Last night was bittersweet. Shortly after consumption of the celebratory bottle of champagne the crew of the Star Wind found themselves riding in the trough being pummeled by ten foot seas. The moqueca I’d prepared was hastily replaced with Dramamine. Last night one of our sets was so massive that the fish had to be vacuumed right out of the net by a larger boat. The thrill of catching seventy-five-thousand pounds of fish at once is fuel enough for a group of fishermen. The biting nausea of last night carried over into this morning but everyone was anxious to get the net back into the water. We were like players huddled around a craps table on a hot streak. Since coffee was all that I’d be making this morning I decided to do it right. I raided my private stash for the kona grounds I’d stowed. My champagne was squandered all night by seasickness but I viewed this coffee as a second chance to celebrate properly. Before my extraction was complete the captain was up and the boats engine growled to life. The coffee was a 600 foot homerun. One of the rare occasions when the culinary planets align and a quality ingredient meets the perfect combination of psychological and environmental variables to create a hardwired connection in one's brain. As a cook those are the moments I live for. It has been less than 24 hours but I already know that for the rest of my life when I get a sip of hot kona coffee I’ll be teleported back to that boat in that bay where we anchored up after catching all of those salmon.
“Jumper at four o’clock.” A crew member called. I turned in time to see six to ten more jump salmon jump out at once. I knew it was enough of a sign to warrant further exploration by the captain and sure enough, he climbed up into the crow’s nest and swung the boat in their direction. There are a few different setups to commercially fish for salmon. The Star Wind is a seining boat. Seining usually requires a crew of four including the skipper who drives the boat and barks out the orders, the skiff man who drives a smaller boat that tows one end of the net, and two deckhands that stack the net as it’s reeled in by the boat’s hydraulic block. The net itself is a confusing apparatus. There is a cork line on top which floats and a lead line at the bottom which sinks and a plethora of web in between. At the bottom of the net is also a purse-line which closes the bottom of the net to form a giant bowl 200 yards in diameter. The purse line is drawn using a winch attached to the deck while the crew stacks the net. Once the purse line has been drawn the whole way the bottom of the net is pulled up to the boat and is lifted out of the water with a “C” shaped hook. Until this is complete (which requires well over half of the net to be stacked) fish are technically able to escape although this is addressed by the captain who continuously strikes the water with a long aluminum plunger pole which scares all the fish away from the net’s only weakness.
The cook on the boat is usually one of the net stackers so that they can prep between sets. I stack the lead line and with the sighting of our first set of the day, have fully donned my rain gear. When the skipper has us in position he yells “Let him go!” I yank on the skiff release and with a clank of the steel latch the skiff is freed and the net begins to spill out into the bay. It takes about ten minutes for the skipper and skiff man to close the net. During that time I’m plunging with a 14 foot aluminum plunger pole to keep fish from following the net to our end and escaping. This part is mindless and so my thoughts wander to the girl I left in Wisconsin. I can’t help but notice the similarities between myself and our prey. The Salmon aren’t seasick but they could care less about eating right now too. The only thing on their mind, the only thing driving them to swim miles and miles upstream through fresh and saltwater alike is the instinct to spawn. I feel about the same right now.
Eventually I summon up my sense of duty and plan a lunch for the crew. The only thing I know is that given our static sense of nausea lunch must be light and I know that I want to use ginger. Ginger has long been used to settle the stomach and some seamen even bring ginger pills on their boats instead of Dramamine which makes one drowsy.
Once the necessary lines are fastened to close the set and the net begins pouring through the block. The challenge with stacking lead line is that your stack is on the half of the boat where the net is being pulled out of the sea directly above your head. This means that hundreds of pounds of jellyfish will fall through the net onto your head. The stuff burns like crazy if it works its way onto one's exposed face and eyes sometimes it even leaks down one's sleeves and neck. I stack the heavy lines into as neat of stacks as possible to minimize complications the next time it is set. Eventually the captain instructs us to pull on the web so he might roll the bag of fish onto the deck and into the fish hold. Normally a set found in open water based on a few jumpers isn’t likely to contain a huge school of fish but there’s always the chance for a jackpot. This particular set yields about five thousand pounds. Most days are like this, a grind. Even on a day like this though our catch will add up and I can make a few hundred dollars in a single day. Beats the restaurant at least in pay but then again what doesn’t?
After a few more sets, lunch rolls around I set to work. The galley is still a mess from the aborted moqueca from last night and so I spend much of my time cleaning. Lunch will have to be simple. My knife is out of its saya and filleting a pink salmon. The salmon is sliced thin, glazed with ginger-laced egg yolk and broiled with ham on triangles of toast. Into a cornstarch and egg-white batter some apple slices are dipped and fried. Sugar is melted for caramel sauce for the apple dish. Lunch is served with ginger tea.
As the afternoon drags on the fishing slows. Sometimes it picks up again in the evening. The other crew members and even the skipper seem to get disinterested. He climbs down from the crows nest and drives the boat instead for the insulated wheel house. The other crew members stop looking for jumpers all together and pick up books. Not me. I need this money. Paying attention at the right time can mean as much as an extra few hundred dollars in my account. Back home I'm not just a full time cook, I'm a full time engineering student. I've got tuition to pay for and I'd like to have something left over for an engagement ring.
The evening brings a few more sets and I'm that much closer to marrying the girl of my dreams. After some hard work, a light lunch, and basically no breakfast the crew is starving. I plan for these types of scenarios. In the freezer strapped to the ships deck I keep a few emergency meals. About a week ago on a day when the bay was closed, I'd pieced together a few pounds of salmon ravioli. The salmon was seasoned with crushed chamomile and cut into big flaky chunks before being trapped between fresh pasta sheets which were rolled out using an empty bottle as a rolling pin. When boiling water for pasta, I believe I've heard people say to salt it until it tastes like the sea. I've got the luxury of just using the sea. I fashioned a crude alfredo sauce with shallots, flat champagne, roux, evaporated milk and the funky unrefrigerated parmesan that comes in the green shaker. This was served with warm baguettes made with the same saltwater the fish was caught in. I got to taste the meal but ultimately surrendered my share so that the ravenous crew members could have another serving. Sacrifices like that are routine although they always require a white lie about how I already ate so the crew doesn't feel guilty. The limited sizes of the boat's cookware tend to be the bottleneck on how much food the galley can put out. It seems generous but I think most cooks would prefer to cook for others rather than themselves. Once the crew is out smoking and I've collected the dishes I sit down and enjoy a can of peaches.
Here I am now writing about it.
My girl is never far from my mind. It'll be another month before I see her again. Everything reminds me of her, even the salmon. There is something magical about the sockeye salmon and I think all of the crew holds them with at least a little reverence. These fish come back to the exact spot where they were born every year like clockwork. What a dependable fish. They school up and jump out of the water for seemingly no reason other than to give away the position of the group. They taste great. They are nutritious. They are sustainable. You add it all up and its a little too perfect. Too convenient, like the manna that provided for the Israelites in the desert. That's how I feel about her—it's like she was put there for me. Just one more month.