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.