48 hours on an albacore troller.
An editorial photo documentary for Naturally Danny Seo Magazine
I was excited about the trip but I was truly worried about seasickness. I had to work on this boat and I couldn’t afford hanging over the side of it for the majority of the journey. Past experiences had also taught me that looking through a viewfinder of a camera while on a boat can bring on seasickness rather quickly. All preparations for this trip had been dominated by finding a solution to the seasickness problem.
When I reached Newport on the beautiful Oregonian coast I had no idea if I was to go on the boat that evening or the next morning. I met with my liaison and we photographed some food containing Albacore tuna at a local seafood restaurant. The story I was photographing was about fishing Albacore sustainably and without by-catch. When Captain Jeremiah O’Brien, the man that was taking me on his boat, joined the table I immediately felt his prolific energy. A man in his 70’s, gray hair and a wrinkled, weather beaten but handsome face with piercing blue eyes staring out from it. There was charm and there was experience and there was hierarchy in his presence. I knew that I could trust him and that he would make for some incredible portraits out there.
By the time we left an Irish pub later that evening it was dark. We had decided to leave before sunrise the next morning and I had secured a hotel room last minute. When I arrived at the lobby there was nobody there. I looked around and finally a man appeared and greeted me happily.
“You must be Jonas!” We have been waiting for you, I just closed the office.”
The room was a two story suite but it was late and I only had a few hours to sleep. I stood by the window for a couple of minutes staring out to sea, aware that I would be out there very soon. I was worried that I would be completely miserable. Cold, wet and barfing. Sleeping below deck at night and having to throw up all night. That was probably the thing I feared most, the night. During the day I could hang over the railing but not at night. My glimmer of hope was that the weather was predicted to be very calm so I crept into bed and went to sleep, worried and anxious about barfing for 48 hours straight.
It was dark when my alarm woke me. Everything was packed and ready to go, I just had to put on my clothes. I stared out to sea again. The light came up right when we left the dock and I climbed on the upper deck and stood there with Jeremiah. It was a beautiful morning. He was wearing an orange sweater that stood out from the blue morning and I took a bunch of photos. We tuckered under the bridge that was part of the 101 freeway and let all the way down to my house in California. The diesel engine humming along.
Jeremiah explained the speed we were going to be traveling on. Once the engine was revving above a certain rpm the fuel consumption would skyrocket making it very uneconomical. Hence the 12 hour trip out to the fishing grounds about 60 miles off shore. We left the safety of the harbor jetty and the boat immediately started rocking a lot more. I went back down to the lower deck and the fisherman showed me how to move around the boat. He pointed out the color of the water, grayish-opaque, and said that once we were out a little bit more it would turn to a beautiful translucent, dark blue. That’s when the lines would go out in the water.
This boat was a troller. The idea being to catch Albacore and nothing else, no by-catch, or at least minimal by-catch. The lines went out as soon as the water turned the desired color. We were going a slight bit faster and the boat was gently rocking, engine grumbling from below. There were six lines, three on each side. They all fed into a system that not only separated them but also was rigged to a bell which would ring once a fish bit. The line could then be placed into a pulley which pulled it in, making it a lot easier and faster. Two pulleys, one on each side of the back of the boat. The fisherman told me that sometimes, when it was good, the bell wouldn’t stop ringing and it was a mad dash pulling in fish, lifting them on board, cutting their throats and releasing the line back into the water where it would immediately get bit on again while other lines were being pulled in.
Nothing of that sort was happening for the first few hours of our journey. What was happening was that I started feeling incredibly sleepy. There was nothing to do. The back deck was noisy and exposed and the only place to sit was on the railing on the very back of the boat. Comfort level 1. Jeremiah showed me how they used computer models for surface temperatures, weather and location and I realized very quickly that looking at a computer screen in the small little cabin while the boat was rocking all over the place was a bad idea. I sat down on a ledge that could qualify as a seat right by the door to the cabin. This way I could look out and got fresh air. Sitting in the little dining nook was no option, I knew. Then the bell rang. I jumped up with my cameras, which I was holding the whole time and ran outside. The fisherman pulled in the first Albacore! I was excited! He hooked it with a long hook and chucked it onto a platform on the back of the boat, pulled out a knife and slid it’s throat. Blood spraying all over the place while the fish was flapping uncontrollably. Flap, flap, flap, flap. He slid down the platform and into a holding area where he kept flapping and dying. There was blood everywhere. It smelled of it. It smelled of fish and diesel and the blood mixed with the water on deck and my shoes got soaked with it. This is when I first started feeling a little sick. So I retreated back to sitting by the door in the cabin, feet stinking of fish blood and salt water.
I sat there for a couple of hours. For most of it feeling like I was really drunk, wanted to go to sleep but every time I closed my eyes started feeling like throwing up. The worst. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. They just wouldn’t do it. Finally I felt the motion sickness overcome me and I yacked over the side of the boat. It woke me and it sobered me up. I stood there for a moment wiping gunk of my mouth with the sleeve of my jacket and thought to myself: “Ok, here we go!”
Amazingly after that episode I was totally fine. No more motion sickness at all. I have no idea if it was the fact that all the fear and anticipation had gone once the barfing had actually happened. Maybe it was mental and I needed to just get it out. It didn’t matter I felt fantastic from then on and started to enjoy the whole thing. Fish started biting and blood was spraying and I was moving around my feet getting soaked in more blood water. I felt perfect. Jeremiah told me that the throwing up had gotten it out of my system and he was glad to see me doing much better. He made us a nice lunch and I was actually able to eat it.
We started catching fish and the fisherman kept reeling them in and when they were dead transported them down into the belly of the boat to freeze them. A sud of frigidly cold salt water was spraying around down there instantly freezing anything. Saltwater freezes at much lower of a temperature so it was the agent to use. The fisherman had me pull-in a couple of fish and that felt pretty good.
The day progressed, the boat slowly but surely humming along and I learned that it’s windows got blown out on the way up to Oregon from Morro Bay, California during a storm. They were hit by a large wave and it took out all the front windows, soaked the cabin and ruined the electronics on the dash. They had to turn around and go back to a port where they could get the windows replaced. The radio was still not fully functional. Jeremiah explained how him and his group of fisherman communicate over different frequencies to avoid other groups of fisherman finding their fishing grounds. That radio was now only able to send and not receive. Every time Jeremiah checked-in with his buddies he had to speak into one radio and receive on a separate system which would only receive. Had it been a different man telling me all this while I was out on this 30 something foot, clanky old fishing boat that wasn’t able to communicate right, didn’t have a bathroom and generally just didn’t impress me on safety standards I probably would have been rather concerned. But Jeremiah was a wise man. He had this combination of seriousness, experience and getting it done attitude mixed with childish ignorance that balanced him and instilled a lot of trust.
We caught a good amount of fish that day and were in good spirits when the light faded and Jeremiah eventually turned off the engine for the day. The change in noise was abrupt and incredibly pleasing. It was quiet, peaceful. I wondered how we were going to maintain our position and not just drift away and was told that we were going to drift. The key was to make sure you were outside of two miles from any other boat. I was perplexed. Jeremiah told me to use his bunk and that he was going to sleep in the cabin. I protested but was shut down. I crawled below deck and into the small bed. The fisherman above me in a even smaller bunk. All the fear of sleeping on the boat while motion sick gone, I was fine and slept good.
We woke before sunrise and there wasn’t any time wasted. I mounted my camera up high on the boat and got some cool long exposures of the boat during magic hour and was in very good spirits. The relieve of not being sea sick was exhilarating.
Before I knew it the lines were back out and we started going. The hum of the engine again penetrating my ears. Jeremiah told a story about peeing off the side of the boat one morning and realizing that a whale was hanging out right next to the boat, seemingly sleeping.
I spent a lot of time with the fisherman who was an Ex-Marine. He didn’t go into detail but said that he had dealt with PTSD and started support groups for fellow Marines dealing with PTSD. He also went into gun ownership. My position on guns is more or less that there shouldn’t be any and here I was on a tiny boat with a complete gun nut. At first I was sort of excited to be able to hear his side of the story and maybe learn something, understand the mentality. But after hours of him praising guns and me observing the complete lack of recognition of cues I was giving him on my position I felt only affirmed in my believe that gun proponents’ beliefs are rather rigid. It was actually scary to see him talk about shooting, the way he obsessed about it and how it consumed him. I liked him, we spent a lot of time together and he was incredibly nice to me. We were not going to become friends though, that was obvious to me after the gun conversation.
The journey back to port seemed to be dragging on forever. The boat was just so slow, it was painful. When we finally docked and got off the boat and eventually said our good bye’s I sat in my rental car for a minute in disbelief. I had to collect my thoughts and emotions. I felt a great sense of achievement. Not really of a physical or mental quest but of a quest of endurance, enduring suffering. I had gone into this with full understanding that I would likely be suffering badly for the trip and I had still done it. I committed and I endured. It felt great!
Later that evening I went on a long beach walk and kept stopping, looking out towards the horizon, noticing little lights from the fishing boats way out there and felt very happy to be standing in the sand on the beach.