April concluded with rotten weather. We decided to head north from 40 degrees South Latitude. The fleet was delivering in Papeete, Tahiti, and it was rumored that Starkist would give us an end of the season party. Tahiti was the carrot upon which we gladly bit.
We studied the chart for the best route and set “Gilligan” to steer us for the next 800 miles. Little did we know that another tropical cyclone was to interfere.
ZK1DB, Arnold of Rarotonga, forecast another mean trough of snotty weather which revealed itself on our weatherfax picture. We were edging near the farthest island to the south in Polynesia, Rapa Island. It lay almost 22 degrees south. We had no chart, but it had to be surrounded by coral reefs. That evening we asked Gary, K7WQE, who ran phone patches for us to Seattle, if he could find out anything. He and Steve studied for their ham licenses at the same time, so when their licenses were issued, Steve became K7WQD, and Gary K7WQE. In the National Geographic, Gary found a story about Rapa Island with an aerial shot. On our radio call that night, Gary described it and I drew it from his word pictures; “It is the shape of a “C” with the opening of the “C” facing towards the east. It’s about five miles from side to side…..etc.”
From my crude sketch we figured we could get in the harbor, and seek refuge from the impending storm. The rule of the sea is that any vessel may seek refuge from a storm in any harbor of the world. Mostly it is a truism. Our fellow travelers, Darrell Potter on the Lady Debbie and Longline on the Marine Star decided to keep going north against the building seas and gusty wind. We fetched the lee of Rapa Island and never did a jutting piece of green volcanic rock look so inviting. The steep sides of the basaltic slopes were laid with green felt. The jagged patterns of palm leaves defined the shores. The delicious smell of land after three months excited our senses. In honor of the calm lee, I cooked a steak barbecue and we dined on the back deck with a lush tropical island as background. We would try to make landfall in the morning.
The anchor rumbled up into place under the snout of Papa George as we bore away to give the island a wider berth. We had come up from a southerly course and now cruised slowly around its eastern perimeter scanning the water’s depths for coral heads. Donee and I conned from both sides and Drake from the catwalk above our heads. Humongous shapes of brain and staghorn defined the underwater landscape. Steve stared at the sonar in case the coral shoaled up in a hurry. In the distance a dugout canoe with a lonesome paddler slipped out through the morning mist.
I had an idea. Got my English/French dictionary out and looked up a few things. “Steve, go closer to the dugout!” Steve understood my plan and added his touch, a few frozen peanuts (small albacore) in reserve. We sidled near and I yelled in my best fish wifely voice, “ Comment ‘alley vous? Trey bien? Ou e’st l’entrée? “ (How are you,…well? Where is the entrance?) He paddled along side pointing yonder and Steve threw a few peanuts into his canoe. He gestured strongly with the follow me sign and that we did, right smack into the harbor of beautiful Rapa Island…looming coral heads, shallow, drifted under and beside us. We were in the only unmarked channel, used once a year by the French Navy. We were inside, in the calm, with volcanic peaks surrounding the lagoon.
Another View From the Back Deck
This picture of the starboard stern quarter was part of my domain for many months. I looked backwards usually, watching the lines, the jigs, the birds and other boats. This view is looking forward from the stern rail. First of all notice how calm the ocean is. In the upper right there is a triangular shaped piece of steel we call a “stabie”, more accurately known as a stabilizer fish. Sometimes at night or in marginal weather, we lower the stabilizers into the water where they prevent the boat from excessive rolling. In winds of 35 knots or so we have been able to fish with the stabies down which kept our jigs from leaping out of the water in the frenetic dance of rough weather trolling.
The steel pipe bent in an “L” shape is the davit which tilts out over the water and holds the blocks or pulleys which change the direction of the trolling lines from the hydraulic pulleys or gurdies to the fish. On our boat, each set of five gurdies was run by a foot pedal and levers. You engaged the lever for the line catching the albacore and then pushed down with your foot on the pedal like an accelerator. A good operator could pull in three fish at a time with the gurdies and one or two fish on the stern pullers. I was not that proficient but none the less could pull in my share of fish steadily. In this photo one can see our safety line which stretched over our heads from the davit to the cabin roof forward. We used it in very rough weather when wind or water threatened to blow or wash you into the scuppers.
The fish climbed on the lines in a good bite and you pulled them in as fast as you could. On our boat, a blast/bled operation, the fish was pulled over the rail and landed on a padded table. Then it was spiked in the brain quickly and bled in three places with a chinuki knife. It then slid down a chute onto a deck checker, under shade cloth, and was doused with cold sea water for a half hour or so. Then it slithered down a chute into the blast freezer where it froze solid to -30 degrees F. in 24 hours. Every night I donned a heavy freezer suit, my “Carharts”, a thick hat, freezer boots made in Finland to withstand -40 degrees F., and lined work gloves. Our freezer hold held 50 tons of albacore, if it was stacked well and that was my job. Steve put the refrigeration system into defrost so the fans would turn off so at least it was only freezing and not windy down there. Early in the season I built up the bottom layers with the fish facing aft. Subsequent layers grew in a wedge shape so that the air could circulate up over the fish and down through. Our hold was lined with lathe over the fiberglass for the purpose of circulation. As the layers of frozen albacore grew, I crawled around in the hold stacking fish. On a good day it figured out that I pulled in, moved and stacked at least four tons. No wonder we have problems with tennis elbow and tendonitis.
Albacore in the hold is what it's all about. We hunt, scout, plan, connive, and scour the ocean for these babies. They are beautiful fish. Glimmers of pearl and silver shine from their scales. Their blueness is the deepest blue-black of the sea. Each and every albacore fights like hell. You watch their head, keep up the tension on the line, and feel their fight in your fingers. A couple of wraps around your palm, use the motion of the rolling boat, and pull them onboard. De-hook them and throw the jig back out for the next one to climb on. When they fight hard, they want to dive, so you keep their head up and hope they’ll slide on their side like a water skier. In a good bite, there is no time to eat or grab a cup, only to grin and pull faster. By then even the skipper is on deck pulling, the boat in a circle running on its own, the school of albacore biting everything in sight, and us grabbing line after line, pulling them in and throwing out the jigs as fast as we can without tangling the lines. When it’s all over, the deck checkers are plugged with shiny black fish and we laugh out loud with the fun of it all.
The Crew's View of Trolling for Tuna
Large swells roll endlessly past. The sight of another troller on a calm day could invite a "Board Meeting." Imagine seeing your friends face to face after two months of radio conversations. It means food, booze, new movies and books, and a headache the next day. Each season we had one board meeting at least, usually because the weather prevented the launching of zodiacs and dinghies. Our buddy Don on the Marine Star hosted Steve and I one beautiful day while our crews pulled fish on the Papa George. Strangely enough, the crews scored more albacore than the two skippers. Don's crew exclaimed how nice it was to be on a clean boat for a change and I think they weren't too happy about going back to their bear den on the Marine Star.
A month or so later, we encountered the edge of a large typhoon which had a quirky route from west to east across the South Pacific. As it moved into our path, we changed course to stay out of the dangerous quadrant which predicted 80 kn. winds
. It was March, the end of the albacore season, and the fleet was on their way to Pago Pago, Samoa to deliver. Beginning on March 26th we heard Arnold, ZK1DB warn the "round the worlders" of a tropical depression near 14.2S by 172.3E. "This likely will evolve into a Tropical Cyclone (hurricane) as it is gradually intensifying." By March 28th Mandy, Fiji, and ZK1DB issued a hurricane warning for Tropical Cyclone "Prema". Expect 55 kn. winds increasing to 65 kn near center. This storm would intersect with our run from the grounds to Pago Pago. Steve and Don plotted the storm and tried to predict its course over the next few days. In any event we had better be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. Don had already been in one typhoon two years before and had no desire to repeat the experience.
March 29 ZK1DB "Hurricane Warning TC"Prema" 940 mb 18.6S by 167.8E Expected to curve southward and accelerate in next 24 hours. It seems to be at its maximum intensity with sustained winds of 90 knots with gusts in excess of 105 knots near the center. Within 250 nautical miles of the center, expect phenomenally rough seas." We weren't planning to be anywhere close to the center, but we would steer more westerly to fetch the southwest quadrant in lieu of the eye. The typhoon would weaken as it slid to the southeast, placing it over cooler water and under the effects of wind sheer from the New Zealand westerlies. This typhoon was far enough west, that it should be much weaker when it crossed our path.
March 30 ZK1DB TC "Prema" takes a swipe at New Caledonia. YJ8DB, Mike , W. of Vila Island
, reported of "torn sails, broken bowsprits, all vessels OK except that one dive boat sank. Quite a bit of land damage."
March 31 ZK1DB ....no more typhoon warnings. Arnold described the situation as a "showery trough" with south easterly winds of 60 knots. The storm sounded like it had abated to the unremarkable level, but the 60 knot winds ran up a red flag in my mind. We scanned the weather fax pictures for the latest surface analysis to see if any forecaster had sketched our little part of the South Pacific with a heavier than usual pencil. No one seemed concerned except for us. The growing groundswell never lies. The cloud formations were progressing in a stormlike manner. The rest of the fleet was above this trough of rotten weather, already luxuriating in tropical warmth and a sea with no ripples. We were in for it.
After many years at sea you just have a feeling about bad ones and you get ready for them. First everything on deck is lashed down twice as tight. You have to imagine huge waves breaking over the deck, able to carry away landing tables, freezers, barrels, gear, etc. All our lines were to be tied up tight. Turnbuckles on the poles checked and given an extra turn with the pipe extension. Everything on the deck, the pilot house roof, and the bow area was lashed solid. In the cabin , the breadmaker churned up and baked an extra loaf. Extra bungies stretched across the cupboards and microwave. The Fanny Farmer cookbook found itself covering the rice supply under the settee instead of fawning over the galley from the height of the bookshelf. Steve stowed his gear which had been scattered over the entire wheelhouse. As we shipped aboard and tied down the remaining trolling gear, an abrupt line of wind scuttled hurriedly over the sea toward us. The breeze felt cold and uncompromising. As the line squall hit, the hair went up on the back of my neck, and it smelled like ozone.
Allthough it was mid-afternoon, the darkening sky predicted an early nighttime. The wind increased from 15 knots to 25, then 30, then 40, and within two hours, 65 knots. I had stowed the movie camera so that we could get this on film, but hanging on was a problem. So was hearing. Our anenometer read a gust over 70 knots and I couldn't hear Steve; only a steady roar intermingled with slaps and bangs like living in a steel drum getting hit by a baseball bat. The unwelcome darkness intensified the passions of the storm. We took to our bunks and hung on. Your body lunges toward the end of the bunk, your head like a battering ram when the boat lurches a certain way. You curl up and stuff pillows all around, but your eyes feel wide open. The doors are dogged down and the helm is set at 10 degrees so that we go along with the huge swells. Every so often we'd crawl up to the wheelhouse to call Don who was thirty miles away.
With the crab lights on we could see it was smokin'.....that's an expression for the phenomenon of the wind picking up the surface water and flinging it through the air resembling smoke. The swells were so far apart that we rode over them like a duck. For the most part they weren't breaking yet. When the tops of the waves blow apart you are really in for it.
It got worse. Towards midnight I was convinced that Prema had reappeared as a nightmare. The boat threw me across the wheelhouse when I loosed my grip on the chair for one second. I grabbed the foot ring at the bottom of the captains chair and waited for the next swell to launch me back up into the chair. Ouch! "Steve, Steve!" a voice from the VHF cried. Steve grappled with the mike cord and yelled over the din, "Come back, Don." "Steve, my window just blew out.
I just laid down and a f...ing big one sent a f...ing wave into my bunk along with the f....ing TV. The g.d. refrigerator fell over blocking the f...ing stateroom door and it's a f...ing mess in here!"
"What's your position,Don," Steve yelled back. Always get a position, then a damage report, then a prognosis. This ensued.
"Do you have any 5200?" Don hollered. By that time we were all glued to the problem of how to help Don. Firstly, Don turned downwind to keep more water from getting in the house. We turned upwind to close the distance from Don to us. There was to be an at sea transfer of 5200 when we met. This would be good. The crew and I found a tube of 5200, put it in a box, and blew up a 33 gallon garbage bag with the 5200 inside, all while holding on sitting on the galley floor. We lashed it with a 50 ft. line to a couple of 2 gallon clorox bottles so that they would be more visible in the dark. The trick was to get near Don, risk your rear end out on deck throwing the bag & bottles overboard so that they'd drift down to Don's boat, and get back in the cabin dogging the door behind you without it crushing your fingers and bones.
Maneuvering in difficult situations is one of Steve's strengths as a skipper. In a several hours we reached Don. Meanwhile his crew had cut a piece of plywood to the size of the window and drilled all the bolt holes to match. Amazing! All they needed was the 5200 to seal between the steel frame and the plywood. It is a tough job to get right at the dock and a nearly impossible job while being thrashed around by 30 foot waves in a full gale previously with a name.
The transfer was made, the gaping hole with no window repaired, and the storm abated by noon the next day....and it was April Fools day to boot. Onward to Pago, onward regardless.
A Papa George Set-up
Some evenings as we listened to the fishing reports I would make up new leaders out of 220 lb. test Jinkai monofilament. This weight was just right for pulling albacore over the rail. This leader attached to the trolling line, usually of 400 lb monofilament, which slid through a plastic doughnut and spooled on to the hydraulic gurdies. The leader was 2 to 3 fathoms long and was crimped to the trolling line along with a Sampo ball bearing swivel to prevent line kinks. The other end of the leader threaded through the jig, bent around a bronze ring holding the double barbless hook, and was crimped by an aluminum sleeve.
Usually the choice of lures was left up to me. Now that leaves a lot of room for theory vs. practice. Basically I chose the jigs which matched the weather conditions and area. We were not experienced tuna trollers in the South Pacific fleet, therefore we listened to advice, and applied it if the advice worked. One of our early mentors was Darrell Potter from Seaview, WA. He was running the Lady Debbie and preffered the "sablefish"(#100 above) extra-heavy clone in the morning on some of the lines. It did work, and especially when rough weather caused the jigs to be jerky. The extra weight kept these babies in the water fishing. The tuna clones made by 7strand were economical and effective. Our favorites were the Mexican Flag, Zuccini, Sablefish, and the White clone with lots of sparkles. Another type of lure made by Yozuri used a hexhead with various color plastic skirts. We also had bought hundreds of old fashioned feather jigs with lead-heads from Kolstrand Marine in Seattle. I tried all the varieties of jigs and found that they all worked very well if the skipper put the boat on fish. The key always was locating a school of albacore hungry enough to be lured into biting.
I wanted to show pictures of the crimping tools, hooks, sleeves, and monofilament, but am having trouble adding photos to this blog. Instead I will provide a link which may or may not be interesting to all of you readers.
7strand jigs, tuna clones, jinkai crimpers, bronze ring & grommets, Sampo ball bearing swivels, and double stainless steel hooks ( you have to scroll past the salmon flashers to the middle of the page to see all of these) : seamar seattle
My favorite jig for the North Pacific was the Yozuri hex head with both feathers or plastic skirts. In the area of skirts, the all white with glitter, and the all white with blue-grey streaks and glitter worked the best for us. The hex-head jig at the top was not available when we fished across the South Pacific. One virtue of this jig is the ability to unscrew the head and change the skirt color, or replace it. Albacore have sharp teeth which eventually chew up the skirts and scrape off the chrome on the head. The red eyes fall off and new ones can be applied with crazy glue.
As a deckhand, I checked the gear continually chafing and wear. The hooks often were dull so the bastard file put an edge on the blade hook or a point on the pigtail hooks. In the South Pacific, the fishing was spotty, oftentimes many hours between bites. A good day for us on this trip was 100 fish. Normally a good day was 500 fish or a "unit". Some years just aren't very good and the South Pacific is a very big ocean.