"Board at own risk" read the sign on the hull of the 70ft fishing vessel, Atlantic Charger. I paused for a moment after reading the warning, but what’s an adventure without a little risk, I thought. We were heading out to catch shrimp on board Brad Watkin’s new boat and I was eager to see offshore fishing in action. I had covered many fishery stories as a reporter, interviewed many fishermen in harbours and on land but this was my first full fledged fishing trip. Brad’s vessel was the only one in Newfoundland and Labrador with a twin or double trawl for shrimp and that latest technology was a great hook for a show on CBC's Land & Sea. So off we went, cameraman, audio man and me, on a 5 day cruise on the unpredictable North Atlantic.
We left from the wharf in Bridgeport and pointed our bow in a north easterly direction. The shrimping grounds were 130 nautical miles in front of us and it would take a 12 hour steam to reach our destination. As the sun went down that first evening on board, I remember feeling a little case of the nerves. The last point of land we had seen was Twillingate hours before. All we could see around us now was clear, blue ocean. There wasn’t another boat in sight. It was humbling and invigorating all at the same time. Here we were, at the mercy of the sea. I had to keep my mind from wandering back to that sign on the hull, never mind the huge skull and cross swords painted on the bow. I didn’t catch much shut-eye that first night. There was the worry, the loud incessant drone of the engine and the wave action tossing me around like a rag doll. But, when the sun came up the next morning, any fear I had was gone. I felt lucky to have this insider's view of the life of a fisherman for better or for worse. I climbed down from my bunk, plugged in the kettle and poured up a tea in a tall black mug. “Live to Fish. Fish to Live” was written on one side, on the other, the skull and cross swords. “Argghhhh," I said quietly to myself. I was on board in body and mind now. Bring on the shrimp!
Brad and the crew were worried about our sea legs but more specifically our sea stomachs. They advised us to take a gravol, for motion sickness, but we’re a pretty resilient bunch and it wasn’t long before we proved ourselves worthy company for these seasoned seadogs. They were ready to haul in the nets and so we took our places on deck with our camera and waited for the bounty. Brad’s double trawl consisted of 2 long nets that stretched out like giant socks behind the boat. Most vessels only had 1 and so a second net meant a faster catch rate, fuel savings and higher quality shrimp landed days earlier than they had been able to do before. When the first big bag swung in over the stern, our eyes widened. A crewman tugged on a line to release the catch and a wave of bright pink, northern shrimp spilled out into the hold. Watch:
By the time both nets were completely emptied, 12 thousand pounds of shrimp had joined us on board. They shot the nets out again and towed for another five hours. That’s how it went for three days straight - 5 hour tows, 1 hour spent hauling in the catch and a couple more hours packing the shrimp away in ice. These men were up and down like the movement of the waves. They were in and out of their bunks and in and out of sleep dozens of times in 72 hours. “It’s hard work,” one of the crewmen told me. “You get a good nap when you get back onshore."
While sleep was scarce, food was not. These men ate like kings. Brad Watkins was as at home in the kitchen as he was at the wheel of his vessel. There was barbecued ribs, turkey dinners with all the fixin’s and homemade bread every morning. One evening we came into the galley to find a big bowl of freshly steamed shrimp. We each took a plate and began to peel. These scrumptious crustaceans were like nothing I’ve tasted before. It was the sweetest white meat, more like lobster than any prawn I’d eaten. The Asian market, where Brad’s catch of 75 thousand pounds of shrimp was destined, was in for a treat.
My favourite memory from our trip was our last evening on board. The hold was overflowing with shrimp and the crew and our cameraman had all gone below deck to bag the catch. The audio man and I hauled on our oilskins and grabbed gloves and shovels. We spent hours pushing shrimp into a square opening for the fishermen to catch below. We tossed the small amount of bycatch - capelin, sculpins and other odd looking creatures - into the ocean. Gannets and seagulls soared and squawked and dove into the water all around us gobbling up the free fare. As the sun set, I inhaled lungful after lungful of salty sea air. I imagined that this was the kind of moment that hooked sea farers for life. During any interview I had ever done with any fisherman anywhere, at some point they would invariably say “I’ve got salt water in my veins.” I now know the scene they were picturing in their minds. The salt water hadn't made it into my veins but it had definitely seeped more deeply into my skin.
Our time on board was a pleasure from start to finish. We were lucky with bright sunny days and fairly calm seas. September in Newfoundland, after all, can bring hurricane force winds. “You had it pretty civil”, one of the crew told us. He was right about that. We were on board for five days but these men had been fishing steadily for five months. We disembarked with a new respect for fishermen and the work they do under difficult conditions, in a challenging environment. We took a group photo on the wharf in front of the boat. We said our goodbyes, hugged and shook hands. As we loaded up our van, I looked back at the skull and cross swords and the warning sign “Board at own risk”. We landlubbers tend to dwell on the danger that goes along with this livelihood. There’s no doubt, it can be perilous but fishing offers excitement and freedom too. The mug summed it all up beautifully. “Live to Fish. Fish to Live.”
If you've never been shrimp fishing on a long liner, my photos might give you a sense of what that kind of trip might be like. Please find them in the gallery.
And watch for the story on CBC's Land & Sea at www.cbc.ca/landandseanl
NOTE: That story has since aired on CBC Television. Fishing for a Future.