, these fish immediately get dumped in the Nichawak “fish hold,” which can contain up to 160,000 pounds of fish when full.

Because they use line instead of net, the trollers don’t catch as many pounds of fish at one time. When buying troll fish, we will touch every fish; first gutted and cleaned by the trollers, we sort them by weight and quality and carefully place them in totes of “slush.” I am anticipating being more connected with the work and feel excited about that. Tonight we head South, down Frederick Sound, through Chatham Strait, and to the Southwest coast of Baranof Island, the open ocean.

A troller anchored in southern Baranof Island bay.

This fishing world is like an observer’s playground.  It seems that every time I form an opinion about something, it is soon challenged with new information and I am wondering that perhaps it is only after experience that we become entitled to our opinions. Observation is my ally.

I’ve struggled with all the anticipated obstacles, the unpredictable schedule, the endless pounds of bloody fish, the close quarters I share with the crew, the occasional communication breakdowns.  More than once I’ve stared at a crew member after recieving an instruction and thought to myself, “They just said English words, why didn’t I understand?!”

But I’ve come to learn what it means to “haul the anchor,” “hook up a Treko to the rigging,” “tie up to pilings,” “get the galley sea-worthy,” and “ice up.” I’m in love with the nautical language and the novelty of the VHF radio is still at large. I giggle at every opportunity to use it and my favorite things to say are “Roger that!” and “Standing by on channel 16 and channel 11!”

I’ve also come to realize that I am not a very serious person, most that know me would probably agree, and there are many, many things about this job that make it very serious work. This has been a struggle. I’m learning to adapt my sense of humor to a fishing/boating/equipment context; I boast a spot-on impression of a hydraulic crane.

Though we’ve had, will continue to have, our grouchy moments and shared frustrations, the Nichawak crew laughs a lot. I treasure them for their unwavering work ethic, their humility, and their patience. They are “Gerald,” the deckhand/engineer, and the skippper, “Sal” (and I disclose with affection that they chose their own pseudonyms.) In contrast to myself, Gerald is a serious soul and forever gracious, remarking “I feel nourished” upon finishing a dinner that I had labored over after a long work day.  Sal, who is well known and respected among the Southeast fishing community, has integrity worth speaking of and is always good-natured.

They’ve been great company, but I often find myself wishing for the perspective and insights of other women. This wish grew into desperation after a particularly difficult experience, which at first horrified me. It has since left me confused and seeking someone to relate (bless them, Gerald and Sal didn’t have much to say to console me). I’d like to share it now, if only because humans have hard feelings, and that’s what’s relatable.

Ratchet straps are long, heavy straps that we use to immobilize thousands of pounds of equipment on deck while we are “underway” (traveling). I am barely literate enough in equipment language to describe them. They work by cranking a handle up and down, this turns a wheel and coils the strap, creating tension and eliminating excess slack. Ratchet straps are heavy, they are old and rusty, and they are too damn big for my little hands. At first, using them was funny, I would refuse all help offered by the crew and stubbornly demand that they “let me figure it out!”

One day, we were abruptly informed by the processing plant that we needed to get underway immediately. Sal starts up the engines and Gerald and I rush out to begin our routine deck chores. One of these chores is tightening the ratchet straps over dozens of plastic totes full of ice, weighing about 700 pounds apiece. I go to work on the straps, cursing and sweating and pleading, taking twice as long as I should be. Urgency is building and I feel pathetic, Gerald is moving swiftly around me doing more than his share of the work and whether or not it is true, I am sure Sal is watching me from the wheel house wondering why I can’t manage such a simple task.  At this time of frustration I think to myself these exact words, “Damn, this is so emasculating!”

Emasculating. But, I’m a woman! A feminist even, by some definition. I finally finished with the ratchet straps (or at least just the one) but I was shocked with myself. I thought I was proud and empowered by my gender and I couldn’t believe I would so instinctively let such a trivial frustration affect how I perceive my gender.  Suffice it to say, this feeling led me to a series of other difficult emotions, including but not limited to shame, guilt, and embarrassment.

In further reflection of this experience, all I can come up with is that I am a product of my culture and our constructed gender roles. But in all sincerity, I feel jolted and would like nothing more than to sit down with one of my friends, Anna, Elizabeth, Lily, any strong, capable, independent woman really, and talk it out, gather whatever wisdom they have to shed.

So, I asked for challenges and I am getting them in all forms. To conclude, I will remind myself here of what I am reminded of every day: I’m grateful for this experience, grateful for opportunity, humbled by what I’ve learned and what I have yet to learn.

Thanks for reading!

Amanda





A Mid-Season Update from the F/V Nerka

7 08 2012

Hello friends!

Apologies for the radio silence; Cap’n J, Bear the Boat Cat and I are all fine, but it’s been a very long time between available land time and internet access. You haven’t been far from my mind: every day I catch myself thinking, “Oh, I should write about this, tell Hooked’s friends about that.” With the reality check of realizing that we’ve already reached our mid-season coho closure, I suspect you’ll be getting this season’s fish stories far into the winter, long after my sea legs have faded.

After returning from our July king opening, Cap’n J and I were eager to finally experience Sitka’s Homeskillet Festival, a July weekend of music that we’d never before been in town to attend. So we dallied at the dock, had a fantastic time, and, when we finally got back out fishing, arrived too late on the scene for an epic coho bite. Instead of filling up the Nerka’s hold in record time, we found ourselves grinding out a 15 day trip.

That was a long one for us. Our produce supply dwindled to a couple limp carrots and we eyed the water faucet with increasing anxiety – how many more washed dishes or tea pot refills before it spat and ran dry? Though it wasn’t great fishin’, we found ourselves having one of the best trips we could remember. Almost two weeks of glassy seas, breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, trolling alongside friends human and animal – pods of humpback whales and orcas, grizzlies shambling along the beach, mountain goats scrambling sheer cliffs shooting from the sea. With our work office a glacier-strewn mountain range seeming just a stone’s throw away from our daily tack, we agreed that this was the kind of trip – even with the mediocre fishing – that kept us  thankful for our lives as commercial fishermen.

F/V Chasina tacking along the Fairweather Range.

When that trip finally came to an end, Cap’n J turned to me. “You know what’s awesome? We haven’t seen a man-made structure – other than boats – for over two weeks.”

“And a lighthouse,” I added.

“Oh yeah. The lighthouse and boats. How many people get that kind of experience, or know it’s even still possible?”

(I wonder – how many of you experience this sort of “into the wild” disconnect? Is it a value for you, something you seek out, or are you soul-fed in other, more populated environments?)

After that, we made a 50-hour turnaround in Sitka and spent another five days chasing coho. We’re having a brief reprieve now; Alaskan trollers are on a state-mandated closure now, shut down for four days to ensure that enough coho slip through to inside waters and their spawning rivers.

So we’ll take a couple days to catch up on delayed chores and a frenzy of socializing with the loved ones we mostly see from across the sea, rather than in person. As always, internet access is iffy and time is short, best of intentions and all that. Two last thoughts I don’t want to slip through the cracks:

After weeks at sea, my inbox is usually bursting with junk and not much else. What a lovely surprise to sign in and learn that two of my favorite writers had bestowed blogging honors on Hooked! Sincere thanks and appreciation to Graham’s Crackers for nominating Hooked for a Very Inspiring Blogger award, and Wendy Welch for passing along the Liebster Award. (You guys made my day; thank you!) I’m terribly slow at the “pay it forward” element of these awards, but it’s on my list. Wendy is the author of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, a memoir I’ve preordered and am eagerly awaiting its October 2 release. Graham wrote an elegy to Lonesome George, the world’s last giant tortoise, that so moved me I read it aloud to Cap’n J in the Nerka’s cabin. Please do get to know both of these gifted writers.

My inbox had one other extremely exciting offering: an update from Amanda! It’s a wonderful glimpse into how the past five weeks have been treating our first-time deckhand friend, and I’ll shoot for having it posted by tomorrow evening. Stay tuned!

Many thanks for your patience with the irregular, unpredictable communication that’s inevitable in this fishing business, friends. I hope the summer’s been treating you well, wherever you are, and send my good thoughts to you all.

 





“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.

Amanda





Woman at Sea in a Man’s World (With a Rogue Wave from the Past)

11 06 2012

By 6:00, the sun had already blazed a long trail above Sitka’s mountainous backdrop. Joel slept in as I headed up the dock, lured by blue skies, the Backdoor Café’s Saturday morning cinnamon rolls, and a solo walk to puzzle over a resistant piece of writing. I hit the harbor ramp with a smile.

“Goddamn, is that Tele?”

My smile became a grimace. I nodded to the man casting a fishing pole on a nearby float.

“Top o’ the morning!” he called. “How’re you doin’ this gorgeous day?”

“Doin’ great. Have a good day.”  At the top of the ramp, I stomped onto the parking lot pavement. Like a threatened bear, an irritated chuffing broke from my throat. Really? We’re harbor buddies now?

*****

Our reunion had occurred three weeks earlier. I’d taken some books back to Kettleson Library, weaving around two men smoking outside the entrance. One exhaled a thick cloud. “Tele?”

I cocked my head. Probably no older than his early 40’s, life had gnawed this grizzled man’s edges, but still he grinned brightly. “It’s me, Carl!”

Just before he spoke, my stomach sank in recognition. I kept my face blank for a few passive aggressive beats.

“Holy shit, you look ‘zactly the same! What’s it been, 15 years? You still fishin’? Hey, didja ever get those pictures I sent ya?”

I grappled for handholds amidst Carl’s tornado chatter. How’s it going. Yep, running a boat with my partner. Pictures? Huh, no, don’t recall. Nice to see you, gotta go.

Fleeing into the library’s quiet, I felt snared by unforeseen remembrance.

*****

I was 19 when I got my first job crewing for someone other than my mom. Broken by a series of bad seasons and major expenses, she’d had to sell the Willie Lee II. Like many boat kids, I’d been anxious to stretch my deckhand wings, eager to prove myself working for someone who wasn’t family.

My new captain was a type of man I’d come to know well over the next decade. Men of my dad’s generation, who prized work ethic above anything, they saw a female worker not as a weak link, but a delightful novelty. Men who were tickled to see a petite young woman hurl herself against physical labor. The other deckhand and I did the same work, yet our captain had a clear favorite.

This didn’t endear me to my crewmate. In his mid-20’s, Carl had worked on giant processors in the Bering Sea, but had never been salmon trolling. For three months we cleaned fish alongside each other all day and slept in bunks mere feet apart. We seemed to share the same 52-foot universe, but in truth, Carl was beached on a desolate island. Our captain and I were veteran members of the Southeast Alaska troll fleet, and our conversations built fences instead of doors.

On a boat, three can be a far lonelier number than one on land.

Carl was a good sport – better than I would’ve been in his boots, really. Chatty, good-humored, helpful. But as the season went on, he descended into sullen silence. I don’t remember asking why.

The truth came out in September. Anchored in Yakutat Bay, we waited for gales to pass so we could make the long, exposed run down the coast. Our captain napped as Carl and I played nickel-a-hand gin rummy at the galley table. (A slow coho season, some days felt like I made more money playing cards than fishing.)

Studying his hand, Carl took a breath. “Sorry I’ve been kinda an asshole this summer. It’s just, I’d never worked with a girl before. I just thought we’d end up – you know – doin’ stuff, to break the monotony of bein’ on a boat. So it confused me when nothin’ happened.”

As if he’d shouted the Empress has no clothes, Carl shattered my illusion that if I worked hard enough, I could erase gender. Make myself more fisherman than female. I don’t remember my response. What I do remember is picking a fight with him an hour later. When he turned the boat’s 10-inch TV to a scratchy episode of Cops, I scoffed the show’s racial caricatures. Knowing our oppositional views, I went there anyway, deliberately, and Carl replied just as the script said he would.

“What are you, some kinda n***** lover?”

The gloves came off. I didn’t know how to speak a sudden sense of gender frailty, how to name the resentment of being viewed as concubine rather than coworker. But I could rage to defend another group’s misrepresentation. That felt easier than speaking up for my own.

The remaining weeks thrummed with tension. I didn’t tell our captain. When we reached Seattle, I hopped off the boat and didn’t look back.

*****

However anonymous you feel on the big blue, there’s no escaping your past once you hit the dock. West Coast fishing communities blur into a small, secret-less neighborhood. Given enough time, you can count on tying up next to the person you could’ve gone the rest of your career without seeing.

Fifteen years later, I consider for the first time the courage behind Carl’s admission. I’m unsettled by my reactions, then and now. Self-examination veers dangerously close to the apologist behaviors women are so socialized for, and I turn away. Surely there’s a lesson in this – isn’t there always, in situations that leave us feeling like we’ve fallen off the sidewalk’s edge? – but I haven’t found it yet.

A gift in 1994; still one of my favorite presents ever. (Thanks, Daniel.)

Have you worked somewhere that your gender made you stand out, or have you worked alongside someone else in this situation? What lessons did you take from the experience?





In Limbo Between Land and Sea: Shipping Out

22 03 2012

I’m typing quietly this morning, friends.

Thick darkness outside, my housemates are still clinging to sleep. All except Bear – I poked her awake and insisted she join me downstairs. She’s been a loyal companion in my writing room all winter, reliably sprawled in front of the propane fireplace while I type, and I want her to share this final morning.

Today is our transition. With a four hour flight, our lives shift abruptly from spacious house on soil to cramped cabin at sea. When we first get settled aboard and the small wheelhouse radiates warmth from the galley’s diesel stove, I’ll view “cramped” as “cozy,” and relieved peace will seep through my body. I’ll feel a wave of affection for the vessel that, for the next six months, will be our everything. Home, workplace. At her best, a trusted friend who ensures our safety in an environment where humans don’t belong. At her worst… Well, something less than a trustworthy friend.

Having such a clearly defined, bi-annual switch between lives lends itself to reflections of what we’re saying goodbye to. On my 24th season of this migrant life, I’m an old pro at leaving, but have felt unusually ambivalent this year. So I take special pleasure with this last coffee and English muffin – neither come out as tasty on the boat – and consider the past week’s bittersweet observations.

The sizzle of chopped onions hitting the hot skillet – won’t hear that for a while. Even when you let a pan sit on the stove’s “hot spot” – right above the diesel flame – nothing ever comes to a full sizzle or rolling boil.

Damn… didn’t get a bath while I still had access to a tub. The only showers from here on out will be infrequent and in the fish plant’s communal stalls.

We didn’t eat enough Thai food this winter. Upon that realization, we splurged on take-out Pad Kee Mao twice, to tide us through the six month drought.

Save that quarter. Between fishing trips, we’ll haul loads of ripe laundry to the Laundromat.

I’ll miss this bed. Say goodbye to sprawling across the queen-size acreage. Carved of peculiar geometrics to curve with the hull, our foam bunk is an optimistic double at the shoulders, but tapers to a tangled, tight squeeze at the foot.

Bear’s not gonna like this. Our girl’s preferred water source is directly from the tap. With the Nerka’s limited water supply to carry us through two-week trips, she won’t get that option.

This migration requires adaptation from all of us. But turned inside-out, regrets reveal gifts, and my attitude shifts to giddy anticipation.

The Backdoor Café! Bernadette and Sotera! Forget the English muffin; I’ll be having pie with my coffee tomorrow morning.

Ravens! My yard birds and squirrels have been faithful visitors, but my heart belongs to Sitka’s hefty corvids.

Friends! In a community of 9000, even strangers are familiar faces. One of my favorite touchstones of returning is seeing people I don’t know by name, but whose continued presence assures me I’m home.

Home. Enough said.

Be well, friends – we’ll catch you on the other side.





Going Green: Training New Longline Crew, Part 2

28 08 2011

[This series on May’s halibut fishing was originally published on Alaska Waypoints.  Feels like an eternity ago, but I just realized I never finished sharing them here on Hooked. You can re-read Part 1 here, and the concluding Part 3 post should be up within a few weeks.]

****

The first fish to slap the deck is small, a 24-pounder. With Martin stationed at the hauler, I’ve taken the lead on training Ross how to handle and clean halibut, and class is now in session.

“Grab the gangion to hold the head steady, and bleed it like this.”  I slice an X below the cheek, and a crimson sheet billows across the deck. “Keep each fish flipped belly side up, like this, so they don’t bruise.”

We admire the glow of the fish’s underside, and I feel a flicker of self-doubt. It’s been a year since I cleaned a halibut; will I remember enough to teach someone new?  But as it turns out, memory is not the problem; verbally deconstructing a subconscious process is.

My hands move with Ouija-board confidence, the knife dancing through skin, muscle and membrane with a certainty that’s absent from my words. This lesson isn’t as simple as “Cut here,” but a more intricate puzzle of, “Cut here, slice that muscle, make a cut that flows with the gill plate. Bring your knife all the way through up there, but just a shallow cut along here through the top layer of tissue.” As if guiding a child’s first Crayoned alphabet-writing efforts, I place my gloved hands over his to re-direct the blade.

****

Before hauling, Martin and I gave Ross our final words of wisdom – or a last lecture, depending on your perspective – on what to expect. It’s hard to convey the perpetual motion intensity of longlining, when someone’s only comparative experience is the mental grind and long-term endurance test of trolling.

“Take care of all your bodily needs before we set or haul. Go to the head, get something to eat, stash a snack or something to drink on deck somewhere it won’t get slimed. Longlining is all about speed, and once we start, we don’t stop until everything’s done.”

Internally, I rolled my eyes. Longlining is hard work, sure, but with trips under a week long, it’s only a few days of hard. You focus, go wherever you need to go within yourself to do what needs to be done, and don’t stop moving until the captain says it’s time to stop. And for that, hopefully you make some good money, stay safe, and learn what your body and mind can endure when necessary.

Non-fishing friends shake their heads, wonder aloud why anyone would voluntarily put themselves through these demands, but it’s this pushing through and beyond my perceived limits that is precisely what I love about our work. New deckhands have to make the mental leap that fishing is a job where the harder you push yourself and the faster you work, the greater rewards you see. I’m hopeful that my work partner will understand that the faster we have everything cleaned, iced, re-baited, and scrubbed, the sooner we’ll be off our boots.

****

But right now, we’re in the midst of it, midway through our second set. Still an ocean away from being done. I slice, gut, and scrape my way through the pile, surreptitiously monitoring Ross’s process all the while. Cringing at the knife clutched in his hand as he awkwardly wrestles one wildly-thrashing halibut after another, I wonder how to explain the power of a fish that’s one massive muscle contorted with rage, fear, and survival instinct, and the urgency of handling halibut in the least disaster-prone manner possible. Whatever I’ve said so far doesn’t seem to have worked.

Sure enough, it’s not long before an angry 55-pounder thwacks him on the wrist. He jumps back, cradling right hand in left.

“Are you okay?” These three words have been bursting from my mouth several times a day.

He nods, looking at the fish with respectful eyes. “It’s like being hit with a baseball bat.”

The 2008 all-female crew, late night up to our armpits cleaning halibut.

When Ross and I begin baiting hooks in preparation for the next morning, the day’s end is close enough that I allow myself to start fantasizing about my bunk. We’ve soaked and hauled 2 sets. No major smash on either, we’ve chipped away perhaps a quarter of our quota today, a good training opportunity without ever being overwhelmed.

I’m quietly pleased with my crewmate’s work. His cleaning motions are slow but consistent, and he’s never stopped working. One moment’s stretch, gloved fists pressed into the small of his back, was the only indicator of the day’s demands. True to my Norwegian ancestors, stoicism impresses me.

I’m piercing a circle hook through a chunk of pollock, one eye on the fiery sun sinking into the horizon, when a new smell forces its way on deck. Unlike the usual looming odors of longlining, this one makes my mouth water immediately. “Oh my god, what are you making?” I call to the cabin.

In answer, Martin hollers out the galley window. “We don’t have any bay leaf or cardamom?”

Exasperated by his first venture into the spice cupboard, he grumbles adaptations to his recipe. Even in meal-making, a captain’s plans are constantly in flux.

It’s 10:00 when I study the deck. “That’s good, Ross.” All of the halibut, ling cod and yelloweye have been iced, 16 skates’ worth of baited hooks are draped over the cockpit, and the deck has been scrubbed. After 9 ½ hours on deck in constant motion, we’re done for the day. Tofu curry over rice, Extra-Strength Advil, and the bunks are calling us home, if only for a brief respite.

At the end of a long halibut day.








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