The Catch: Part 1 - Cold, wet and repetitive

JOB DESCRIPTION: Processors work long hours (sometimes 16-18 hours a day) in the shipboard factory where fresh fish are processed into frozen fillets, blocks, H&G (headed and gutted fish), surimi or minced products ready for market. The work is both demanding and monotonous. It is cold, wet and repetitive. The work is not physically demanding, but is uninteresting and often continuous. It consists of sorting, heading, gutting and packing, or running fish through processing machines.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 05.27.12
In 1988, my uncle Mike looked at that solicitation for a job aboard an Alaskan fishing trawler and signed up anyway. Like he did in Vietnam 20 years before, my uncle kept a journal. This time he wasn’t a draftee commanding a gun crew, just a deckhand gutting fish on a boat. But like “The Deadliest Catch” and other reality shows have taught us, sometimes making a living can be hell, too.
My uncle’s name is Mike Sutter, like me. He’s 65 now, a retired factory worker living in Minnesota. Printing his Vietnam journal in the American-Statesman in 1999 was my proudest moment there, drawing the strongest reader response of anything we ever ran in our XL magazine. He’s a gifted storyteller, and his letters are an event in our house, slices of life written in a draftsman’s precise hand, all caps.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll print installments from his fishing-boat journal in a series called “The Catch.” The stories are almost 24 years old. But in this era of the closely examined food supply, the lessons are still fresh, even if the fish is frozen.
By Mike Sutter (my uncle) | Seattle | 10.10.1988
I stand on the bow deck as the ship leaves its berth and begins its journey to the Bering Sea. We pass through the Ballard Locks and the Lake Washington ship canal, and it is dark when we reach Puget Sound and turn northward. The night is clear and the sky is filled with stars. The combined lights of the cities on the mainland glow, and I can see smaller clusters of light coming from the towns and villages on the Kitsap Peninsula. Phosphorescent plankton blink as the ship churns up the black water. The air smells of evergreens. The engines softly hum.
From the company: Conditions on the offshore waters of Alaska are extremely harsh. The area is remote from medical and customary services. Winter weather is especially difficult, with high winds, rough seas and below freezing temperature. You will have little time for activities other than working, eating and sleeping.
There is a romance to setting forth on a ship. It is a feeling of adventure, as if I were headed to the other side of the world instead of to Alaska to gut fish. I am part of a smaller world now, severed from the larger one by this knife of water. And as the weeks go by, the sea dominates my thoughts and the land fades in importance. It is impossible to think otherwise.
From the company: We are looking for good people who are not afraid of hard work. Good physical and mental health is imperative, as is a strongly positive attitude about life and work in the confined and often spartan conditions onboard the vessel.
The sea is all around me. It is a never-ending disc that curves downward at its edges, and it is alive, always moving and changing. And we are aboard this small chunk of steel in the midst of this vastness, feeling arrogant, feeling confident. We think we are the masters, but truly we are a sorry lot. We have electronics and powerful engines, but we are nothing in the face of this water. We can fight it and make allowances for its changing character, but in the end we are at its mercy. To gaze upon the sea from a safe shore is to underestimate it. We are specks. It is humbling.
(Photos by Douglas Sundberg)