A kind of Barry Crump of the sea, AJ Peach has written a ripping memoir of his fishing life in his self-published book Roughy: Fishing the Mid-Ocean Ridges. The following excerpt sees our hero hook up with his old mate Stu, stop off at a stripclub in Wellington, and sign onto a Ukrainian fishing vessel.
Just past Hangi Tapu on a trip to Wheramoamoa, driving towards the Piko Valley north of New Plymouth, my cell phone started on a beeping shutdown and the car radio went through a static death. There was a tin bus shelter and a new concrete power pole with a new stock sign. Everything matched where I had been told to turn off.
I turned onto a clay-cut road with a good cover of river gravel. But after a kilometre, the road changed to a light cover of crusher-run and the sound of the chipped-rock hitting the car’s floor-pan suggested armour-piercing bullets.
The rutted road with no name had end-to-end hairpin bends and deep unavoidable potholes. On the low side of the road there were tractor skid-tracks in the mud leading to flattened gates. I thundered on in the drizzle, the mist, and the rain at 30kph.
Stu had told me he lived at the end of the road. The road crossed streams and washouts. Evidence of slips and repairs were everywhere. There were occasionally glimpses of grazed pasture grass beneath a canopy of manuka, and the ridge spurs were covered in pig fern.
Stu had said, “Stop at the first woolshed on the left. You’ll see the house from there. Mind the black cow on the road – it’s blind.”
Stu led an idyllic lifestyle. It was a mix of backcountry farming and far-ocean trawlers. He’d confided in me on a previous fishing trip that he thought women would like his backcountry lifestyle, but he was wrong. He’d been trying to find the ideal backcountry woman for a long time. He had charm but it hadn’t helped in his search for the lady of Broken Gate farm.
When the woolshed loomed out of the fog, the black blind cow leapt from the road.
Stu and I were due to fish a large Ukrainian vessel leaving for the Louisville Ridge from Lyttelton. Our sailing date was delayed when the Ukraine Government was slow to sign an International Agreement which would permit us to fish from New Zealand. Waiting for boats was something both of us could handle and we`d both done it many times. Waiting for an international agreement to be signed was new.
“There’s always work on the farm,” said Stu. We chipped, cut and mowed rushes while we waited. It was premium rushy country. Ditches and farm roads had disappeared under their spines.
When the agreement was ratified we travelled south in Stu’s farm truck. The truck had a tarp over a tray-load of things Stu thought he might need for the trip. He’d been secretive about his supplies but an inner-sprung mattress was hard to hide.
We ogled at girls as we passed through the populated areas. It was obvious we’d both been in the backblocks too long, and the fact we were off to sea didn’t help. Our rubbernecking was going to cause an accident so we set up a watch system whereby we took turns at driving on a town-by-town rotation in an effort to stay safe.
We waited overnight in Wellington to catch the inter-island ferry. We had our photos taken at the Blue Note with our arms around new-found friends of dubious gender. At a strip club across the road, we bought large glossy pics of ourselves with the stars and competed for lap dances, before heading to the early morning bars to wait for the ferry departure.
Soviet bloc fishing vessels were docked at all the major ports in New Zealand in 2002. They had a fascination factor and I always dreamed of working one of them. When the sombre-coloured Soviet trawlers are sitting against the wharf, they look like they’re in hibernation, and the attitudes of the crew suggests a Bleak Ship situation. However, when we arrived at the Lyttelton wharves, the Sapun Gora was bustling with activity and some of the crew were smiling.
But the Sapun Gora didn`t have any trawl-wire on the winch drums. Checking wire is compulsive for roughy fisherman. “What’s the wire like?” is the standard industry question whenever trawlers are discussed.
It’s a big job to put 2500 metres of wire on each drum while painting it every 50 metres with identifying marks. The wire has to be spooled onto the drums equally and tightly.
The net-master, Mishka, said the wire would be done by the morning and he added, “Measured and marked.” He was reassuring about his declaration so we offered to take him to lunch in Lyttleton. When we asked what type of food he liked, he answered, “Potatoes.”
We took him to a local buffet where potatoes were boiled, roasted, mashed, chipped, wedged, and served in salads. He was a man of his word. He dined on spuds for almost an hour. Mishka told us that Ukrainians were the biggest potato eaters in the world. He liked New Zealand potatoes and commented that it was good to have so many tasty varieties. Mishka wanted us to know that on the vessel, the potato peelings were strictly supervised, because the crew used them to brew vodka.
When we returned to the vessel, we were confronted with the language difficulties we would have on the trip. A deck hand asked us questions about wire configuration and paint markings. The questions needed a great deal of interpretation to decipher and answer. We had established one, two, three was adyn, divois, tree but little else before the Sapun Gora`s interpreter arrived. He quickly resolved the problems before leading us on a tour of the boat.
The deck crews were big men. As we left the deck, the deckies were using derricks to move huge stacks of mid-water nets. It’s always a good sight, seeing large loads shifted with double-derrick teamwork. The pivoted-arms were swinging as if to handshake and a bosun was conducting their movement with lazy hand signals.
Mid-water fishing is the Ukrainian forte. Some of their nets have 20 bridles and 40 metres of headline height. They are the sort of nets that could contain a building the size of a fish factory.
The Sapun Gora had a big wheelhouse with full width windows that gave a hunter’s platform view. On the portside of the bridge deck was a large four-person couch. The interpreter explained this would be our fishing station when the electronics were set in place. The thought of working from a couch of such magnitude, even if it was shabby, was novel.
I couldn’t resist giving the faded seat on the couch a flat palm slap to feel the comfort level. The impulse had a bad result. It created a plume eruption of dust and from the corner of my eye I noticed an officer with a worried brow sloping off to the furthermost corner of the wheelhouse. The plume was probably asbestos dust. All the trawlers had asbestos insulation falling out of the bulkheads.
The wheelhouse scullery was a cockroach feeding-ground and the bugs seemed to salute with their feelers while they patrolled the area. Sea folk have enough stories to clog up a small IT network about ships and roaches. On this vessel, they reached an ugly size and walked around like miniature dinosaurs. The Ukrainians ignored the roaches and put lids on their cups to save any annoyance.
Many of the crew were overly dressed in designer clothing, but the showy garments were the products of Ukrainian sweatshops. They earned meagre wages. A Ukrainian fisherman’s typical tour of duty is 11 months away from home and the pay equates to $US8000. Our guide said, “They can buy a new Lada car with one year’s pay.”
The officer’s dining mess was on an upper level with a dumb waiter connecting it to the galley. It had silver cutlery and starched linen tablecloths. The embroidered napkins were folded like fans and reminiscent of colonial splendour.
The crew’s mess was down deck level. It was large enough to seat 80 on fixed wooden bench-seats. The tables were covered with sunflower-patterned plastic covers. On each table, there was a double-loaf pile of hot fresh-baked bread and a big block of New Zealand butter.
The table by the entrance door was the centre of attention. It held two 20-litre soup pots full of borscht, which the crew dipped into as they passed. Paper towels were everywhere – slurping borscht can be messy in any sea conditions. For me borscht was both a word and a dish that was a new experience. I took an instant liking to the name and feeding ritual.
We were shown our cabin. It had a porthole, and under and over single bunks. Stu took the lower bunk because it was easier to fit the inner-sprung mattress he trucked from Taranaki.
The mate guided us down a long dimly lit passageway. The walkway was painted in a pale yellow and our progress was like a saunter in the moonlight. At the end of the corridor he introduced us to the laundry woman. She was surrounded by hillocks of wet laundry in a brightly lit room full of large stainless-steel machinery. I was dumbstruck by the size of her arms. They were enormous upper and lower muscles attached to hands that could hide a basketball. If the laundry machinery broke down, she would have no problems doing the washing by hand. She was in sole charge of the laundry for the crew.
“Level three, Tuesday, all washing,” she said with a pleasant accented voice
Stu said, “They pull the sheets out from under you if you don’t put them out to wash on the day they want them.” He was flirting with the washerwoman, flashing his best come-on smile. He was the only man I knew who could have done that and got away with it. She postured disdainfully with the massively muscular hands of toil and returned the eye contact. You could see the man from Wheramoamoa had her attention.
Stu was resourceful. He was a man who could break a gate in half, and then half-fix it in a hurry. He was also a man who flirted with any woman, undaunted by size or conventional beauty. He managed to get the laundress` name from the guide and used it as often as he could. He was on a charm siege, but she just smiled pleasantly and said, “Level three, Tuesday, all washing.”
We were shown the shower room. It was obvious it doubled as a delousing chamber and the lead linings suggested it could be used for a radiation wash-down. A group of naked men were soaping each other down under micro-jets of water while the cleaning lady mopped the floor in front of them.
Her size and swabbing action made the passageway impassable. She was a collusus, twice the size of laundress, yet she was muscularly well-proportioned in a steroid sort of way. Stu was in love again and he struck up an eye-play with her too.
At the time, the Kursk submarine tragedy occupied the thoughts and conversations of the Ukrainian officers. Many of the dead had been friends and acquaintances of the Sapun Gora crew.
The captain was thickset and had the manner of a street brawler. His deck officers became servile in his presence. Stories of near mutiny are common when these ships are discussed but the captain appeared to be in command of a very tight ship.
We sailed after the morning meetings. There was no chitchat or polite conversation in the wheelhouse when we left our berth. The bridge became an “orders only” precinct. The nautical orders were relayed from pilot to helmsman through the interpreter. Then a high-level bridge officer reported the helmsman had repeated the order correctly. When the vessel cleared the outer harbour, we gave the captain a course to steer. He immediately told the helmsman and he told the radio operator, who in turn told people ashore. It became obvious a chain-of-command drove the vessel.
It’s a big job to keep a big boat and a net on target and it needs teamwork, and fear – the fear of letting the team down, and the captain got gripped by it. Sweat poured from his forehead in rivulets and he used a very large and impressively spotlessly clean handkerchief to wipe away his sweat-rivers. He did it every day, twice a day, in four hour shifts.
Every night there was a ritual, whereby the factory-foreman arrived at the wheelhouse with the completed daily tally sheet. He passed the handwritten totals to the factory manager who disappeared into an office cabin and re-appeared with typed paperwork. The typed paper was then signed and witnessed by both foreman and manager. The factory manager passed the typed page with a Ukrainian grunt to the senior bridge-officer. The officer perused it and with a deeper Ukrainian grunt, passed it to the captain, who read it, paused theatrically, and then shook it impatiently in the air for the underling of the moment to pluck it out of his hands. We witnessed this ritualistic chain of grunts on a daily basis.
The paperwork was passed on to the senior radio officer. The radio officer continued the process of “read and grunt” before retiring to one of the radio rooms and sending the details onto the shoreside management.
We were catching fish in small parcels but the roes didn’t appear to be ripening. We needed a break to catch up on sleep because the non-stop fishing had exhausted us. We`d slept while the gear was being hauled and we were woken when it was 500 metres deep on the next predetermined tow. We were getting an hour of sleep every four hours and we had been on this sleep pattern for three weeks. It’d been hard work mentally, but the reward was a payload. We’d caught 100 tonnes of fish.
On June 28, the officers celebrated what they said was “Ukrainian Fishermen’s Constitution Day”. We learnt it had been a venerable celebration since 1996. The celebration was a time for the officers to get drunk and the crew to get jealous. Two of the protégés were left on watch and the rest of the upper deck swanned drunkenly around them.
That night in the crew’s mess there was a feast of fresh Orange Roughy roe. The roe was spread on doorsteps of fresh bread and the word “caviar” accompanied grins and gluttony.
We found a new spawing area in a siding valley beside a rock pile. It was a typical spawn spot, with side-echo and mud to confuse echo-signals. There was a nearby pinnacle for egg distribution and a salient and a canyon facing a major upwelling from the abysmal sea depths.
Within a short time we put 100 tonnes in the hold. We were starting to dream and feel excited. After the second day of good catches the tired chain-of-grunts was replaced with animated conversation and busy footsteps. The bridge officers were in conference and the stoic faces were replaced with open smiles for the first time that trip. We thought we were about to get pats on the back and thanks for the catch. We were on top of the world.
Then we received the mother of all bombshells. The boat, our interpreter explained, must head back to Lyttleton immediately because the hoki season had started. We were required to break off our hunt at the harvest stage. The Ukrainian crew were happy because they got a better bonus for hoki fishing , but the new plan cost Stu and myself a pay bonanza.
If Stu hadn’t been so good at doing it, I could have taken out my frustration by punching walls. Stu’s wall punching skills had the benefit of a decade of karate lessons. The Ukrainian kick-boxing champion, who practised outside in any sea or weather, said he thought Stu “punctured steel very good.” He offered Stu his heavy workout bag but Stu didn’t let up on his wall punching sessions.
Stu started kicking things and swearing. He had reason enough but it had the officers looking sideways, and the Ukrainian kickboxing champion moved his training area onto the wheelhouse roof.
His mood was considerably improved when the factory crew, after they’d finished cleaning the vessel, called on Stu and assailed him with photos of blondes. They all had smiles and comely looks, and the men swore that any one of them would marry a backcountry farmer in New Zealand.
Stu’s mind was released from its disappointed state. He copied names, pronunciations, phone numbers, and addresses all day.
When the massive cleaning lady came to see Stu, he copied down her details, too, and gave her the inner-sprung mattress he trucked from the Taranaki. They smiled at each other wickedly and Stu gave her the last packs of his three-ply super soft. There were things the man from Wheramoamoa might follow up on.
Roughy: Fishing the Mid-Ocean Ridges by AJ Peach (Bach Books, ISBN 978-0-473-25757-6) is a bloody good book and it’s well worth your while tracking down a copy.
The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.
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