GONE TRAWLING, MATE…
Part I - Part
II - Part III
The skipper settles in for a 4-hour drag due South, the net
bumbling along 60 fathoms below and half a mile behind at a blistering
2 knots. We’re making about enough revs to do 8, but the
rig is a big penalty, so much so that you cant tell when its full.
You might make all your catch in the first hour and steam three
more for nothing, or you might go five and winch up just in front
of the fish. Who knows, the fish don’t, that’s for
sure, or they’d never hang about between 4 and 6 miles offshore,
the Trawl Lane north of Montague Island. Montague Island, waypoint
in the Sydney Hobart, home to a thousand seagulls and little else.
We catch an inconsistent mix of Flathead (only 14 bones in a
flathead) and Nannigai (that’s Redfish to you) a sweet underrated
fish that is beautiful smoked. That’s most of the catch,
plus the odd snapper, John Dory, angry ‘couta and stroppy
shark, and too many rays that go over the side. Can’t kill
the useless bastards, once we cut the liver out of one for the
cat, threw it out and caught it again later, still as lively as
ever. Only the Poms will eat them. Call them ”Skate”,
horrible fatty creatures good only for building up a gut against
the foul pommy weather. If England is so great, why don’t
they ever go home? Australians love to hate the Poms, our biggest
Jimmy Grants, but really they cause little trouble because it’s
the adventurous and not the inbred titled moneyed ones, who stay
home to chase poor bloody foxes around with their stupid inbred
mutts, like the guffawing fatuous twits they are.
Sometimes we catch the odd spotty Jacko, the Port Jackson shark
which the Abos call “dogfish”. It has a head like
a dog. We occasionally eat one for lunch but they are bastards
to skin, like stripping fibreglass. Besides they are protected
and hard to kill, they look too human.
Ollie’s leaning back around the window, pipe smoke curling,
hooded eyes searching ahead. Probably looking for a Life magazine
photography team, searching for “Typical weather-beaten
Aussie Trawler man. He’s not even an Aussie I muse, has
a woggy surname he’s not proud enough of to tell me. His
casual stance and hooded eyes belie what’s really going
on, he looks lazy but is really alert, watching and waiting in
case the net snags. If it does you need to put the wheel over
quick smart, and turn into the unbroken wire, swinging on it like
a radius. Because it you hold course it’ll pull the boat
straight over, using the gantry and wings as leverage, spinning
the boat on her bottom. And dragging her bum up. She’ll
be down before you can free the raft, and you’ll be in the
drink with your bloody boots full of after and 16 tons of boat
headed inexorably to the bottom. All in 20 seconds. The seabed
is clear in this 2-mile lane, which is not that wide considering
the width of our rig. If we wander to an edge of the clear space
we could hit a rock. Some mates clouted a crashed F111 once, but
the Navy got excited and paid for his rig despite grappling it
up with the plane and skeleton crew. Ha ha, ‘n ho ho, hooray
for the Armed Forces, defenders of our interminable coastline.
We must have stuff all F111s left now, bloody McConnell Douglas
using us as a scrap yard for their stressed out junkers while
the local Airforce strut around like turkeys pleased as punch,
assuming bewildered expressions as their overpriced junk falls
expensively out of the sky. Some other clowns we know fished up
a stinkin dead body, but slipped it back as they couldn’t
afford their boat quarantined for 3 weeks by Government eejits
with clipboards and assured salaries. The sea will tell no tales,
and nor will we. It’s a pitched battle between us and the
Government Fisheries with their Quotas and size regulations, throwing
back the little ones. What a joke. Ever seen a fish winched up
from 60 fathoms? Swim bladder burst, eyes popped out? It’s
not going to survive to grow big. The cost of diesel maintains
the numbers not the quota. We can’t afford to fish long
before the area gets fished into an irrecoverable state. The Government
Pricks who make the rules that keep us poor are too gutless to
even come aboard and see what really happens despite our many
invitations. Ollie rants and raves on committees, as a Law School
dropout and ex Public Servant he’s versed in their bullshit,
but still cant push it uphill. So they stay in Canberra and make
rules and go to seafood restaurants while we fish and hope they
choke on a bone.
Resenting Skippers and Government Officials not being a fit occupation,
and besides being too easy, I point below and head there, have
a swift slug of Rum and Orange to help fix my daytime insomnia,
and collapse into the least filthy bunk. Two seconds or 3 hours
later Ollie is bawling at me to get on deck. A rusty Coaster is
bearing down on us about 2 miles ahead and hasn’t changed
course. This is part of the daily risk. They wander in close to
shore to catch the current and save diesel, and frighten the bejeesus
out of us. We can only make them out clearly at 10 nautical miles
on the clapped out radar, and it takes over half an hour to winch
up. So we really can only get clear if they are doing under about
18 knots, if we see them at all. And the ones doing under 18 are
the small ones. The really dangerous container ships and the like
are doing 25, and a current saves them thousands a day.
I get the bolt cutters and the flare gun and watch the bows growing.
If they don’t see you its easier to cut and run than try
to buzz off trailing a net. Two years ago a trawler on the south
coast had her bow sliced off and reversed home with the ford bulkhead
shut. We could do that if we had a bulkhead, if we didn’t
get rolled. If we had some bacon we could have bacon and eggs
if we had some eggs. Hell, they were lucky. I could never figure
out why the boat cut like that, why it wasn’t just bashed
in. Must’ve been a rotten weld, but I never saw her. About
400 meters out, just as I hop out on deck, the Coaster veers away
at about 20 degrees. We smile with relief. He blasts us with this
siren, having a laugh at us. I guess they get few enough on those
dying wee rust buckets.
Ollie taps his watch, its mid-arvo; he’s kept going while
I slept, doing a double shot on a hunch. Its way past time to
winch up anyway, so I take the wheel and try to keep the trawler
pointed as Ollie watches and guides the wires onto the winch drum,
looking for wear and bawling instructions I can never hear. I
just smile and nod vigorously, he glares back. Probably thinks
I’m doing it deliberately every time a wire tries to buck
him off the back. Eventually the boards clank home, then there’s
the sweeps. Bewhiskered seals’ heads start popping up expectantly
all around the boat. They hear our winch and swim over from miles
around. Looking for a handout. I imagine them as Government Officials,
come to observe. Ah! There’s Cyrus Sloehand, the Tax Inspector,
and oops, up pops Cyril Seely, the well known Quota Expert, come
to look over the nature and composition of our catch. “Afternoon
Mr Seely, mind you don’t catch your moustache in the prop,
God knows we can’t afford an Incident”!
The infernal clanking of the winch slows, the green of the cod
end floats behind the boat, being tugged back and forth by the
seals dragging fish through the holes, making then bigger. I clout
one with the gaff, he glares at me, big liquid eyes accusing.
Ah, let up mate, it was only a tap. He goes on raiding the net.
Which we swing over the boat, the seals staring after it balefully.
I position it somewhere central, freezing water running up my
sleeves but I couldn’t give a darn, I know Ollie’s
instincts were good today. The Skipper slips the knot, a waterfall
of fish, wow, a really clean catch, I’m standing in 25 boxes
of fish. Five hundred bucks even at the miserable dollar nineteen
a kilo that’s been coming over the radio from the Co-op,
more if we get a private sale. We grin and spend ten minutes,
all it takes to get the rubbish over the side. The seals rejoice.
So much for the tiddlers that will grow to big fish, down the
seal’s throats they go.
I turn the drifting boat for home, running up for a final shot
on the way. We are just about to shoot away when the engine dies,
broken throttle cable. We pull up the floor and discover the break
is inaccessible, and finish up running net repairing twine all
around the engine room. Its chafing here and too hot there, a
complete abortion of a job but you try it with two foot six between
the bilge water and the deck beams, rocking in a seaway and both
of you below, hoping some drunken trawler skipper doesn’t
play billiards with the boat while you are trapped below. WE scramble
thankfully out of the engine pit; I hesitate to call it a room.
I cautiously crack the throttle, when I see Ollie getting the
winch ready. Bloody hell! I yell at him, give him a thumbs down,
knock the boat into neutral and go out to reason with him. If
the string breaks in the middle of a shot you can kiss goodbye
to 5 grands worth of gear, maybe ten to replace, no insurance
and they wouldn’t pay anyway the pricks, and I reckon its
going to break. All for what. We have enough fuel for a 2-hour
shot, we stand to make 200 bucks against a rig on poor odds.
Eventually sense prevails over greed, and we lash the trawl boards
and head for home. I make a mental note never to go to the Track
with the Skipper.
PART 3 TO COME SOON
Jeff Gilbert 2003.