Curacao: Simply Looking at Faces
One week, just one week on board a line fishing boat and my perception of things was altered radically.
The author, Pieter Meinster
I had just arrived in Curacao. An island in the Caribbean that belongs to the island range referred to as the Netherlands Antilles, it is located exactly 12° North of the equator, due North of the Venezuelan coast. I had walked approximately 20 Km from the airport to the Capital Willemstad that day, in the tropical heat and moisture that prevails in such climes.
My purpose there was altogether vague at best, but I was there, and in dire need of an income, a place to stay and some human interaction.
Walking along the western pier in the capital, I came across a quaint looking fishing boat called Big Eye, with a burly looking man of obvious South American descent working on deck, attaching hooks to short sections of very thick fishing line. I stood for a while and wondered at the skill and speed with which this clearly experienced individual was lacing and crimping the hooks and their respective main line clamps.
After about two minutes, he became aware of my alien presence, sweaty, puffing from exertion and heat and rather bewildered. He took pity and offered me some cold water from a thermos that he had on deck. It was very cold and incredibly satisfying, even though it smelt rather odd (the source of the smell became clear to me later…much later, after I had consumed that same water for several days). He had crystal clear eyes, the kind that see everything, express nothing and could potentially be the last thing some unfortunate soul would see while a knife was being twisted in his throat.
We struck up a conversation of sorts (what amounted to signaling with hands, feet and the occasional Spanish word I could understand). I mentioned rather clumsily that I was looking for gainful and preferably legal employment. “Mio mira trabajo,” he looked at me with his clear eyes, and though unnoticed before, a sudden doubtful, distrusting look fell from his eyes. I noticed it now because I actually had something to compare it to. He actually appeared to be highly amused!
He continued smiling and told me to come on board. He explained to me where to go to register as crew for this vessel, because it just so happens that they were one crew member short.
I stepped off the boat feeling a little uncertain, but I proceeded to the “offices” he had told me about. I entered through the front door, which wasn’t really so much a door, but a hole in the wall – obviously some architectural oversight. The owners of the fishery were seated at a desk in the middle of what appeared to be a huge freezer. There was an incredible sense of death about, dead fish on the floor, dead fish on the tables, dead fish hanging from the rafters by huge metal hooks, dead fish in crates and of course, the inevitable piles of fish guts, from which the most peculiar smells were emanating. The owners both jumped up as I spoke (to the dead fish in general, not wishing to offend anyone in their chosen workplace). They were both Dutch expatriates, the one, I realized, had spent some time in prison, as I could just make out a faded tattoo between his thumb and index fingers on his right hand as he shook mine.
They seemed rather taken aback by my desire to join the boat’s crew on what was going to be its maiden voyage with a new captain from Canada. It all happened very quickly. They said, “great, welcome aboard,” and I shrugged and agreed to see them in two days to prepare the vessel, meet and assist the captain and meet the remainder of the crew.
That evening and the evening following, I was rather distracted from thinking of my future fishing endeavors because I ended up spending two nights in a brothel, which was the cheapest accommodation I could find. I slept uneasily, whether it was the midnight cries of pain from the streets, the ghastly smells coming from my mattress, or the combined groans and shrieks of junkies and other unmentionable individuals from the rooms above, below and on either side of mine, I don’t know.
The Big Eye was what is called a line-fishing boat (also known as a long liner or sword boat). She is apparently smaller than most, in that she is only 15 meters long. She was built in Canada, and was very far from home here in the Caribbean.
Needless to say, I was overjoyed when I moved onto the Big Eye, even though very little had changed! It stank, especially my mattress (but I was getting used to that by now), but it was relatively quiet (if I don’t count the constant 24/7 roar of the generator, clunk, clunk of the ice maker in the hold, midnight cries of pain from the dockside and the combined groans and shrieks of my drunken fellow crew).
The vessel had recently been declared seaworthy again after a brief period of illegality at sea. She was corroded so badly on places that she shed her skin in layers like an onion. Her main water tank had a leak, which not only meant that we were losing water, but that the water in it was highly contaminated. She had a minor electrical problem, that being that she had no electrical wiring harness left to speak of – it had all burned out just after the seaworthiness certification officer had approved her for voyages in the open seas again. Finally, she had a real problem with the ice-maker; its filter mechanism was missing. The ice maker skims water from the surface surrounding the boat, which was full of diesel and hydraulic fluid, and thus tainted the ice quite nicely with pink and yellow stains (and very odd smells).
We were composed of six crew members altogether.
The captain; a slow witted man from some ghastly outback fishery in Canada, he only spoke English (or at least, the Canadian version thereof).
The butcher; the big man I met two days earlier. He never stopped smiling at me with his eerie, clear eyes. He was a Venezuelan named Jose, and many years experience wielding sharp implements at wriggly living bodies had given him a very quick hand with knives and an accuracy with thrown knives I personally have never seen before or since.
Xavier, a local from the island, he spoke Papiamentu (the local language), Spanish and a smattering of Dutch. If ever anyone had an addiction to sex, I do believe this man qualified. He even tried to smuggle some women on board for the voyage. He argued his point by saying that each crew member was allowed a certain quota of weight for “provisions”. When confronted with the fact that provisions imply sources of nourishment, he simply shrugged and said that women were laden with some of the best meat he had ever tasted. He was a fisherman through and through!
The other two were rather quiet, the one came from Colombia and seemed very young to have taken a job of this nature. He was the designated chef, though he only ever cooked once. He was also clearly the favored cannibalism victim, should we run out of food or should our food become contaminated en route. I still suspect that he had some kind of sexual designation onboard as well, though only he and those that used his services would ever be the wiser. He also only spoke Spanish. The second man was as friendly as a they come, he was Javanese, and he had a distinct Chinese facial expression and spoke a strange Chinese derivative and Dutch. He was also a fisherman on board this boat and he was doing it in the hope of the our catch going over the predefined quota, then we would each earn quite a big commission on top of our pay, this he would send his two children to school for another year and buy his wife a lovely dress. It was quite touching, a gentleman among beasts!
Finally there was me! I was the “communications and public relations officer” on board (or the equivalent thereof). I bridged the communications gap between captain and crew, and, as it later turned out, also became the third fisherman on board.
The Way Things Went After it All Began
It was a lovely November day, the sun was out in full, not a cloud to be seen! I had been orientating myself on the vessel, in the hope of alleviating any issues affecting my performance as an official crew member! Later, of course, I was rudely surprised by the inefficacy of my childish attempts at simulating the “real thing”.
We had finally completed loading all our supplies, which comprised of a whole lot of tinned food, bread (wow! a lot of bread) some fruits and vegetables and several boxes containing cartons of cigarettes of various brands. Bait (frozen blocks of squid) was loaded and stacked in the cooler hold, where later the fish get packed on ice, and finally, while I finished off the preparation and arrangement of hooks, the electrician was quickly rewiring the entire vessel to create a semblance of electronic functionality on board and the rest of the crew were out getting laid or drunk or stoned or any combination of the above, which ultimately resulted in the postponement of our departure.
Finally, at 04:00 the next morning, with engines roaring, a hung over crew and a captain at the wheel, we set off.
I never before felt such excitement at leaving terra firma, standing on the bough of a chunk of steel that was being kept afloat by God’s grace only (and that must have been wavering). Two hours into our trip, I had altogether lost sight of land, nausea was creeping up on me like a fly hitting a windscreen at high speed, my excitement had already begun to diminish and, quite remarkably, the rest of the crew were laughing their asses off at my obvious discomfort. In light of the obvious zeal with which my fellow crew members were watching my death, I decided to do the only thing I could, which was… NOTHING! There was nothing to do, while we waited, nowhere to hide, no one to even speak to on an understanding and compassionate level. I was, in short, miserable!
Another three hours passed and as I thought it was impossible to feel any worse, things got worse. The captain came down to inform us that we were steaming straight toward a storm, that would be hitting us tomorrow some time, but that we could already expect a “choppy ride”. Nothing serious, the captain said, just open seas. That was probably the greatest understatement I ever heard (with the exception of a couple that got added to this list before the trip was over!). The weather got bad! I briefly thought I noticed the other crew members getting a little pale, and at any rate they weren’t laughing at me anymore, and they suddenly all seemed to get very occupied doing personal things like hanging over the side of the boat, inspecting the wake, cleaning the toilet and even rinsing the deck at one point. We seemed to share a very sheepish, pale “I-really-don’t-want-to-be-here-right-now” look, and so the day continued. That evening I was standing guard at the wheel first, so with engines roaring, I watched our slow progress past minute land masses on the radar, ensured that we were not going to collide with any undesirable objects on my shift and checked our heading, which remained remarkably fixed, given the waves, wind and my nausea. Two hours later I went to my bunk and woke the next guy enroute.
The next morning I was feeling a hell of a lot better! I actually smiled at the captain as he put his foot on my chest, while climbing down our triple-bunk beds. The boat was rocking, rolling, pitching and yawing in every direction imaginable, all hell was breaking loose outside and inside. Pots and pans collided, knives in the cutlery trays went smashing into one another, the cooking gas cylinder had torn loose from its mounting and was swinging dangerously by the gas hose connecting it to the oven, going off the smell. The hose had sprung several leaks, and between all this racket and chaos, I saw Jose-the-butcher, smoking a cigarette in a state of complete tranquility and I knew exactly how he felt. Nothing beats feeling so messed up that you can barely see straight, going to bed, and waking up, not even vaguely feeling like that anymore. It was a baby miracle! And so it came that I was initiated with an ocean-faring crash course!
The day began slowly, we started laying our line at about 13:00. It was quite a simple procedure, however it did take me a while to gain the favoured post of bait-hooker and tosser-of-hook. I started at the bottom of the food chain, hoisting half defrosted blocks of squid out of the cooler hold. An hour into this chore and I was covered in squid guts, I smelt like rotting seafood and I had slipped several times on some distinctly decomposed squid remains. Anything out of the cooler goes off almost instantly, and that’s only living things. Dead things rot in the cooler, because the ice had been neglected for some time.
From there they realized my wasted talent and brought me up to help with the buoys and sent the Colombian down the hold. He had a look on his face that implied certain death. After my release from the hold, I must say, things certainly were an improvement on deck! The storm had picked up drastically. In the hold I was being swung around, slipping on all sorts of unidentifiable sources of slime, surrounded by dead squid, and occasionally getting a splatter of squid juice in my eyes or mouth, depending on how alert I was. On deck, it was a complete difference, the swells were already crashing heavily against our bow, huge spray filled the air (which actually felt quite good, after my confinement to the hold) and waves were tumbling over the side of the boat, threatening to wash anything loose on deck overboard.
It was here that I started questioning why we didn’t have life vests or better yet, life lines, tying us to some safe part of the boat’s structure.
Several hours later, I had successfully arranged my promotion to the baiting and hooking section. The Colombian was still in the hold. I knew he was alive, because we were still getting “fresh” bait to put on our hooks. The storm had picked up strength and was blowing the rain into our faces and against our legs so hard that it hurt. We had still not been issued life vests or even waterproof garments. We were drenched, standing in our shorts, working.
Xavier went to bed with a serious case of the “puking-shits” as the captain called it. He was buggered and that created more work on deck. The storm was in full swing now, the swells were reaching 15 meter heights quite easily, and they in turn were covered with white waves. I was given the pleasant chore of retrieving the buoys from the cabin roof. After I had gone to the captain asking for a life vest, the captain had told me that a life vest won’t help in weather such as this and that if I or any other crew member were to be washed overboard, he would not turn back to look for us. Apparently he was doing us a favor by withholding floatation devices from us, our misery would be far shorter lived when we got washed overboard (surely he meant “if” we got washed overboard?!).
It was hell. I crawled up the side of the cabin roof, gritting my teeth and swearing at everyone who did not have to be here now. The waves and swells were breaking over the bow of the boat with such ferocity that the entire boat rung out in drum-like sounds, as though it were a Coke can being crushed by a giant fist. The ladder flexed under my hands every time the water hit me. Finally I reached the top, only to find that there was nothing but open space between myself and the cage where the buoys are kept. I saw a way around and took it, even though it meant holding onto the scorching exhaust with both hands and making a frenzied dash for the cages. I got the buoys down and I followed in rather quickly. It felt like the work would just never end, and then it did!
Fatigue is in itself already quite an extraordinary experience. As a helicopter pilot, I have the necessary rudimentary understanding of its causes and effects, my little pocket dictionary defines it as “physical or nervous exhaustion”. On board this boat, fatigue took on a whole new meaning, I would define it as “exhausted exhaustion”. After standing continually for fifteen hours, your body has been pounded and crushed by volley after volley of waves and then having to sit for two hours at the wheel performing watch duty while everyone else sleeps, you are nothing. Death would be welcome relief, there is nothing left of you, your body simply says “stop”.
I slept like a baby when I finally got to bed.
The next day was upon me before I had even had a chance to roll over once in my sleep. It was much calmer now, the storm had passed us by during the night and we could now start retrieving the line. It’s an arduous process, one that needs some skill on behalf of the captain as well as the crew. The line is taken in at approximately 30° starboard of the extended bowline, the captain has a remote operating console slightly forward of the gate from which the fish are hauled on board, to view the line and angle precisely. This console exploded on first use, and since then only registered sporadic inputs, so the captain was restricted to the wheelhouse. That was quite a predicament, the line angle is harder to control precisely and when we had a large fish on the line, we would have to slow our forward momentum to haul the fish aboard. Reactions were considerably slowed and resulted in us having to retrieve a snapped main line about five times that week. We also mangled one “super-huge” tuna by not slowing in time and running over it with the boat’s propeller. This resulted in a spectacular feeding frenzy. All kinds of fish, both large and small came down on the remains of this tuna.
We lost buoys, we lost fish, we were steadily losing drinking water, we lost all kinds of gear overboard and finally we lost our tempers. The captain shouted at the butcher, the butcher shouted at the Colombian and the Colombian just shouted because he had no one to shout at. Finally I shouted at the crew for polluting the ocean by throwing used luminescent lights and garbage overboard and everybody suddenly laughed. Very odd, I thought at the time!
Our first fish were not what I had expected. Whether they were bigger than I thought, whether it was a bloodier business than I had anticipated or whether I was just not happy on board, I don’t know. Things just didn’t feel right. We hauled sharks of every type imaginable, sail-fin fishes, marlins and tuna, every one of them huge.
The sharks were predominantly alive when we got to them, they seemed hardier than the sail-fins, marlins and tuna but suffered the same unbearable fate as all the others in the end, they got hooked in the head with several hooks, pulled on board and secured and instantly butchered. After the second fish, the deck was a blood bath, little pieces of fish intestine clung to my leg hairs, everything was covered in blood, and then came the smell, to add to the delightful stench of rotten squid. There was now the added scent of ruptured carnivorous stomach and intestine and above all, the smell of shark. It is a very distinctive smell that comes from an oily substance the sharks secrete while lying on the deck, it penetrates everything and stays there forever.
After the second day we all stank and no one bothered washing anymore. We would go to bed with pieces of fish and intestine stuck to our legs and arms, my nice khaki shorts had turned a strange maroon colour from all the blood and they were waterproofed by oil and grease.
The tuna that came aboard alive was butchered and then had a spike run through its spine, just to ensure that the fish would no longer flap about, damaging itself on deck or on the ice. This also ensured the meat around the spine would retain its healthy pink or red colour. Discoloration was a big thing where final retail is concerned. Only half a fish is actually sold on the markets, that being the half that lies facing upward, that is what is sold to restaurants for sushi, the other side that lies on the ice is used for lesser quality products, usually canned.
On one of my evenings sitting “stuur-wacht”, all was quiet and the sky was entirely overcast, allowing no light through. The flood lights illuminated the water around the boat. It felt as though I was floating in some strange alternate dimension, unable to see beyond the floodlit area, unable to predict the waves and discern the depth of the water we were floating in. And in this strange limbo, a swarm of huge red squid appeared, flashing codes at each other with their bioluminescence. It felt as though I were witnessing an entirely foreign universe, one consisting of strange creatures, with completely foreign languages and rules and laws I knew nothing of. One in which I was the alien intruder!
Home at Last…
After a week at sea (that felt like an eternity), we finally headed home. The relief was obvious, tensions had risen and things had gone badly for all concerned. We had a fair catch on board, but that would just pay for this endeavor. The most memorable occurrence of this trip however, was yet to come.
We finally approached Willemstad from the west, the big “Pontjes Brug” (a floating bridge that spans across the harbour mouth) was opening for us. We were all excited at coming home and were all standing on the bow, looking at the people on the piers. When we neared our mooring, the floating Venezuelan fish market suddenly erupted at us, a whole hoard of wind horns went off and people were cheering our arrival and waving. It was good. My fellow crew was happy and we were one in our thoughts!
And so it All Ended
The Big Eye never did bring in a huge catch, it never even met the expected quota. The operator went bankrupt a month after my short tenure there and the boat was sold at a loss!
The captain was floating around for a while, looking for another “gig”, but one that never did come for him. He actually joined me as crew on board a big 120 ft steel hulled sailing ship for a while. I had been working there since my departure from the Big Eye and had become fairly proficient. I was also the only full time crew member they had living on board, I was supplementing my “income” by performing minor restorative work on smaller sailing boats, working as a barman and pretty much anything else that came up.
It was sad to see him then. He was finally thrown off the ship by my new Captain for being drunk (most of the time), disorderly (some of the time) and a danger to his fellow crew (only once that I know of). Though these accusations were accurate, they came from a man who was drunk (all of the time), disorderly (all of the time) and a danger to his crew (all of the time); this man actually tore an electric cable off a working cage hanging over the side of a bridge with the mast of our ship. The cable came down on deck and dragged the entire length of the ship still sparking, burning sails and scorching paint as it went. We were all barefoot on the deck at the time!
The rest of the crew of the Big Eye I never saw again, with the exception of the butcher, who regularly visited me on the sailing ship. He came by one day when our mutual ex-captain had joined me for his brief tour on that ship. He was friendly as ever, but when he saw our mutual ex-captain, he burst out in anger, threatened him with a knife and was dragged off by the pier security, never to be seen again.