I’m very good at research, it’s something I pride myself on – that certain skill that not everyone has, or some people even loath. Before I buy a product, go to a new restaurant, pick a flight school, and in this case pick a job – I do a ton of research. The thing about being a tuna pilot is that there is a surprising lack of information out there.
One guy, “Moggy” or “Molly” I can’t recall, has a pretty comprehensive website with page after page of information, but if you talk to certain people in the industry they are quick to attempt to discredit the man. So you can’t help but take what he wrote with a certain amount of skepticism. The more I’m here though the more I realize that, for the most part from what I remember he was right on the money.
Steve Thomson wrote a 26 page dissertation on the topic, and I have his paper somewhere on my laptop, in which he compared the life of a tuna pilot to being in prison with one major exception – there is a helicopter on the roof that the prison guards pay you to fly. He isn’t that far off, not that I’ve been in prison, but I know enough from movies and tv, and that’s like the same thing right? But it more like a minimum security white collar prison, like the one Bernie Maddoff is sitting in (he’s still in prison right?).
We have three square meals a day, a private room with a private shower, we’re allowed laptops and cameras, and bags of snacks and cigarettes (I don’t smoke, but I think I’ll buy some to barter with in the next port), we’re allowed our own music, and our own clothes, phone calls on the sat phone (no mom – I didn’t buy a card, they’re expensive) and yes, that one big gleaming difference is that on top of this prison there is a helicopter you’re paid to fly, in the tropics. Every now and again you wind up in some small port lined with palm trees and islanders, and you get to relax for a week.
It’s those long stretches at sea when the only thing to do is think to yourself, or force conversations in broken English with the other crewmembers that you feel a bit like a prisoner. You literally have nothing to do and nowhere to go and there isn’t anything you can change about any of that. One thing they have in prisons that we don’t have is a gym. I wish we had a gym. I continue to improvise, having smuggled some heavy metal rings and chain links away and stashing them for “free-weights”.
For an American, or I suppose any other westernized pilot coming out to do this job the most shocking part I think is suddenly not having the option of living in excess. In the United States there is no limit to what you can have or do. For instance, if I wanted to buy a case of orange juice at Costco I’d walk out with 12 gallons of OJ and that is ok, and normal. Here a case of orange juice is 24 little cans, and you almost feel guilty for buying the whole case in front of people that can’t afford one can. In the US I would think nothing of going out for a steak dinner where I eat 20 ounces of medium rare prime, a salad, guzzle a few teas or a few beers, and eat maybe half my potatoes and then just leave ‘em on the plate and send them to the trash in the kitchen. Or if a side were served you didn’t like, you just push it to the side with your fork and ignore it, and then the waitress will toss it in the trash later. Out here, the food on your plate may be the most food you get all day, or only food – so these people eat all of it. I’ve not seen a single plate with morsels of food left on it go into the dirty dish stack.
I miss the excess of living in the United States, or being in the position to live like an American even abroad. I think we’re spoiled, and I don’t care, I miss it. Of course that being said, I am getting used to living not in excess but in total minima as I too clean my plate of the scoop of rice that I got for lunch, and I leave the Kimchi to the crewmen that devour it in quick chopstick fed bites. I’ve opted to use sauces to spice up my rice and give it some flavor, Chili sauce and A1 mixed with rice produce a pretty tasty meal. For the record the knockoff steak sauce the Koreans call “Ace Plus” is terrible, they didn’t even come close to reproducing A1 except in the shape of the bottle, and colors used on the label. I think they stole part of the slogan too. Terrible knockoff.
In thinking back on the last few paragraphs I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t fair to compare being a helicopter pilot our here to being a prisoner. The crew, they’re the prisoners and the officers are the watchful guards making sure everyone keeps working and stays in line while eating full meals and drinking soju into the night. The pilot and mechanic are more like prison contractors that travel from prison to prison and live in relative comfort by contrast to the population. Because we make so much more than the crew we too get full meals in the form of lockers of snacks and drinks that we can afford to buy in port or at cargo ships. We’re just there to make sure the prison is productive. Yeah, we’re like prison contractors with a helicopter.
I do feel bad though, sometimes, when the crew are busting their asses to get the net brought in, or the fish sorted out; and even on slow days when they are painting, or cleaning; that I’m not helping in any way. I walk past them, sometimes with an ice cold bottle of water, or in the morning a hot cup of Nescafe 3-in-1 coffee in my mug while they work away. Part of me wants to jump in and help while smiling and telling them “See, I’m not just a passenger on this boat along for a cruise – I can work too guys! Really!” But reminding myself that none of them can pilot a half a million dollar helicopter and land it on the deck of a moving boat helps me get over those moments of weakness. I earn my keep by flying the captain and his officers around looking for tuna, and getting back onto the ship in one piece. They earn their keep by heavy hard labor. It pans out.
The captain just yelled “LET GO!” through the PA system which means the net boat is getting launched as I type this, which means we’re making a set around a school of tuna. That is great news, except that it means the chance of us flying at all for the next 4-5 hours is exactly zero. Time for a movie, and some snacks, and the comforting grip of air-conditioning in my cabin as the crew pull in the net.