After three years in Europe, I stayed in Cairns for just over a month and when I wasn’t working as a dishpig in an italian restaurant, I was drinking and indulging in whatever party substances I could get my hands on.
My depression over what had happened in Spain was sinking to new depths. I was seeing a lot of my friends, and partying almost constantly in a vain attempt to distract myself. One person though, who might have had an idea of how I was feeling, was my friend Xenek the computer guru.
One day, Xenek went on board a 20 meter prawn trawler called Crystal Enterprise to fix a computer problem. While chatting to Gordon the skipper, Xenek had mentioned that I, his friend, desired to try working as a fisherman. It just so happened that Gordon was looking for a deckhand, so, it was arranged that we should meet the next day.
Monday, July 29, 2002
I got up early and Xenek gave me a ride down to the docks to find Gordon. I didn’t know what he looked like and actually walked straight past him before calling to find out where he was. He took me down to the Crystal Enterprise, which green and white sparkled in the sun, shiny and new (or at least very well maintained), as she gently nudged against the old tyres protecting her from the wharf.
There was no interview as such. Gordon simply told me to help Ian (the first mate) with loading and that they were leaving the next day. I had to get back to my other job, wash pots and pans for lunch, break the good news to my boss, who wasn’t known for his congeniality, organise and buy whatever I needed to bring, read and sign endless forms, get my last pay from a now very irate ex boss, pack my things and prepare to be at sea for four months (gasp!). I had never worked on a fishing boat of any sort before, but didn’t have time to feel nervous, even though I had heard the occasional horror story of people losing the plot when being stuck at sea together for months.
Mum and her partner Rick took me out for a nice dinner that night. I sent emails telling everyone I would be out of touch for a while and eventually went to bed. I didn’t get much sleep, four months at sea with three complete strangers, working my arse off doing a job in which I had no experience or knowledge. Kinda scary.
The next day, I was up early again, and working mostly down on the boat, scrubbing decks, helping to pump oil into the engine and putting stuff away. Finally, everything was done. Ian and I were just leaving for the pub to have our last beers in Cairns, when Gordon turned up and said we were going. Next thing I knew, we were cruising down the Cairns Inlet, heading for the open sea. I love being on and in the ocean, so I was happily content, as I mucked around the boat taking pictures and doing odd jobs for Gordon. We had a nice large shower on board and I had an entire cabin to myself, so after dinner I cleaned myself up and went to bed with a book. I was still too wired though to get much sleep.
It took roughly three days to get to the Torres Strait (between the Northern tip of Australia and Papua New Guinea) which is where we would be trawling for the next month. Ian showed me how to do various things such as operate net winches and tie a few knots. The booms went out, the main nets and try net prepared. Basically, on a prawn trawler fishing for Tiger Prawns, there are two main nets which catch the bulk of the prawns, which are dragged behind from the ends of two long booms that are swung out from the sides of the boat and in between these, is a smaller net which goes out directly from the stern. This is a try net, which should (if working properly) catch approximately 10% of what we would get in the main nets.
We would drag the nets overnight, leaving the main ones in for roughly three hours at a time. This is called a shot. During a shot, somebody needs to stay awake on the winch deck and make try shots which is, winch in the try net every thirty to forty minutes, empty it into a basket, winch it out again, dump the catch onto the conveyor, pick the prawns out from all the other stuff, count them and sort them into groups of different sizes.
At the end of the three hour period, whoever was doing the try shots would have to wake all the others and the main nets would be brought in and emptied into a large hopper on the aft deck of the boat. Everything would come out of the hopper on the conveyor and two of us would do the sorting while the other would be grading inside the processing room. Anything that wasn’t a prawn, or something we could use, would carry on along the conveyor and go straight down a chute and off into the water again for the waiting frenzy of sharks. The nets, as soon as they were empty, would be retied at the ends (called cod ends) and put straight back into the water and trawling would resume.
While at least two people would be grading in the processing room with lightning quick fingers, I would clean the entire deck, throwing large and small sea snakes over the side – which are very ungainly out of water, stingrays, sharks and of course trying not to step on any eel-taled catfish or decky’s delights. Eel taled catfish, pretty innocent looking, have two lateral spines and one dorsel. All it takes is a small prick from one of these and intense pain instantly courses through the body, spreading out from the wound and throbs for about seven hours or thereabouts. These fish would be scattered around on the deck after falling through the mesh of the swinging nets, along with small off-white cone shells covered in long wicked spines, these were known as decky’s delights. Always good to watch where one is walking because their colour, being similar to that of the deck, can make them easy to miss until three centimetres of spine breaks off in one’s foot. I was pretty good at avoiding the decky’s delights however, one night while sorting, an eel taled catfish spine got broken off and embedded under my thumbnail. You can imagine it wasn’t my most favourite experience of the trip.
So this is the way it was for the first month. There were no rest days, it was just work seven days and nights a week. Our last shot of the night would be around 6:30am, then the final big clean up would begin and absolutely everything scrubbed. I am certain that the Crystal Enterprise must have been the cleanest boat in Australia. After all the general cleaning was completed, we’d then have to mend holes in nets, fix other miscellaneous bits and pieces, grease blocks, clean store rooms etc.
The work never ended, there was always something to be done. Finally we’d have breakfast (often barbequed scallops on the winch deck, washed down with a beer or two – yummy) and would get to bed perhaps around midday. Sometimes, Ian and I would take the aluminium dinghy out fishing, or over to an island where we would go snorkeling on the reef between beers from a bucket of ice. We’d have barbeques on the beach and huge bon fires fueled by tidal debris and diesel. These leisure excursions were great and I got on very well with Gordon, his girlfriend Janine who cooked and Ian, but we had to be mindful that these fun activities were happening in our sleeping time and no matter what, we would be working again that very evening. For supplies, there were larger boats known as motherships cruising around every two weeks or so. We’d send and receive mail, buy a few luxuries (like steaks and beer), refill the water and fuel tanks and unload frozen 13kg packs of prawns from our own freezer if the space was required.
It was fun. I loved it. My life had once again completely changed overnight. I was on the ocean, getting fit, working hard and making good money. Unlike some of the stories I had heard about fishing boats, the skipper was not psychotic, nor did he threaten to kill me when I made a mistake – though I am sure the thought must have crossed his mind a few times. He wasn’t a nazi either and allowed us to have the occasional beer and barbeque. I think I was very lucky to have my first prawn trawling experience on this particular boat, with such a terrific crew, plus I was nicely distracted from my recent heartache, though it did still threaten to engulf me from time to time regardless. Little did I know, the fun was only beginning and if there wasn’t already a psycho on the boat, there soon would be…
To be continued…