The Fleet (Nov 24)

Today was an interesting day, for me at least. At some point last night we wound up meeting up with 3 other ships from Don Wong tuna company for a little bit a fleet fishing activities. 2 other helicopters from Tropic were out there too. It’s a novelty item for me since for the last week and a half it has been just us and the ocean, but I guess this sort of thing is common place, the fishing grounds are only so big and these guys are all kind of working together for the same company. They are also competing with each other for the money that comes from filling the holds with tuna.

I also got to see the second type of setting that we do, and that is the kind where we don’t set on a “payow” but instead we find, track and then set around a school of tuna. Considerably more challenging it looks like, and a lot of it comes down to the captain and his experience. There is a lot of watching, waiting for the tuna to come up to the surface to feed. When they do they form what is called a “foamer” where the water gets really frothy and white as they splash against the surface. The bigger the foamer, the bigger the school – common sense. Or so I thought, because we were tracking one that looked particularly like a large school but the captain would not set, he kept waiting and turning the boat and looking for another one.

Once he found the one he wanted to set on it was a fast action to get set around the school before it could escape. On his loudspeaker enhanced shout “drop now!!” the net boat is released and topples off of the back of the ship, taking the net with it. The Caribe begins its turn slowly to the left and the net boat start out off the back of the boat and to the right, the idea being that the two will meet again on the other side of a circle, and close the net. In order to prevent the fish from exiting the open end of the net they launch a speedboat to go whip donuts and dig in, high speed and herd the tuna away from the opening.

As for the bottom of the net? It takes a long time for 300’ of net to sink down for enough to encapsulate the school, so the deck crew begin lobbing dozens of pouches of a green dye into the water as the net is let out. The dye blocks the tuna from seeing the edge of the net and seeing the opening at the bottom. It sinks forming bright green colored clouds in the water faster than the net, essentially creating a smoke screen. Some captains will have the helicopter do the job of the speed boat, in addition to the speed boat, doubling the odds of keeping the tuna in the net. I saw one of the other ships do this today, but our captain doesn’t use his helicopter very much.

As soon as the net is let entirely out it is hooked back into the boat and they start the long process of winching it back in and stacking it on the deck. The crew go about the job of lining up the yellow floats, the net, and the weights in their appropriate stacks on the stern of the boat. With each passing moment the net gets smaller and smaller until it forms a very small and restricted net and the tuna have nowhere to go. The captain or first officer then picks up (using a crane) a scooping net and drop it into the purse, scooping basket after basket of tuna out of the sea and into the fish hatch. Today’s catch brought another 80 tons of fish in, so we’re almost 1.3 of the way full.

I’m finding it is getting fairly difficult to come up with something to write about every day, and I’m realizing that after the first month or two out here I’ll have run out of new things to describe while at sea. I have a lot of thoughts cross my mind during the day but chronicling them all just doesn’t happen in a timely manner. Now were sailing toward Christmas Island, or so I’m told – all I know for sure is that we are headed east. Chasing yellow fin with the Jumbogo off our starboard side, her helicopter taking off and landing another two or three times throughout the day. That pilot is building some time over there. She’s a bigger boat, a class A I guess. Sounds nice, we’re on a class B and it’s a fairly nice boat.

I’m converting the first 3 seasons of the walking dead from windows to mac right now, Jose had them on his…well that was a hard left turn and a whole lot of excited Korean shouting on the loudspeaker – I’ll be right back, going to check this out.

Lady Marion’s Last Day

Went up to the flight deck to see why we laid over on our left side so hard, saw the Jumbogo off of our left side, pulling away from us at a considerable speed. The bigger boat could do about 15 knots, making our 12 knots look rather slow. You’d be amazed at what a 3 knot difference at sea is. In the distance, very apparent on the horizon was a large plume of smoke. The first officer told me that is was the Lady Marion that was in flames. It wasn’t long until the rest of the crew made their way up to the outer decks to get a look. Not much to see at this point, the smoke is still off on the horizon.

Jose, Roxy, and I all made our way up toward the bridge where a set of spotting binoculars are mounted, and took a glance. The distinct outline of a purse-seiner could be seen against the smoke. The Jumbogo was continuing to pull away, and on the horizon two other ships could be seen, all of us were racing to get to the vessel in distress – a sister ship in the fleet. At 12 knots it was going to take us at least an hour to get to the Lady Marion.

There was a lot of standing around and speculating what might have happened, Jose and I made our way back to the flight crew cabin both thinking the same thing, let’s see who from our company is on that boat. All though it is tragic, the fire on the boat, we were certainly relieved when we opened up the manifest of pilots, mechanics, and helicopters and found that the Lady Marion was not on the list – simply put, there was no helicopter or flight crew on board.

The loudspeakers piped the chatter between the 4 ships Captains all working their way to the Lady Marion, understandably the tone was urgent, mixed with angry (Korean captains all sound angry on the radio to me) as they tried to piece together the full story. Occasionally a bridge officer would make his way back to the stern and as they passed us say something to kind of update us. We were now told that the fire was in the engine room, on a later pass the deck boss told me that the life rafts were out and deployed and the crew had abandoned ship. This is not the kind of excitement a sailor, or flight crew on a boat for that matter, want in a day.

It puts what we are doing out here into perspective, it’s humbling, watching as we try our hardest to get to a ship in distress, the smoke blackening the sky in a tall and growing column. Only 12 miles away and it would take no less than an hour for us to get there which was fortunate for the other crew – since we were so close. It’s only been in the last few days that we’ve had other boats near us so I can only imagine how long, maybe days, it would have taken for someone to reach us if something had happened when we were on our own.

Each captain has his own style, ours happens to be reclusive and guarded, and in spite of the fact that we are all fishing for the same company he prefers to be on his own, finding his own schools. The vastness of the ocean is staggering, and we make jokes about cabin fever and bullshit to pass the time but it isn’t until right now that I am face to face for the first time with how vast it is and how something that perhaps in a town, or even in port, would not be a major problem can be the difference between life, death, a roof over your head and hull under your feet.

12 miles. In a town responders could cover 12 miles in 12 minutes and begin their rescue and firefighting operations, and we’re going to need an hour just to get there. I ride 15 miles on an easy day on my bicycle and can do it in 45 minutes, putting both the Caribe and the Jumbogo to shame, and I’m on a one man powered two wheeled aluminum frame. A lot can happen in a hour, especially in the ocean.

“HELICOPTER STAND BY!”

That’s what we were waiting for, and just like that we didn’t have time to think about vastness, and depth, just flying. The three of us hustled up to the heli-deck and began undoing doors, blades, and tie downs. Jose climbed up into the cockpit and, as soon as he was clear to, fired up the engine. The captain was quick to the other seat, and in a matter of less than a few minutes they lept from the heli-deck and began flying to the fire. The helicopter from the Jumbogo was in the air too, and could be seen headed to the Lady Marion ahead of us.

6 minutes. That’s how long it took for Cabrera to fly the Captain to the Lady Marion and then come back to the Caribe. As soon as the helicopter set down the captain climbed out and waved Roxy and I back to the tool locker, they were going to use the helicopters to move crew off of the burning Lady Marion to the two rescue ships. That’s what we were now, not a tuna fish boat, nets slung and scanning for catch, we were rescue ships plowing through the ocean on our way to a ship in distress.

Jose picked the helicopter up and started back towards the Lady Marion, and I kept my watch going. It was a short flight though, I watched as the helicopter on the Jumbogo turned back against the sky and began it’s return leg and landing. I glanced back at our helicopter, and it too had mad a turn back to the ship and landed. There just wasn’t a safe way to get in there and get anyone.

The crew had piled into the net tender and released the large hulled boat which was normally stacked on the net at the back of the boat. A feat in and of itself considering the fire had started in the engine room, and spread to the nets – they must have released it when the first signs of an abandon ship situation had shown. Otherwise they would not have been able to get to it.

As we arrived on the scene two other purse-seiner boats from Dong Won were already here, and a Dong Won long liner was just behind us, showing up a few minutes after we finally rolled our throttle back and joined the fleet circling the burning Dong Won purse-seiner. The crew had made their way over and tied their net tender up to the Jumbogo, the largest of the boats here, and were now safely on board and away from the fire.

The plan now was that the few ships with nets would stay with the Lady Marion until the inevitable happens, she succumbs to the flames, and sinks. At which point we would deploy our nets to contain the oil and fuel bunker spills that were going to happen. Meanwhile somewhere the US Coast Guard (who apparently had jurisdiction down here – James this is the assignment you should have had brother) or a US Navy ship, was being turned to come out here and finish the rescue and containment.

I went up to the flight deck tonight, and watched as the fire burned across the way, the bright orange flames illuminated the smoke in a way that the silhouette of the Lady Marion and her mast, and boom arms (which were brand new) could be seen. She had just left drydock in Korea after her main boom had collapsed on its last voyage. This was her first trip after the repairs had been completed, and the Captain – it was his first command.

Exciting day, but can we go back to the long hours, and tedious challenges of picking out tv shows to watch and books to read? I’d rather not see another ship fire for as long as I live.

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