The Catch, Pt. 5: The 85-hour workweek

Part 5 of my uncle Mike Sutter’s journal from a factory fishing trawler in the Bering Sea
By Mike Sutter | The Bering Sea | 1988
Doug and I share a starboard cabin that is close to 10 feet long by 8 feet wide. It is a two-man cabin (most hold four) and is on the trawl deck, above the noise and away from the stench and slime of the factory on the deck below us. The only thing we have to contend with is the rattle of the nets being hauled in and sent out, and this ceased to be a problem after awhile. The cabin has two bunk beds, a porthole, a short couch, a small table, a sink and a medicine chest and a surprisingly ample amount of storage space. The toilets and showers are down the hall. The galley is just up a stairway.
I work from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Six on, six off. During my time off I have to eat, clean up and attend to personal business, so I rarely get more than four hours’ sleep between shifts. I work in the IQF (Individual Quick Frozen) department.
My job is to pack fillets into boxes. I work in a room that is cold enough to turn water on the floor into slush, so I have to dress warmly. I’m usually comfortable except for my hands. Encased only in rubber gloves and thin liners, they are usually numb by the time my shift ends, not from the cold air but from hauling frozen fish for six hours.
Every third or fourth day, if the workload warrants it, I take my turn working a “kick-shift” of three and a half extra hours after my normal shift is completed. There are two shifts. My shift has a slightly better schedule mealwise, because I can sit and relax after breakfast and supper, while the other shift has free time only after lunch. Doug and I work on opposite shifts, allowing us privacy and more uninterrupted sleep than we would get if both of us were in our small room at the same time. I look forward to going to my quarters after each shift and closing the door. It allows me to shut myself off. A brief means of escape from the unpleasantness I have to face in the factory twice each day.
Nineteen days out and we finally get a safety briefing and are shown where the lifeboats are and told what to do in case of emergency.
Our clothes are washed for us once per week. We have individual lockers in the changing room of the factory, with hooks to hang our rain gear and pipes that emit warm air and dry out the insides of our rubber boots. The changing room is very cramped and usually filthy. And it stinks. The entire factory reeks of old fish. When I come from my quarters and open the door of the changing room, a wave of foul air rushes out and briefly nauseates me. After a few seconds in the room it is no longer noticed. It’s when I come into it from the fresh air that it is overpowering, It is a stench so concentrated that it is almost sweet.
I’m not a wimp, and I don’t mind working hard, but this 85 hours a week stuff is not for me. And I don’t like being cut off from the world for so long. I didn’t find out who the new president was until two days after the election.
The only time we can be reasonably assured of a few hours to ourselves is when we are in port and the offloading is finished. We have extra time to sleep or go into town and buy personal supplies or get drunk. Drinking in port is a sailing tradition. I participate in this ritual one time. The date is Oct. 26. The first offload is completed. I think of sleeping, but hell, this is Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands, so it is something I must do. I take a taxi to the Unisea, a bar that isn’t fancy but functional. Pool tables, Rainier beer, live music, a dance floor. It is crowded and lively, but tamer, I am told, than the Elbow Room, another bar in town. The Elbow Room is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the third roughest bar in the world. A fight breaks out there on an average of every eight minutes. I am curious about the place, but I like my face the way it is. I’ve kind of gotten used to the way it’s arranged.
I know I would get stomped on at the Elbow Room. I am a larger-than-average individual, and my dark features make me appear tough to people sometimes, but I know that my tough appearance has absolutely no foundation in fact. I also know that no one at the Elbow Room bar would be aware of this and that I would be challenged as soon as I stepped through the door. So the Unisea suits me fine.
Besides, the rest of my ship’s crew is here. The processors, the mates, the foremen, the technicians, the cooks, the laundry mistress, the fishmaster, the quality-control people are all here swilling beer. There are a lot of mean-looking hardcases from the other ships in the harbor, too, but to my relief there is a lot of politeness being displayed, or a lot of apathy, which is just as good. Johnny the Norwegian says to me, “Look how skinny my arms are, but I bet you 10 bucks I can beat you arm-wrestling.” I know that arm-wrestling is as much a matter of technique as strength, but Johnny’s arms are skinny and I outweigh him by 30 pounds, so I think I can win despite any technique he might have. He beats me and I give him my money. I look around and wander around and everybody is having a helluva good time. The lights go on. Please leave, we have to close. So everyone is milling around, getting ready to leave.
All of a sudden I hear a commotion, with screaming and hollering and chairs hitting the floor. I know it’s a fight, but for the entertainment of us all, it’s between two women from our ship. I see hair being pulled and hear a lot of “you b----“es.
The women are pulled apart and everyone is hustled outside by armed security guards. One guy says to one of the combatants, “take it easy,” and he is rewarded for his peacemaking efforts with a kick in the crotch the likes of which I have never seen. It is beautiful for its swiftness and accuracy. The guy just stands there, rock-still, with his arms at his sides, his feet close together. I am sure that if I moved closer, I would see a little moisture on his brow and a tightness to his lips and a glaze in his eyes. The next peacemaker gets a slap in the face, and the third reports for work the next day with bright-red, bear-like claw marks on his face.
I am just a spectator, but I’m hustled into a taxi with everyone else from the ship, and the driver is ordered to “get these people outta here.” Too close for me. Next time I go somewhere else. I’m not much of a drinker anyway.
(TOP PHOTOS: The fishing nets go out empty and come back stuffed as full as sausage links with pollock and cod. INSET PHOTO: My uncle Mike Sutter working the ship's Individual Quick Frozen station, where rock-hard frozen pollock fillets are dropped onto conveyor belts for packing into boxes bound for restaurants. Photos by Douglas Sundberg)