Back in New England, my brother Geordie’s been a commercial fisherman for more than 30 years. He developed his passion for boats as a kid, out fishing and pulling lobster traps with my father.
Several years ago his boat, the Sea Witch, was hit off the coast of Maine by a 20-foot rogue wave of such tremendous force that it blew out a wheelhouse window, ripped a 3-inch gap in the overhead of the superstructure, and wiped out most of the electronics.
With the winds blowing at 40 to 50 knots, Geordie had hustled the crew into their survival suits, managed to get one of the radios working, and — for the first time in his career — put out a Mayday. They were rescued, one by one, by a Coast Guard helicopter. Like a good captain, Geordie was the last to leave the boat.
The glint in his eye, even when he’s talking quotas and permits, makes me reflect that Christ must have been an incredibly compelling figure for Peter to have dropped his nets and followed him.
Geordie just bought his third boat, the Brittany Lynn, a Canadian-built 48-foot gill-netter he runs out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Recently I caught him down at the pier by phone and asked about the rhythm of a commercial fisherman’s day.
“I’ll have a crew of three,” he said. “We’ll usually take off 3, 4 a.m. Steam out 80 to 100 miles, at seven-and-a-half knots. Early in the morning we’ll have gear work, but other than that, we’re straight on the same course for 12 hours.
“Not like the old days when you had to trim the sails. Beyond 20 miles you may not see another boat the whole steam out. That’s how quiet the ocean is now with the regulations.
“We try to hit the fishing grounds by 4 or 5. Once we’re out there, we’ll set the nets. Then we’ll lay to, get some sleep, and the next day, start hauling.”
Geordie rises at 5. It’s still dark. He makes coffee for himself and the crew, watches the sunrise. They’re hauling nets by 6:30 or 7.
“We set five strings, 8-12 miles apart, and haul each one usually every day. A string is about a mile of gill net, made up of a series of 15-20 300-foot-long nets all linked together. Our catch is deep-water species: hake, pollock. We pick the fish out one by one, gill ’em, gut ’em — we call that dressing the fish — and put ’em on ice.”
They sometimes work until 9 or 10 at night. Geordie gets a fish dinner going. They do watches, so someone’s at the wheel 24/7.
They’re often out for a week. The last day, they haul the last of the gear, dress the last of the fish, and clean the deck “right down to parade rest.” They have to be in by 3 a.m. to unload for the 6 o’clock morning auction.
The boat’s in for a while — safety checks, repairs, weather — and then they start all over again.
Geordie has a wife and two teenage kids at home, but he shrugs off the danger.
“This isn’t ‘Deadliest Catch.’ With all the modern safety regulations and devices, it’s not like the schooner days, when 20 men would go down in one ship,” he said.
“When the ocean’s rough, there’s an ugliness to it, but at the same time a certain beauty. You know you’re on a good boat, but you’d also just as soon the sea calm down. Often a gale only lasts 12 hours, a day. When the next day’s idyllic, you appreciate it 10 times more. Everybody’s like that, any fisherman. We’re always glad to see the nice weather.
“I’ve always been out there because I love the boats and I love the environment. I wouldn’t be able to put in the time if I didn’t love it. You have to take a minute, even if you’re still hauling gear, to stop and look at the sunset and go, ‘This is awesome.’ Some guys really do fish for the money.”
How can he tell?
“Well, they’re more successful. They’re all business. They don’t take an interest in anything other than the pure mechanics. There’s another kind of guy who’ll say, ‘Jeez, it’s a bluebird day.’ Meaning a gorgeous, cloudless, sunny, clear, no-humidity, just the best kind of day. Those are the guys I relate to a little more.”
The winters are getting harder. The regulations have taken a lot of the romance out of it. But the sea’s in Geordie’s blood. He can’t see stopping anytime soon.
“Fall’s my favorite time of year, on land and sea. Most fishermen will tell you that. Crisp breeze, good visibility.”
After the Resurrection I suddenly remember, Peter did go fishing again — perhaps one last time. And Christ, who surely understood a love for the sea, and the capacity to withstand gales, and an eye for the far horizon, helped him bring in a full catch.
“Fishermen are folks who like to go their own way,” Geordie said. “A lot of people work in an eight-story glass box. My office is the ocean."
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.