They say young men often do stupid and crazy things. But in my youth, I didn’t think I was stupid or crazy. I was simply hungry for a bit of adventure and authenticity. I wanted to see more of the world, widen my vision, experience how other people live and do things suburban America couldn’t possibly offer.
Now, as a septuagenarian, I’m glad I did. Those crazy adventures now give me something to chaw on when I get bored.
My Story Of Being A Fisherman
We could see the storm approaching from the west as we frantically struggled to haul in the mile’s worth of fishing nets we had set just hours before.
We were a crew of three: Big John, the burly 34-year-old Aussie owner and skipper of the 42-ft diesel-powered Judith Ann; Ken, a seasoned deckhand from New Zealand; and me, a 24-year-old kid from the suburbs of New York City, in one of my first jobs on what would turn out to be a two-and-a-half-year solo odyssey as I worked my way around Australia, New Zealand and several South Pacific Islands.
We were in the Indian Ocean just off the west coast of Australia fishing for shark, which we would later sell to small fish markets in Perth, which they in turn sold to their customers as hake.
The Judith Ann
The Judith Ann had two holds midship for storing fish and ice, as well as a mainmast and sail for steadying purposes, as well as to assist us in our drift as we set our nets. She was a bit past her prime and living conditions aboard were Spartan, to say the least.
Big John commandeered the bunk in the aft wheelhouse while Ken and I shared cramped quarters in the forecastle, which, because it housed a hot plate, was also considered our galley—and home to an untold number of cockroaches.
No hot water… no shower facilities…no toilet. It was impossible to keep our clothes dry, and our styrofoam mattresses always felt like wet sponges. After being at sea from 4 to 6 days I reeked and felt like a grimy, salt-encrusted fish market dumpster.
But this was my first trip out. As would be the case in all our fishing outings, at dusk we would set our eight nets in a straight line, one after the other for a mile. The bottom line of the net was weighted so as to lie on the ocean floor while the top (or float line) would stretch the net 8 feet high and perpendicular to the bottom.
Not being able to see very clearly at night the sharks, while feeding, would swim into the nets, getting their heads and gills ensnared in the webbing. At first light we’d be on deck scanning the ocean for the little white buoys that indicated the location of our nets.
Then The Real Work Began
For four or five nonstop grueling hours, we would haul in, hand over hand, the mile’s worth of netting we had set the night before. It was more like a tug of war between men and the sea. While two of us hauled in the nets, the third extracted the fish while at the same time rearranging and repairing the netting as best he could.
After the sharks—mostly 3 to 5 feet in length—were retrieved from the netting, their tails were cut off to allow their blood to drain, then the catch was gutted, cleaned (head and entrails tossed back into the sea) and packed in ice. All this while barefoot on a bloody, slippery deck, an uber sharp fillet knife in one hand and trying to maintain one’s balance on a boat that wouldn’t stop pitching and yawing.
Needless to say, this was not a job for the faint of heart.
By then it was late afternoon. We’d rest a few hours, make dinner, such as it was, then go about resetting the nets for the next day’s catch. I’d plop into my soggy bunk by 10 pm only to be awakened at midnight to stand my two-hour watch.
An Adventurous Turn Of Events
If this were not enough, on this, my first trip, with a storm approaching, and shortly after we frantically hauled in our last net, our engine died, leaving us helplessly adrift for several hours before the Coast Guard received our distress signal and towed us back to port.
Later I learned that only a few months before, a Japanese tuna boat had sunk on a reef just short of where the Coast Guard had picked us up.
If my mission prior to leaving home was to seek out a bit of adventure on this personal odyssey of mine, this job provided it in spades.
An Unexpected Family Feud
On another trip we were once again forced to find shelter in the face of bad weather and ended up in Jurien Bay, a tiny fishing outpost 100 miles north of Perth. I was in the town’s only pub and had struck up a conversation with a local. Shortly after he’d walked to the bar to get us a couple more beers I heard loud voices, followed by a crashing of tables and chairs. I went to the bar to check out the noise only to find my newfound friend unconscious on the barroom floor with a couple of teeth knocked out. “A family feud,” was the only explanation I got from a bystander.
Then there was the time a 9-foot shark managed to get itself entangled in one of our nets. It took all three of us to haul it to the surface. John discharged three 303 shells into the thrashing shark’s head from a rifle he kept in the wheelhouse. It took the three of us half an hour to haul this 9-ft monstrosity on board—still flailing?
Two months of fishing for shark in the Indian Ocean under unimaginable working conditions and low pay was enough for me.
Having said that, I’d do it all over again. I miss being young.