Things were going great for my first time out on a prawn trawler. Gordon, Ian and Janine were looking after me and all the hard work was paying off which was evident by a rapid loss of the weight I had gained in Europe. All we did was work and sleep and I didn’t have to look well groomed for anyone either, so I decided not to shave or cut my hair for the entire four months at sea. The weather was generally good which was reflected in our mood and we only had to put up with a few storms.
The first month passed fairly swiftly, and soon the “Tiger Prawn” season would start in the Gulf Of Carpentaria. Preparation for this involved removing and packing up the nets we were using, replacing them with larger nets and heading straight for the town of Weipa on the eastern coast of the Gulf. The owners of the Crystal Enterprise had made it clear that due to the increased work load for the three month Gulf season, we would have to take on an extra deckhand. This guy was called John and we met when we finally arrived in Weipa. The blocks on the booms had to be fixed as their mounting pins were almost worn through, so we spent two days on the wharf trying to change them and had a night out in the local pub, affectionately known as the “Alby” (Albatross). Apart from the fact that John kept muttering something about God, he seemed kind of okay.
A few other boats were in town too and everyone seemed to know one another. Fishermen know fishermen I guess. There was a fairly pretty cook named Cheri, off a boat called Crystal King who joined us for a drink when our drunken rampage brought us back to the Crystal Enterprise for the night. I left John and Ian amid their obvious and pathetically drunken efforts to compete for her and crashed out in my cabin.
Finally the blocks were fixed and all the trawlers commenced their ponderous journey across the Gulf to Groote Eylandt (named in 1644 by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and meaning “Great Island” in Dutch). This was a trip that took all night and the next day. We tested the new “try net” a few times to see if it worked and to get an idea of what prawns were around, then cleaned it quickly and hid the prawns well in the deep freeze in case the authorities checked us – the season still had not begun, so trawling at this stage was still quite illegal.
We arrived eventually and dropped the anchor in a beautiful bay seen only in postcards and it seemed that most of the trawlers in the Gulf were already there. Once again, everybody appeared to be aquainted with everyone else, or soon would be as “green deckies”, such as myself, were introduced. I helped take chairs and things to the beach in the dinghy. A barbeque was set up, beer and ice brought over in eskies, firewood collected, and soon everyone was on the beach talking about trawling (but keeping certain details close to their chests), drinking, laughing and eating. The food of course was of the highest quality, most of it fresh from the ocean.
After dinner, I joined Cheri and some other deckhands around a fire for a few beers. I got the impression that Cheri was more than a little interested in me because she seemed to pay me the most attention, much to the obvious displeasure of Ian and John. Later on, people started heading back to their boats and Cheri said she was going to spend the night on the island and asked if I’d like to join her. Well, why not? I ferried the others back to our boat and returned directly to the beach. Neither of us got much sleep… The next morning, Cheri and I went over to a blue lagoon to swim naked as the sun rose and turned everything to gold and soon after, I dropped her off at the Crystal King and took myself home to the Crystal Enterprise.
Ian good naturedly gave me a few jibes about sex on beaches with cooks and John was just simply not happy with me at all. He was hopelessly in love with Cheri, after meeting and thoroughly repelling her on their first brief encounter two days before in Weipa. Hence forth, John took it upon himself to make my life as difficult as possible. He had twenty years experience on boats, a fact he pointed out to us at every opportunity and was very good at mending nets, splicing ropes and making “monkey’s fists”. When it came to social skills, John had none at all and it didn’t take long before the rest of us were casting sideways glances at each other around the breakfast table at his bizarre and childish utterances. There was obviously something very wrong with him.
After the first month of constant snide remarks and sudden outbursts of fury which included John threatening to kill me, life on the boat had become somewhat uncomfortable. Here we were trawling for the same prawns as in the Torres Strait, but now we had to work longer hours and would do four “shots” per night. Occasionally our eyes would turn skyward and we would be distracted by an interesting heavenly event. A roll of cloud known as a “Morning Glory” would stretch across the sky and then disappear within minutes. This phenomenon only occurs seldomly and at dawn and in just two parts of the world, the Gulf Of Mexico and the Gulf Of Carpentaria.
Another distraction occured one night when we got a call on the satellite phone from the skipper of the trawler Cape York. Apparently one of his deckhands, at about 4am, had decided to go out onto one of the booms (without notifying anyone) to grease the blocks, slipped and fallen into the water. We immediately winched in our nets, and prepared to cruise for seven hours to their location and aid in the search. I had met the deckhand, known as Mick, before at one of our Winch Deck Barbeques and we had become pretty good friends. In the dark and in these waters, it was highly unlikely that he would be found again and instead would become shark food. Two hours later we had another call from the Cape York. Incredibly, they had found him. Apparently he was worried that the skipper might be unhappy with him for losing the grease gun, so he had held onto it right up until about five minutes before they found him. Imagine being in the water, in the dark, the boat growing smaller with distance, your screams drowned out by the din from the engine. Very scary shit.
After every “shot”, the water aft of the boat would be boiling with a frenzy of sharks feeding on the scraps sent over the side. There would be so many of them that they would literally push each other out of the water. Usually after the last “shot”, we would wait for the ominous shapes of the large sharks cruising deeper down to disappear, then we could have our morning swim before breakfast. Ian mentioned one day that shark fins fetch a lot of money. I’m still not really sure why, it was something to do with the fibres inside I believe, plus the chinese like to make soup of them. Whatever the reason, one morning we made a bucket into a floatation device, attached a very large shark hook with a string line to a steel trace and impaled a large tuna head as bait. This went over the side and before long WHACK! the bucket disappeared below the surface. We had a shark. We toiled for quite some time trying to bring it in, when the line suddenly flicked back and wrapped itself around the bar at the stern of the boat. The hook had been more or less straightened. We tried again with a new hook and managed to get it for round two, this time we were able to bring it into the side of the boat, wrap a “lazy line” around its tail and winch it snapping and writhing onto the deck. Ian and John saw to the fins…
One day, several other boats tied up to ours and we had a party. People were everywhere and the heavenly aroma of garlic prawns, scallops and fish wafted over us from the barbeque. We were allowed to have as much beer as we wanted and in the wheelhouse, some people were smoking joints and sucking on bongs, while a few of us were doing bomb dives into the water from the roof of the wheelhouse and swimming around the boat. Some of the other skippers upon seeing our new deckhand, remarked that we were crazy to have John on board and as it turned out, John had been kicked off just about every other boat in the gulf over the last twenty years for various reasons relating to his mental stability. On land, he had also been admitted to several mental institutions and even kicked out again for smashing windows and furniture. Aside from his crazy outbursts at me, who he now hated with a passion, he would constantly go on about his high level of skill as a fisherman and that I was basically useless. I wanted to belt him, but didn’t dare because I thought of anyone, I would be the first to go, considering that I was the “green decky”.
Finally it was time to put an end to the party madness and John insisted on taking some people back to their boats in the dinghy. Gordon wasn’t too happy about it, but John went anyway, tried to show off and ended up swamping the dinghy. Gordon told him to hook on the “lazy line” so we could winch it back on board, but John had other ideas. Later on when the dinghy had finally been salvaged and I was cleaning up some of the party mess, I saw John go into the wheelhouse to give Gordon an earful. Suddenly the door crashed back on its hinges and John came out backpeddaling. Gordon being a bit of a boxer, gave him a couple of good punches in the face which would have dropped even the most hardy of men, but not John, his mouth didn’t even miss a beat and his gums went on flapping. I guess you can’t do much to a brain that is already damaged. John then rounded on Ian and started his mouth up again. Ian gave him more of the same and John almost fell down the hatch to the hopper deck, which could easily have broken his neck. Gordon yelled that he was sacked and John locked himself in his cabin. We saw very little of John until two weeks later when we met a mothership and he was sent packing. I took a photo of him as he was ferried over to the ship in a dinghy to remind myself of the happy moment in years to come. We had put up with the psycho bastard for two months and suddenly, things were back to the way they were in the beginning, not to mention the fact that without John, we’d all be on a higher percentage of the takings.
Without John, the rest of the season went very smoothly, apart from the occasional storm. My beard was huge, not to mention my hair. Eventually the season ended and the excitement at finally going home grew inside us, as we spent the next four days heading for Cairns. We had to do a lot of painting and repairs on the way home to make the Crystal Enterprise look in top shape for the owners. Finally we docked and began unloading. We also had to take the boat out of the water to clean the hull and all this together took about three or four more days of work. I remember Xenek came to meet me at the wharf and didn’t recognise me at all with my beard and hair. The same thing happened with my mother when she arrived. She stood right in front of me for some time, looking for someone who looked like her son, until I became impatient and called out to her. Walking on land again after four months at sea was strange and I remember watching Ian ahead of me on the street, curiously walking lopsided as if he had one short leg. I filled several freezers around Cairns with enough seafood to last for months and in the bank, as the catch was eventually sold in it’s entirety, I had about $20,000. Needless to say, I soon had another round the world airline ticket…