Living the Fisherman’s Life on the Timor Sea
When I set off to travel around Australia, working on a cattle station had been the main long-standing dream that I had wanted to realize. Little did I know that I would be able to achieve two dreams in as many months.
I arrived in the port of Darwin, at the very top end of Australia, in mid-October. The wet season was coming on, and the tropical heat was intense. It was refreshing to be back in a sizable city, and even though the dry-season backpacker bulge had somewhat dissipated, there was still a vibrant tourist-filled nightlife in the city.
One night while working on the pumpkin farm, I’d been back at the hostel relaxing with Martin and Hugh, who had spent several months in Darwin before coming to Katherine. Between telling me tales of their old pub-crawl routine, Hugh casually mentioned something that immediately got my attention.
He said that there was work to be had down at the Darwin wharf, either unloading fishing boats, or actually going out working on the boats as a deckhand. Hugh and Martin had no interest in fishing work, and were planning to move on to a watermelon farm after leaving our abysmal pumpkin job. The watermelons were definitely a more reliable bet than boat-work in Darwin. But I already knew I had to go to Darwin and give fishing a shot.
I’d always wanted to work on a fishing boat, another romantic pipe dream. Years ago I’d thought repeatedly about going to Alaska to try to work on a boat, but had never made it. I knew that the work would be hard, but I figured the experience would be a great adventure, and if it was especially terrible, at least it would put my romantic notions of life at sea to rest.
My first morning in Darwin, I walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf in the early morning hours to see about a job. It was depressingly quiet; job prospects did not look great. I inquired at the office of a seafood company situated along the docks, and the woman there said that all their boats were prawn trawlers that went out for four-month stints. However, she said that another company had a smaller boat returning in three days, and that this boat went out for two-week trips. I resolved to return in three days and check it out. As I was leaving the docks, I ran into Marco, a German fellow also looking to work on a boat. We commiserated about the dim job prospects and exchanged numbers, in case either of us found anything.
Three days later I returned to the wharf, where I found that a boxy silver boat called the “StarCat” had pulled in. A few dockworkers and a forklift were bustling about outside the ship, ready to offload the catch. I asked the woman in charge, and she said that they most likely would need an extra deckhand for the next trip. l was excited, but I had to wait around for most of the day while they offloaded the boat, before finalizing the arrangement.
When I returned in the afternoon, I was happy to find that Marco had also been hired to go out on the boat. It turned out that it was leaving early the next morning. I was surprised to find out just how small the crew was. There would only be five of us: the captain, two experienced deckhands, and then Marco and I, who had never worked on a boat before.
Marco and I chatted briefly with the guys we were replacing, two Swedish backpackers who had just completed four weeks out on the boat. They gave us some good tips on what to expect in the coming days. Like the others we’d talked to, they went on about how hard the work was. I noticed that their arms and legs were covered with cuts. They said that the wounds were a daily feature of the job, in addition to rash from being covered in seawater all day. One of the guys described a rash he’d had on his scrotum as the worst pain of his life. Despite these ominous signs, and not really knowing what exactly the work entailed or what kind of fish we would be catching, I agreed to go. I had to at least try it. Even if it was horrible, I could make it two weeks.
That night at the hostel, I woke up in the dark in a cold sweat. It was one of those half-waking moments where one is bombarded by thoughts of fear in the inky blackness. I’m making a huge mistake. Do I want to have my body cut up and covered in rash? What if I lose a finger, or an arm, out there? Or end up with permanent back damage? It’s not worth it just to say that I did it, just to fulfill idiotic notions of romantic adventure. There’s still time, I don’t have to get on the boat. I can call them up in a few hours and say I’m not going.
While these thoughts lingered in my mind even into the morning, I still headed down to the wharf and boarded the boat. After some delays, we set off around noon. We would be steaming out to fish nearly 24 hours north of Darwin, in the Timor Sea. Thus, on that first day we wouldn’t have much to do but sit back and enjoy the ride.
Before we set out, Marco and I first met the three men with whom we’d be living and working in isolation for two weeks. The senior deckhand, Norm, was a tall Australian fellow with a dark complexion, owing to Papua New Guinean ancestry. He was in his early 30s and had been working on boats for ten years. The other deckhand was a New Zealander called Fern, about the same age as me but with a couple years’ boat experience.
The captain was Gary, a bald, cantankerous, and very Australian middle-aged fellow. The Swedes and Fern had warned Marco and me that Gary was an asshole, but upon meeting him and talking with him, he seemed ok. He didn’t expect us to know what to do, acknowledging our inexperience but not blaming us. He gave us a pleasant tour of the ship, and talked to me at length about a tour of the U.S. he’d taken back in 1982. He struck me as the kind of guy that would be easy to keep talking about subjects that interested him, but would have no patience for any other kind of talk or requests. He was also extremely particular, almost to the point of being OCD, about things being in their “proper place” around the ship.
The ride out to the fishing spot was uneventful, except for the undeniable feelings of seasickness that I experienced. I’d taken short boat trips and ferry rides throughout my life, and had never experienced seasickness until early on in my Australia trip. I was on a three-day boat trip out to the Great Barrier Reef, and the second day out, while powering out to the Outer Reef, I’d experienced that unmistakeable dizzyness and nausea. I’d spent hours sitting out on deck, staring at the horizon, feeling terribly ill. But I’d chalked that up to the fact that the boat was small, and the seas especially choppy. Moreover, nearly everyone on that boat had also been seasick. Yet already on this fishing boat, a much larger vessel on calmer seas, I felt the same sickness. All I could hope was that when work started, I would be too busy to think about it.
The next morning I was awoken by a sharp knock on my door at 3 a.m. I put my clothes on and stumbled into the kitchen to grab a bowl of cereal; Marco and Fern were already boiling water for coffee.
At 3:30, still pitch black out, we went out on deck to begin work. Our work uniform, while looking slightly odd, reflected the necessities of the job. We wore tall white rubber boots, and underneath them long rugby socks pulled up to our knees, to keep the boots from chafing our legs. Then shorts, rolled up to our mid-thighs, a t-shirt, which was usually discarded by late morning, and finally grey cotton gloves.
As I said, I had little conception of the actual mechanics of the work we would be doing, until I was thrown into it that first morning. One guy back at the docks before we’d left had described the work as being similar to the TV show Deadliest Catch, except much less dangerous due to our being in a much less hostile environment than the Bering Sea. This description would prove to be more or less accurate.
The boat had at its disposal 75 large metal traps, grouped into three sets of 25. The 25 traps would be pulled in, emptied of fish, stacked on the deck, and then re-baited and pushed back off the deck; this process was referred to as a “line”, and took about two and a half hours to complete.
That first morning, I was assisting Fern at the winch, while Marco assisted Norm in emptying the traps. Gary would drive the boat up to a rope with two floaties attached to it. Fern would then use a grappling hook to pull in the rope, and weave it into the pulleys of a hydraulic winch, which would pull the attached trap up from a depth of about 100 meters. My job was to coil rope, have barrels ready for Fern to place the rope coming off the winch, and move the winch in and out as needed.
Once we’d brought the trap in, the four of us would push it out to the middle of the deck, and lift it up on its side; no easy feat given the large and heavy nature of the traps. Then I would open the trap door, and Norm would begin shoveling the fish out of the trap while Marco removed the used bait boxes. While I hustled back to help Fern with the next trap, Norm would sort the fish in the brine tank, while Marco would push the trap across the deck to make room for the next one. The traps needed to be arranged in a particular order, so that all 25 would fit on the deck.
The traps were pulled in rapidly, with no breaks in-between. The four of us were constantly moving until all 25 traps were on deck. In the coming days, Norm and Fern would regularly rotate their jobs, and Marco and I would do the same with ours. As Norm repeatedly told us, it was the same shit every day. Switching jobs was the only variation to the routine.
It was an effective strategy for them to throw Marco and I into the deep end that first morning. I now understood why they could take on totally inexperienced deckhands like us. The work was physically intensive, but not that difficult to learn. By the end of the second day, Marco and I were fairly well versed in our duties. Norm and Fern would take care of the aspects of the job which required more knowledge and experience.
That first morning, however, all I was thinking about was my seasickness. In the course of the job, I was constantly looking down, looking up, and moving around, all while the boat was unpredictably rocking. The bowl of cereal I’d eaten sat in an uneasy limbo in my stomach; my nausea was terrible, and I constantly felt on the cusp of vomiting. Like a Chinese water torture, I would wait with uncertain dread for the moment when the boat would hit a small wave and lurch violently, sending my nausea into overdrive.
I made it through the first line, and remembering that staying hydrated was supposed to be good for seasickness, I went inside and drank a couple glasses of water. As I was walking back outside, the boat lurched a bit, and I felt the water sloshing around in my stomach. I ran to the deck and threw up over the side. Thanks a lot, hydration theory. It was going to be a long, long two weeks.
As I stumbled back to my position to begin the second line, fearful thoughts raced through my head. I can’t do this…I can’t work for two weeks out here while being constantly nauseous, without being able to keep food down. Why didn’t I buy seasickness pills back in Darwin? We can’t go back to port, and I’m a crucial part of this operation; we only have four guys on deck. I can’t just sit sick in my cabin.
After the third line, we had a break for lunch. I, of course, didn’t even want to think about food. But then I noticed Marco grabbing an apple out of the stash that Fern had put in the ice room. Suddenly that seemed like something I could keep down. I got an apple and sat down to eat it while staring out at the horizon. Of all the delicious foods and beautiful moments of my life, that apple, at that particular moment, definitely ranks among the best. Looking out at the blue sea, munching slowly, all felt right with the world for the first time all day.
Once again, all my worries of that day proved unfounded. The next morning, my seasickness was completely gone, never to return. The boat continued to rock and sway while we worked, but it never again made me nauseous. I can’t explain it, but that’s the way it happened.
We did one more line in the afternoon, and then had dinner a bit later. We’d had a pretty good catch that day, about a ton and a half of fish. This meant that the following morning, before starting the first line, we would have to pack all the fish from the previous day’s catch. Fern, always a dry wit, put it best: “It’s good to start the day with something easy, like packing and moving a ton and a half of spiny, smelly fish.”
The next morning, the knock came at 2:30, and we were out on deck to begin the “pack-out” at 3 a.m. Marco and I had the task of hauling all the bins of fish out of the brine tank, a task that left us tired and sweaty from the very beginning. Norm then showed us how to pack the fish into 35-kg tubs. Once we’d packed all the fish, Fern and I put on jumpers and went down into the storage freezers below deck. Marco would send us the tubs down on a hydraulic lift, and Fern and I would stack them in the freezer.
After we finished all this, close to 5 a.m., we had a few minutes’ break as Gary drove the boat to the first line. As I put on my gloves, Marco was standing nearby smoking a cigarette. We were both exhausted, and the real work of the day hadn’t even begun. Marco broke the silence by asking me, “How many more days do we have left?”
I smiled ruefully. “Uh…ten, I guess.”
Marco shook his head and took another drag of his cigarette. “I never do this job again.”
Starting on the third day, we moved to five lines a day, and adopted what would more or less become our regular schedule. The knock would come at 2:30 for breakfast. Then pack-out from 3 to 5. Then three lines in a row, until a 45-minute lunch break usually between 12 and 1. Then two more lines in the afternoon followed by clean-up chores, usually finishing a little after 6. Finally, we’d have dinner around 7, after which we were so tired we would go straight to bed and pass out. Then the knock again at 2:30.
If you’re keeping count, that’s a 15-hour working day, every day. It was by far the hardest job I have ever done.
Norm summed it up best one day early in the trip, while we were stuffing the bait boxes with the frozen, chopped up fish guts that served as our bait:
“Work fast, guys. The faster we work, the more we get to sleep. That’s the secret of this job. There’s no socializing and no entertainment. Just work, eat, and sleep. We’re out here to make money. That’s it.”
Fishing is a brutal business. You are stuck out on a boat for those two-week periods, working flat-out all day. But the reward for your labor is in no way constant or reliable. You are paid a percentage of the fish that you catch. Thus, if the catch is good, it will be a very profitable two weeks, but there is the very real possibility that you can work 15 hours a day for two weeks, and end up with very little monetary reward to show for it.
The main fish that we were trying to catch was a large gold-flecked silver fish called a “goldband.” The other type of fish that we caught a lot of was a red-and-white fish called a “saddletail,” which was the same size as the goldband but sold for half the price. Our emotions would rise and fall based on the number of fish we could see in the trap as it broke the surface of the water, and especially the number of goldband.
One day early on, we had a particularly good day of fishing, catching over two tons. The number of fish in the average trap was about 5-10; a good number was 10-20. One of the traps we pulled in that day had over 50 fish in it, most of them goldband. We all cheered ecstatically, and Gary had to stop the boat so that we could arrange them all in the brine tank. He came down to the deck, giddy as a schoolboy, to look at all the fish. Later, after we’d finished the fifth line late at the end of the day, Marco and I were washing down the deck; Gary came down and beamed at us, saying, “Good effort today, men. Good effort.”
Of course, the story was very different on the days when the catch was bad. It’s a very depressing feeling to keep pulling in empty traps, bait them up, throw them back in, and then pull them in empty again. Aside from not having to sort the fish, the work is identical whether you are catching fish or not, but when you’re not, there’s the very palpable feeling that you’re putting in a Herculean effort for absolutely no reward. Everyone is grumpy, and conversation is minimal. There’s no “good effort, men” at the end of the day, despite putting in the same effort as on the good days.
While the work was almost never-ending and physically brutal, I didn’t have much time to reflect on my sore body during the day. We were constantly moving, constantly working for those fifteen hours, and didn’t have time to think about anything but the job at hand. The only time it all seemed to catch up with me was when the knock came at 2:30. Lying in bed, the knock would break me out of an unfinished rest, and I would feel the soreness in my back, my knees, everywhere. I could see the fifteen hours looming ahead of me, and desperately longed to just stay in bed. Once I got up and got working I was fine, but those first moments of the morning were crucial. I had a constant fear the first few days that my back would give out, or some other physical injury would prevent me from working, but it never materialized.
Aside from the muscle and joint soreness, the other main physical hardship was the wetness. While pulling the traps in, water would spray out from the hollow metal parts of the trap, and as the traps tilted uncertainly, it was very difficult to successfully dodge the jets of seawater. It was only a matter of time before a stream of water would soak half my shorts, or shoot down my boot, giving me wet socks for the rest of the day. The parts of my body that were most constantly exposed to the water, namely my knees and forearms, developed the common, disgusting “sea-pox”, an itchy red rash full of white-head pimples. My hands were terribly red and itchy the first few days, owing to the wet cotton gloves constantly rubbing against them; this was greatly alleviated by adding disposable plastic gloves underneath the cotton ones.
While working on the pumpkin farm, getting brutalized by the heat in the middle of the Northern Territory, I dreamed of being on or near the water. However, working on the boat, the heat was nearly as bad as at the farm. The sun rose near the end of the first line, and by the third line, it was beating down mercilessly on the deck. The bait-ups for the third and fourth lines were the most intense, pushing the traps across the open deck under the mid-day sun. Working on the boat, it was surprisingly easy to forget that we were even out in the middle of the sea. Our world was the boat deck and the traps, nothing more.
As the days went by, I found myself consuming more and more food. The seasick first day became a distant memory, and now during breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I would stuff myself with as much food as I could eat in the allotted time frame. Gary had done a good job shopping for the trip, and we had a limited but generally hearty selection. When I mentioned my increasing appetite to Norm, he said, “That’s good. Means you’re working hard.”
I’d always assumed that fish brought to the surface in traps perished from suffocation in the open air. But I hadn’t considered that when fish are rapidly brought to the surface from a depth of 100 meters, they suffer similar effects to divers who surface too quickly. Most of the fish in the traps were in a terrible state. Often they had their guts spilling out of their mouths, or popping out of their sides. Their eyes would usually be bugged out and falling off; after finishing a line it was a common sight to see a few fish eyes, bright red irises surrounding wide black pupils, scattered across the deck. While individually I might have felt sorry for the fish, we were catching so many tons of them, it rapidly became a coldly impersonal affair. It made me think of Stalin’s apocryphal quote: “One man’s death is a tragedy. One million deaths is a statistic.” Like working on the cattle station, I was thankful for the expanded perspective the job gave me regarding the meat on my table.
In many ways, the two weeks out on the fishing boat reminded me of the 10-day Vipassana meditation course I’d completed while living in Melbourne. In that course, I had meditated for 8-10 hours a day, while maintaining a “noble silence”, not communicating verbally or non-verbally with any of the other students. Where the fishing boat was work, eat, and sleep, Vipassana was meditate, eat, and sleep. Both lasted for a similar amount of time, and I saw both as strong tests of my endurance. In both, my mind constantly threw up worries and attempts to try to get me to quit.
The punishing nature of the work was made more bearable by the good company and wit of Norm and Fern. As on the pumpkin farm, talk often ran to how we would spend the money that we were killing ourselves to make, with exotic destinations like Thailand being most frequently invoked.
One day while working at the winch with Fern, he gave a superb tongue-in-cheek summary of the profession: “This job’s not so bad. We just have to deal with fatigue, physical injury, sea-pox, hunger, dehydration, sleep-deprivation, verbal abuse, sunburn, heat exhaustion, cuts, soreness, chafing, fish spines, eels, sharks, and the constant threat of death.”
Fern also related to me a joke he’d played on a French guy who’d worked on the boat a few months earlier. The guy had asked Fern why there was a buzzer inside the bait freezer (in order to warn people on the outside if you got locked inside the freezer). However, Fern told him: “Oh yeah, actually a deckhand got raped in there by a dirty old fisherman. You know, we’re out at sea for so long, no women, you really have to be careful. Don’t go to the back of the freezer by yourself, and keep your hand in reach of that buzzer.” Fern claimed the guy had had bait-freezer nightmares for the next few nights.
Norm got Marco and me with a joke of his own. Every morning, as we stumbled sleepily on deck for the pack-out, Norm would say something to us like, “Just five more days, ladies. Five more days.” One day near the end of the trip, we were sitting around filling the bait boxes, when Norm said to us, “Guys, I’ve got bad news. Really, really bad news.” He had a look of grave misfortune on his face. Finally he continued, “We have a sister boat, the StarLight. It’s broken down a few miles from here. The boat and crew are getting towed back to Darwin, but the company told Gary that we have to pick up their gear and stay one more week out here, to make up their catch.”
In stunned disbelief, Marco and I looked at each other. It was roughly the same look that Apollo Creed has when he thinks the fight is over, and then sees Rocky get back up from the canvas. Norm kept the gag going for a few more minutes, then cracked up laughing. I’m sure he pulled that joke on every new deckhand that cycled through the boat. However, the next day’s events would cause the joke to seem bitterly ironic.
It was mid-morning, and we’d just finished the second line. Fern, Marco, and I were, as usual, sitting on the deck, filling the bait boxes. Norm was a few feet away, using a knife to splice a piece of rope. Suddenly we heard him yell out, “Fuck!” This wasn’t a particularly noteworthy event, as in a job of that nature, all four of us were constantly yelling obscenities throughout the day.
However, when we turned to see what had happened, we saw Norm holding his thigh, and copious amounts of blood pouring down into his boot. The three of us leapt up and stumbled into uncertain action. Gary came and bandaged the wound, but not before Norm had almost passed out from the rapid loss of blood. In the end, Norm was ok, and we didn’t need to hustle back to port, but he certainly couldn’t push traps around in his condition. So for the last two days of the trip, Fern, Marco, and I got to go at a slightly slower pace, as it was just the three of us doing the deck work; we only did four lines each day instead of five.
I thought back to my midnight fears the night before I’d gotten on the boat. Fear of injury or death out at sea. And in the end, it was the most confident and experienced man of our deckhand crew that had suffered a serious injury. How comically undiscerning life can be.
We pulled back into port early on a Thursday morning, 13 days after we’d left Darwin. We still had to be up in the pre-dawn blackness in order to help refuel the boat. In the early daylight hours, a handful of backpackers mulled about on the wharf, as I had once done, in hopes of getting some work off-loading the fish.
The last job for Fern, Marco, and me was to bring up the several hundred large red tubs of fish we’d packed away into the storage freezers, so that the dockworkers and backpackers could repack them into giant cardboard containers full of ice, for transport and eventual sale. In the end it turned out that we’d caught about 15 tons of fish on the trip, more than 60% goldband. Thus, this trip ended as a tale of profitable return for very hard labor, rather than a horror story of uncompensated toil.
The feeling of that last day was totally different from the beginning of the trip. The three of us could bring the fish up much faster than the dockworkers could pack it, so the day was comparatively easy for us. We laughed at the backpackers sweating away under the sun beating down on the deck, struggling to pack the slimy fish, cursing when fish spines pierced their rubber gloves. Aw, poor baby, is this a hard few hours of work? Try being out here for two weeks.
We strutted around the deck bare-chested, bringing up fish when we had to, shooting the shit during the downtime. We’d put in a brutal fight in the trenches and survived it. We’d earned our stripes, and now that it was all over, it felt damn good.
Marco and I went in to town that night and celebrated our return to shore, but we kept our stuff on the boat in order to save paying for a hostel. The next day, the boat was due to sail once again in the early afternoon, and by the late morning we’d dragged ourselves out of bed, gathered our things, and were prepared to depart. Fern, needing a break from six weeks on the boat, had already taken off on a flight to his tropical paradise, the Philippines. Meanwhile Norm, who had been working on the boat almost constantly for four months, had gotten some antibiotics from the hospital and, incredibly, was going straight back out again.
One of the new deckhands was an Estonian guy, looking for the same adventurous experience that Marco and I had been. We chatted to him a bit, playing the role that the Swedes had played for us. He asked about the work schedule, and we outlined the long, long days of intensive labor that he had to look forward to.
Trying to be casual, he replied, “Oh, that won’t be a problem. As a tax auditor in Estonia, I had to work very long hours.”
Marco and I looked at each other and exchanged knowing smiles. Poor bastard.
We shook hands with him, wished him luck, and turned to go. Suddenly I stopped, turned back, and assumed an air of grave seriousness.
Placing my hand on his shoulder, I said, “Now, I just have to warn you about the bait freezer…”