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Sunday, May 27, 2007
Nicknames in the Fleet

Nicknames in the offshore albacore fleet seemed like a badge of honor. In my mind, it was a name bestowed on a skipper for a personality trait, an outside occupation, or to commemorate or sum up a notable event. Our friend, Don, of the Marine Star was a longliner before switching to trolling and earned the nickname “Longline.” Another skipper was a welder on the side…..”Steelbender” was the nickname. “Ponytail” of course had one. Stanley was "Steamer", and so on. I had a written list of nicknames in our fish log which can’t be found at the moment. It read like a hall of fame for fishing prowess, great escapes and escapades, and sheer bravery. I recall “Johnboy” who played a goofy revelie for the fleet....dogs barked out Jingle Bells ala Spike Jones. “Pokey” had a rogue wave bash in the side of his schooner during a typhoon north of Samoa. He and his crew lost the hatch cover and watched it wash overboard and then back onboard. They managed to secure it and saved themselves and the boat. “Sailor” had a beautiful black lab on board who had only one sniff of the green grass of Kiwala Basin in Honolulu before being whisked away to doggy detention. “Slider” slid. It was also the term when a boat tacked down wind astern to the waves and when the boat's motion was easier There were many more besides “Booger,” and “Popeye.” Three skippers of the upper echelons no longer with us are “Ultimate,"“Midnight,” and our mentor, "Shamrock."

One unusual event determined the season’s best nickname. The schooner Janthina was fishing south of the fleet one day and ran over a large swordfish, mortally wounding it with the propeller. Not to waste such a delicacy as “grilled swordfish,” “Ponytail” wielded the gaff and hauled it aboard. He steaked it and then froze them in his hold. The whole fleet was on the receiving end of many delicious swordfish steaks. A match struck our grill during a streak of good weather and we dined on barbecued swordfish until hit by the ensuing food coma. The fleet gave out a new nickname to the swordfish salvager…”Roadkill.” It stuck for the rest of the season.


Sunday, May 20, 2007
Geting Located

How does a fisherman find albacore in the middle of nowhere? It’s not all by guess and by gory, but the vastness of the South Pacific Ocean makes you appreciate finding any fish at all let alone a boatload. We call it “getting located”. First of all, the band of ocean with the right temperature for albacore is between 35 and 45 degrees South latitude. Secondly, the albacore hunt for bait….krill sauries, squid, etc. and birds prey on bait schools. With long range radars, we scan the horizon for birds feeding. The temperature gauges read off the underwater degrees in the hundredths. A sharp jump can mean an edge where bait schools congregate and albacore lurk. The sea is laced with roadways of current. Bait meander along, feeding on phytoplankton and other microscopic organisms. Often these critters rise to the surface in upwellings caused by underwater pinnacles or currents.

Albacore spend most of their time in the thermo cline layer, down thirty to fifty fathoms on average which is approximately 180 to 300 feet deep. When an albacore sees feed on the surface, it can accelerate quickly to 30 miles an hour and attack. We observe albacore swimming in front and under the boat with sonar and fathometers. The picture illustrates albeit poorly, a school of albacore we call a “worm” between 10 and 20 fathoms. The darkest red and brown areas depict the highest density of fish. When the meter stacks three or more worms on top of each other, we call it a “condo”. If you observe a condo, get ready. They will be climbing on.

One of the most important fish finders is the array of radios with which to flap your jaws with other fisherman cruising around the same area. Many eyes and ears help locate the fish. We all talk on channel on the VHF and other bands designated as the reporting channels on VHF and SSB. Amongst ourselves, small groups of boats team up and work closely hour by hour. Usually there is a fleet wide morning and evening report on the SSB scheduled so that the marketing director in San Diego could communicate with both his directors at sea and dispense general fleet news as to delivery options and price negotiations. At sea, the fleet relays the average catches for the day, weather concerns, and general BS. Sometimes major caterwauling breaks out, sometimes humor, sometimes great sea stories. We often listened to Arnold ZK1DB for his south pacific weather report from Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. We helped Arnold identify a boat foundering on the inimitable Beverage Reef. This is the same nasty reef which sunk my dreamboat, the brigantine Yankee. The weather report from Arnold was very important to the sailboaters cruising across the Polynesia to Figi.


Saturday, May 12, 2007
A Deckhand's Life

My day as a deckhand of this tuna trolling adventure began like a fireman….pull up your pants and your boots by braille and pry open the eyelids at the first buzz of the alarm. Then ooze out of the stateroom and slide along the wall to the head. Water on the face, rake over the teeth, then you tackle the coffee pot. Any cook on a fishing boat knows about bracing oneself in the galley so you can ignore that “one hand for the boat, one for you” and apply both hands to this important task. Measuring coffee can be a trick in a big sea, but you manage, and then strap the 50 cupper to the wall and call it good.

Usually Steve was starting the main engine at the same time and putting the boat in gear to start the fishing day before first light. We both toss out the gear, and watch how the jigs act. Steve goes up to the wheelhouse and I’m left to fiddle with the gear, and apply maintenance when needed. Most of your day is spent on the back deck just hauling in fish and watching the lines. Well tended lines catch more fish. If you go in the cabin when a tuna gets on, it can die on the hook and become what we called a “waterskier, “ meaning it would surf along on its side and skip around. I love a good morning bite when the fish crawl on the lines one after another. Each fish must be hauled in and placed on the landing table with care so that there is no bruising. Then the nose of the fish faces you and the brain is stunned with a pick, and this kills it instantly; more humane than allowing it to thrash around on deck until it dies fifteen minutes later. The fish has its throat latch slit which gives the heart a chance to pump the blood out of body. Then a chinuki knife is used to cut the two lateral arteries two finger widths behind the long fins. The fish slides down a PVC chute into a deck checker where it bleeds out and cools under a spray of seawater and shade cloth. Our deck checkers kept the fish from sliding around and bruising. Our fish were placed in the freezer hold after a half hour of cooling on deck. I laid them out side to side in the hold so that they would freeze hard and flat quickly. Then I’d scamper out of there in a hurry because it was an excellent freezer, usually minus 25 to 30 degrees. Every night before bed, I’d be back down there in Carhartts and freezer boots, mitts, and a wooly hat with muffs to re-stack the frozen tuna as far aft as possible. Often I crawled over rock hard fish to stack more in the stern. Imagine also that the boat is rolling and pitching and the lighting is somewhat dim. If we had a big catch this process often took an hour or more. Sometimes Steve was pulling in an evening bite and I could hear him wrestling them around for the brain stun up on deck.

As I pulled my tired body out of the insulated overalls I could look forward to a hot shower. We had the best invention an ocean going fishing boat can have…..a watermaker, and that meant luxuriating in hot water after fourteen hours of deck chores. A shower, a bowl of ice cream, a good yarn from one of the other skippers in the fleet during their evening rap session, and it was into my Bunkie for some sleep. Often I don’t remember falling asleep because it happened so fast. Sometimes it was necessary to take watch because we ran to another area at night. This time alone in the wheelhouse out in the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific afforded the chance to listen to music or to get on the ham radio and make a few contacts on CW.

If it was too rough to fish, we napped and read or read til we napped. If it was really rough we just hung on and braced with knees and pillows to keep from sliding around in the bunk. A good sharp roll could drive your head into the wall like a battering ram. Our best scenario for bad weather was to make a batch of popcorn and watch a movie without spilling too much. I also discovered The Phantom of the Opera and Amadeus on tape, listening with earphones and muting the slam of waves and the howl of wind.. This was also how opera began to really grow on me. After enjoying Sutherland, Nielsen, Callas, and Pavarotti during the storms, I was hooked.

Sunday, May 06, 2007
The Skipper

There is no other way to describe being the skipper than “all consuming”. At sea, the skipper is on call 24/7. His word is law; he has the last word, and the final responsibility.
His attitudes and personality permeate the trip. The boat’s personality comes from the top. In any event, Steve had chosen to be a skipper from age seventeen. He loves fishing, is always optimistic, and likes to have fun. For the most part as a skipper, Steve was a good man with whom to fish. His salmon crews in Alaska came back year after year because he not only caught a lot of fish, but he also paid well and enjoyed the process.

Steve was on his second season tuna trolling. A typical day on the Papa George began in the dark. If we had shut down for the night, Steve set the alarm for a half hour before sunrise. We were in the south pacific summer so the days were long, beginning at four thirty am and stretching to eleven pm. He woke me up to fix coffee and put the lines out., then slipped down the stairway to the engine room. Check the water level in the day tank, check the refer system, then hit the air start button for the main. The air start yells out “Wheeeeeeaahhhhhhhhh!” and it’s as good as an alarm clock for the crew and any fish nearby. The engine rumbles to life. He checks all the gauges, and changes auxiliaries. In the meantime I have the coffee started, my boots on, and possibly rain gear if it’s rough. Steve puts the boat in gear and the wheel over ten degrees, weather permitting, and we scramble out on deck to throw the lines into a dark ocean.

Steve worked the port side and I the starboard. First out are the long lines from the pole tips and last are the stern lines, the short ones only a fathom or two long, tied to the stern rail. I examined the wear and tear on the gear such as the area where the leader meets the jig. Were the hooks nice and sharp? If not, then they were filed on the spot. Are the feathers bitten down too far for the jig to be effective? Is the color right? What jigs for today….a Mexican flag, a zucchini? I make sure the gear tracked correctly and Steve bolted for the galley and a refill.

Steve grabbed his mug of hot coffee and parked in the skipper’s chair with its array of electronics in range. The plotter, the sonar, the fathometer, the temperature gauge, and the multiple radios on various bands, were all set for the morning. His log book was open to an empty page. “Lines out, 4:55 am. January 30th WX good, SW swell 8 ft., S wind 10-15 kn. Partly cloudy. Then he scans the weather fax printout to see what was in store. The radios were quiet since we were a long way from the fleet. Steve had accepted a charter to scour the sea for albacore from Easter Island to south of Tahiti. It was a huge swath of ocean. Our survey was for two weeks of continual running.

The sonar was set at an 8 degree tilt with a range of 800 feet. This arc could spot albacore if it wasn’t too rough. The fathometer displayed fish as you ran over the top of them. Steve sometimes yelled out “get ready!” when he knew for sure we were over fish. Many times he was right on them, and we would see the line suddenly go taut and we’d yell “Fish on!” Steve plotted, planned, listened to the radios, and did a lot of thinking up there in the wheelhouse. If he was on fish, he was a hero, and conversely if he was skunked, he was the goat. Steve made the plans, and we were supposed to go along.
Would he listen to us, his loyal crew?


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