I Was a Fish-killing Fool

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I Was a Fish-killing Fool

Postby Marvell » Tue Mar 11, 2008 12:19 pm

On the Friday Fish Fry thread Pogoagogo asked me to share some of the details of my Alaskan fishing boat experiences.

I could probably write a lengthy memoir on the subject, but I'm loathe to exploit the DPF's bandwidth to pursue my own agenda even more than I already do (Unibummer press releases? Hello?). So, I'll try to stick to the high points.

It really all starts in the Spring of 1988 (almost exactly twenty years ago!) when the Dean of Students at Carleton College called me on the phone to tell me I had been de-enrolled for 'not showing expected progress towards graduation.' I promptly pitched a tent in the college arboretum and squatted for the rest of the spring and most of the summer, before finally decamping to my parents' house in Green Bay.

My folks moved to Green Bay when I was a freshman in college, so I didn't really know anyone besides my parents and their friends when I arrived. I got a job as a day laborer with an outfit named Kubiak Pools, and so I spent about four months hauling bags of plaster mix and wheelbarrows full of weirdly named tools around construction sites (which is how I know how to distinguish between the 'Hilty' and the 'Big Hilty;' it's also where I learned to drive a bucketloader).

It sucked. Man, did it suck.

So there I was - kicked out of college in my senior year, with a bunch of student loan debt, living with my parents in Green Fucking Bay. I've had lower points in my life, but that was a pretty low one.

Then one weekend right around Halloween I went down to Chicago to the wedding of a couple college friends of mine, and while I was there I got to talking to my friend Di, who grew up in Madison and went to West High. She mentioned that she had some friends living in Madison who needed a roommate.

I came back to Green Bay and almost immediately gave my notice. And moved to Madison, more or less site unseen, just before Thanksgiving 1988.

My first job was in the dishroom at Paisan's. Turnover was high enough that within a month or so I was out of the dishroom and onto the line for most of my shifts. But it was so clearly a worthless, dead-end job, and I got to scheming about escape strategies.

My oldest brother lives in Seattle, and had largely paid his way through the University of Washington working in Alaska. So I thought I would give that a shot; I sublet my room, and bought a one-way Greyhound ticket from Madison to Seattle.

Think about that shit - on the Pale Dog all the way from here to there. I still get a frisson when I see a Greyhound go by with 'Minneapolis' showing as its destination, and my ass gives a little twinge of residual ache.

So - various adventures and many seedy characters later I arrived in Seattle. I stayed with my brother, and started pounding the pavement, hitting the offices of the various fishing companies located along the Ballard ship channel. I finally got hired by a company called Crystal Products; at first I was working on the docks, helping them refit a boat they had recently purchased. At one point this involved lowering me on a rope down into the bilge, so that I could direct the big industrial hose that was slurping out all the unspeakably fetid and filthy water that had collected in the bilge. That night I waited for the Seattle City bus to catch a ride back to my brother's pad in the U District; when the bus finally pulled up and the door opened the driver gave me a long, hard look. Finally he said, "Filthy as you are, I'm going to let you ride my bus. In the future, though, please bring a change of clothing."

When I got back to my brother's house I was locked out. I broke in through a window on the porch, only to find that he was out of soap. I got a lot of horrified looks in the personal hygiene products aisle of the Safeway.

Maybe two days after this I got the call from Crystal HQ; I was being shipped off to Dutch Harbor, to join the crew of the M/V Amfish.

[end part one]

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Postby supaunknown » Tue Mar 11, 2008 12:55 pm

Awesome. More please.

Do you still have your Safeway card?

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Postby Oprah » Tue Mar 11, 2008 2:03 pm

Call him Marvell.

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Postby Ned Flanders » Tue Mar 11, 2008 2:16 pm

Unlike most of Marvell's posts, this is actually interesting.

Don't leave out the part about shore leave and hookers when you get to that portion of the story.

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Part Two: I Meet a Crazy Phuc

Postby Marvell » Tue Mar 11, 2008 4:40 pm

The night before I left for Alaska I went tape shopping on The Ave. I picked up some great stuff with my twenty dollar bill - Rick Ocasek's This Side of Paradise; the Pickwick Kinks Greatest Hits; some K-Tel compilation that had both The Bee Gee's "Tragedy" and Abba's "Dancing Queen" on it. I also packed my book of Bruegel prints, since nothing salves my wounded soul quite like contemplating Landscape With the Fall of Icarus.

The only thing I remember about the flight to Dutch Harbor (besides the Dove bar that Alaskan Airlines gave us) was looking out the window of the plane and seeing a sheer rock wall that looked like it was about fifteen feet off the edge of the wing. It was the first of many times that spring/summer when I assumed I was about to die.

The landing strip at Dutch Harbor is the only pavement on the island. Every year they have to completely resurface it, once the Aleutian frost is done with its heaving. A minivan (all the taxis on Unalaska are minivans) ferried us over to the slip where the Amfish was waiting. There were maybe ten of us, of various ages, sexes and ethnic backgrounds; we stood around and waited for someone to tell us what to do. Eventually the plant foreman (Who looked like I thought an Alaskan should look - big, gruff, bearded) came out and took our names.

When he got to me I gave him my first name; it's not a very common name in the States, and the foreman cocked an eye at me.

"Is that Gaelic?" he asked.

I allowed as to how it was. He nodded and looked pleased.

What can I tell you about the Amfish? First, it was one of the most unlovely boats I had ever seen. Originally it had been a squid boat, working the Long Island Sound; it still sported a Narragansett registry on its stern. At some point someone had the bright idea of sailing it through the Panama Canal and up to Alaska, and using it for a floating processor for various bottom-dwelling meatfish. A couple things about that; since it had never been built to stay out to sea more than a day or so it was chronically short on fresh water - and what water there was was in high demand for various pieces of the industrial and nautical machinery. As a result, we were only allowed to take two showers a week - which on a fishing boat had the not unexpected result of making us, and our living quarters, reek unspeakably of fish.

Second, the factory itself had clearly been jury-rigged with whatever had been lying around. There were two heading machines in the factory line: one was a fancy, industry standard machine with lots of conveyor belts and safety guards to ensure that one's decapitating experience was as pleasant as possible; the other one had been fabricated on board by the Japanese fishing crew, and consisted of single, naked saw blade onto which lubricating water was slowly dripped. You had to wear chain mail gloves when you ran that blade, and on at least one occasion I saw sparks.

All along the length of the factory floor were electrical junction boxes. Each of them had a small, hand-lettered cardboard sign which read, "Do Not Touch This - It Will KILL You." Some had a crudely drawn death's head for emphasis.


That first night the entire ship's crew was gathered into the mess hall for orientation. The factory crew was a mixture of those of us just arriving, and about an equal number of people who were most of the way through their contract and thus would be leaving before us. These 'old timers' were clearly enjoying their relative status next to us 'greenhorns.' Among the hold-overs were four Vietnamese guys in their late 20's: Duc, Dong and Phong, who were all very soft-spoken and polite, and this guy everyone called 'Frankie' who was some kind of Vietnamese Andrew W.K. - he was always shouting out 'Party Hardy!' at inappropriate moments.

I later found out that the reason everyone called him Frankie was that his real name was 'Phuc.'

The ship's officers were a bunch of fishermen from Maine. I got along with them fine, but they were totally bad-ass. During that first orientation the Captain (who, if he ever blinked, never felt the need to do so in my presence) patiently explained what would happen if any of us were caught having contraband in our possession while on 'his boat.'

"If the Coast Guard finds even one joint, they can impound the boat" said The Captain. "And that would be fucking with my livelihood, and the livelihood of every other person on this boat. Now, you may be a sorry loser with no one who cares if you live or die, but I've got kids and a family back in Maine. So here's what happens if you get caught with something you shouldn't have. First - I fire you and confine you to quarters. Second - I get on the phone with my crew back in Dutch Harbor. Third - when we pull up to the dock, there is a whole bunch of guys waiting for you. Fourth - they beat the living shit out of you."

"Any questions?"

No questions. We all got it - we weren't in Kansas anymore.

[End Part Two]
Last edited by Marvell on Tue Mar 11, 2008 11:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby nevermore » Tue Mar 11, 2008 4:58 pm

This is awesome. A couple things: 1) In 1988, I was doing the same job at Husnus - so we were working a screen pass away from each other; 2) I came this close one summer to going away to do the same thing you did. I'm glad I came to my senses; and 3) You'd better copyright this before Jason and Isthmus steal it and make money off it.

kidding...kidding...kind of...

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Postby Marvell » Tue Mar 11, 2008 6:05 pm

nevermore wrote:You'd better copyright this before Jason and Isthmus steal it and make money off it.

As I've said before, nothing I make is for sale. If that means I get ripped off from time to time, so be it.

I don't need the money - I have a job.

We're all just borrowing it from the larger culture anyway...

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Part Three: On Sluice Chutes

Postby Marvell » Tue Mar 11, 2008 10:53 pm

I don't really remember, but I'm pretty sure we didn't dick around; we got to Dutch Harbor and that night we set sail.

The first couple days are a blur of seasickness. When it got to be too much I'd find the nearest sluice chute and retch wretchedly into it, then race back to my spot on the factory line.

A note about the Amfish and its operations:

The Amfish was what they call a 'floating processor' as opposed to a 'factory/trawler' (anyone with a more precise understanding of maritime law can feel free to step in and correct me). Which is to say, it never actually did any fishing; other, smaller craft ('catcher boats') would go out and do the fishing, and then drag the full bag of fish over to the Amfish. The Captain and the First Mate, in conjunction with the Japanese Fishing Captain, would literally be haggling with the captains of the catcher boats over the radio ("Mackerel? What the fuck do I want with mackerel? You think I'm going to send my kid to U of Maine selling cat-food fish?"), commodity trading in the middle of the Aleutians.

So when the catcher boat approached the Amfish deckhands (Curtis, Jocko, and this 17 year-old kid named Lance who everyone called 'Sharkey') would toss an empty net (or 'bag') onto the waters; the deckhands on the catcher boat would retrieve the empty bag, then take the line from the empty bag and attach it to the full one. We would drag the bag aboard, and then basically it would dangle, upside-down, over a big hatch in the deck that opened up onto the back end of the factory floor. They would unstring the bag as one would a drawstring purse, and the fish would tumble down into the waiting hold below.

Here they traveled down a long inclined plane of stainless steel, onto which water poured from various overhead spigots, to lubricate the fishes' slide down into the holding pen.

The walls of the holding pen were made of slats of corrugated tin and were not completely water tight; the top layers of the walls could be removed completely, if necessary, slat by slat. One slat, directly in the center of the wall facing out onto the factory floor, was always kept open, so that people could clamber through the perhaps 4 foot by foor foot opening into the holding pen. The only other way into or out of the holding pen was through the two gates, one on each side, which emptied out onto the sorting line.

Only fish went through the gates. And they were only going in one direction - out.

The sorting line was basically a pair of conveyor belts, heading in the direction of the rest of the factory. The fish would spill out onto them, and then people would stand there and pick the good fish out from the bad fish and the squid and octopus and kelp and the just plain weird shit and trash that had been scooped up off the floor of the North Atlantic or the Bering. The good fish would get tossed into a great big pile; right in front of the pile stood the heading machines. Each header operator had an assistant, whose job was to reach into the great big pile of fish, grab a fish, and hand it to the header operator in such a way as to maximize the number of heads (and sometimes tails) they can remove in any given measure of time.

The now headless/possibly-tailless fish would fall into big tubs, and as they would fill people would walk over and pick up the tubs, and bring them over to the Packing Table. Then they would stuff a certain pre-set number of the fish into these big metal pans; once full, the pans would be loaded onto speed racks. Once the racks were full, they would be loaded into one of the six big blast freezers that lined the walls of the factory.

That was the processing part of the operation, and on any given day it took up the majority of the time - probably 60 to 70 % of the time. The other time was spent breaking the freezers.

Because eventually the fish froze, obviously. Once this happened, you had to come back down to the factory from wherever you were fucking off, and then either bust the pans of fish out onto a conveyor belt, catch the fish in a big freezer bag as it came off the conveyor belt, tape up the freezer bag and drop it down the chute into the freezer hold, or - if you were really unlucky or unpopular - stand freezing your ass off in the freezer hold, catch the bags of fish as they came down the chute and stack them in great piles against the walls of the boat.

The factory crew was split in half, and we worked twelve hour days; you either worked six to six or six to six (I lucked out and was six am to six pm for most of the time). There was a factory foreman, and a couple lead workers. As it turned out the factory foreman who thought my name was cool was just leaving; instead we got this local hardass who looked about 18 years old but could have given Clint Eastwood himself lessons in stonefaced cool.

But more on him in a minute. I don't want to lose sight of the sluice chute.

Dotted throughout the factory were stainless steel sluice chutes; there was always a stream of water flowing through them, and their purpose was to sweep away all the heads and viscera and blood and all that funky fish nastiness, and deposit them in 'the grinders,' which would perform their eponymous function and then flush the now bass-o-maticked fish bits out into the great briney.

So if you had to yak, it wasn't hard to find a convenient spot. That's where I was going with this whole lengthy digression.

[End of Part Three]
Last edited by Marvell on Wed Mar 12, 2008 10:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby massimo » Tue Mar 11, 2008 11:51 pm

Top-notch storytelling. I love it.

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Re: Part Three: On Sluice Chutes

Postby fennel » Wed Mar 12, 2008 12:29 am

Marvell wrote:... find the nearest sluice chute and retch wretchedly into it, then race back to my spot on the factory line.

I'd give you extra credit for that phrase. It's not just clever; it's fitting. Class credit, barroom credit — no matter.

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Part Four: I Stare Into the Jaws of Death

Postby Marvell » Wed Mar 12, 2008 1:37 pm

So - as I started to say before the topic of sluice chutes distracted me, I spent the first few fishing days being seasick. Those days were hell; if you've never been seasick before, it's just about the worst feeling in the world. You have the chills, yet sweat constantly; you're always thirsty, but drinking water just makes you yak some more. The two things I found that helped were eating dry Rice Krispies cereal (absorbs excess liquid in the stomach, helping quell the worst of the nausea) and sucking on ice cubes (helps quench the thirst without, again, filling up the stomach with liquid).

What didn't help was that the two jobs I was assigned was to clamber into the holding pen and help shovel fish out through the gates, and to be one of the guys who hands the fish to the header operator. Now, I didn't pick up on this at the time, but the reason I'd been assigned to the latter job was because they had decided that I was one of their future header operators; it was actually the Amfish version of a career-track position, but I thought I was being cruelly punished.

What you have to understand is that, when they landed in the pile, many of these fish were not yet quite dead. So, for hours at a time, I had to plunge my hands into a giant, smelly, slimy mound of writhing fish bodies, their sharp little teeth snapping at me in a last dying spasm of mindless aggression. It was truly a ghastly tableaux, and after just a few days I started having nightmares of cold dead fish eyes and roboticly snapping undead teeth. In fact, I still have dreams about big piles of dead fish from time to time; they're not very pleasant.

Plus I generally worked with the foreman, who seemed to take it as his personal project to work me like a plow mule; I'd be grabbing these twisting, snapping, wriggling bodies as fast as I could, and he'd be yelling 'Faster! Faster!'

I started to really hate the guy.

Finally one day we were breaking a freezer, and he had me pulling the pans from the freezer and busting them out onto the conveyor belt. We were in choppy seas, and the Amfish was pitching drunkenly about in the swells. I had worked myself to and, frankly, past the point of utter exhaustion, and just as I was approaching the belt the boat gave a might lurch, hurling me against the belt.

My knees buckled, and I saw stars. From somewhere far away in the factory I hear someone playing the first Led Zepplin album on the stereo.

I didn't say anything as I slowly, painfully straightened myself up, but I looked the foreman right in the eye and started singing softly along with the music, "Your time is gonna come..."

He looked at me for a second.

"Okay, take a break" he said, and turned away. "Daryl, you take over."

From that point on he was much nicer to me.

It only took me a couple days to get my sea legs; after that I really didn't have any more trouble except in the worst weather.

The most memorable episode from this first trip involved the holding pen. Our usual practice was to wait outside the pen while the bag was dumped, looking in through the little 4x4 hatchway; we would check to make sure that the bag had been completely dumped and that there were no sharks amidst the other fish before clambering inside (all we usually brought up were mud sharks, but there could always be a first time for something meaner and with sharper teeth). In this particular case I had waited a couple minutes, and was quite sure the whole bag had dropped. So I grabbed my pitchfork and climbed over the grate and into the pen.

I started shoveling fish towards the gates that opened onto the sorting line. I had been in the pen for maybe a minute, minute and a half when I heard behind me an enormous THUMP, and then a sort of FlubbadaFLUBBADAFLUBBADA sound, getting louder and sounding closer.

I turned around. There, on the inclined steel plane of the aft of the holding pen, was a very large, very angry-looking halibut. Coming towards me, and gaining speed.

By large I mean, the size of a chest freezer. And by angry-looking I mean, as if it intended to treat me like a co-ed in shop class treats a piece of Juicy Fruit.

I looked at the monster fish, and then looked back at the 4x4 hatchway. I did a nanosecond's worth of mental calculations, dropped the pitchfork, and jumped.

Considering that I was standing knee deep in fish and seawater and was wearing steel-toed boots and a full set of rain gear, this was easily the greatest single physical feat I've ever performed. Somehow I cleared the 4x4 opening and landed, face first, in the pile of wriggling fish waiting for the header's blade.

Emerging, spluttering and covered with fish mucus and scales, I looked out at a crowd of aghast, wondering faces.

"What the fuck?" the foreman finally stammered.

I jerked a thumb back at the holding pen. "Big fish!" I shouted. "Big fish! I'm not going back in there - no fucking way!!!"

It took four guys to haul the halibut away. I was later told that they estimated it weighed somewhere between 450 and 500 lbs.

So - now, whenever shit gets too stressful or weird for me at work, I just think "Well, no half-ton halibuts tried to bite you in half today."

So I have that going for me. Which is nice.

[End Part Four]

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Postby thebookpolice » Wed Mar 12, 2008 1:42 pm

I hate to nitpick this truly very interesting tale (one that I've been waiting to hear since we met at the HNS), but unless your halibut friend had a buddy, it was a quarter-ton.

But please, don't let me stop you! You've earned the right, dare I say it, to tell a fish story now and then.

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Postby lordofthecockrings » Wed Mar 12, 2008 2:01 pm

I guess no one can accuse our friend Marvell of taking this job just for the halibut.

Thank you! Goodnight!

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Postby Henry Vilas » Wed Mar 12, 2008 3:06 pm

Love the tale so far. Isn't fishing in the Bering Sea and environs one of the most dangerous jobs in the world? I spent a good part of my four year enlistment in the Navy at sea. I can identify with your stories of seasickness, having ridden out full gales and even a hurricane, and working in freezers and other refrigerated spaces (or reefers in swabbie parlance).

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Postby Pogoagogo » Wed Mar 12, 2008 3:29 pm

This is an awesome story! When I asked you to elaborate, I expected not much more than a couple of paragraphs. Now, I'm hooked.(no pun intended)

I can't wait for the rest!

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