Gone Trawling, Mate - Part I


by Jeff Gilbert

Part I - Part II - Part III

It’s 3am. A winter’s Morning, Batemans Bay, South Coast, Australia and I’m getting frustrated as I stand in the boat ramp road waiting for the Skipper to wake up. The pub closed at 10 so I’ve had 4 hours sleep, and 4 cups of coffee as I stoop down and grab another handful of rocks and hurl them on the roof. I’m not in ideal mood or condition to go to sea, but I’m awake and rugged up, and I’m going to make some dough before sundown.

“&#@%!! OFF, GO HOME, WE’RE NOT GOING OUT TODAY,” hollers a sleepy voice, thick with used grog and pipe smoke. I smile to myself and wander along the veranda over the water and lean by the door, waiting, watching the slick estuarine tide gliding under the bridge out towards the bar where you can just see the whitecaps in the moonlight. Its beautiful, not a breath of wind at this time of the morning.

Crash, complain, lumber, spit. Ollie appears. He backs the panelvan down to the jetty and we load fuel clank bang into the tinnie. There is no other way to fill up here but by hand; we stopped at the Gas Station on the way home, spending all we hadn’t drunk at the “Office”. So we hump not-quite-enough fuel at 3.30 am. Everything is well with the world except the weight and smell of 20 litre jerry cans of diesel.

The outboard roars into life and we tie off to the mooring, bumping quietly alongside the optimistically named “Income”, leaking proudly in the moonlight. Upthrust bow, cutaway sheer, 38feet, 16 tons, 160 HP, inch and a half carvel planked. At 31 thousand she was a bargain and has never been insured, with the premiums she only had to float 5 years to be in front. The trawl and prawning liscences are 5 times her hull value. Oh, it’s dead easy fishing for a living!

Grunting quietly I pass the hated jerrycans up the low workboat sheer to Ollie on the deck. I climb aboard as he disappears into the wheelhouse to check the motor and do his “cast off preparations” which take 5 minutes while buggering about with his pipe and warming the engine adds up to 15. All this time I pour fuel, arms screaming as I hold the cans forever, the fuel trickling slowly down the too-small funnel. Thanks Ollie. He pours the last can, a ritual.
“ Remind me to get a decent funnel,” he says, as I struggle with the cap, veteran of many a cross threading.

“Why bother, there’s bugger-all diesel. Not enough for 3 shots today, “ I reckon.

“There’s plenty in the Starboard tank “ -Ollie.

“Its bloody older than you” I snort.

Another ritual. The starboard tank is probably a myth, although there is a cap in the deck. I know, I trip over the bloody thing often enough.

We cast off and head down river as the moon goes behind a cloud. It’s darker than the inside of a cow and I steer from the unreal green and black world of the radar. Fly by wire. At 5 knots with the tide the boats doing 9, as we cruise alongside the deadly Marina wall. I watch every inch of it steering on the shortest radar setting, not even looking outside. The rocks are 30 feet from the port side but I wouldn’t see them with the naked eye. I feel another twinge of admiration for the fisherman of yore with no motor or instruments, but you don’t hit hard rowing.

Bash crash spray bump, shit it must be nearly low tide, and we are over the bar and I open her out to 9 knots into the long smooth morning swells. As the Channel widens Ollie rugs up and goes out the back deck to decide where the fish are, a mystical process that I don’t understand. It seems to consist of urinating and expectorating off alternate sides of the boat while staring intently into the pitch dark.

He slides the wheelhouse door behind him, points northeast, disappears down into the forcastle and is asleep in one fluid 20-second motion. I swing the wheel over and start plodding off in the usual direction, working slightly across the swell. The boat settles into an easy soporific rhythm so I lose the seat and stand at the wheel fighting to stay awake and not really winning. There just isn’t enough to do. Plod plod plod. Peas porridge peas porridge says the motor. Crash. Bugger, fell asleep. I pick myself up off the deck, shake my head like a wet dog and settle back on course. The warmth and sound of the engine, the easy motion of a heavy displacement boat, the time of day: its one giant conspiracy to drop you over the edge into sleep. I pick up some lights on what looks like a converging course so I head straight at him, the easiest way to see where he is going. Turns out to be about 500 tons of Coaster, come in close to save fuel. Riding the 2-knot current north to Sydney or Newcastle or China for all I care so long as I don’t get in his way. I get within a quarter mile or so then sneak round his stern and peel away to the east. He’s making 12 or 15 knots, pretty smart for an old heap. I wonder if anyone on board even knew we were there. I’m too far away and it’s too dark to read her name. A big boat by our lights, but they are all small in a storm.

5am. I heave to as the dawn comes over the horizon and we swing out the wings, creak, groan, is that the rusty metal or my back? We bumble forrd to fix the trawl wing backstays to the foredeck. Always cold just before the dawn, a price you pay for the beauty. Red and gold. Glass sea broken only by a hopeful seal snout. We swing the half ton steel trawl boards out grunt curse sweat, they swing disconsolately from their ugly shock absorbing tyres creak groan splash, chains protesting. I throw the seal a fish, shouldn’t have done that, now he’ll call up his mates. Wonder how they do that, they don’t go gettem, just more cheeky expectant scheming heads pop up as the miles roll by.

I shrug and swing the Income away in an arc to the south, burble roar, gathering speed to shoot away the net. Ollie potters about the back deck, ignoring holes in the net with a practised eye. For the next ten minutes its all concentration as spray flys at 10 knots, the net spews out over the tail roller, and cables flash and snake across the back deck. I’m trying to watch for shipping, yet steer a straight course through the swells while watching the back deck so as not to tangle a line or sweep my mate over the side as he screams orders over the winch. I can’t hear a thing he says, just what sounds like an angry tone. You can’t yell over the motor without sounding angry, I remind myself as we smash trough the swells , white knuckles on the wheel. No-one ever gets shooting away right, you just get it bloody done. Eventually we are laid back at two knots with a steady pull on half a mile of rig, two boards bumping along the bottom a couple of hundred yards apart, a quarter of a mile astern and 60 fathoms down. Two sweeps bumping along behind the boards, scaring the fish all the way back another quarter mile into the net. We hope.

Part II

Income 1991 (not me or Ollie)


Jeff Gilbert 2003.