The Time I Spent At Sea

Back in the day, before I went to Russia (but after I had returned from Korea), I worked in Port Hardy, BC as a Port Supervisor of Fishery Monitoring Programs. It sounds like a mouthful, and it is, but basically I worked for an outfit contracted out to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to monitor the commercial fishing fleet.

The job was incredibly complicated and had moments of high stress, but life in Port Hardy was fantastic. You can read about it here at my old Mission to Moscow post

When I came back from Russia, it was partly because I had the opportunity to work in the same field, for the same department, back in beautiful British Columbia. This time, however, I wasn't a supervisor and was simply a peon, exactly where I like to be (I hate being management). More interestingly, though, I was going to be an At-Sea Observer!

Meet me, the Port Supervisor in charge of fishery monitoring for all of North Vancouver Island. I lost a lot of hair in this position. 

Fish are offloaded from a boat. The catch has to be separated by species and weighed up, with pre-tared scales, and then a conversion factor applied to make up for ice and bloating post-mortem. The final weights by species are then applied against the vessel's quota for the year.

My long-lost buddy, Doggawar, who I haven't seen since 2007, came out to make some money and count fish. I heard through the grapevine that he got married and has a couple of kids, but doesn't talk to any of his old friends anymore (can't say I blame him).
While my pre-Russia job was land-based, my post-Russia job was boat-based. I was to go out on fishing trawlers and shrimpers and monitor the fish catches at sea. 

The short and simple version of why this is done is because a lot of catch that trawlers bring up in their big nets is a) unmarketeable (fish nobody wants)  b) prohibited (regulations prohibit the retention of the species for the purposes of bringing it to market)  or  c) legal and marketable, but caught in a closed area or out of season. 

The fishermen throw these fish back into the water, but because they were scooped up in a giant 1 km-wide net dragging the bottom of the sea floor, most of the discards are dead. DFO still needs to know what has come out of the ocean and what stock levels are like, so the main purpose of an At-Sea-Observer is to record the discards as accurately as possible. Observers are also to try and get an accurate assessment of the retained catch, because different areas have different quotas and DFO needs to know what has come out of what area. Finally, an Observer needs to perform random biological sampling of the catch, usually to determine the sex of the fish and bring back some fish otoliths (ear bones) so researches on land can age them. 

I sat through the month of training in Victoria, which I loved. I'm pretty good at math and navigation and learning to apply different conversions to weights depending on volume, as well as charting locations on nautical maps was fun as shit. My managers were former co-workers who had moved up ranks while I was overseas, so I spent a lot of time in the evenings drinking with them. I passed all the mandatory government exams, got my radio operators certificate (maritime) and my Level 1 First Aid, and was trained to get into a survival suit and into the water in 60 seconds or less. After 5 weeks I was let loose on the open seas!

Studying species identification, and playing with dead fish

Survival suit training! My favourite part of the entire course!
 My first boat was called the **** ***adian (I signed a confidentiality agreement and am not allowed to disclose specific information about specific vessels, programs, methods or technology). It was out of Port Hardy, so 3 years after I left Port Hardy I returned. I slept at the old Observer House I used to manage, and ate dinner at Sporty's, the old bar I used to frequent (frequently), and at 5 am I boarded the *** ***adian and was immediately yelled at by some grumpy fisherman before I had even said anything.

"Don't fucking talk to me this whole trip." were the first words anyone said to me. Aaah, the same old douchebag fishermen were still here. 

The boat left, and I did a quick skipper interview and then crashed in my assigned bunk down in the front of the trawler. A few hours later I was awoken by a steady thumping on the wall beside me, and some fierce bobbing as the boat left the Juan de Fuca straits and hit the open ocean. 

I got out of my bunk and checked my phone. No signal. I slipped on my 'boat shoes', a pair of crocks that slipped all over the wet decks and made any unplanned movement treacherous, and went out to the back of the boat, near the drums (big rollers that haul in the nets) for a smoke. The grumpy guy who had told me off the moment I arrived was cooking breakfast, and he must have had his coffee or something because he offered me a coffee and bummed a cigarette. 

That first trip was interesting. I worked my ass off alongside the fishermen, scooping fish into the holds and getting live discards back over the side before they perished as quickly as possible. I washed all the dishes and even cooked a couple of breakfasts, in addition to my Observer duties. We fished for 7 days from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert, up near the Alaskan border, and we barely rested. The net was either in the water or discarding fish in a big pile on the deck, and the skipper would haul it back every two to four hours. 

I did an entire rotation out of Prince Rupert, including another trip on the *** ***adian, in which we got caught out in a gale that even the skipper said he hadn't seen in 20 years. He made the two crew and myself lay in our bunks, with our survival suits ready to be put on as he fought waves and wind and made for a safe anchorage in the Queen Charlottes. I actually started to feel fear when the two guys I was bunking with were stone-faced and just kept saying "Shit" every time a massive wave hit and the boat keeled over,but it righted itself every time and after about an hour we made a small bay. We hung out there for two days while the storm blew itself out.

The average trawler is about 60-feet and carries a crew of between 4 and five, plus an Observer.

The drums at the back of a trawler.

The views at sea are incomparable. 

Ya, that's a #SELFIE
You feel pretty small when you're out at sea for weeks at a time.

I did this for some time, pausing briefly for 10 days in July when I met up with Katya in Ukraine. I did two rotations out of Prince Rupert, a bunch out of Ucluelet and even one out of Victoria, and then I got put on the world's largest trawler, the Annelies Ilena, where I spent 6 weeks.

The Ilena was in Canadian waters as part of a Joint Venture program between Canadian fisheries and a foreign partnership. The Anelies Ilena is a Dutch-owned factory/freezer ship that plies the oceans of the world, bringing fish back to European markets. They signed a special deal with the Canadian fleet to buy up most of the Pacific Hake catch that year. 

***Hake is an ugly, spindly fish with an oily white meat that is often called "Pacific Whiting" for marketing purposes. Most frozen fish sticks are made from hake. During the 1980's Atlantic Hake was made extinct by overfishing, mostly by Soviet ships given special permission by African countries in exchange for advanced weapon systems. Today Pacific Hake is the single largest biomass on the planet, as millions of tonnes of fish migrate from California to Canada in the summer. The fishing fleets have a field day on this mass.***

As part of the program, the JV ship (that is, the foreign vessel) has to have a couple of Observers on board and a representative from the Canadian hake consortium that was partnered in the program. I was one of those Observers. 

It was the single best job I have ever had. 

I had my own officer's quarters, with a bed, table, sofa, TV and even my own toilet and shower. There was a mess, like a ship-born cafeteria complete with different dishes, soups, salads and desserts from breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack. There was a computer room that had a sattelite internet! 

The ship had a crew of Dutch officers, Irish engineers, Russian foremen and Peruvian laborers. With us Observers on board (one of whom was a Polish immigrant with a thick accent) and we had a floating United Nations. 

A small fleet of Canadian vessels hovered around this beast of a ship like a swarm of worker bees around the hive. They would fish the hake and then line up to drop off their full nets (called "bags" when they're full of fish). The bags floated, and the Anelies crew would hurl a huge grappling hook at the bag, snag it, tie off to giant drums bigger than a house, and pull it in. Once it was close enough they stuck a vacuum into it and pumped the fish directly into the factory below decks. 

Katya and I were apart, waiting for her visa. The ship worked around the clock, and because there were three Observers on board, I volunteered to take the midnight to morning shift. This allowed me to use the internet room to meet up with Katya online and chat during a decent hour in her time zone. Most of the night shift involved the Peruvian workers simply sorting fish, so once every ten to twenty minutes I'd do a walk around the factory floor, weigh-up any full totes of fish, measure any salmon or other prohibited bycatch, and spend time with the engineers in the belly of the boat. 

This massive boat is super-modern and quiet. The engine room was the size of a school gymnasium, but all the gears and pistons and what-not were stored under mesh panelling and hummed quietly as they spun and moved and did whatever they do. The engineers sat in a control room with windows overlooking the whole thing, surrounded by banks of computers and monitors, and they watched movies their entire shift and drank vodka. I became friends with an Irish guy named "Steven" and between talking to Katya, weighing fish and reading a book I watched movies with him in the engine control booth.

The Anelies Ilena, at 14,055 tonnes, is the world's largest fishing boat. 

The stern of the boat. All 4 stories.

My PRIVATE room! The washroom is to the left.

The hallway from my room to the stairs that took me to food.

The side of the boat.

While I was at sea, I was making some really good cash. I won't disclose how much, but let's just say it topped $200 a day, deposited into my bank account. I was gone for 6 weeks.

This perfect job came to a sudden and painful ending one morning as I finished my rounds. I was gathering hake for a sex/length sample. Normally a short Peruvian climbed up the ladder to fetch the samples from a large holding tank, but he was nowhere to be seen. My shift was ending and I was tired after staying awake all night, so I climbed up myself to get the fish. 

As I was climbing up the ladder, my left boot slipped on the wet metal, and the weight of my body on it caused it to wrench violently to the right while my body twisted the opposite direction. My kneecap blew out with a loud "POP!" and I nearly fell off the ladder, clinging to it with one hand while I grimaced in excruciating pain. I noticed one of the Russian foremen below me doing his paperwork. "Mikael! I need help!" I shouted. He didn't look up. "Ya, I know this already" He replied. 
"Fuck you! Mikael! Help me!" 

I guess my voice had something in it that told him I wasn't joking around. He turned around, saw me dangling from the ladder, saw my leg twisted the wrong way, and saw that I had gone a pale, ghostly white. "Vot derma!" he muttered ("Oh shit") and immediately raced up the ladder and grabbed me by the waist while he called for help. Another Russian and my Irish friend, Steven, all raced over and helped lower me down from the ladder. 

Once on the ground, they stood around me, wanting to do something but unsure. I grabbed my calf and wrenched my leg straight, and my kneecap went "Pop!" back into place while all three guys went "Oh!" and turned away in disgust. 

They helped me up and soon my two Observer colleagues joined in. I had a guy under each arm as I hopped from stair to stair on one foot. Someone ran to the tell the Captain, while another person went to get me a big bag of frozen peas. 

They got me to my bunk and laid me up. From the medical kit they gave me Tylenol. I loosely tied the frozen peas around my knee, which was completely purple and had swollen up to the size of a grapefruit. Mikael, the Russian who had helped me, returned with a bottle of Russian Standard vodka. "Trust me. It will help" he said in his thick Russian accent (he was right. It did help). 

I was laid up like that in my bunk for four days while we sailed back close enough to Ucluelet for a zodiac to come out and get me. I was pissed because I was planning on spending another 4 weeks aboard, saving up money to bring Katya to Canada. I even pleaded with my boss over email. "I'm fine. I'm sure after a couple of days I'll be right as rain." He wouldn't hear of it and ordered me off the boat. 

After four days like this, I was helped to hobble out to the deck and helped into a little plastic skiff with a small outboard. Steven and Mikael were also in the boat. Using davits, they lowered us down into the water. 

From four stories up the ocean looked fine, and on such a big boat the waves were barely felt, but in a small little plastic skiff it was a different story. The waves were good three footers, and were crashing down into our little floating can and threatening to founder us. From the east I could see a zodiac, from Ucluelet, bobbing in the swells waiting to transfer me aboard. Steven powered on the outboard and we crashed through, rather than over, the waves. Mikael, sitting in front with a thin toque on, was hunched over and getting the worst of it. "I don't get paid enough for this shit." He grumbled.

From the back of the Analies Ilena I could see the two Observers and about ten or twelve other crew all watching (I later heard from one of those Observers that everyone was watching intensely, wondering if we were going to make it or not. "It was intense!" he said). After five minutes we pulled alongside the zodiac, which was also riding the rough waves. The problem was our two boats weren't riding the same waves. One moment I was towering above the zodiac, its crew staring up at us with open mouths, and the next moment we were crashing down and the zodiac was rising up above us, it's big steel bottom towering over us and ready to crash down on our little skiff. 

Thankfully another wave would take us away at the last moment before we were all crushed. At one point Mikael, Steven and I all yelled out "Shit!" as the zodiac towered over us and looked ready to come down right on our heads, but then another wave came and dragged us out of the way just in time.

Suddenly, at one point, we were riding the same waves. At this moment a big guy with a white beard on board the zodiac reached across and grabbed me under my arms. He heaved and flung me over the gunwhales and I was suddenly inside the zodiac. We went up another wave and my big Observer briefcase and my backpack with my clothes and laptop in it flew through the air and landed next to me. I looked down and saw Steven wave and gun the engine, and he and Mikeal darted off back to the huge boat that was drifting further and further away. 

The zodiac skipper gunned his motors and we sped back towards land. I looked over my shoulder a few times at the Anelies Ilena, wondering if I would ever see her again. She disappeared over the horizon rather quickly and we entered Ucluelet bay. 

That was my last time as a real Fishery Observer. I spent three months in physiotherapy, two of them on crutches and one using a cane. Workers Comp paid my salary but I wanted to get back to work, even calling my boss on several occasions begging to be let back. "Has your doctor cleared you?" he would ask.
"No, but -"
"Then the answer is no."

In December I was almost fully recovered and was able to walk without a cane, although I still had pain that came and went. I travelled to Russia over Christmas and brought Katya back to Canada with me. I did one more trip on a shrimping trawler, but there wasn't much work. Bad weather and a new class of Observers (who got first dibs on rotations because they were cheaper) meant I was practically unemployed. Katya and I ended up rationing our food and we were dirt poor. Welcome to Canada, my dear. I found a new job at the airport and quit the Observer job the next day.

****Postscript: ironically enough, two days after I left the Anelies Ilena, it cancelled its JV contract, dropped off the other two Observers in Vancouver and went back to Europe, so even if I hadn't injured myself my trip was over anyways!****

Another view of my awesome quarters, and the bed I spent 4 days in.

Before I injured myself, we spent four days tied up alongside a Russian freezer ship, transferring cargo. We had nothing to do so watched a lot of DVDs. I gained 10 pounds on that ship!
Queue Russian accent: "It helps. Trust me."
I spent three months regaining the ability to walk, and found that the cane gave me the best seats at restaurants and on the bus!

I also bought a 1996 Dodge Grand Caravan Extended Version with AWD for $600. Screw the bus.
Sometimes I really miss the view from sea. Oh well. It's another chapter of my life that is now closed.


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