23 December 2013

Pitching Fish

It was the fifth boat of the day. I was crouched in the corner of the ship hold, my hard hat pressed against the ceiling. Beneath us were thousands of pounds of halibut and black cod hidden under ice.

"Send down the weapons! Send down the weapons!" Jorge shouted up to crane operator.

The large metal bucket containing plastic shovels and ice picks descended into the hold.

We each took a shovel or ice pick and started to break apart the ice and shovel the chunks into the bucket. Hunched over in the cramped space it was difficult to work quickly.

The bucket filled and Jorge shouted, "Cease fire, men! Cease fire!" He shouted at the crane operator, "Up! Up! Up!"

The bucket craned up out of the hold. We continued to break apart the ice with our shovels and picks.

"Coming down! Coming down!"

I looked up and the bucket was coming down through the opening and I crawled to the side. We filled the bucket with ice. We filled buckets with ice until we dug down to the black cod. The next empty bucket came down and the Filipinos started pitching black cod into it.

"Cod! Cod!" Shouted Jorge.

There were black cod flying over your head, behind you, past your face. You dug through the ice and grabbed them around the tail, one in each hand and pitched them two at a time into the bucket. You gripped them hard or they slipped from your hands. You pitched them as fast as you could.

We pitched the center of the hold so that the bucket descended to the floor. Then we pitched the sides. My clothes were drenched with sweat under my raingear. The level of fish had dropped and I was able to stand up.

We worked through the twenty-five thousand pounds of black cod and reached the halibut. The halibut you grabbed under the chin where they were gutted, or by the tail if they were smaller, and heaved the big flat fish into the bucket. The big ones needed two guys to lift them and a few had to be roped through the mouth and craned out.

We finished pitching the halibut and shoveled the last ice off the bottom of the hold and we climbed up onto the deck. It was cloudy and the light was fading. Beyond the bay were black clouds over the snowcapped mountains. A storm was blowing in from the Pacific.

We weren't on break for long when the crew chief came in and told us there were seven more boats to pitch. Breaks would be short for the rest of the day. It was time to go back out. We quietly pulled on our raingear.

It was dark now and the wind was blowing a gale. Sleet stung at my face. I put on my life jacket and hard hat and descended the ladder onto the boat with the others. A deckhand positioned a floodlight to shine into the hold. One side was a bin of black cod and the other was halibut. There was little ice. I lowered myself down and climbed atop the black cod. We waited quietly. Jorge yelled for the bucket.

The bucket came down and we began pitching black cod into it. The gusting winds rocked the boat and we often lost our footing and fell. We worked down through the cod and pulled the bin boards and handed them up to the deckhand. We filled bucket after bucket. Then we started on the halibut.

As the first bucket of halibut lifted out of the hold, the boat rocked hard and slammed against the dock piles. I grabbed a bin board to keep from falling, and something fell into the hold and hit Jorge and he went down. The little Mexican lay face down not moving. Next to him was a big halibut, at least a hundred pounder. The bucket was twenty feet above us, swinging wildly in the wind. One of the Mexicans talked to him in Spanish. Jorge mumbled something about his tomato farm in Mexico.

We didn't touch him. After a few minutes he sat up on his own. The halibut had glanced off the back of his hardhat and landed on his lower back. Two of the Mexicans got out of the hold and we passed Jorge up to them. They helped him to the infirmary and we finished pitching the halibut.

After the next boat, two Filipinos quit and went back to their rooms. It was very cold and the wind and sleet pounded the last boats. There were only four of us pitching. I didn't feel my toes. My hands hurt so much I could hardly grip the cod to pitch them. Nobody said anything. The pitching went very slowly. We didn't finish the last boat until after two o'clock in the morning.


Post a Comment

Copyright © S O U T H