A half-moon shone in the 10 a.m. sun in the parking lot outside the fuel dock at the Ventura Harbor—that was until the fat old man in sweatpants tugged the worn elastic band back over his hairy ass. After a week and a half of walking the docks for work and sleeping on a beach my future in the southern Californian, squid fishery was presented to me in the cloudy slate eyes and black-toothed grin of a cranky old man trying to repair a 1979 Dutsun pickup.
“Sorry boys, we don’t have any work for you but talk to Turk, his boat needs a little work before it’s ready for the season,” said a Canadian skipper who landed the nickname Catch ‘em all Paul for having boasting to have caught all the fish there was to catch in Canada.
After some chitchat between the skippers I was dropped off with Turk. His self-proclaimed ‘grizzly bear paw of a hand’ had trouble fitting into the cracks of the small engine so my friend AW and I took over the task of installing a new water pump in a truck that was barely worth saving. He then brought us to his boat that was tied up at the fuel dock. There I met the Miss Deception, a 38-foot Kodiak beach seiner converted into a light boat.
Squid fishing in California is primarily done at night with light boats and full-purse seiners. Chinese immigrants to the Monterey Bay area were the first to develop the practice of using light to attract schools of spawning squid. They would hang torches and wire baskets burning wood at night from the sides of their row boats and would drop nets into the water to bring up squid. Most of the squid caught by the early Chinese fishers were dried and exported to Asia. Over the years the California fisheries were continually enhanced by the adaptations brought by immigrants. In the early twentieth century Sicilians brought the lampara net to the Monterey Bay, followed by the introduction of the purse seine by Yugoslavian and Italian immigrants in southern California.
Fast forward to the twenty-first century and light boats equipped with high-powered lights pointed toward the water and sonar to track down squid. Squid are attracted to the light and will rise to the surface. The large purse seine boats with strong hydraulic winches then circle the light boat and the squid with a quarter-mile long net.
I had quit a modestly paying—yet secure—job writing news for a small newspaper in Salinas, California to pursue work in the seemingly lucrative squid fishing industry. I had nearly 100 grand of student debt hanging over my head and was about to default after I had used up all my forbearance and deferments. I couldn’t afford my job when I had Citibank hounding me for $1,250 a month. AW, my old friend from college who had fished for salmon in Alaska the previous five summers, talked me into the idea. Granted, I was broke and feeling restless, so I ignored the possibility of failure and latched onto the idea.
AW and I had been invited to breakfast with two skippers earlier that morning. The breakfast turned out to be shots of wheatgrass and fruity smoothies at Jamba Juice. After waking up mildly hungover, cold and covered in dew on the beach we met up with Captain Mike who ran the dangerously dilapidated vessel. We had a more common breakfast of eggs and bacon in mind as we hopped into Catch ‘em all Paul’s brand new Ford F-250 Super Cab.
“How’s Jamba Juice sound boys?” he said in a gruff voice not waiting for an answer. He quickly turned his attention to a surfer putting on his wetsuit in the parking lot. Paul slowed his roll and stared down the surfer. As he passed he made direct eye contact and growled, “Fucking idiot,” and then sped off.
Both captains knew we were searching for jobs, but they showed little interest in our search. They seemed to be throwing two dogs a bone in the form of fruity smoothies. AW mentioned he thought he may have a job on one of the highliners of the fleet. To that Captain Mike responded, “That’s like saying you’re fucked before you’ve left the bar.”
Paul stopped sipping his double shot of wheat grass and said, “I don’t say I’m fucked until there’s white fluid squirting out of the tip of my cock.” He then downed the wheat grass, crumpled the cup in his hand and threw it into the trash. “Let’s go!” he then commanded.
When they asked me if I knew anyone else in the squid fishery I mentioned MF Doug, who I had met through AW.
“Oh you mean Tweaker Doug?!” Mike responded. “I once saw that guy take five grand he earned one week and drop it all on a big rock of cocaine. You probably shouldn’t drop his name around these parts, it won’t help your cause.”
On the ride back to the harbor AW mentioned to Mike—following our original plan—that he should fire his crew of tweakers and wannabe gangsters and hire us on as deck hands. Mike shook his head with a laugh, “They may not look like much,” he said, “but they get the job done.”
Minutes later, we were left with Turk. After installing the water pump—that I would later find out didn’t fix the problem when I had to repeatedly push the fat man in the small truck after it stalled from overheating—we encountered the aforementioned Miss Deception. Over the summer Turk had left the boat in the care of a tweaker in San Pedro Harbor just south of Los Angeles. Anything and everything of value had been taken from the boat. The little that was in working condition was smashed and trashed. Turk hired us for a few days to get his boat in working order, to repair the lights on the stern and to give the engines a tune up.
Over the course of the few days we learned more and more about the man through small stories he passed on with little regard to chronology as we worked.
Turk, being one of the only people of Turkish origin in the West Coast fishing fleet, has gone by that name for some thirty years. As a young man named Ahmet, on the other hand, was of a childhood of privilege being born into both French and Turkish aristocracy. His father was a high-level Turkish diplomat to the U.S., although Turk claimed his father was the actual ambassador. His mother was French and he told us she worked as a translator at the United Nations. At a young age, Turk said he moved to the U.S. from Turkey and his family bounced around the affluent suburbs of the New York City-Washington D.C. metropolitan corridor.
“The people I was surrounded by really fucking annoyed me,” Turk said with his ass yet again hanging out of his sweatpants. “I knew the bourgie life wasn’t for me.”
Ventura Harbor was a pretty big place, consisting of mostly pleasure boats, but also plenty of work boats. The Ventura Harbor Village, full of shops, restaurants and bars, lent itself to a not quite harmonious mix of tourists, rich people with yachts and fishermen. Turk always tied the Miss Deception up at the fuel dock, at first I thought it was because he was cheap, but I later learned he had been blacklisted by the Harbor Master.
“I’m a pirate, and they don’t like pirates around these parts,” Turk would later say. “But I’m not the only pirate around here, so I find my ways of sticking around.”
It was late October 2008 and the historic election was just days away. With fishermen being largely white and highly bigoted, there was a lot of fear that some “Islamo-terrorist nigger” would soon be president.
“Hey Turk! You know what?” yelled the manager of the fuel dock. “If Obama gets elected all the white men in America will be forced to pick cotton.” The same manager was also proud of his newly acquired photo parody of Obama “bin Laden” in a turban.
“Wow,” Turk rolled his eyes and said sarcastically. “Good thing I’m not exactly a white American. My people just killed Armenians, so I think I’m safe.”
After attending elite boarding schools in New England with such family names as Rockefeller and Kennedy, he went to the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After a year of college Turk found himself having below a 2.0 grade point average which made him eligible for the draft, even though he was not yet an American citizen. Sure enough his number was called within a few months and Uncle Sam wanted to send his ass to Vietnam.
Turk had other plans. While headed to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago during the legendary summer of ’68, Turk told me he ditched his friends and much of his possessions somewhere between Milwaukee and Chicago and began thumbing his way to Berkeley, California.
After a few days of work and a few nights of sleep—on bunks far less comfortable than a sandy beach and just a touch better than the front seat of my car—the Miss Deception was about ready to light up squid.
“You know I don’t move around all that well so it would be nice to have an extra hand on board,” he said through steady puffs of a Camel. “Plus you’re kinda green, it might be best for you to go out with me for a few weeks before you try to get on a fishing boat.”
The agreement was I would get 10 percent of his 20 percent. The going rate is that a light boat gets 20 percent of a fishing boat’s catch. Things can be complicated if a fishing boat uses more than one light boat a night. Numbers are often rounded down for the light boat, but when a fishing boat has to head back to the harbor after they fill up with 60 to 130 tons of squid—depending on how much the boat can hold—a light boat on the other hand can stay out all night and light squid for many boats if it is sitting on enough squid. It’s not unheard of for a light boat to net $20,000 on a single night.
In commercial fishing, fishermen are the price takers and not the price setters. Prevailing global market forces position the price per ton of squid and local buyers set it. In California the market squid fishery is dominated by two buyers, State Fish and Del Mar Seafoods. While fishermen always complain that the buyers set the prices too low and often rip them off on the weigh in, they have to stay on the buyers’ good side. Captains are often blacklisted from a buyer for making too big a stink over the price.
The transient moorage next to the fuel dock in Ventura would get fill up rather quickly. It consisted of a few “pirates” as Turk called them, people who for various reasons got on the wrong side of the harbormaster. With boats packed into a rectangle four deep and three wide, it was often difficult to get in and out, and with all the boats there would always be an audience for any greenhorn fuckups.
AW had until that point shielded me from some inevitable fuckups. He had been a deck boss for four years in Alaska and could do just about anything on a boat. It had been clear after the first few days that I would have a difficult time finding a job on a fishing boat having no prior experience. There were career fishermen who would come down from the Pacific Northwest to take advantage of the high pay and comparatively low work of the southern California squid fishery.
There were also the local tweakers and harbor rats, who while fucked up and sketchy needed no training. Just as I headed out with Turk a crew of gillnetters in their early-20’s came down from Cordova, Alaska to look for work, so it seemed the old smelly man was my best option.
We took off—to do so we had to delicately untie, move and maneuver around various boats as we made our way from the inside of the transient rectangle of boats to the sea. I waved to AW as Turk and I chugged away and realized another thing about being a greenhorn, I had no basis for bullshitting. Bullshitting about fishing is the primary form of communication between fishermen. I had prided myself until that point on a solid knack for bullshitting with just about anyone, usually there is enough common ground between humans to find a topic or two to talk at length on. But, at that point, for the topic of fishing all I had were questions, questions that would quickly annoy the hell out of Turk.
We set out through the Santa Barbara Channel toward the Channel Islands which would serve as the fishing grounds in the early part of the season. Toward the end of the season the fleet heads south to the Catalina Islands roughly 25 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. In the summer months, most boats head up to Alaska and Washington for the salmon season. Those that fish all year often head to Monterey Bay in late spring. I stood in the doorway to the wheelhouse where Turk was driving. As we approached the massive oil rigs that dot the channel Turk became tired with my attempts to make conversation.
“Okay kid, I have to concentrate. Why don’t you leave me alone for a while?” he said as nice as he could, but those niceties would be short lived. Had Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea been fresh in my head I might have learned from the passage, “It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the old man had always considered it so and respected it.” But, I’d have to learn that virtue through being called an idiot and being told to shut up on numerous occasions.
I quickly exited the wheelhouse and jumped down the ladder to the deck and admired the sun setting over the rugged Channel Islands. The islands are well preserved with little signs of human development. The smallest island, Anacapa, is the first island boats pass on there way from Ventura. On the south side of the island there’s a light house, but other than that the steep cliffs and narrow ridge are home to thousands of California brown pelicans, western gull and cormorants who stain the rocky cliffs white with their shit.
Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the Channel Islands at just 96.5 square miles—nearly twice the size of San Francisco, yet it has only two residents, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. The island is owned jointly by the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy (24 percent and 76 percent respectively). Its arid mountainous terrain is more reminiscent of the Inyo Mountains east of the Sierra Nevada.
After the sun had set and the last sappy text message I had sent to my girlfriend failed to go through, I headed into the galley for a snack. As I stepped inside I was hit with the smell: a mixture of diesel, greasy food, ass and stale cigarettes. I had smelled it all before, but after having a face full of fresh air from an open ocean the contrast made the odors amazingly repulsive.
I poked my head around the small refrigerator and cupboards. Eggs, cheese, cheap ground beef and vacuum-packed boiled ham were the staples, which were complemented with the finest salty canned goods the 99 cent store in Oxnard had to offer. It’s sad what low quality food people are forced to consume because it’s cheap, but it’s also sad the low quality food other people eat because they’re cheap.
Just as I was about to open a can of chili, Turk dropped the anchor on the southwest side of Santa Cruz Island. He lumbered into the galley breathing heavy and making painful groans of a man who worked his body hard over the years without giving it the proper care it deserved, something equally true for his equipment.
“You hungry?” he asked. He turned on an electric skillet still full of day old grease. As the grease liquefied from its dirty white solid state he shoved his blackened fingers through the cellophane to pull out a large handful of fatty ground beef and threw it into the skillet. He poked the beef a few times with a plastic spatula and proceeded to crack seven eggs into the grease and beef. He then added lots of cheddar cheese, a mound of Morton’s salt and a little ash from the smoldering cigarette he smoked through the preparation of the meal.
Turk then took out some flour tortillas and hot sauce to make himself a burrito and told me to assemble my own. I slid into the galley table, a table which Turk was too fat to sit at. As he stood next to the galley table he grunted and breathed heavily from his mouth between greasy chomps. The act of eating looked as if it were a strenuous activity for the old man.
“Bon appétit,” he said sarcastically. He was half French and I had lived in France while in college, he seemed to like occasionally busting my balls in a language he hadn’t used in nearly 50 years. While ground beef, eggs and cheese were all things I liked, the combination at that time was nauseating. I forced the burrito down only to throw it up a half hour later. After the first meal, I gladly took the role of cabin boy, cooking and cleaning for my own gastrointestinal safety.
As Turk uncomfortably stood eating at the table he asked me if I had a girlfriend, to which I answered yes. “Really? And you want to spend the next five months fishing for squid? You better make sure you take a few weeks off to go and see her some time. You spend too much time away on boats and other guys will start looking good to her.” I would later find that out to be true. Turk had been married. His wife took the house in Washington and the vacation house in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, but he was able to keep his boats and permits. While I have no numbers to back this up, it seems that divorce rates amongst fishermen are probably higher than any other field of work. The failed marital relationships seem to fuel sexism in bitter old captains and keep the industry a predominately all-boys-club.
Turk, on the other hand, has brought both of his daughters into the industry. His youngest gave up a career in childhood psychology to pursue fishing. Turk has had all female crews gillnetting for sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay, Alaska. He also told me that women often make better fishermen than men, something that runs against the grain. But things are changing, and the more the old guard retires the more and more women are making significant inroads. While he might have had the personal skills of a sixth grader, he lacked nearly all of the social bigotries all-too-common in many of the male-dominated lines of work.
The following night was a Sunday, the first night we were able to fish. This is a big reason why the southern California squid fishery is so appealing—fishermen get Friday and Saturday nights off in an urban environment. There was a strong wind and a good deal of chop—waves in the water caused by wind separate from the general swell.
The narrow boat was made to rock and rock it did. Earlier that day Turk watched me closely to see what kind of sea legs I had and if my stomach could handle the open ocean. I passed, and when the sun had set it was time to work. Turk flipped on the lights for the first time and the air was illuminated with near equal brightness of the sun. The four lights on the boat’s stern were on swivels, one on the port-stern, another on the starboard-stern and two aft.
At the time the lights were turned on they were swiveled inboard. The boat was rocking steadily and there was a heavy drizzle. I yelled to Turk that I was going to swing the lights outboard.
“Just be careful, it’s getting pretty nasty,” he hollered to me from the wheelhouse, maybe the only words of caution I every heard him say in my direction.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” I yelled with confidence in my innate sense of balance. The deck of the Miss Deception had very little space available to move around. There was a raised fish hold in the middle of the boat leaving only about three feet to pass on either side along the bullworks. Aft was a 35 kilowatt generator which rested inside a large plywood crate. On the port side was a rundown generator which completely blocked the path to the stern. On the starboard side there was a dry exhaust system that came out of the generator that could make a tough pass in rough weather. At the far aft the total available space was about three feet deep and ten feet wide.
We had worked on the wiring of the four stern lights a few days before, and in true fisherman fashion what we were missing in parts we made up for with black electrical tape. In fact, it seemed most of that boat was held together with black tape.
On my way back to push the lights overboard I felt a strong cramp in my wrist as I touched the rail. I ignored the cramping and continued on. I pushed the light overboard in the starboard-stern and felt strong tingling in my hands. I continued on to the stern before I realized that I was actually getting an electric shock. As I came to that realization, the light I had pushed overboard on the starboard side swiveled back in board in the wind and chop. I looked around and saw I was surrounded by metal that was conducting electrical currents to my sides and back, and by a large plywood crate with a generator chugging away in front of me.
When you’re new to a job with a boss who is little impressed with the completion of regular tasks, adrenaline increases during even the most mundane of work. It might have been for that reason I didn’t register the tingles and cramps immediately as electric shocks.
I widened my stance for balance. I remembered Turk had mentioned something about a short coming from the generator, but we figured we had taken care of it when we fixed the lights and wiring with black tape. The pathway on the starboard side was blocked by the light fixture in the swivel—a cone-shaped metal fixture about two and a half feet in diameter containing a 1000 watt light bulb.
I attempted to quickly duck underneath the fixture, but with my hand touching a piece of metal and my back bumping into the fixture I grounded the current and took its full force for the first time. I let out an unrestrained scream, not at all expecting the strength of the shock. I fell forward onto my hands and knees again grounding the current creating a full circuit through my body.
Being on my hands and knees it was rather difficult to pull myself out of the paralyzing 220-current. After what was in reality a few seconds, but what felt like a minute, I scampered to my feet and ran to the ladder that led to the wheelhouse.
“Turk! Turk! You gotta turn off the fucking lights,” I yelled looking up to him as he stood in the doorway. “I’m getting the shit shocked out of me back here!”
The boat was rolling hard and I instinctively braced myself with one hand on the ladder and the other on the bottom of the smokestack. I again grounded the current and took another jolt. I let out a yell as I looked up toward Turk. Attempting to pull myself away I lost my balance and fell head first down three steps into the galley. I landed face first on the floor and banged my knee on one of the steps. I lay on that dirty galley floor for about ten minutes trying to recover from the shock and the fall.
I brought myself to my feet, lit a cigarette and made a cup of instant coffee. I went out to the deck making sure I touched nothing that was metal when I saw Turk taking a piss out of the wheelhouse door, not into the water, but right onto the upper deck. The piss ran down the deck and created a stepped waterfall down the rungs of the ladder my hand would consistently grasp to fulfill my duties as a deck hand.
I turned around and went back into the galley. That night he didn’t scream out to me for cups of instant coffee and cans of soda, as he did and would for the remainder of our time together. As usual he spent the night searching for squid on the sonar. He finished just after sunrise and came into the galley to sleep. His bed wasn’t a bunk in the four-peak where I slept, but a soiled rat’s nest of blankets, sleeping bags and pillows in the galley. As what would be the common daily routine, Turk slept most of day as I sat on the deck and read Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf.
I couldn’t help but to see the similarities between my situation and that of the wimpy narrator of the book, and more aptly between Turk and the book’s villain Wolf Larsen. Both men are morally fascinating. Larsen for adhering to the moral code of self preservation and self fulfillment through animalistic power so fully he is the literary embodiment of diabolical evil, and Turk for having no moral code other than preservation of his general laziness and his miserly wallet. Both act fully on behalf of their selves taking different approaches, Larsen by overcoming by becoming London’s Nietzschean Übermensch, Turk by falling below, by renunciation, by rebelling.
Yet, Larsen’s shortcoming was that London attempted to create an anti-hero so fully reasoned philosophically that the result was a hack’s Captain Ahab. I should heed the literary mistakes of the past and fully describe rather than attempt to fully explain.
“You sure got the shit shocked out of you last night,” he said with a black-toothed grin. “I would have come down to check on you, but I figured you were either going to get up or you wouldn’t, and there wasn’t much I could do for you either way.”
That night we lit up and found squid. It was beautiful. The oceans are in dire circumstances; pollution and overfishing have rendered the salty waters a lifeless cesspool in many places. But there just about 50 miles north of polluted waters of Los Angeles I saw ecological abundance in the at times oily waters of the Channel Islands.
Schools of mackerel swarmed and spun like a single living organism, chasing even bigger schools of sardines and anchovies. When the school of the smaller tail fish came into prominence sentinels of mackerel would circle the schools of small fish in small groups of five or six. All the while pods of porpoises and sea lions would swarm on the exterior, riled up into a feeding frenzy.
Sea mammals are the most hated of all creatures by fishermen. While Turk carried no guns onboard—which is good because at certain points of our journey I would have seriously considered using them against him—many boats had well-stocked armories. The primary purpose for most guns on boats in that fishery is killing sea mammals, but they were also used to defend their turf from other fisherman. Warning shots between light boats were not uncommon, and rumors of all out gun fights between light boat operators over prime fishing spots abounded.
While squid makes up only three percent of global fisheries catches, it has the third highest commercial value, after shrimp and tuna, according to a Seafood Watch International Squid Report by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. More than 50 percent of all squid caught are made up of two species, the Japanese flying squid and the Argentine shortfin squid, according to the same report. The former is largely caught on the Northwestern edge of the Pacific Rim and the latter is found primarily in the waters around the Falkland Islands. Market squid, a different species than the Japanese and Argentine varieties, has become the largest and most valuable commercial fishery in California.
Squid are called “short-lived, ecological opportunists” in a report on global squid populations by the FAO. The report goes on to say that in areas where populations of groundfish have suffered due to overfishing, populations of squid and other cephalopods have increased, as have their numbers caught by fishermen. Yet their populations globally are subject to much variability, “…[S]quids could perhaps be compared with insect plague pests such as the desert locust,” claimed the FAO in the final page of its report, for the unpredictability of their numbers. Yet, the organization that is responsible for ideally overseeing a healthy and well-fed planet also sees squid as having the “potential for production of high quality protein for human consumption” especially in the face of great decline in other global fisheries.
After the flashy schools of mackerel, sardines and anchovies came and went, the squid arrived. Squid are one of the more alien species that inhabit the earth. Under immense light from the boat these spineless creatures reflected the light with a luminescent glow. Their bodies were relatively translucent, but their eerie eyes were like that of a cat’s shining, unblinking spotlights back up to the surface.
I thought of the passage from Moby Dick when Ishmael first saw the otherworldly sight of a giant squid. Ishmael “gazed at the most wondrous phenomenon which the secret seas have hitherto revealed to mankind. A vast pulpy mass…of a glancing cream-color, lay floating on the water…an unearthly, formless, chance-like apparition of life.” While Melville wrote about the mythically elusive yet very real giant squid of the deep and I was witnessing the very common aggregation of spawning squid at the end of their life cycle, the sight was no less powerful, no less mesmerizing.
Our partner boat, the Stikine, skippered by Catch ‘em all Paul, came up close to us to throw over a box of seal bombs. Seal bombs are quarter sticks of dynamite filled with sand at the bottom so they sink. They’re designed to repel seals and sea lions from schools of squid—and more importantly to repel them from nets full of squid that could trap and mangle the animals. All seal bombs have the state of California’s stamp of approval. The noise and the percussion of the explosion are supposed to scare the mammals away from the nets. But when thrown directly at the animals the seals suffer the affects of having a quarter stick of dynamite exploding in their direct vicinity.
So there I was, a tree hugger in a former life, throwing dynamite at sea lions feasting on an abundance of squid. But as quickly as the squid came, they left, leaving Turk and I little prospects of earning money that night. It was the same for the next few nights.
During that time I had to give into nature. For a few days I had avoided taking a shit in the head because of the fine crust of dried poop water on the toilet. The toilet bowl was tiny, I couldn’t fathom how Turk managed to get his ass on the seat. I let out a backlog of nearly three days of excrement and then started to pump. The toilet released waste directly into the ocean, a practice that is pretty much the norm on all fishing boats. As I tried to pump the shit out brown water rose, and rose, and rose all the way to the brim of the toilet bowl. I was beginning to panic, in the rock of the waves the shit water was beginning to splash on the floor.
I ran up to the wheelhouse and asked Turk if there was something wrong with the toilet. He said no, all I had to do was pump. I went back down to the head and saw the water was still swishing to the brim. I decided to let it sit for a little bit hoping that the shit water would drain. Luckily in the hour I waited Turk didn’t comedown for a bathroom break. When I poked my head back into the head I saw the water level hadn’t gone down. I scoured the boat for a receptacle large enough to hold a fair amount of liquid but small enough to fit in the toilet. A kitchen pot did the trick. I scooped the content of the bowl with the pot and dumped it overboard. I sprayed the head down with disinfectant and sopped up the shit water with paper towels. After a half an hour the head was clean and the toilet was in working order again. I quickly learned the proper way to use the toilet was to pump the shit out after each pinch.
Shortly after, Turk let out a holler from the wheelhouse. I went up and he told me he wanted me to make pasta for dinner. I chuckled dumbly, the pot I had used to scoop shit water out of the toilet was the only pot we had on board. I went down and searched the galley for bleach, there was none. I cleaned the pot the best I could with dish soap then went ahead with preparing dinner. Turk said the pasta was great, but that night I passed on the spaghetti and made myself a sloppy joe sandwich with the meat sauce.
This was also the first time in my adult life that I was cut off from the news cycle for more than a few days. On Wednesday, I had no idea who the winner of the presidential election was. Obama? McCain? I had to wait until I made my way back to the harbor.
“I hope you don’t think it matters all that much,” whined Turk the morning after the election.
“If it mattered all that much to me I would have made a point of voting instead of being stuck here on a boat with you,” I responded.
“I hope Obama wins,” said Turk, sipping on his instant coffee. “But I’ll tell you this, it won’t make no difference, he’ll just be another cog in the war machine.”
In the early 1970’s the, Turk told me the FBI finally caught up with him in northern Washington state with the intension of taking him to jail or sending him to Vietnam. When they found him he was in traction in a hospital bed having falling from a boat’s rigging where his snapped both of his femurs. Turk said he was given a medical waver thereby avoiding both combat and jail.
“You know, fishing life isn’t the easiest life, but it’s honest work,” he said as he piled Copenhagen into his lower lip between sips of pineapple soda. “There’s no honesty in politics—left or right. Trust me, both my parents were diplomats.”
While fishing is an honest living, one of few pursuits in America where pay is directly linked to something real, something material, fishermen are often less than honest. Statements made by them are either greatly exaggerated or understated. Yet taking that into consideration they are some of the more authentic people I have met. I’m not saying this with any existential Sartian notions of authenticity, for an authentic life and an ethical life are often quite divergent. I don’t say this to condone the often bigoted values fishermen hold; at least they don’t make you guess where they stand. They’re far less sinister than a corporate executive or a politician who put those same values into practice but hides them behind guised rhetoric of political correctness.
The sun had set and again the lights came on. Over the first few nights fishing boats only made a few sets around us. There were too many tail fish—sardines and anchovies—mixed in with the squid to sell to the market, so the fishing boats had to dump them back into he water.
While Turk and I figured out which breaker caused the short, he would often flip it on out of absentmindedness or just to fuck with me, I was never sure which. But to be sure if it was ever Turk on the back deck and me flipping on the breakers to turn on the lights he’d scream, “You fuckin’ shithead! What the fuck are you doing?! Turn off that fuckin’ breaker!” as he stood on the back deck barefooted and in his boxers. “You’ll fucking kill me!”
He was right. The jolt delivered was strong enough to kill a healthy person with a strong heart like myself, so for an old chain-smoking fat man the jolt would likely do him in. The man’s operation was more than just potentially fatal, a little more than a year after my time with him a man in his mid-20’s would be electrocuted on the Miss Deception.
I was becoming wise to not touching more than one piece of metal at a time to avoid grounding the current, but I was also getting familiar with the shock. Instead of an unbridled scream of pain, I was able to turn it into a more respectable curse filled holler. “Fucking shit!” If the shock lasted for a few more seconds I’d string on the equally meaningless, “Ass motherfucker!” for good measure.
The multiple daily shocks were also wearing on me. My muscles cramped and fatigued faster than normal, which was only a minor inconvenience for there were no actual endurance activities on the boat.
As already said nothing was in its proper working order on the Miss Deception, the anchor in particular. Most times Turk wanted to drop the anchor I had to run to the bow and pull on the chain to make sure it would not backlash and jam. That was no big deal other than the lingering fear of getting shocked en route to the bow, where there was choke point going from the deck to the path way leading to the bow where I had to touch metal and where there was no rail to keep me from splashing into the water had I been shocked.
We scratched around for most of the night not finding much squid. About three a.m. Turk decided to head back into the harbor, but he first flicked on the lights to see if any squid were around. Minutes later the other worldly glow rose from the depths, we were sitting on a small goldmine. He dropped the anchor to wait for the Stikine to arrive.
Turk thought that he might have dropped anchor slightly out of position. Something was wrong with the anchor when he tried to pull it up. The two of us went to the bow to try to pull it up using a hydraulic lever next to the anchor winch. As he went to pull up the anchor there was a small ‘pop’ and a stream of hydraulic fluid began to piss on Turk’s bare ankle.
Having been berated and called a ‘fucking idiot’ more times than I can mention for asking stupid questions and for stating the all-too-obvious, I bit my tongue and watched. Turk, having spent the past 35 years around diesel engines, no longer has a deft sense of sense of hearing. He also probably suffered from untreated diabetes, judging from his painfully bruised and swollen feet, which more than likely depleted his sense of touch in the lower extremities. He never realized the hydraulic fitting had blown.
Getting frustrated with the progress of the anchor he made a sudden movement and slipped on the oil and landed heavily on his kneecap. He let out a holler and looked as if he was about to roll overboard on the starboard bow. I lunged and grabbed him, as he gained his balance he swatted away my arms and gave me a heavy paw to the chest.
I contained my momentary rage and waited for him to slowly pull up the rest of the anchor chain as the winch sputtered. When it was finally up, hydraulic oil was everywhere making the bow slicker than ice. I attempted a quick repair job of the hydraulic fitting that blew because it had corroded with rust with black tape to no avail. The oil continued to squirt all over the deck and into the ocean, as it would for the rest of the night. At that time we were still sitting on 50 tons of squid.
Turk yelled to me to pour more hydraulic oil into the reservoir. Having only five gallons of hydraulic oil left we quickly ran out and I was instructed to start pouring in regular motor oil—something that would wreak havoc in the hydraulic system.
By the time the Stikine approached us there was a large sheen of oil that blurred the mass of squid underneath it. Turk called for more hydro fluid. He told me to grab the 15 foot metal buoy stick to grab a five gallon bucket of fluid. A fisherman from the other boat looked at me holding the buoy stick and laughed.
“It’s heavy, you know,” he yelled. There could have been an easier way to transfer the oil, but this was Turk’s choice. The fisherman on the other boat was standing at the bow of the Stikine, nearly eight feet above my head while I stood at the midship of the Miss Deception.
The bucket of oil weighed nearly 50 pounds, holding the end of the buoy stick with my arms fully extended leverage was not going to work in my favor. The fisherman put the handle of the plastic bucket over the hook at the end of the buoy stick and dropped the bucket. It was much more weight than I could handle.
The bucket splashed into the water and I did the best I could to keep the hook and the handle. To this Turk screamed, “You motherfucker! Don’t drop it! Don’t you fucking drop it you motherfucker!” Just after he instructed me to grab the buoy stick moments earlier he gave me a warning, “don’t fuck this up.”
So there I was. I had the old man screaming at me and the crew of the other boat laughing at me for the idiocy of our chosen method. After a little less than a minute of struggle I finally pulled the bucket on board, to which Turk let out a holler of joy.
“Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I knew you would do it!”
I dumped the bucket into the reservoir, but that wouldn’t last long. The busted hydraulic value was still pissing oil. The deck was fully covered with oil and the rock of the waves made it rather difficult to walk.
Over the next few hours boats pulled up more than 50 tons of squid lit up by the Miss Deception, but if the Coast Guard had showed up Turk would have been hit with a minimum $10,000 fine and the two of us might have been taken back to shore in handcuffs. I felt dirty with the whole thing. Turk told me I made at least $800, but I really didn’t want it. When all was said and done there was no more squid and about 50 gallons of oil in the water.
Turk steered the well lubricated vessel back to the harbor. Away from the oil slick I began to feel a little better. I saw the first rays of the sun peak over the rocky summit of Anacapa to the southeast of the boat. The beauty of the sunrise temporarily uplifted my spirits, even with the oil slick in our wake and the large oil rigs a few miles off the port-bow. The serenity of the moment invoked by the vast ocean, the pink rugged mountains basking in the fist rays of the day as the earth lazily rolled in the ceaseless union of gravity and momentum gave me a momentary glimpse of the divine.
The sublimity of the moment was abruptly interrupted by Turk’s stumpy cock poking out of his boxers as he arbitrarily squirted piss on various well trafficked areas of the upper deck and midship. I turned to the sun pretending not to notice, but by the way the piss squirted I was pretty sure he had immflammed prostate on top of his other untreated ailments. He then came down the latter and looked at the sun rise I was admiring.
“One thing about fishing is that it gives you a real respect for the power of nature,” he said then disappeared into the galley. He came out some minutes later munching on the crust of a ham and cheese sandwich. He finished and washed it down with a final swig of grape soda and then flung to empty can into the water.
“If you’re going to get some sleep you should do it now, we have a long day ahead of us,” he said to me.
“Yeah but the deck is full of oil. I should wash it before we get back,” I responded. Even a small oil leak can land a captain a large fine.
“Good thinking,” he said and went back to the wheelhouse. Enter the fisherman’s real friend: dish soap. While a certain brand of cough drops may claim that title, normal dish soap regularly saves the asses of fishermen. Dish soaps claim to be tough on grease, but it also seems they do a good job of masking it.
If a fishermen sees oil in the water a few squirts of dish soap makes the streak invisible. I scrubbed the deck, but I also should have scrubbed myself. After a night of damage control I was completely soaked in oil.
We approached the transient moorage at the fuel dock and I was about to show just how green I was. I had never tied up a boat before. I went up to the wheelhouse to confirm with Turk which side we were tying up on. The answer was quite obvious, the dock was on the starboard side and we were to tie up to a boat already tied to the dock.
“What the hell do you think? Quit asking me stupid questions!” he yelled grabbing the wheel and flinging his left hand out as to give me a direction. His left hand pointed to the port side.
In my anxiousness not to fuck up I then made the wrong choice in following Turk’s hand thrown out in frustration rather than my better judgment. I then put the rubber fenders on the port side.
“Hey! Hey! Where the hell are your fenders!” yelled a guy in another boat. The fiberglass hulls bumped but caused no damage.
“What the fuck are you doing you fucking idiot!” Turk yelled. The crew of the other boat put out their own fenders as I threw them the tie up lines.
“Sorry, I’ve never done this before,” I said sheepishly to the men on the other boat. I looked up to the dock and saw AW laughing. I skipped across the boats, climbed up the latter and met him at the top.
“How was it?” asked AW.
“Pretty fucking brutal. Remember that short we thought we fixed?” I then recounted the past week to him as we got coffee. After about ten minutes I went back to the boat and saw Turk was ready to work—I hadn’t slept for about 24 hours.
AW had—to my great surprise—bought a sail boat while I was out. After I spent all day with Turk fixing the busted hydraulic fitting and almost had my thumb cut-off by a Sawzall handled by Turk we had a few beers and AW listened to me rant, but I had been up for nearly 36 hours and needed some sleep. Luckily the sail boat had a well-furnished interior and in the bow was a bed lined with cushions. I quickly passed out, sleeping in something that resembled a real bed for the first time in weeks.
I was at the boat at 8 a.m. and I saw Turk was still asleep. I hung out on the fuel dock to drink their free and surprising good coffee. It was Starbucks. While I’m no fan of that business, I can’t lie, I’ve been delighted on numerous occasions in my travels to see the sign “Starbucks Proudly Served Here.” After days of truck stop coffee, or in this instance a week of instant coffee, a cuppa Starbucks can be satisfying.
I saw Turk fumbling around the deck so I grabbed him a cup and went down to him. He took the coffee with a smile, a little sleep had put him in better spirits, although I was still seriously contemplating quitting. The isolation I often felt on the boat was hard to deal with and the dangerousness of the boat was wearing me thin.
Turk and I went to his old Datsun. We always carried a portable battery charger to jump start the truck. Traffic around the Ventura/Oxnard area was surprisingly busy for a Saturday morning. At a busy intersection waiting to make a left turn the truck over heated and stalled.
“Get the fuck out and push!” Turk growled as he motioned a shove in my direction. The green arrow had come on and we were getting honked at as I ran out to push the fat man in a little truck. I pushed it through the intersection Turk was able to pop start it, but the process would have to be repeated several more times throughout the day.
We finally found the part we needed and Turk left AW and I on the boat to install the fitting. Well, in actuality AW took the lead on the project and I handed him tools, he knew how to fix things on boats and I was still learning.
When the project was finished AW and I went up to fuel dock where another young fisherman stopped me.
“You’re working for Turk, huh?” he asked. “He’s a real fishkiller, but don’t piss him off or he’ll rip off your head.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve already seen a good deal of his rage,” I responded with a laugh.
“Have you heard his daughter is a hottie?”
“Yeah, she is, but she’s just as crazy as he is and she’s rip your head off too. Both heads if she was actually angry enough,” he said as his captain called him back to the boat after it finished fueling.
AW and I went over to the normal hangout, The Greek At The Harbor, to meet up with some new friends. The Greek had the best happy hour deal around, 22-ounce beers for two bucks and gyros for five. There we met Scottish Paul and Jeff. Scottish Paul was going on about how another person asked him if he was Irish.
“Jist cuz I ‘ave red ‘air an’ an accent doesn’t make me fuggin Irish,” he complained.
Maybe we were all just drinkers to begin with but it seems spending most of the week on a boat makes people want to drink even harder when they’re not. After happy hour we moved onto shots to chase our beers. Another fisherman came in just as I had mentioned Turk was a self-proclaimed pirate.
“Well you know he’s a convicted felon for crime committed within the U.S. Coast Guard’s jurisdiction?”
“Ah yeah, what did he do?” AW asked quickly.
“He sunk a boat a few years back,” he said, then pausing for a long swig of his beer. “His boat was an old 70-foot wooden seiner—piece of shit—and the permit was worth more than the boat, but it was grandfathered in so he couldn’t sell the permit for what it was worth without the boat unless it sank.”
“So the bastard sunk it!” interrupted Scottish Paul being vaguely familiar with the situation.
“Yeah he sunk it, but the idiot never took off the EPIRB!” to which roaring drunken laughter erupted. An EPIRB is electronic beacon. When the boat begins to sink and the water reaches a certain level the EPIRB sends a signals to the Coast Guard with the boat’s coordinates and its number.
Turk took a rubber dinghy back to the harbor, the fisherman continued on saying, only to receive a call from the Coast Guard if he was alright and more importantly to ask what the hell happened. When I mention the incident to Turk he blew it off and called it ancient history, not wanting to give me any additional information on it.
There were rumors around that night that Turk had actually done hard time in federal prison, but that turned out to be false. In later research I found out Turk had been indicted by a federal grand jury for the incident. He faced five counts for sinking his boat and covering up the crime. If convicted of all five counts in the indictment Turk was looking at a maximum possible sentence of 26 years in federal prison. Turk plead guilty and as part of his plea, he has agreed to pay the Coast Guard $132,000 to reimburse the agency for the unnecessary search.
The night ended with AW and I getting kicked out of another bar partly for heckling some whiney suburban surfer boy playing acoustic guitar, but mostly because AW ended up talking shit to some idiot who actually ended up owning the place.
I woke up the next morning with a headache and severe cottonmouth, but I made my way to the other side of the harbor where the Miss Deception was tied up. As I recollected the memories from the night before I remembered that most crews weren’t going out because of high wind warnings.
I got to the fuel dock and Turk was bullshitting with other skippers.
“How’s the kid working out?” a skipper—who I had two weeks ago asked for a job—asked referring to me.
“He’s alright, I’m putting his ass to the fire,” Turk said as he looked in my direction. “He’s still a little green but I’ll ripen him up.”
And with that I knew it would be some time before I found myself working on a seiner, captains won’t take a touch of green when there are experienced hands lined up for work.
“Alright, let’s go to the truck,” Turk said as he abruptly left the skippers. “We need more food.”
“I heard it’s gonna be real nasty out there, gusts of seventy,” I said hoping for another night in town.
“Yeah, I heard that too, but we’re headed out still,” he said as I jumped the truck with the charger. “We’ll find ourselves the best spot if we’re the only boat out there,” he followed up with his cracked black-toothed grin.
By the time we headed out to the Channel Islands it was about four in the afternoon. The wind was picking up and the swell was getting bigger by the minute. When we had finally made it across the channel and the sun had set the regular wind gusts were blowing about 65 miles-per-hour and swell was well over 15 feet with lots of chop and white caps.
I’ve never been one to get seasick, but seasick or not, a small boat is a very uncomfortable place to be in weather like that. The boat rocked nonstop pitching at alternate 45 degree angles. The only two bearable places were the driver’s seat and the bunk. The galley was getting trashed by the contents of the shelves and tables—which were secured only for moderate conditions. A case of generic soda crashed on the galley floor, puncturing three cans and spraying sticky soda everywhere.
It was too nasty to cook, so we ate hunks of cheese and bread. At about two in the morning, the gusts of wind reached nearly 75 miles-per-hour and the swells topped 20 feet. Turk made his way to a small, protected cove on the south side of Santa Cruz Island. We dropped anchor and tried to hunker down.
About four in the morning Turk realized we had dragged anchor and were approaching some rocks. The fitting replacement worked well and the anchor came up smoothly. Turk had me grab a 50-pound cannon ball attached to a steel chain and a carabineer and wanted me to attach it to the shackle that connected the anchor to the chain.
The boat was still getting tossed around by the waves, the wind was still blowing so hard that I had to lean into it slightly to keep my balance and the bow was still slick with the residue of hydraulic oil. To attach the cannon ball I had to lean overboard with my entire upper body—mind you the bullworks were only a foot high at the bow—and hold myself steady with my other arm. This was the process I would have to repeat every time we dropped or pulled up the anchor for the next day.
The next day as we sat tight in the galley still avoiding the weather Turk seemed to be in a pleasant enough mood to entertain me with old fishing stories. He told me about the days on the Pacific coast herring circuit in the early 1980’s, of how fishermen would make a quick ten grand fishing in the San Francisco Bay, only to blow it all on booze, drugs and hookers. He also told me of some fishermen he knew whose boat had sunk near the Arctic Circle. They made it to shore in their survival suits he said, only for a few of them to be eaten by bears shortly thereafter. The thought of bears seem to rekindle something in his memory.
“I was a pilot once,” he said, but stopped short rubbing his stomach. He stuffed his mouth with a little more Copenhagen, grabbed his smokes and went into the head. He came out roughly four cigarettes later.
“So you were a pilot,” I said trying to ignore the smell.
“Yeah, and one time I crashed my plane into a mountain up in Alaska. Me and a friend were stuck out there for three days before someone found us,” he said almost with a look of pride. “On the second day I decided to walk out and find help because my friend had a broken rib. I made it a few miles but then I realized I was surrounded by grizzlies, so I headed back. We only had half a jar of peanut butter between the two of us. My friend told me that I was eating more than my fair share on the second day, so I told him ‘shut up or I’ll eat you!’” He said with a big laugh.
Speaking of bears, I had told AW a few days before that I thought Turk was 75 percent grizzly bear and 25 percent soiled teddy bear. While ferocious, there was a part of him that was once a little cuddly.
“Do you still fly?” I asked.
“Nope, a friend told me I should quit after I walked away from three crashes.”
“Wait a second, you crashed a plane you were flying three times?”
“Yup, and walked away from all of them,” he responded as he walked out of the galley door to the wheelhouse.
I could only image his planes were in the same miserable condition as his boat and his truck. No wonder he had so many accidents. It was midday Monday and the weather was still nasty. The boat had taking a beating and the top of the plywood crate covering the generator had been blown off.
By Tuesday morning the weather had calmed so I went to turn on the generator. It stalled after a minute. We continued the process of starting the genset only to have it stall for almost an hour until it was clear that the water pump was shot so it was overheating—similar problem as the Datsun.
After enduring two days of miserable weather to get a good spot we had to turn around and head back to the harbor to fix the busted generator.
I started to remove the pump on the trip to shore. I lacked finesse when wrenching an engine, and most of my knuckles were already skinned to prove it. But wrenching a 20-year-old rusted out Isuzu genset never made finesse easy. While on the third bolt, I pushed too hard and the bolt turned too quickly. My right hand shot forward and I sliced the knuckle on my ring finger down to the bone on a hose-clamp. I let out a little yelp, got some paper towels and bled all over myself for the next half hour or so as I tried to remove the water pump.
As the Miss Deception made its way into the channel Turk came on deck to check out my progress. There were bolts that didn’t want to budge for me, but the old man had a few leverage tricks up his sleeve. As he grabbed the wrench and stuck his in the engine, I asked him if he had seen the container ship coming up about a half mile off the starboard bow.
“Of course! Quit asking stupid questions,” he said scolding me.
Over the next fifteen minutes Turk unsuccessfully had his face in the genset trying to remove the rusty nuts. At the same time we were running in a collision course with a very large ship.
“Hey Turk, you should really check out the container ship, we’re pretty fucking close,” I said as we were within an eighth of a mile from the ship.
“Don’t worry about that fucking ship!” he crabbed, but then picked his head up and saw the ship. “Holy sheep-shit!” he exclaimed and ran to the wheelhouse to steer the boat away from it. Little did I know, collisions between freighters and fishing boats happened all too often in those heavily trafficked waters.
We headed back to the harbor and by Thursday morning we were back out to sea with a new water pump in a shitty generator.
Thursday night we made some money lighting up more than 30 tons of squid for Catch ‘em all Paul. But the generator seemed to be burning oil, a blown head gasket most likely. It made my normal nights sitting on the deck intolerable thanks to a black cloud of sooty exhaust given out by the engine.
But it seemed like Turk was warming up to me a bit more. Instead of asking me to stay out of the wheelhouse he brought me in to teach me how to drive the boat and how to read squid on the sonar.
We were sitting on a spot so good that Turk decided to stay out for the weekend to keep the spot – much to my dismay. When we turned on the lights Friday night an immense mass of squid rose up from the depths. We must have been sitting on more than 100 tons of squid, and we started counting our money, or as some fishermen like to put it, we started saying we’ve fucked before we left the bar. One hundred tons at $550 a ton would gross $55,000. Turk would claim 20 percent of that, $11,000. Then I would get 10 percent of that $1,100. In one night I could earn what it took me nearly two weeks to earn covering city hall for a small daily newspaper.
Turk spent the next day snoozing in the galley so I took my position on the deck lounging in the sun under the rugged cliffs of Santa Cruz Island reading Thoreau’s Walden. I was struck by his romantic view that Nature exposes herself more fully to those “fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers, and others” whose livelihood are dependent on her bounty than to the traveling philosopher or poet who actively seeks out her wonders. It seems if she has presented herself fully to Turk and to other fishermen they have not taken it as a humbling display of her fragile complexity underlying beautiful power, but more as a challenge to be met with force, to be met with a ceaseless rape of her fertile garden.
The state of primal abundance was still nearly intact throughout the colonized world in Thoreau’s time, although industrial progress and market expansion already had an insatiable thirst for earth’s untapped resources. Yet, man was still less powerful shape to her bounty. The scale of extraction was based on basic economic survival for the individual fishermen, hunters, woodchoppers—the commodities had yet to be fully monetized. Through Marx’s idea of the fetish of the commodity full monetization of it is inevitable, the night before I had sat on the deck staring into dollar signs, not squid.
The following day Turk had me trying to fix an old 30 kilowatt generator in the engine room. My mechanical skills were getting better but still basic at best, but with the old man being too fat to slide into the 18-inch opening that gave access to the port side of the engine room where the generator in question lay, I was forced to take the role of lead mechanic, or engineer in boat-speak.
For six hours straight, I sat crouched in the engine room soaking myself with diesel as I flushed out the fuel lines and preformed other troubleshooting tasks on an engine that hadn’t been started in years.
“What are you a fucking idiot!” he screamed on various occasions as his directions failed to achieve the results he desired.
“Why don’t you come down here and try it?” I would say after a few hours of squatting, knowing full well that he physically couldn’t. In the end we had to chalk the endeavor up as a loss.
That Sunday night we had big expectations, it was going to be a moneymaking night, a night that could end up giving me the incentive to stick it out on the Miss Deception. If I could gross $1,500 a week without paying rent my leap of faith into the commercial squid fishing industry could very well pay off. But when we turned on the lights Sunday night the squid were almost nonexistent and I had a bad case of mental blue balls, I was all riled up but never ended up with a big score.
The next morning Turk was surprisingly in a good mood. We sat on the deck smoking cigarettes and drinking instant coffee. Turk told me his sausage fingers were rather adept at finger picking the guitar.
“I think I may retire to Hawaii,” he said. “My favorite music is Hawaiian slack-key guitar. You said you know a few chords. We should pick up a cheap guitar for the boat next time we’re in town. I’ll show you some stuff.” He gave me an oddly fatherly smile.
We chatted a while longer, then I made us grilled ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches. When we finished lunch the old man gave me a big laugh.
“Put on your boots, you’re gonna love this job,” he said with a smile that was no longer so fatherly.
He walked me to the lazarette, yet another hatch too small for Turk to fit into. “Hop down there, we’re gonna clean it out,” the old man said. As I went down I splashed into more than 12 inches of a sludgy mix of diesel, salt water and oil. I felt around the nastiness with my hands and pulled out about 30 fathoms of slimy line and various metal pieces.
“Okay, I think that’s it!” I hollered up to Turk.
“No, no, that’s not it,” he said then handed me a one gallon plastic milk jug with a wide mouth cut out of it and a five gallon bucket. I reluctantly started to scoop the putrid petroleum mixture into the five-gallon bucket. There was well over 100 gallons sitting at the bottom of the lazarette. When it was full I pushed it up to the deck and climbed out.
I looked around and took in the beauty for the moment. The sun was big and bright, its rays were kept pleasant by a gentle sea breeze coming from the north. There were a few sea lions about, gleefully playing in the small swell. I looked up at the serenely rugged cliffs of the island, we were in a nature preserve. Then I looked down at the bucket of diesely water.
I went up to the wheelhouse. “Hey Turk, I don’t suppose you want me to dump that shit in the water?”
“What? What else would you do with it?” he responded shaking his head at me.
I went back to the stern and looked at the beauty that was actually a federally protected area—meaning steeper fines. There was a pump for contaminated water at the harbor, but Turk didn’t like to spend money.
Funny, a few years earlier I was a young environmentalist working for a campaign to promote seven bills going through Sacramento to protect the ocean. I held the bucket up to the rail. The thought of pissing Turk off by refusing to obey his orders didn’t seem very appealing given I was stuck on a boat with him. And maybe it wasn’t that bad after all, maybe I misjudged the concentration of diesel in the water.
I started to pour it overboard. A sheen of oil spread quickly over the surface of the water. I lifted the bucket upright disgusted with myself after I had discharged more the a gallon into the ocean.
I smoked a cigarette and contemplated the results of my insubordination. I realized my time in the Ventura squid fishery was over and that my gamble was an utter failure. I would soon be out of a job and more broke than I ever was writing news for a small paper. Is it better to be poor and proud or affluently broke and continually eating the lie?
“What do you want now?”
“I can’t dump that shit water into the ocean.”
“What do you mean you can’t?”
“I mean I have principles, and not dumping nasty shit into the ocean is one of them.”
“Oh yeah? Well then you’re fired!”
“Fine, I’m fired. I’m fucking sick of this boat anyway.”
“Yeah, well you don’t deserve to be on any boat. You’re too much of a pussy!” he said as I walked out of the wheelhouse. “You’re not man enough to be a fisherman!”
I cleaned up what I had been working on and organized my stuff to leave. We fished that night and Turk didn’t acknowledge my presence. On Tuesday, I asked Turk when we were heading in. “Not any time soon,” he said cutting off all further conversation.
Later that evening Turk was standing in the galley eating his dinner. “So Turk, I know that I’m fired but when do you think I could get paid?” A few days earlier Turk told me he thought I had already made two thousand.
He looked up with a show of rage in his eyes. “Shut the fuck up!”
“What? This is a valid question, why can’t you answer it?”
“Shut the fuck up!” He yelled again but with more force than the first time. I thought of how he’s probably been yelling his way through stressful moments his whole life, trying to use intimidation to block any conversation he didn’t want to have. Our eyes stayed locked as he stood there glaring at me from five feet away.
I started to laugh, half out of nervousness, half at the man’s social ineptness. “What the fuck are you laughing at?” he screamed.
“You, old man, you can’t even handle a simple question.” He turned his back to me and finished his dinner. He looked as though he was pouting.
We again fished on Tuesday night. The boat was beginning to feel like a jail billowing black smoke. I was stuck. Turk actually seemed reluctant to let me go. We were actually cordial after the ‘shut the fuck up’ incident. He finally gave in after a bit of coxing. He arranged a ride back to the harbor with Catch ‘em all Paul on Wednesday night.
I got off the Stikine on Thursday morning. I was a little tired but very happy to be off the Miss Deception. I knew my time squid fishing for the winter of 2008-09 was dead. I would head back to the Bay Area for Thanksgiving, but I would stick around living on a sail boat for another week or so kicking it with AW and some dipshits from Cordova, AK as I awaited Turk’s return so I could collect some money.
That day AW and I headed to downtown Ventura for a few pitchers at a local brewery. Before the election we were fans of Barack O’bock and Palin Pale. While they were promoted as different beers, I had my suspicions they were in fact the same beer—a crafty political statement by the brewer.
We sat down with our pitcher in the front patio over looking Main Street. There was a big guy, tall with broad shoulders, a beer gut and blond hair. He looked as though he’s been nursing his beer for a long time just waiting for someone to talk to.
“I love coming to Ventura and just people watching,” he said as a tattooed couple with numerous exposed body piercing walked by. “There are a lot of freaks here.” AW and I looked up at each other with puzzled expressions. We had endlessly talked over the past month of how antiseptically normal Ventura was and how easily it fit into our ideas of a largely white affluent city on the northern end of southern California.
A Main Street lined with palm trees, architecture in a neo-mission style in honor of the historic slave quarters San Buenventura. Mix in surf style, a touch of art deco, hot rod gear head chic, a dash of goth, punk and metal, with Mexican service workers who take the bus in from Oxnard every day, and you have a good feel of downtown Ventura. A product of strict zoning and economic segregation.
“Where are you from? Kansas?” I asked.
“Huh?” he looked at me a bit confused. “No, I’m Californian born and raised. San Bernardino, Inland Empire to be exact.”
That made a bit of sense. The Inland Empire, a former podunk ranch and oil community that now is made up of LA sprawl and Las Vegas idiocy. We chatted, for too long, but he was down and in need of some ears. We were complete oddities to him, he assumed we were living in a VW Bus—naw man—a sail boat.
He had a McMansion, a speed boat, a Harley and a very large Ford Excursion with a lift kit. His wife had a restraining order against him. His 14-year-old daughter was opening banging her 19-year-old boyfriend. He was a truck driver who had never left the confines of California, Arizona and Nevada. He was mostly out-of-work having made his living transporting excavation equipment for the development of McMansions in the tri-state area. He was spending near the last of his money on a cheap hotel room in Ventura and he was deathly afraid of the nation 200 miles south and lamented the fact that ‘beaners’ were taking over the U.S.—‘you know, Mexicans.’
He was California. He was America. He was tall and well-muscled, dirty blond hair and light eyes with skin that took on a bronze tan with enough sun. Twenty years ago he fit the iconic image of California dreaming. Presently he is the quintessential icon of the California nightmare.
“I have so many regrets,” he whined after a moment of silence. Turk or that dude? Turk any day.
Turk never came in that weekend, nor the next. I left and AW left a month later for another adventure after no job materialized for him either. Over the next few months I would call Turk to try to collect the near two grand he owed me. By April, I realized it would never be paid. The next summer I found myself on a boat in Alaska with AW fishing for salmon and Dungeness crab.
At the end of the salmon season AW and I took a ferry from Ketchikan, Alaska to Bellingham, Washington. Bellingham just happened to be Turk’s hometown. I knew it was too early for squid and that he’d been back from Bristol Bay for well over a month. I tracked his address down online and AW and I took a cab 20 minutes outside of town to his house.
There were about four beat up boats on blocks in the front yard. It had to be Turk’s place. He didn’t seem to be around, but we decided to wait. About 45 minutes passed before an early-1990’s Volvo sedan driven by his youngest daughter the fisherman pulled into the driveway. Turk was in the passenger seat and had a look of disbelief on his face.
“Wow you sure came a long way for a few hundred bucks,” he said to me as he got out of the car. Seeing him now made it hard to believe he could physically continue to work on boats. It seemed to be a great strain on him to even get out of the car.
He introduced us to his daughter, who I learned took my place on the Miss Deception a few weeks after I departed, Turk was barely able to operate a boat on his own given his condition. It was all very cordial. We sat in back of his house at a picnic table bullshitting about fishing, something I was now able to do. After about a half an hour he grabbed his check book. Turk was surprised I gave the fishing industry another chance after my time with him some ten months before, but he seemed to take some satisfaction in it. But then of course he knew I wasn’t sitting on his picnic table to chat with an old mentor, I was there to collect money from a former boss who screwed me out of it.
“What do you think I owe you?” he asked.
“About two grand,” I said as I opened my notebook for numbers I had taken down from the season.
“There’s no fucking way you’re gonna get that from me,” he said trying to give me a mean look.
“Well, you said 10 percent and I got number here I made almost $500 the first night…” I continued on with the numbers.
“Well things changed when you got on the boat and started acting goofy at the end,” he said. “If you want two grand take me to court. The most I’ll give you is four or five hundred dollars.”
Turk and I began to bicker and haggle. AW stepped in to moderate. “Fine, five hundred,” I said.
“Four,” Turk said defiantly. We settled on $450. The check was written and we chatted pleasantly for a few more minutes. AW and I had a bus to catch to Seattle and we were twenty miles outside of town. We started walk down the road that lazily unwound through farmland overlooking Puget Sound. I again kicked myself for counting money before it was in my hand—for saying I was fucked while I was still standing in the bar. Sadly, those 450 bucks would be quickly burnt in the shops, bars and restaurants during a three-day stint in the Emerald City.
Thousands of pounds of garbage and thousands of gallons of petroleum products have ended up in the oceans in the wake of Turk’s thirty-plus year career fishing. Probably hundreds of thousands of dollars in back wages owed to deck hands. He’s a liar, a cheat, a fraud and a criminal—all names that would make him chuckle if said within earshot. Yet, I find the self-proclaimed pirate an unbearably intriguing figure whom I cannot help but to admire slightly.