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by Lorraine Cavener
Sea Find
Art by: Marilyn Brown

The famous Spanish poet Antonio Macado once wrote, "You walker, there are no roads, only wind trails on the sea." As I set out for a six-week tuna fishing trip as a cook on the commercial fishing vessel Phoenix, I thought of those words. The roads I chose on land lead nowhere and when I got an opportunity to go to sea, I decided to try it. I had never cooked for a "family" of four, least of all on a 68 foot boat, 1,200 miles offshore. Taking a journey to sea might be the only way to learn what the sea was really like and what adventures it held for me.

After a whirlwind week of buying groceries, boat repair and other numerous preparations, we left the Warrenton, Ore. boat basin with the outgoing tide on Sunday, September 8. Two of my closest friends stood on the mooring, and we waved at each other until they were out of sight. As we slid out through the mouth of the Columbia River, I looked back, watching the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center from the outside looking in, not the inside looking out, as I had in previous visits. I watched Cape Disappointment as the land disappeared.

I managed to cook our first meal aboard the boat--lasagna--but couldn't eat a bite because of seasickness, despite motion sickness pills and pressure point wrist bands. Each time I threw up, I was on the wrong side of the boat and it blew back in my face. In addition, I lost control of my bladder. Needless to say, I was a real mess that first day-and-a-half. After that I did not get sick again throughout the trip.

On the third day out we began dragging jig lines. A jig is a big three-pronged hook covered by a shiny plastic lure. We immediately caught several tuna. The first fish we caught we filleted, marinated, fried and ate. For the first time in my life I used tuna that didn't come from a can to make the best tuna salad I'd tasted.

The tablecloth in my galley was three strips of non-skid fabric. All my appliances were tied down to the counter. There was a small roaster oven, but the Phoenix was not a modern boat with a stove with rings to hold pots and pans in place. Instead, there was a microwave. Cupboards were latched shut. There was a bread maker for fresh bread, since we couldn't carry enough for the entire trip. My "dishwasher" was a five-gallon bucket and the deck hose. I used only sea water to wash dishes in order to conserve water, and rinsed the dishes in hot tap water. The freezer was tied shut with ropes to keep it from flying open when the boat pitched and rolled.

One day, when I went to the freezer for meat, the boat began heavy rolls as the wind gusted to 30 mph. As soon as I got the freezer open, the boat pitched and a bunch of stuff came flying out. I was trying to hold the door shut with one hand and gather up the stuff from the floor with the other hand. The boat pitched again and down I went. There I was on the floor surrounded by packages of frozen meat. A deck hand, Jason, came to my rescue and helped me get the freezer back to "normal" and me back on my feet.

Large schools of porpoises dove and swam along beside the boat. I wondered if they were just frolicking or if they were herding us out of their territory. They made the skipper angry because they tricked the sonar into showing the presence of tuna.

On September 17 we arrived at the "fishing grounds" where a group of boats were fishing. At night all the lights made it look like a little fishing village. We kept in contact with the other boats by radio, exchanging information about size and number of catch and stories about the people. Over the radio I heard a story about a family who lived on one of the boats - a mother, father and four children. At Christmas last year the children were terrified that Santa would not be able to find them. Santa not only found them, but he ate the milk and cookies provided for him and left presents for everyone.

We were catching between two and four hundred fish a day. Storms caused us to drift, to wait the worst out. The boat owner had warned us that in a storm the tall wheelhouse on the boat caused the boat to act like a dancing donkey. When we ran into our first big storm, the boat pitched and rolled heavily as the wind blew between 70 and 80 mph, causing swells of 30 to 40 feet. Waves crashed over the boat, filling it with water, which ran over the sides. After being tossed out of bed, I joined the skipper in the wheel room to watch the storm. He assured me the storm wasn't bad, just a little uncomfortable. He played the video, "Mutiny on the Bounty," and promised that if we stayed in the storm the wind and waves would get as bad or worse as those in the movie. He assured me that our boat was so well-constructed that we would be just fine.

I was too foolish to be scared. Jason, on the other hand, huddled in his bunk wearing his life jacket and clutching his crucifix. We headed toward the coast of Southern California, where we had heard reports of good fishing.

On Sept. 29, Jason caught a 40 pound tuna, the first we had caught in several days. From then on we only caught 10-30 fish per day. We fished all up and down the California Coast. The water temperature was ideal and the sonar detected fish. We saw them jump, but couldn't get them to bite. Often the fish were accompanied by feed layers. They had so much to eat that they were already full.

I became seriously homesick for friends and familiar places. I didn't realize how important it was to me to be able to get things like fresh fruit and vegetables. During the storm our cabbage and celery went overboard and I grieved for days.

I thought about a night a few days before we left when the skipper, a man who has been out on the ocean most of his life, went with me to the local shopping center. I was complaining about usual problems with traffic, long lines and high prices. He seemed to think the big grocery store was the greatest place in the world. There were many times on the boat when I realized how much I should have appreciated being able to go to that grocery store.

On Oct. 19, as we continued to fish along the California coast, a little lost land bird found our boat. I believe it was a baby pigeon. It was so tired that it sat and slept, perched on a wire. We fed it some sesame seeds. I held a plate with the seeds and the bird climbed onto my hand and let me hold it. I held it in my bunk as it regained its strength. It flew around and around in my little cabin. When I put it out on the hatch cover, it flew to the stern and perched. The minute we hit land, the bird flew away.

On Oct. 23, we had to stop at Bodega Bay, Calif. to get water. After six weeks at sea, I was anxious to jump off the boat and run and call my mother. But no! We were searched by the U.S. Coast Guard as we pulled into a slip. For the next two hours we had to wait on the boat while they searched everything including the fish hold. When I was finally able to make my collect call, I began to laugh when my mother answered. She asked me if I was OK and I said I was just happy to be back on land. After that conversation, I hitchhiked to a grocery store where I bought two apples, two oranges, two bananas and a bottle of whiskey.

The next day we left for Moss Landing, California, where we delivered seven tons of fish to a cannery. After a time in the shipyards, the boat was to continue to the South Seas, but I was like that land bird and flew the coop as soon as we hit land, not intending to go on another trip to sea.

During the many hours of travel on the boat, I had a lot of time to think. While I was so busy trying to make a living and survive on the land, thoughts were fleeting. On the boat, thoughts developed into a realization of what a big world we live in and how many options are available. On the land many barriers entered my mind telling me why I couldn't do things. But on the sea, I thought of ways to overcome those barriers. Stress and unhappiness quelched my self -esteem on land, but on the sea I regained my soul. If anyone were to tell me now that I can't do something, I could tell them to go to hell. I believe a person can do anything they set their mind to. Since I have been home looking for a new job and working to survive, everyday I debate which is harder, life on sea or the struggle on the land.

Although I did not stay on the boat as it continued to the South Seas, I wouldn't trade the experiences of that first trip. I came home broke because of the small catch, but what I gained was more valuable than money.

About a month after I returned home, I found myself at the Warrenton boat basin. As I stood and looked at the boats, I choked up. A strange sensation washed over me and the only way I can describe that feeling is to say I felt the sea call me. Antonio Machado's words rang in my ears, "You Walker, there are no roads--only winds trails on the sea."

About the Author

Lorraine Cavener grew up on a potato farm working close with nature. She studied English at Concordia College so that she could pursue a dream of writing professionally. She has been on staff at several newspapers and currently writes for the Time-News in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Other Nonfiction articles

Three Legendary Feminists
A Livid Loneliness: Women Aloft
The Myth of Kin
Welcoming the Year 2000
They told me I couldn't

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