The Catch, Pt. 2: If this boat's a-rockin'

Part 2 of my uncle Mike Sutter’s journal from his months on a factory fishing trawler in the Bering Sea. It’s not glamorous work, but without it we wouldn’t have fish and chips, fish sticks and fast-food fish sandwiches.
By Mike Sutter | The Bering Sea | 1988
The Bering Sea is relatively shallow and so it is never calm, and the ship is constantly rocking. But coping with this motion becomes second nature after awhile, and I don’t notice it except in violent weather. It is simple to cope with it. Everything I do must be done holding on to something or ready to hold on to something, and I must always be ready to shift my balance. My legs are in a constant state of tension. I had a problem sleeping. My bunk lies perpendicular to the length of the ship and therefore perpendicular to most of the rocking motion. I would lie down on my bunk and be rocked from side to side hard enough to cause my body to roll back and forth, and I found it impossible to fall asleep. So I sleep on the small couch in my room. I can’t stretch out on it — it is only 5 feet long — but it is parallel to the rocking motion. I am rocked from head to foot now instead of from side to side, and my body doesn’t move and I can sleep.
Coping with the motion during violent weather is a different story. It does not become second nature, not when the swells are thirty feet high. Every step is taken cautiously if you don’t want to be slammed against a wall. Sometimes you have to lean at a 45-degree angle to counteract the ship’s motion in the opposite direction. You climb stairs slowly, holding on to the rail so tightly that your knuckles turn white. You put off taking a shower until the sea calms down, because it is a foolish man who goes anywhere near something slippery like soapy water. Chairs slide back and forth across the whole width of a room, and you can hear pots and pans being thrown down in the galley. You fill your coffee cup only halfway. You don’t pick up anything that can’t be handled with one hand, because you need that other hand for bracing and grabbing and bouncing. You look out a porthole and see nothing but sky, and the next moment you see nothing but water, and you get a little nervous.
The weather on the Bering Sea was the worst the fishmaster had seen in five years. During the most violent storm, in December, a trawler went down and the sinking was reported in the Seattle paper. A friend read the report and frantically called the fishing company, because she hadn’t heard from me in awhile, and she was told our ship was all right. I remember that storm. Under normal conditions, several trawlers could be seen around the ship, because our fishmaster’s expertise was well-known. But during the storm, I could see no ships in the distance. All of them had disappeared to seek sheltered waters, and we were alone. In all, during our three-month voyage, seven or eight ships of varying sizes sunk.
To my relief and surprise, I don’t suffer from seasickness, not even during the most violent weather. Several of my fellow crewmembers got sick as soon as the ship set sail but recovered after a few days. Some were OK as long as the motion remained relatively gentle but turned into vomit factories when the sea became rough. Seasickness must be a horrible thing. There is no escape from it. There is no corner of the ship where the sufferer can go and expect the rocking to stop. Crackers, fresh air and time are the only cures.
Whatever gods kept my stomach calm were not all-purpose gods. On the day we set sail, my lack of experience as a seaman almost caused me serious injury. I propped open a grate and proceeded down the ladder underneath it. The ship rocked a little and the grate fell back down. Unfortunately, my head hadn’t cleared the opening yet. The grate was made of steel and was heavy. What saved me from a fractured skull was probably that the grate didn’t have a chance to fall very far and build up full momentum before it introduced itself. But the impact caused me to stagger, and it raised a bump on my head the size of a ping-pong ball. I checked myself for double vision for the next several days.
Tendonitis was a common affliction among the ship’s crew, and I developed a case of it in my left elbow and hand. Repetitive work with the same twisting and bending motions day after day. Nothing to do but try to kill the pain.
Flu, or something causing flu-like symptoms, was also common. I caught this bug just before Thanksgiving and wasn’t able to shake it completely until I had been home for a few weeks. It was stubborn because I couldn’t stop working to recover. Ship regulations stated that anyone not reporting to work for any reason would be charged $100 per day “room and board.” The rule was made to prevent malingering, but it made no distinction between tired or lazy people and sick people, and there was no doctor on board to make the determination. There was only a ship’s officer dispensing drugs. You told him what you thought your problem was and he gave you something out of the medicine chest.
(Photos by Douglas Sundberg)