Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Fishing is a lot like this lockdown. Tedious, monotonous, and boring.

When our 3-day halibut trip turned into 10, I’d kick my boots across the cabin, just for something different

There are a lot of exciting aspects to commercial fishing in Alaska’s, but monotony is certainly not one of them. Fishing is rife with it. We do the same thing, over and over and over again. Yeah, sure the tides changes, the weather changes, the day changes, the fishery changes, but the work is the same. 

Take long-lining for example. First, you cut one piece of bait and don’t stop until that’s thousands of pieces of bait. Then you bait one hook and don’t stop until thousands of hooks are baited. Later you set them all out, wait and pick them all up. Afterwards, you clean one fish, then another, then another, you see where this is going? And what do you do when it’s all done? You do it again. And again. And again. Day after day, month after month, season after season. 

Want another example? Let’s go gillnetting. First, you need a net. You can build your own! First, tie a piece of string into a circle by making a knot. Then do that for every cork. Next, string hundreds and hundreds of corks along the cork line. Do that about 300 times or however many hundreds of corks you have on your corkline. Then tie one cork to your cork line. Then do that with all 5000 or so corks. Next, tie the corkline to your weedline, tie your weedline to your mesh then tie your mesh to your leadline with about a billion knots. Put the net on the reel and go fishing. 

Follow this step by step guide to gillnetting. Step 1) Look for fish. Step 2) Set the net anyway. Step 3) Pick the fish out of the net. Step 4) Set the net back out. Step 5) Pick the fish out of the net. Step 6) Set the net back out. Step 7) see step 1-6 and repeat every hour for the next 12, 24, 36, 72 hours until the fishery closes.  Step 968) Deliver your fish, get fuel and grub, clean the boat, fix everything that broke, including your net – just tie thousands of little knots into in and it’ll be fine – shower, change your clothes and sleep (this portion of the step is optional), eat (also optional), then get back out there and do it again for the next month or five, until the season closes! Are you beginning to see a pattern here? Fishing is the art of doing the same thing over and over and over and over again. Do you know what the definition of crazy is? Doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. It’s very similar to the definition of fishing, isn’t it? Very similar. 

Gillnetting on the Copper River Flats in the Gulf of Alaska

Does this tedium repetitiveness remind you of something else? Does it remind you of that day we had in 2020? Remember that day that has lasted two lunar cycles and counting? I think it was in the month of MarchAprilandsoontobeMay. While fishing has certainly made me a connoisseur of monotony, even this lockdown is starting to grate my nerves. Just a little.

I mentioned in my last post about a 3 day halibut trip that turned into 10 and kicking my boots across the cabin before getting out of the bunk just to break the monotony. That was a miserable trip. Not just because it was in March when it’s still dark, cold, and snowing in Alaska. But the other deckhand was fresh out of prison, a bit of a jerk and a princess all rolled into one. He refused to eat non-breakfast foods before noon nor breakfast food after noon.  So, no eggs or breakfast sandwiches after 12 PM and no regular sandwiches, soup, or anything he deemed non breakfasty before noon. A tall order for a cook/deckhand who’s baiting and unbaiting hooks minute after minute, hour after hour without the knowledge of the day, let alone the time (aka, me). As if that wasn’t enough, he wouldn’t mix ethnicities of food. Who’s even ever heard of such poppycock? Who even thinks up such nonsense?
So, no white bread with spaghetti because our bread was American and spaghetti, of course, is Italian. And folks, we were not on a luxury, factory trawler. We were 3 people on a 42 ft (13m) gillnetter fishing snap-on gear. Oh yeah, no tacos with salad and French dressing, and for crying out loud, where are you going with that Swiss cheese?

I remember this vividly even though it was a long time ago, because I was the cook. Seriously, I can’t make this shit up. Who knew prison was so accommodating? Did I mention this guy was fresh out of prison? His behavior was only sufferable the first 5-10 minutes of the trip. About day 7, of our planned 3-day trip, when we really started running out of food, it was less amusing. When I made my annoyance painfully obvious, he was finally smart enough to realize that if he didn’t stop complaining about my cooking, he was soon going to be part of the meal. Just as I raised the cleaver, he announced that he was going to cook. Already? It’s only been a week. He declared that he was going to make a fine meal, with the proper food to be eaten at the correct time of day, with no mixing of food nationalities. Be my guest. I was happy that for once I wouldn’t have to hear about my cooking for the next gazillion hours on deck and that we were going to have something different. We’d already gone through the old, dented, slightly rusted mystery cans that had lost their labels the first winter they froze in the cupboards. There wasn’t much else left to eat. Except, of course, for the thousands of pounds of fresh, wonderful, Pacific Halibut that we were catching. But no, skipper wouldn’t allow us to dip into our profits by eating one of those. But he did let us have a grey cod we were using for bait. A grey cod? You mean that bluck fish that’s riddled with worms? Gah. I’m having flashbacks. Yeah, I mean that. We can eat that. 

So, Chris, the ex-prisoner/world’s pickiest eater, who also didn’t want to eat the worm riddled flesh of a grey cod, stripped the roe out of a cod. He took that cod roe and mixed it with pancake mix. He mixed it with pancake mix, fried it in bacon grease and served it with, not syrup, because we ran out of that about 4 days ago. Not ketchup because that was somehow mixing nationalities (I never figured out how, either). No, he served it with peanut butter.

Oh my god, where do I start? Not that cod egg pancakes would have been good with anything but there are no words revolting and repugnant enough to describe how utterly awful and disgusting that meal was. It tasted just exactly as you would imagine sweet pancakes would taste with salty, fishy fish eggs would, topped with Jiffy peanut butter. The worst part, wasn’t that he used the last of the pancake batter. Nor the last of the peanut butter. Or the fact that he had the nerve to serve it at all. The old boot in the fo’c’sle would had made a better meal. No, the worst part was that he had the nerve to serve it for dinner! Can you believe that? Pancakes for dinner. Pancakes after 12PM!

So, what’s the moral here, you ask? Being bored sucks. The monotony of doing the same thing, day in and day out without really knowing what day it is sucks. Eating the same foods over and over again sucks. Fishing with high-maintenance ex-prisoners sucks. But, nothing is as bad as eating cod-egg pancakes with peanut butter for dinner. So, hang in there and it will get better soon. 

Stay safe!

Monday, March 23, 2020

An Alaskan fisherman’s guide for singles coping with a global pandemic

Bracing for the corona virus reminds me of fishing alone in Alaska. I've seen lots of advice on how to lockdown with family and children, but none for when you live alone, like me.  So, I wrote this piece. Feel free to share it with anyone who lives alone. 
I fished in Alaska for just north of 20 years, halibut, herring and salmon, I longlined, seined and gillnetted from southeast to Togiak. For five of those years, I fished for salmon alone on the Copper River Delta on the Gulf of Alaska. Nowadays, I’m a scientist, I study maritime psychology – the interplay between human behavior and the sea. As boats are isolated and confined environments, bracing for the corona virus reminds me of fishing in Alaska. Like a bad storm brewing, all I can do is get ready, wait and hope I’m prepared when it hits. Secure the boat, make a pot of spaghetti, grab a book, set the anchor and hope she holds. Then wait. 
Alaska is remote to begin with and its commercial fishing grounds are even more so. Isolation is a daily norm for the fishing industry there and it's also what I research. Fisherfolks leave town and are stuck on a boat with whoever else is on board. They only have whatever they brought with them and make do, cut the mold off the cheese and make a sandwich out of it. Fishing in Alaska is like being on lockdown, only the opposite. Rather than leaving town for weeks on end, we don’t leave the house for weeks on end.
Having worked in an isolated environment in the past is helping me through this time of lockdowns. I live alone in a foreign country. I have a partner, but his job took him to the Netherlands and mine to Brussels. And now the border between the two countries is closed. There’s no one else here to drive me crazy other than myself during lockdown. Believe me, sometimes, I’m managing to do just that. But before I jump overboard and swim away, I wanted to give a shout to anyone else in the same boat as me, preparing for this storm, alone. All the advice I’ve seen so far on coping with lockdowns is for families with children, which isn’t entirely helpful. Which is why I want to share my experience with you. I hope it helps you navigate this storm. 

Gillnetter anchored in Prince William Sound

First off, forget Isaac Newton. I keep reading all these stories about being super productive when in lockdown and that Isaac Newton did his best work in quarantine. I’m no history buff, but life in the 17th century was a bit different than life today, at the very least there was no 24/7 news media. Regardless, I’m guessing he was the exception, not the norm. I’ve been working from home for over a week and I’m only now getting into the swing of it. What else have I been doing? Preparing for the lockdown. Worrying about my family overseas. Attempting to figure out what the hell is happening and that keeps changing daily, sometimes, hourly. I’m pretty much anything but productive. Trying but failing to be industrious and beating myself up about it. But then I’m reminded these are extraordinary times and gave myself some leeway to adjust.
So, don’t panic. Give yourself time to adapt and realize some anxiety is normal. It is a global pandemic after all. Know that lack of information and uncertainty causes anxiety. In my case, once the Belgian government finally declared a soft lockdown - meaning we can go out for essentials and exercise while social distancing - I felt some relief. Not because I like being locked down, but because finally, a decision had been made. Before then, it was like being on the back deck and the skipper couldn’t decide if she wanted to make a set, run and look for fish, or go anchor up. And all I could do was wait in the rain for her decision. 

Do a quick check and see what you already have and make a list of what you’ll need. Food, soap, paper towels and of course, the ever-elusive toilet paper. Don’t panic buy, but do prepare! For me, it seems strange buying a bunch of food because I don’t usually go through a bunch of food. To make matters worse, the food to stock up on isn’t what I usually eat, rice, pasta and canned food. So, I was stumped by what to get and how much. Well, I did the math. If I eat three meals a day (and I do) and our lockdown is due to last at least two weeks, that’s 42 meals. Some meals, like a pot of soup lasts a few meals so it might be easier to think in portions. 
I’m a lazy cook and eat the same thing for breakfast every morning, instant oatmeal I got three boxes which is 36 packages, and fresh blueberries and frozen for when those run out. For other meals, I got whole wheat pasta and since it’s spaghetti, it’s not as gross as the thicker whole wheat pasta is, but it still healthier than regular pasta. There are about three servings a package, I got six packages, about 15-18 servings. Couple with canned tomatoes or sauce, mushrooms, spinach, some onion, garlic zucchini and a little parmesan cheese and that’s not too bad for comfort food, which I really need at a time like this. I also got three bags brown rice, lentils and beans, I like to make fajita bowls which is basically a fajita without the wrap. I stocked up on canned salmon, too (wild, obviously). Salmon is a good source of vitamin D, which boosts your immune system and keeps depression at bay. Both important at a time like this. You can make salmon burgers, cakes, salmon mac & cheese with peas or pesto pasta with salmon. It’s good with eggs or quiche, too. 
For fruit and veggies, get what you normally get, then a few things that last longer like apples, oranges, limes, lemons, cabbage, carrots, sweet potatoes and onions. Sneak shredded carrots or frozen spinach in where ever you can. Eat your bananas and grapes the first week, your apples and oranges the second week and your canned pineapple and frozen berries your third. Same with your veggies. Go through your mushrooms and fresh salad the first week, then hit the beets, zucchini and peppers. Anybody who has fished in Bristol Bay, where you can’t get fresh food knows that by the time the third week rolls around, you’ll be happy to have anything fresh, even if its cabbage and carrots. And while I’m not a fan of canned spinach, if you sneak it into eggs or spaghetti, it’s not too bad. Squeeze lime and lemon on anything that sounds good, including your water to keep scurvy at bay. 
One boat rule I used was to eat your favorite meal first. That way, you only have your favorite food to make. Don’t underestimate the power of food to boost morale. Make a few good meals, then pepper in the less savory ones liked canned soup from time to time. Keep tradition, like Aloha Friday. That’s when I reward myself with pizza and wine. 
Don’t forget to get things in case you do get sick like soup, cough drops and syrup, and Tylenol (paracetamol) for fever. Don’t forget snacks. Popcorn is heathy, salty treat, so are crackers. I got three bags of chips, one for each week. Obviously, I got a case of wine and a few pounds of chocolate, too. 

This will differ for everyone. As a researcher, I work from home once a week anyway and would do so at my kitchen table, which is the only use it gets. But after eight hours, my back would hurt from sitting in a kitchen chair. Now, I have an office area with desk and a decent chair. Do what you have to do to set yourself for working from home. 
As an introvert, I LOVE the idea of working from home as this suits my personality. But I’m an introvert, not a hermit. I still need human contact, occasionally. It’s been over a week since I last saw my friends in person. However, I’m still doing OK. I Skype with my partner, friends and family. My work colleagues and I have virtual coffee breaks. It’s been helpful to see how others are coping and it helps establish routine, which is key for staying on the right side of sanity. Next, is virtual happy hour. You’ll also need to shake things up a bit as monotony and boredom will creep in. When our 3-day halibut trip turned into 10, I’d kick my boots across the cabin, just for something different to do. 
Realize that, regardless of your personality, staying home alone will grate on you eventually, as humans are social creatures. Adapt. Modify to online socializing fairly quickly. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing. Call your friends. Read. Knit. Find something to do. There are lots of free online classes now, virtual museum tours, etc. Sailors don’t scrub the decks for fun. Keeping busy will help keep you even keeled. 
The magnitude of this pandemic is overwhelming. If you’re single like me, know you are not alone. I mean, you are alone, but you’re not alone. There are a few of us out there in the same boat. So, how to deal? Do you know how to eat a whole whale? One bite at a time. Try to digest little bits of at a time rather than allow the deluge of it all swamp the decks. 
Going on lockdown was put into perspective for me when someone said our grandparents were asked to go to war. We are asked to stay at home, to save the lives of others! With a little fortitude and perseverance, we can stay the course. 
Stay safe,
Jen Pickett, PhD