Gone Trawling, Mate - Part II


by Jeff Gilbert

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.


Jeff Gilbert 2003.