Skunked, also…Economics of the High Seas (Jan 16)

I transferred to this boat, the Shilla Jupiter, on the 6th. It had already been at sea for a week at that point and when I came aboard I eventually got around to asking the fisheries observer how much tuna we had onboard already – the answer was that in the week they’d been sailing they had caught almost 100 tons of tuna, but a little less than 100 tons. That night for dinner they performed a ceremony to ask the god of the sea to fill their nets. He must not have liked the sacrifices.

Now it’s been two weeks since I came aboard and we’ve caught around 200 tons of tuna, in small batches, and seen no schools at all. Every flight we’ve come up empty handed except for finding a payow on one. That was fun, we were flying and searching for the payow – the Yansa (2nd officer) was searching through powerful binoculars out the right side of the helicopter. I was every now and then searching out the left side of the helicopter between instrument scans. On one of these occasions I spotted the raft (payow) over my left shoulder, I keyed the mic and said as much over the intercom, and banked left to get to the payow.

I set myself up for a nice descending pattern down to the payow, that would allow me to keep it in sight the entire way down to it. Once we got over the water the Yansa climbed out onto the pontoon with the gps buoy in hand. I maneuvered the helicopter over the payow, concentrating intently on steady smooth movements – very aware that 150 pounds had just shifted away from the CG centerline of the helicopter and was hanging onto a pontoon. As we got closer Yansa directed me with hand signals left and forward a little more. The rotorwash splashed up the ocean surface, slightly behind and left of the helicopter telling me that I was still in a headwind. Once the buoy was out and the Yansa climbed back into his seat I slowly moved away from the payow a bit to make sure the rope wasn’t lashed over my pontoon float and then climbed out and away into the wind.

That was it, that was the one moment of excitement in all the flying that has been done out here this trip so far. Large circles over empty patches of water, with only a few birds or whales in it, punctuate each flight before we land – shaking our heads with the disappointment of not having found anything. It’s easier for me, I’ve only been out here two weeks however the crew, the crew, they’ve been out here almost a month with less than 300 tons of fish to show for it, and this boat has larger holds than my last one, 1100 tons worth.

The Captain, with each day, has grown more reclusive from the crew. He takes his meals in his stateroom and rarely ventures off of the upper deck. The cook still sets a place for the Captain at the table, but the officers and I have grown used to the notion that he isn’t coming down to join us. Once the cook sends a tray up to the Captains room the (typically better prepared) food set out in front of his spot is fair game. We take servings of fruit, and spring rolls, and other sides from the platters that will otherwise go unconsumed. His kimchi is often fresher and better seasoned too it seems like, maybe it’s just psychological – taking from the dishes reserved for the Captain makes the food taste that much sweeter. I don’t know.

Today however he finally reached wits end, two payow had checked out with no fish near them. The flights around them showed nothing to indicate there was a payow school feeding nearby somewhere. He began to yell and scream at his officers whom he had assembled in his quarters. I didn’t understand a word of it but my room is just down the hall and the berating carried well through the wood panel lines corridor. The observer, who stays across the hall from me, stopped over to chat.

“The Captain is very angry” the observer said.

I just smiled at the comment and asked “what gave you that impression”. We both laughed, but the yelling continued. We gathered that he was mad about not finding any fish, it seemed he wasn’t going to shoulder that failure on his own shoulder, and was lofting the weight of it onto the men that manned the observation tower and sonar/radar. If I were a Korean pilot and part of the crew I may have also been in that room. Thank god I’m not. I don’t like getting yelled at, and I’m not in the Army anymore.

Speaking of the Army, I found something interesting out last night over an exchange of hard drives, movies, and Soju. It would seem that every young man in Korea has a two year obligation to service in the Army. Conscription like that is a notion I support for our country as well – it would solve a lot of the social problems in youth these days if they had to serve for a few years. Anyways, moving away from that social commentary, these Korean youth have an option though, if they don’t want to serve in the Army they can serve in the fishing fleet as “Sumansa” (3rd officer) or “Yansa” (2nd officer) for a commitment of 3 years. So it’s either two years in the Army making nothing, or 3 years as an officer on a fishing boat making money hand over fist. The Sumansa on this boat hates it here, he told me, but didn’t want to serve in the Army. They are all of course swayed by the money too – but it sounds like none of the junior officers really truly wanted to be fishermen. Interesting.

You would think – back to the story – that the Captain would do the sensible thing and tuck tail back west. He’d made the decision to come this far east based on bad intel from another Captain. The whole fishing fleet went west to the Solomons and PNG following the tuna, we went east speculating on the chance to hit it big on a late push of Yellowfin in the migration. We gambled, we lost, lets call it a day and go join the fleet. For awhile it looked like that is what we were doing, our bow was cutting west and we were on our way. When all of a sudden the Captain ordered us South, and then back East again. His gut telling him that we were going to miss something big if we didn’t stay.

So we’re south of the last area we were in, and pushing back East, 3 weeks in and less than 300 tons on board with 800 tons left to go. I think this will be a long voyage. I did get a good chance to observe the economic principal of “Supply and Demand” demonstrated out here. You see, they’d been at sea so long that anyone with Soju or Whiskey had capital in the form of the booze. The other day we stopped at a bunker ship and refueled the Shilla Jupiter, and the ship also brought on 28 cases of Soju and a dozen cases of beer. Suddenly all that bargaining power crumbled into nothing. Let that be lesson to you in life and finances alike – if you have a commodity of value, don’t waste it until its value has gone up, but once it has – don’t sit on it either, because eventually it will not be worth anything.

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