Saturday, June 28, 2014

Episode 11: Return of the Don

Length: 140 feet
Crew: 33
Hold Capacity: 280 metric tons
Where to begin... where to begin?  If you've spoken to me you probably know that it was a tough 2.5 months (March 31 - June 10th).  I will first describe my work then I'll get into the actual story.

I was a processor on the boat; meaning that I was always downstairs in the factory and the only time I would go on deck would be during my breaks and when I had to go pee.

In the factory it was similar to an assembly line.  Once we caught the fish, the deck hands put as much as they could into our live tanks; while the remaining fish would sit on our deck until we needed to refill.  From there the fish are taken onto a belt to be sorted and unwanted fish are thrown away, back into the ocean.

Fish Kept:

  • Yellow Fin Sole
  • Rock Sole
  • Flat Head Sole
  • Rex Sole
  • Alaska Plaice
  • Pacific Cod
  • Pollock
  • Arrowtooth Flounder
  • Greenland Turbot

Then they are taken to the head cutter and then gutted (depending on the fish we would have people gutting them after the head cutter). From there they are sorted/separated into sizes. Then they are packed into trays to weigh a total of 50 lb. once fully packed where they are thrown onto a belt to another individual who takes them off into a freezer; when the freezer is full (full freezer = 100+ of the 50 lb. trays) it's a 3 hour wait until the fish are done freezing.  There are 5 freezers so we empty a freezer approximately every 45 minutes.  On the boat we called these "freezer breaks".  When we empty the freezer we place the cases back onto the the belt where it's taken to an individual who has to take the frozen block of fish from the tray and then it is wrapped and thrown down into the freezer hold.

When emptying a freezer we must be swift because every freezer break we take people away from certain parts of the "assembly line" and if we aren't fast then it causes a domino effect slowing everyone else down.  This applied to every job on the "assembly line".  For example,  If the head cutters aren't fast enough the packers have no fish to pack thus slowing down the freezer breaks because they have no fish to put into the freezers and so on.  So the job was extremely fast pace and you were always trying to move as fast as you could or we would get behind.  I mostly worked at packing and helping with the freezer breaks but I had done all the jobs listed above.
Top bunk is mine.

My typical work schedule:
11PM wake up and eat
12AM start shift
4AM 10 minute food break
8AM 30 minute breakfast
12PM 10 minute food break
4PM or 4:30PM (depending if we are behind) go eat shower and sleep

To the right is where I slept, all the way on the top.  I had to watch my head when I woke up.  Luckily I just slammed my head twice against the ceiling.

The factory is always working so while we go to sleep another shift comes on.  We have 2 shifts working at all times and 3 shifts in total working on the boat.

On March 30th myself and four other men, all having fishing experience, flew from Seattle to Anchorage, AK then from there we took off to Dutch Harbor, AK in a 30-36 passenger plane.  For those plane enthusiasts at home, it was a Saab 340.  The plane was puny with the propellers so loud that you couldn't hear yourself think and it was required that you wear ear plugs.  The flight had magnificent sights of snow peaked mountains and frozen waters.  Once we landed in Dutch Harbor we had a good nights sleep and a warm meal before boarding the boat the next morning.

March 31st we boarded the Rebecca-Irene and waited patiently for the rest of the crew to finish their offload.  The crew consisted of a wide range of nationalities such as African,  Mexican, Taiwanese and Samoan men.  Most of the crew we're from those countries and only 5 Americans out of a 30 person crew.  All these guys we're HUGE and I was definitely the smallest guy working downstairs.  During the offload I helped Juan, the cook, with dishes since I had time to spare.  Then out of no where a bald eagle flew into our galley.  From wall to stove and straight into the television.  The magnificent bird was flying in a manic path for several minutes until it was led out by one of my crew mates.  If you don't believe me check out the video:

The moment we started steaming from Dutch Harbor is when I began to feel it, seasickness.  I ran to the bathroom as quickly as possible and arrived at a sink just in time to regurgitate what I had for lunch earlier that day.  Oh but don't worry because once was not enough.  I took a few minutes of break and continued with another upchuck of old food.  Oh happy day.  One of my goal's for this job was to not vomit more than three times and there I was dry heaving after my second time in barely a few hours.

Once we started catching fish I luckily only had 4 hours left of my 16.5 hour shift.  The entire shift I was gutting and fish would come at a seemingly insane speed of 2-3 fish per SECOND; YES, per second.  After my short shift I was exhausted leaving me with next to no confidence; I reeked of fish and cigarettes where I could barely eat due to my seasickness so I went to bed weak, nauseous, and starving.  I couldn't have felt more alone then at that moment.

What I wake up to every morning...
When I awoke I come to find that one of my crew mates that came aboard the same time as I decided to quit not even half way through his shift.  He explained that the work was “too hard”.  What was I to think?  A man with 2 years of fishing experience quitting barely into his first shift and there I was with no fishing experience on the verge to go into my second shift.  I continued that trip seasick and fatigued waist up.  I would go to sleep with my hands and arms numb from the days work and worse when I woke up.  It would take about 1-2 hours of work to shake off the numbness.  

As the days went on I had more and more coworkers speaking to me.  The longer I lasted the more respect I earned.  I even had crew mates encouraging me to eat to gain more “power”.  I once let fatigue get to me and that ended with my right index finger getting smashed between a 50 lb. case and a metal pole during a freezer break.  That finger became a quick reminder to shut out fatigue.

Sleep for my first weeks seemed to go by in seconds and terrific dream's, so wonderful that they left me depressed the moment I woke up because of the realization of where I actually was. Nightmares would follow and not just nightmares but the most traumatic nightmares I've come to know.  One dream that settled at the back of my mind was one where I was a translucent body watching over my family.  I watched my parents die in that dream and I awoke sobbing choking on my own tears.  In a nutshell, that was the variety of dreams I had my first week.

The first time we docked on land Lau, the crew mate that was my biggest supporter that  encouraged me with reckless abandonment from the beginning to end, allowed me to borrow his cell phone to call home.  I was reluctant to call but Lau insisted that I call because he said hearing a familiar voice can go a long way, and he was right.  The moment I heard my parents voices I started weeping like a little school boy, relieved that his parents were well.  They seemingly had no idea and assumed that I was having a grand old time.  At that moment I thought it would be best to keep it that way because worrying my parents was the last thing I wanted to do.  The conversation was short but meant the world to me.  After I had gotten off the phone, crying was out of my control.  I found myself running to a bathroom stall to hide my weeping from my crew mates but I couldn't have been more relieved.
Most asked question's in this order: 
  1. Are you married?  
  2. Do you have a girlfriend? 
  3. Are you gay?
Key phrases: 
  • EYYYYY!! 
  • No good!
  • You need to eat so you get power
The boat had many characters as you can imagine.  I didn't get along with everyone right away and some I never got along with but we were able to tolerate each other's existence.  One guy would start a statement with  “Amigo” whenever I did something wrong and to help me relax I just thought of this scene:

There was another guy who I can best describe as a Taiwanese Santa Claus who was jolly to me and seemingly had a personal vendetta with everyone else.  I found out later that that's how he jokes around with the rest of the crew and the reason why he didn't act that way with me was because I was new.  It really was a hilarious site to behold.  

Another guy would find any opportunity to scare the living hell out of me whenever I slipped into a day dream, which happened a lot.  Maybe everyone was a little crazy on the boat seeing that a good number of guys had felony charges against them.
April 21st: I'm starting to grow these lumps on my arms. My coworkers tell me they're called "biceps",  I just hope it's treatable.
With each new week the work became more tolerable; the numbness in my arms and hands became a normal feeling with the help of Rico. Rico pushed me to get faster, stronger, and more efficient. As for my dreams, instead of having traumatic ones they just turned into dreams about me working, so in a way I guess it was.  The only thing that got tougher was listening to mariachi music.  I'm sorry if it offends someone BUT COME ON!  They played only mariachi music for my first two weeks before someone decided to start playing different music, thank god.  Some of the songs made me literally laugh out loud.  For example:

When these came on I couldn't help myself from laughing or from singing.  Keep in mind that these are from playlists from guys on the boat.  These are manly men and then "Let it Go" comes on?!? You have to admit that's hilarious stuff.

I tribute a lot of my best work to Michael Jackson.  Whenever his songs came on I just got fired up.

I also started taking my breaks out on the deck to get some fresh air and just look out into the ocean.  One night I remember the water was so calm there wasn't a ripple in sight and a full moon that left a trail of light from the horizon to the back of our boat, I was mesmerized by the sight.  As summer approached daylight would last longer and longer so during breaks I would be able to see the horizon or even mountains in the distance.  It was a nice reminder of  how small we really are.

As the halfway mark of my contract approached coworkers warned me of the new foreman that would board our ship.  There was even a rumor that he threw a guy off a bridge for no particular reason and I wasn't ready to find out if it was true or not but Tua sounded uncompromising, stubborn and blunt.  According to the current foreman, Mau, I was going to have a rough time if I didn't pick-up the pace.  At the same time he knew that I was working my ass off, and he let me know that, but I had to continue to get better.  On top of that our boat was planning to not dock on land for an entire month, meaning no rest.  Instead of offloading on land we would offload onto another boat as seen below.


The first time I met Tua he took me to the side to talk to me personally and told me, “I heard you're slow as hell but I want to see that PINOY POWER, SO LET'S GO!”  The man spoke in yell and I couldn't be anymore intimidated.  I found out that Tua actually liked me.  He loved my effort and he seemed to watch over me the remainder of my contract.  He was probably my biggest supporter behind Lau and I couldn't thank him enough for the impact he had on me.
  • PacquiĆ”o 
  • Pino 
  • Ron (There used to be a guy that worked on the boat years ago named Ron Macatangay. They said I looked like him so I'm pretty sure he's my evil twin)

The month long trip turned out to be my best work and it went by in a flash. By the end, everyone on the boat seemed happy including myself and especially the guys going home once we docked.  We were all working harder for each other. During freezer breaks guys were talking trash and racing between the guys filling and emptying freezers to the guys breaking cases,wrapping and throwing down fish into the freezer hold.  It was the first time work was actually becoming fun.  I only took part in two of the races and they were awesome.

Rain gear
My last trip was probably the easiest and slowest of them all.  The only worry on this trip was the potential delay we would have at Dutch Harbor, AK due to a volcano stalling all the flights back to Anchorage, AK but fortunately we didn't have to wait long to get back.  Once we got back to the office in Seattle they asked me if I would come back for another contract and I politely said, “I don't know, I'll probably take a break... forever.”  Don't worry it got a laugh.

I've never done anything this hard in my life and I'm proud of myself for pushing through and finishing what I started.  I just hope that the money I raised will help me be more successful following my dreams come August when I make my return to Los Angeles.
June 4th: while peeing off the deck I witness something amazing.  An orca jumps out of the water.  Then I realize that I'm peeing on an Orca.  I instantly feel terrible but still amazed at the same time. This is not that time....
Before     162 lbs                                                   After                                            6/18/14       148 lbs

Injuries sustained on the boat:
Week 1: My finger got caught in between a 50lb. case of fish and a hard place. (It's growing off as we speak.)
Week 1-4:  Strained back, middle finger nails started to tear off from gutting fish
Week 4-now: sprained wrists and thumbs
*Only vomited twice on the trip!  The first day would be my first and last time I did.

Freezer hold Don