Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Woman in a Man's World at Sea

I am a faithful subscriber to a wonderful newsletter from 
Every week or so, I get a newsletter full of ideas and often some really amazing photos (like this one).

This week's newsletter included an article, "Living in the Sticks (and the Single Girl). I enjoyed her story as she did what she wanted and stood up to those around her who said she was "nuts."

When I got divorced, I sold the house, bought a motorhome, and moved to Westport to fish on any boat that would have me.  When I told friends and family, they're common response was, "You can't do that! It's too hard...You're too old...You're a woman!"

Oh yes I can! Watch me!

I deckhanded on charterboats, draggers, seiners, long-liners, and trollers. I caught pollock, salmon, petrale, halibut, seabass, lingcod, sardines, black cod, and more. I got on a commercial boat in Westport, landed in Warrenton, Oregon to drag for all types of flounder. When that fishery ended, I jumped on a boat headed for Newport, Oregon where I sat on the back deck drenched in sunshine trolling for salmon. Once that fishery ended, it was on to another boat headed for the Port of Ilwaco where sardines were open to fish. When that fishery was over, I jumped on a boat headed for Neah Bay to drag again.

My lifestyle was free and easy. I drifted from boat-to-boat learning how to handle nets, hydraulic gear, navigating the ocean currents (and how to slalom between those damn crab pots).

Crew on commercial boats must get along. It may be a big boat, say 72' long, but the living quarters are tight and space is limited. I was always the only female; so, I had to work twice as hard and prove we (women) could not only hold our own; but, I was representing any future woman that jumped on the boat. If I fucked it all up, the next woman to come along for work wouldn't be let on the boat. Men are simple creatures, really, and if one screws things up - it means we all will. (If one man screws things up - they just go find another man: See. Simple.)

Fishing is hard work. There are types of fishing where one you work a few hours and you're done. There are also those fisheries where sleep is rare and you can get all kinds of weird after 2 or 3 days of no sleep.

Of all the fisheries, I like sardine fishing the best. It's easy work for the most part. You leave port in the morning and get back at the end of the day. Seining has an ancient history - they appear in Egyptian tomb paintings from 3000 BC.

Sardine fishing is a kick, too!  The boat drives around the ocean, usually with other boats also looking for sardines - kind of as a team. The twin engine plane shows up around 10am and flies over the area. When sardines come up to the surface to feed, the plane announces the coordinates and the game is on. Everyone suits up into their Grunden's or Helly Hansen's and hits the deck. The skiff driver gets his boat in the water and with the huge net attached, he slides behind the main boat waiting to set the net.
Seining with the skiff on the right.
We circle the sardines...the skiff makes a huge arc around the school and sets the net back to the main boat. He's stuck in the skiff the duration. But for those on the main boat, this is where all hell breaks loose and is my FAVORITE part of sardine fishing...banging on the boat bulwarks with monster-sized wrenches and tossing TNT out the window.  Why? To keep the sardines from fleeing before the net is cinched closed, of course. Don't want to those fast-moving little bait fish to escape, so you scare them back into the net area.

My job was tossing the TNT out the cabin window of the Delta (my fav boat maker) and watching the fish-finder to see if they're about to flee. I yell back to the captain, who's on the deck, throwing dynamite, letting him know to grab the 40-lb wrench he uses to bang on the walls of the boat.

After about a half hour of this, the net is set, and the next phase is to get them on the boat. Occasionally, the net is so full, there is a chance of it yawing too far and wrecking havoc; but, the captain is experienced in not over-filling the net and this usually isn't an issue...occasionally.

Stacking the net
Because I was a "Greenie" (meaning didn't no shit), I got the 'shit' job, "Stacking the Net."  My job was to get under the net after it's been through the block and stack the net in a huge, and I mean HUGE pile. See the photo to the right...the guy in the back of the boat is gathering the nets and laying them in a pile...looks easy, right? HELL NO! It's coming down on his head, full of salt water and a few smashed sardines. His job is to try and pull out those smashed little fish so the net doesn't stick. Water coming off the nets is squeezed throw that overhead is not a drop or two, it's a river coming down. It's hot work, hard work, and if you don't lay the nets right, you listen to some of the most creative cussing from the captain you'll ever hear (quite poetic, really).

The net floating in the water is stuffed full of sardines (or whatever else you happen to be seining for). A hose with a diameter of about 3' wide goes into the water and sucks the fish onto a sorter, where deckhands stand and sort through the catch. If a fish other than what you are being paid for is in the mix, it's tossed overboard (hopefully to live on). The sorter has a slide that dumps directly into the fish hold.

If your nets are full of say, 60,000 tons of sardines, and your hold is only 40,000 tons, you've got a bit too much. Once sardines are in a net, it's unlikely they'll survive and no one wants to send 20,000 tons of dead fish floating away: it's sad, it's a waste of life and money. Netting fish is hard on the fish - it descales them and since they're being squished, they suffer badly. So, what to do with the extra 20,000 tons?

Remember that there are other sardine boats bobbing around out there with you? Not all get their nets set on time, or the fish take off even with all the banging and TNT being tossed.  So, another boat will "Suck Off" your boat. Yep! That's what those fine, old fisherman call it..."Come suck me off!"

With the net still in the water, another sardine boat will gently pull up next to the purse (the net in the water full of fish), toss in their vacuum hose and suck up the remaining fish.

Wallah! Sardine seining at it's finest.

Back to the dock to wait in the queue for your turn to unload and that's the end of the day. Crew can sleep, tour the marina, visit with other boats, go to the bar and get stupid, or whatever. I liked the marinas and visiting with other boats. I loved to see the different designs and layouts of boats. I met so many strange and funny characters while commercial fishing.

 Here's a good website to see how seining works.

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