When I reconstitute the first week of the season I have to say that it probably was the worst week of my life. It feels like a big blur to me now. And in it, all I can see is prawns. Five days non-stop working resulted in 28 tons of prawns, but also caused three people to leave the boat and me ageing for probably five years. Enjoy my review of the first week of one of the hardest jobs in the world!
3, 2, 1 …. nets in the water!
Eight o’clock in the morning, april 1st: The season officially started and the nets were thrown in the water. About two hours later, the nets were full! Everybody on deck! Wow! So many prawns, so many fish! When the catch was released, it filled the hopper, even more, started to go over. Fish and prawns laying everywhere. Everything was moving and I had to watch out not to step on anything. And everybody was excited, like finding gold. In a way true, because one ton accounts for about A$200 for each Deckhand.
My work was simple: pick the prawns from the conveyer belt. Anything else went back to the ocean. I was wearing gloves to pick the prawns and it took a while for me to get into the flow. I was amazed by the speed the experienced fishermen would pick those prawns, I couldn’t even look that fast! I was excited at first to pick out the prawns passing by. But the joy of it was fading away quickly. While the prawns were being processed, the nets were back in the water, catching some more prawns that were released into the hopper again.
And all the time, I’m standing there, at the belt, picking prawns.
Your feet get sore, your arms full of rushes due to the prawns water. The heat of the day makes you sweat while the night makes you weary.
You wear two different type of gloves – rubber and cotton – that should protect you. There are many dangers on the conveyer belt, clamps that could make you squeak when catching your finger, same is also true for stingrays, some snake that were still alive, fish that could bite and also the prawns themselves that could sting you with their head. And then it happens once, twice – Outch! And you just get really really angry.
When only dead fish, occasional stingrays and small sharks show up, you get that sudden relief. Yes, the hopper is almost empty. Maybe I can go to sleep? But then you hear that crawling sound. It’s when the nets are pulled up to spill again and then it starts all over…
You really start cursing this fishing job. But you can’t back out. I was thinking:
Okay, it’s like a mind game, it’s like war. You just have to overcome that compulsive feeling in your head.
At night I was still standing there with all the others, picking prawns. At five am I was allowed to go to sleep because that’s when the hopper was finally empty. But on the other station there was still work to do. Two hours later, at 7 am, I was woken up again because …who would have guessed: prawns!
Good morning everybody!
I was quite joking about it… the others looked at me with raising eyebrows.
Good for you, we didn’t sleep at all!
It’s written on the backside of one of the beds. Erase that force in your head you want to sleep at night. Screw that. You won’t get any. Although I did get sleep – an average of two to three hours a night – the most of all. The deckies only had one hour a night and the skipper – well, we never stopped fishing.
My mental brake-down finally hit me on the night of day four.
I was standing at the conveyer with one foot because the other was swollen and I was sorting out prawns. I was doing the same thing for about 100 hours the last four days. Cook? Pfff…I was never really in the kitchen. (Basically, we lived on my prepared food that was warmed up.)
I was physically exhausted from standing too many hours. But it was my mind that struggled with concentration to pick out the prawns passing by with high speed. At 11 pm, I felt a blockage in my head. And the hopper was still full with couple tons of prawns.
I couldn’t help it but started crying like a waterfall, I couldn’t hold it back at all. I was able to calm myself having a little break, but after the second time I reckoned that this was my limit. The first maid send me in the process room to throw five kilo boxes down in the freezer instead. That was indeed nice for a change but I was moving like an old person. Although the others were as exhausted as I was, I was the only one being send to bed at 4 am. I couldn’t believe the conditions I was working for.
One man out
But it really turned unbearable when one of the deckies quit working (already on the second day). He was exhausted and was suffering from rushes. I had some nice skin irritation on my lower arms and armpits as well. Really itchy. It’s important to protect your skin, he wasn’t that precautions and mostly just worked in his shorts. So he obtained rushes all over his legs. In combination with no sleep and constantly switching to the freezer with temperatures below bearable, he refused to continue. Fair enough, it was a lot tougher for the deckies and they did sleep less than me. But then the work load had to be carried out by the remaining two deckies. While he was catching up that sleep we were all back on deck and the atmosphere just got worse with one man out – also, because he was still on the same boat. The first Maid was really angry about this and the rest of us could feel it. The tone was very rough and even though I wasn’t shouted at directly, the vibe was really going down and it made me feel horrible. It changed a little bit when the replacement showed up from another boat. Though guy, with a lot of energy. It was nice to get his presence, very jolly person and quite strong personality.
Big drama in the crew
But the good vibe only lasted a few hours. Besides my struggle with the work conditions it was even worse for the others. They hardly slept an hour each day – I think the skipper didn’t sleep at all since we left. The consequences were brutal.
I got scared when the youngest deckie was physically so exhausted he started to throw up on the forth day. He was in the – 40 degree freezer most of the time and his body was shaking and his arms swollen, unable to use without medical treatment. Even the new guy collapsed out of a heat stroke a few hours later. As I was seeing him shaking under the cold shower, the young one with all of his bandages incapable to hold boxes and the third deckie also confirming, he’s never seen anything like it, I had enough as well. I was joining the revolt against the skipper and the first Maid: we should all leave this boat and report the conditions! But who will care?
The skipper on the other hand told me that there is some acting involved as well. They want to get off the boat. It’s also the fault of the individual not to look after themselves in terms of protection from the water and freezing temperatures. He said: “This is a hard working boat! And people should know what they sign up for. This never happened before.”
What the hell was going on, who should I believe?
This physiological terror was worse than the physical exhaustion. I couldn’t understand at all what was going on. How far can you push yourself? What is real and what is exaggeration? And what are the alternatives? I go off, all this energy was for nothing. I stay, I might suffer again and go off later or it gets better and I get paid.
Yes, people who sign up for this have to bear things that seem to be unbearable. The skipper and the first maid wanted me to stay and told me that the conditions get better after a while. It didn’t sound much convincing to me but I also didn’t feel like I want to back out of this experience. In the end I decided to stay.
After five days we were back on shore for unload. Three deckies left the boat, shouting back at me “good luck!”. They were replaced by two new deckies. I fell asleep for nearly two days straight while the boat slowly went back to the ocean.