We’re in the Solomons (Dec 19)

Well, more or less. Yesterday the Captain decided to make the move from the Tuvalu fishing grounds to the Solomon fishing grounds because there just wasn’t any tuna where we were. Later I found out that the entire Dong Won fishing fleet had already made that move, so it sounds like our Captain was gambling on one or two more big schools behind the fleet – it did not pay off. We’ve been at sea for almost two weeks and have less than 200 tons of tuna on board.

At the current rate we’re going I’ll be surprised if we are in port in time to celebrate New Years Eve with beers and women and not-Korean food which is a bit of a bummer. But I guess it comes with the territory. I’ve been flying about 2 hours a day here with a few days not flying at all. This isn’t exactly the rip-roaring flying experience I expected it to be based off of talking with pilots out here. The Captain of this boat prefers to use the helicopter just to briefly look at certain areas and then go back. The first officer averages a bit over an hour every flight – and the Captain has put in some long flights too, but not usually.

This is a cool job, I’m excited that I’m flying a turbine helicopter commercially, and that I’m doing it internationally – which has always been one of my lifetime goals. The more I think about however, one year is a very long contract, and I think I’ll be ready for a nice long break of it all when it’s over. I’m thinking, relaxation, nowhere to go, no departure times, or anything like that.

Of course, who am I kidding, life is an adventure and it needs to be lived to the fullest! I don’t know where I’ll wind up after this but I’m sure it is going to be equally unique and exciting work. Or at least, that’s the plan anyways.

There is a squeak in my room somewhere. I think it’s a loose wheel in the air conditioning unit, or the vent or something in that area. It squeaks in such a way that it sounds as if there is a constant string of morse code being sent into my room. The familiar beeps and boops remind me of identifying navaids in the USA on instrument training flights. The radio room is right next door – I wonder if they still get and send morse code these days…

Anyways, tonight is the Captains birthday, so the chef is whipping up some BBQ (looks like Korean style spare ribs) and I’m sure there will be a pour of Soju and a Korean birthday song. I’m going to take my GoPro with me to dinner and try and catch the festivities for my tuna video. Which I am working on by the way, I’ve got all sorts of shots in mind, and list of things to do to make it a good video. I think the hardest thing is going to be coming up with enough creative mounts on the Hughes 500 to make for some great shots. I’ve already figured out a nose rig, and I’m also going to attempt a skid mount. We’ll see how all that works out – I may be down a GoPro if it doesn’t. Expect a scathing post if that happens.

The skies are blue, the sun is hot, the water is blue as well and we are moving at about 15 mph right now into the fishing grounds. I hope the weather stays like this and we just hit school after school out here. I like the action of the catch, and I like the flying to find the schools.

It’s very hard to describe what it is like to fly over these large schools of tuna, they are remarkable, in particular the large schools. The way they move under the surface of the water is electric, and they change course faster than the tip of a whip cracks the air. They turn on their sides when they break the surface for some reason and when they do they flash a full set of silver scales and reflected sunlight into the air. As their fins break the surface the froth the water up white into a sea foam and spray that you can see (from 1000 feet in the helicopter) from miles away. Yellowfin tuna jump out of the water like dolphins do, making even bigger displays and of course – giving away their position. Yellowfin is a prize catch out here, and our Captain loves yellow fin. The more of that he gets the happier he is, and so is the crew.

I sit on the heli-deck as the net gets smaller around the schools too, because I know I’m in for a show when they come up to the surface and the “foam” in the net. It sounds like rapids on a river as their fins break the surface, and they roll onto their sides. Of course part of me still feels a pang of sadness for them, as I know they’re swimming their last swim, and their lives are soon to be over, but that pang of sadness doesn’t dull the thrill of the sudden eruption to the surface of a hundred tons of tuna in a frantic ballet of fish against water.

Tonight was a special night, it was the Captain’s birthday today which mean, BBQ. And not the normal BBQ we have where the cook slaps down a few gridles in the galley and pan fries spare ribs, no. Today the crew set up a massive green tarp on the fish deck and brought out a halved 50 gallon oil drum (I’m just assuming it wasn’t still coated in oil) and a grill. An actual grill! We cooked spare ribs and chicken over white charcoal that the engineer fanned with compressed air from one of the lines normally rigged to the mast.

The cook brought the rice cookers out full of hot rice and set them on the tarp along with tray after tray of side dishes. It was the Captain’s birthday after-all, so no expense was spared, so then came out the case of Soju, filled with individual beer bottle sized serving of the Korean liquor of choice, and the small pallet of ice cold soda (what I think was a knock off brand of Sprite…despite the Coca-Cola label). For a while the captain grilled ribs and brank a Soju from the bottle, much like a father at a family BBQ would, his closest friends (in this instance the first officer and deck boss and chief engineer and radio operator) huddled around him watching the meat burn as they joked.

The crew meandered around the deck and eventually started kicking their slippers (sandals for you American readers) off at the edge of the tarp and sitting crosslegged in their cliques. The Indonesians sat with Indonesians, the Filipinos sat together and so on. I sat down next to my mechanic, with the Filipinos, the only other people on the boat that mostly speak and understand English. We feasted on ribs that we grilled either over the fire or on one of the griddles that had been hooked up to extension cords and drank Soju. I think these people love to see what the pilot will accept in terms of soju, because it seemed every time I turned around someone was offering to top my glass. One thing can be said for Asians (a people I love, as I was raised here afterall) they’re generous people. I’ve said that time and time again, and my time here is only reinforcing how I feel about them.

I made sure to take lots of photos, which I’ll include in my video, I’m thinking of doing one just for the crew though, I think they’ll like that – I’ll need to keep getting as many photos as I can of them, and put it together. Most of them have laptops and hard drives surprisingly, this job does pay them fairly well, so I can upload it to their computers for them.

Anyways, as the night went on the sun dipped lower and the charcoals grew colder. The Soju bottles ran dry and the soda case was pillaged until it was empty. The rice had been eaten and for the most part we had consumed far too much meat and everyone looked tired and full and happy. There was no song for the Captain, but I did make my way over to him as I moved around the groups and took a picture with him which he seemed very happy to have.

Now I’m lying on my bed, full of ribs and a little bit of rice, and a lot of Soju, finishing this entry. I can feel sleep grabbing at the edges of my mind and I know I should put my laptop up and call it a night. Which is exactly what I plan on doing after I go check my GPS for any messages and maybe take the Captain his photo.

Well, ok, that didn’t happen. My observer, our observer, whatever – came back with ANOTHER bottle of Soju and we decided to head down and join the crew, the Indonesian crew that is, for an evening round of drinks and banter. I know enough Indonesian from growing up there to impress upon them that I’m not another western out of touch pilot that doesn’t get them.

The small cabin sleeps four guys, and there is a tv at the far end playing Korean and Indonesian girl pop music videos. The ceiling is circled with smoke because everyone is toking on cigarettes, one after another. I’m not the only foreigner in the crowd, the observer from Tarawa is there, and I’m surprised when we show up to find the Korean radio officer there (who had also brought bottles of Soju). Anyways, we pass beers and Soju around and they smoke cigarettes, one after another, all while trying to talk to the pilot.

They tell me that the mechanic is not so well liked, because all he does Is eat first in the galley even when he doesn’t have to work. They tell me about their homes and families in Indonesia, I recognize a few places like Sumatra, Timor, and Yogyakarta and Komodo. I also learned that the Korean Radio operator has two daughters around my age and he’s very proud of them. None of them believe that I’m only 28 which makes me one of the younger guys on the boat I’m gathering, they point at my beard saying that it makes me look older. As the night winds on I find myself at apoint where it is time to bow out and let them BS in their own language. I excuse myself and make my way up to the upper deck. They actually have a term for us, upper-deck living people. Those being the captain, the pilot, the mechanic and the observer. I forget what it was, but they had a term. Or a word. I also think that it may be in some form derogatory.

I’m distinctly aware of the fact that I smell like smoke and I’ve probably lost a half dozen years of my life by even hanging out with these guys, but I had a good time chatting with them and trying to drudge up a bit of Bahasa when I could, and excused myself with “Salamat Malam” which means goodnight.

It wasn’t 20 minutes later there was a sound at my cabin door, the observer and one of the Indonesians was there. They had a bottle of beer and a bottle of Soju with them. Dear god…when would it stop? It would seem I had made an impression on the Indonesian crewmen. They appreciated that not only did I know their language, I also took time out of my night to go hang out with them and joke. So we shared a few more drinks, using small paper cups to split the beer and soju. Getting on the good side of the Captain and the Cook are the number one things you need to concern yourself with out here. But, that being said, having the crew think favorably of you can pay dividends later when you need something.

Does anyone remember Dia Frampton, from The Voice? One of her songs just cued up in my itunes – I’d forgotten how enchanting her voice is. Ok, time to call it a night.

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