A bead of sweat rolled down my chest. I touched my right hand to my forehead, wet too. It was only a degree or two above freezing out here and I hadn’t done any work. There was no good reason to be sweating, but then again I had never been to sea before on a small commercial fishing boat.
The waves were really rolling the boat on this second haul. The horizon bounced in my field of vision from full sky to full sea. I tried not to look, yet focusing on the deck didn’t help much. Even if I were blind, the movement, the swells, the smells, and the sounds, would have let the rest of my senses know this was not terra firma.
I had gone looking for trouble. In other travels I have been open to try offerings from the local teachers: a road trip and hike, a burial mound tour, a part in the Christmas pageant… “Sporty,” is the word they use here. In Vardø I asked to go fishing. It was a lark of a question because I expected no offer; be careful what you wish for.
The last of the second haul came aboard. The crew got the anchors detached and the rest of the line stowed into the aft large hopper. The lining bay got tidied up a bit and then the men retreated into the cabin. Time for smoke break number two. I had to stay out in the lining bay. The cold air and slipperiness of the bay was the lesser of two evils.
My time alone in the bay gave me time to think. One, what the hell was I thinking? Two, can I make it through another haul without puking? Three, can I get this radio station in Iowa because the neo-classic rock selection was awesome?
Time and the large volume of water on the deck won the battle with my boots. My old pack boot had large cracks in the soles, the Rocky’s had served me well over almost a decade of service but this time at sea was going to be their last outing. As I stood in my own squish I tried to tap out a beat along with song to distract my spinning head and swirling belly; save me Brian Johnson, you’re my only hope.
Cod swim the Barent Sea near Vardø year round. The standard method is hook and line, cod are gluttons and easily caught. During the breeding season the number of cod is much greater as the open-ocean species migrate closer to shore. During this period the fishermen use nets. My captain said we were near the end of netting time.
The population of cod in the Barents is managed in cooperation with the Russians. The captain said the stocks were pretty good and the rules seemed to be working. I wondered what the effect of the worsening economies in Russia and Norway will have on the cod. Will the temptation for more money be too great?
The cabin hatch opened and the crew return to the bay; line three, ho! For a moment there was a powerful smell of cigarette smoke and then the arctic wind took it away. They retrieved the third buoy and began to haul the line.
Like most things, this was more complicated than I thought. The rigging system for the net had to be disassembled, a chore with the arctic water in the frigid air. The mechanical line retrieval system spun and the green line eventually brought up the bright yellow net, the material looked like polypropylene. A couple of small cod and King crab came aboard. Gloves protected the men’s hands which were now working with an autonomous furry learnt from thousands of fish. They pulled, grabbed, plucked, cut, and threw with nary a pause. When the line is coming in there is no time to pause.
The crabs were a problem today. The season on this exotic species was closed and any crabs caught had to be tossed overboard. They were unmarketable anyway because the crabs were undergoing a molt, the captain said they were inedible now. Unfortunately for the men and the crabs it was such a waste. The crabs were almost always entwined in the net, removal broke the crabs, removal also took too much time to keep the line moving.
The captain joined the crew at his place at the front of the line, an extra pair of hands and in-person voice of instructions. Like, “The Deadliest Catch” in miniature, from the cabin the captain could observe the crew via closed circuit TV, and issue instructions over the intercom. The technology also facilitated the captain to join the line and still control the ship. GPS and a guidance system that looked like something from a modern jet airplane kept our boat on a steady course. The end was near.
The night before, my vector for this adventure took me to recon the boat. She was a beauty, new and well colored. As a new ship, I anticipated she would have better creature comforts. Yet the romantic in me who reads too many adventure books must have looked disappointed. The boat had a sheltered work bay unlike most of the older vessels in harbor. He asked I wanted to try a different boat. I said no, it would be rude and if I wanted extra hardships, then I could get them vicariously through Hemmingway.
Northern lights put me to bed, I knew they would likely be my last in Norway, a good omen. By 5:15 I was out the door on a crisp morning. The gulls had been in full throat for hours, sunrise was 4:02 AM.
I was the first man to the ship. On this blind date I needed to be on my best behavior. Dress right, don’t complain, and keep my mouth shut. I met the crew first. They were from the Baltic, trying their hand at fishing. A job but not a career, there would always be fortune seekers and the desperate to take their places. They boarded and began their duties, I waited on the dock for the captain. While a causal scene, I knew enough to ask for permission to come aboard.
The captain was a young and friendly fellow. He invited me to the cabin while the men prepped for departure. Through the hatch and I noticed two things. First, this was a very modern and comfy looking cabin. Second, the smell of cigarette smoke was overpowering. Anxiety pricked at my neck.
I took a seat at the small table. It was littered with a never washed coffee cup, candy bar wrappers, butts, and assorted detritus of working men. The captain sat at his throne, and chatted on his mobile while pressing buttons on the display screen. We were off sans fanfare.
The crew joined us as we neared the sea wall. Before pleasantries were exchanged there was a flurry of fingers, they made home rolled cigarettes. I don’t know if they are cheaper or deliver a more powerful nicotine hit but these muzzleloader cigarettes had an extra acrid aroma that watered my eyes and worried my belly. The taller of the pair fetched the coffee pot.
The shorter man was the most verbose of all three. His english was pretty good, he said he worked at a bar for years. He had what I call “rock-n-roll” english, a command of the language born of long nights working a tavern to the beat of gritty music. I passed on the coffee.
The boat pitched when we crossed the breakwater. The wind was normal today, that is windy. Perhaps the Norwegian fisherman who tried to make a life farming the Northern Plains found a bit of familiar comfort in the unceasing wind. Varanger isn’t that different from North Dakota.
The boat made deliberate speed towards the first buoy, about 8 knots. The captain said we had three lines of net to haul, a typical day. There were a couple of other local boats in the vicinity. The navigational screen showed all their positions, everyone is connected.
I was chomping at the bit to get out of the cabin, I needed some fresh air, STAT. My telepathic plea was heard and answered. I found a corner spot to lean against while the the pair pulled in the buoy and line rigging. Now we’re fishing!
The fish came in and I was amazed. I saw big cod and then I saw bigger cod, uff. The men clutched technical knives in their strong hands. The hook end dug at the netting to free the fish. For tightly wound fish the blade would cut them out. I was surprised by the net cutting. When I think of fishermen and their nets I think about all the time they had to take to mend them on a regular basis. Here, the men seemed to be casually ripping wider the holes. Later I figured out that the net, made of plastic, was thoroughly modern, i.e. disposable.
Freed from the net, and before the bin, the cod got one last handling, a coup grâce across the throat to exsanguinate and lay quietly. Before supper they will be eviscerated, skinned, filleted and on their way to your plate. Before breakfast they were wild and free. End of line one.
Break number one: more coffee, more cigarettes, more rock-n-roll. This was supposed to be about a four hour event, barely one hour in I was doubting my ability to hold it all together. I was very glad I skipped breakfast.
A large fishing vessel lurked on the northeast horizon. The captain thought it was a Russian fishing boat. The Barents Sea is dangerous water. On a clear day I could see Russia. On any day or night the Globus II listens to Russia from its perch on Vardø’s highpoint. Another fishing boat cruised nearby, but it looked atypical to me. Before I asked, the captain said it was a whaler, he heard they caught one yesterday. “Caught” isn’t the right word, fish you catch, mammals you kill. The Barents Sea is deadly water.
The catch today was disappointing. The captain told the crew they will reset the nets in another location. I was back in the cabin, smoke be damned. The boat headed for port and I was too cold and sweaty to stand outside. I made it this far, I knew I could make it the rest.
In port we queued along the factory. The crew wordlessly went about their work to ready for unloading. I went topside into the snowsquall, fresh air and still water made me happier but certainly no real Norwegian fisherman. The overhead crane extricated the hold containers to dockside. A forklift emptied the contents into poly tubs. The fish were weighed and the captain was paid.
Later the men would return to sea and reset the nets. Tomorrow they would repeat the process, and then the day after that. Everyday.