A Tradition of Tuna, maybe (Nov 26)

Sashimi is a universal word. Especially on a Tuna boat, it doesn’t matter where you are from, you know what sashimi means and you celebrate every time someone says it – because they won’t say it unless you’re about to eat it. There are crew on this boat that don’t speak the same language as anyone else – hell we have one guy from Vietnam – and he knows what it means.

I don’t know if it is tradition, or if everyone was just starving at the end of the day but I had an interesting experience tonight after our Captain made a late set on a small school of yellow fin tuna. I know my sister would be excited about that, she loves yellow fin tuna, she orders it every time we go out for sushi in the states. Anyways, this set was particularly ill timed, as the crew had spent the entire morning working a 300 ton catch, and the rest of the day on the ready as we chased schools around the fishing grounds. They hadn’t had anything in the form of downtime all day and you could see they were tired.

They made this set on the yellow fin around 5pm, and it is now almost 10pm and they are still on the deck working away, fortunately in the last stages of stacking the net and getting everything put up for the night. I have started to spend a fair amount of time out on the upper deck watching the activities below go on, feeling more than a little useless, and tonight was no different.

A couple of crew members peeled off from the catch bin with some big, and I mean impressive sized big, yellow fin and then the Captain ducked down to the lower deck, and I heard the word. Sashimi. So I maneuvered over to another spot that gave me a view over the other side of the work deck where the cook was busy cleaning the two fish already. One of the deck hands looked up and spotted me there.

“Pilot! Pilot sashimi!” he smiled and shouted, holding up a knife and pointing at one of the tuna. I gave my typical smile and thumbs up and then started down toward the deck, not really knowing what I was getting into. Fortunately Jose was there as well and he filled me in. They were going to carve us out a slab of tuna to do with as we please. Which meant freezing it and waiting until we get to Tarawa to have it prepped up as Sashimi or Ceviche.

But first thing is first, tradition trumps all other steps in the fish cleaning process – we must eat the tuna. Right there on the deck, a knife handed to me that had been who knows where else, I looked down at the freshly caught slab of pink tuna meat trying to figure my best way at it. In my head I’m thinking the crew are laughing at the white boy trying to cut into the tuna butt, for all I know this is a joke and they’ve given me an awful part of the tuna. It looks fair enough though, and the Captain is eating out of the fish too – ok hell, why not. I pick out the most fresh looking bright pink strip on the chunk in front of me and start to slice away at it.

The tuna itself slides around a bit on the wooden plank that it’s been set on while I make my incision. The yield is a thick chunk of yellow fin sashimi that is more fresh than any I’ve ever had before. So fresh that this tuna’s compatriots are still swimming in the net trying to escape, so fresh that the meat isn’t cold like I’m used to at the restaurants, it is warm – surprisingly warm considering the fish was just swimming in the ocean at depths where the temperature can get fairly chilly. I think that was the most surprising part of biting into this, fresh, sashimi – the warmth.

My concerns were put to bed about the tuna when the rest of the crew pulled knives and started slicing off bits of the same chunk I’d just eaten off of. They devoured it with a hunger only 15 hours of working the nets would produce.

In my westernized American brain all sorts of problem scenarios began to swirl about, concerning my recently devoured fresh snack. In the US there are strict standards for prep and storage and treatment, there’s potentially worms and diseases and toxins in the meat, oh my god what have I done – am I going to be able to leave the bathroom for the next three days? Am I a goner? Wait – shut up brain, just live in the moment and live life for a moment, idiot-brain. You are on a fishing boat in the middle of the South Pacific, having sailed from Fiji and most likely headed to Tarawa. You’ve got a crew from around the Asian region that you’re getting to know and befriend, you’ve seen all sorts of tuna, and whales, and even a whale shark (that’s a story on its own). You’ve rushed to the aid of a ship in distress that was on fire (The Lady Marion sank today – Nov 25) and you’re flying a helicopter that’s pretty damn awesome. Your life is an adventure, and you just added to the experience by diving in with the rest of the crew into the fresh catch.

Tradition or not, it felt pretty damn cool.

This morning I woke up to find that we hadn’t moved since last night, we were in the same place. Or for as much as I could tell – we were in the same place. I half expected to at least be doing slow lazy circles searching for another school. But the ship was mysteriously silent. The Captain and I arrived to the galley at the same time, and ate breakfast. The pecking order on the ship had the two of the three sole occupants of the dining room sitting at different tables from each other, no human interaction at all. The cook, in the way that he does, was perched against the refrigerators puffing on a cigarette and watching over us, making sure the American pilot didn’t make the mistake of sitting with the Captain. He was like a prison guard watching the inmates, making sure I didn’t smuggle a fork out to Gen-Pop after eating my serving of rice and fried egg. The same breakfast I’ve had for the last 9 days, everyday.

I once thought that I could skip breakfast all together and wait until lunch, to mix things up a bit. Lunch was infamous Asian fried fish and I found myself longing for a fried egg and some rice. Never again will I skip or miss breakfast I promised myself after that. I can eat most of the food they make and serve here, but the Asian love for small bone filled fish fried in old fishy oil not only baffles me but turns my stomach. The cook has noticed too, on fish days I take a heavy serving of rice and sit down with a plate of whiteness.

After breakfast and a bit of morning reading I made my way up to the flight deck to check on the helicopter again, and then decide it is time for training. So I grabbed Cabrera and we went to the bridge to ask the Captain for permission. A quick nod from him sent us into the steps of getting ready. Roxy installed the dual controls while I got my helmet and life vest out of the room and applied sunscreen to my forearms, face, neck, and most importantly the tops of my sandal strapped feet. Today was going to be particularly interesting since we had a ripping tail wind across the heli-deck, and since it was a very real possibility over the next year that I would have to take off and land with one, we needed to practice making departures and approaches to the boat from the other side, and the pedal turns required to get safely up and away from, or down and onto, the deck.

As usual the takeoffs looked really good, the landings looked better than the last time I flew, and the change up in routine was a welcome distraction from the monotony of not being busy on a boat drifting in the ocean. We also worked on hovering, using the heli-deck as a visual reference for my over water hover. A lot of the skills I learn here are really going to translate into my next position, that’s for sure. Logged another .8 on the 500 today and things are moving along nicely. It sounds as if I should solo this afternoon if the winds are a bit more favorable. And if that goes well – Cabrera is talking about sending me up with the first officer on a spotting mission tomorrow if there is one.

Outstanding.

I’m adding some new wildlife to the list I’ve seen. Last night I spotted, up close, a whale shark and today while flying I looked down and spotted a manta ray. The whale shark was devouring tuna in the same fishing grounds we were netting them. It was really cool, it’s leathery grey skin pockmarked with white spots – I mean, it was really close.

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