It was the year 2000. Entering into the 3rd millennium and I wasn’t anything other than a lost bloke with little direction in life. By the time this year came to be, I had tried a few jobs in different professions. I guess you could say I had no idea what I wanted to do with my future. I was 19 years old.
After moving back in with my folks to try to save some coin, things were looking grim on the work front being that I lived in a small town on the coast of New South Wales, Australia, and that I didn’t have a trade. Back then, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity in the area.
After a couple of months of searching, I had pretty much given up looking for work. Thinking a move to the big smoke was on the cards, I started to look for work in Melbourne and Sydney, the closest cities to the area. I didn’t like the idea much at all, nor did my parents and as it turned out, my dad as it turned out had other plans for me…
One night, no different from thousands of others, the old man came home with another movie for us all to watch, “The Perfect Storm”. Having known some of the boys I went to school with were fisherman, I had a fair idea of some of the crazy stuff that can happen when out at sea.
After we had watched the movie and seen every single main character die at sea, we were having a chat about how full on the seas were and that much respect should be given to those that do this for a profession. But before to long, dad jumped up and turned the lights on, asking me to have a chat before I headed off to bed.
With a seriousness to his face, he begins to tell me now, after watching the worst movie imaginable about fishing in rough seas, that he has secured a spot on a fishing boat for me called the Huon Petrel and that I was heading out the very next morning at 5am!
I was to steam down to Tasmania for my first trip and all of this with the fresh thought of 40 foot waves crashing against the side of a fishing boat from the movie we had just watched. At first I thought he was taking the mickey, but after a moments silence I knew he was for real!
My first reaction was to throw some choice words at him… I mean, what a top bloke, making me sit through a movie like that only to tell me from now on I’ll be crossing the notorious Bass Straight twice a week to earn a living. For those of you who don’t know, this stretch of ocean is well known for ships sinking and coming aground on neighbouring Islands. Needless to say, I was shitting myself.
After a restless nights sleep, I was dropped off at the wharf that morning with a bag of clothes to be confronted by seasoned fisherman who could smell how green I was. After a few minutes, I was told to undo the bow and stern line, jump aboard and with that done, we were off.
It takes about 26 hours to steam down to Tasmania from Eden and I spent every minute of that, vomiting like mad. Clearly I didn’t have sea legs and all I could think was, what has my old man got me into?
My first trip south was one of the worst I had experienced. The wind was blowing from 40 to 60 knots, almost that of a lower-category tropical cyclone! Gail force winds coupled with 4 to 6 metre swell had the boat thrashing this way and that. I remembered only two years prior, watching the Sydney to Hobart race on TV and seeing boat after boat sink as they were belted with winds similar to what we were experiencing. There were many deaths and an abundance of people were air lifted that year, after they were unable to combat the storm.
As I sat at the back door that opens up to the rear deck, one of the other guys I worked with, Cain stood behind me and laughed as if it were nothing. Mind you, he was filming so I’m guessing even he thought it was a tad dicey. But these guys certainly had no fear and I kind of thought they were a little.. bat shit crazy! As the boat steamed forward it was swaying side to side so much that I honestly thought we were going to capsize. We were getting belted from every direction. The thing about the Bass Straight is that the waves come from North East and South West and collide, creating a sensation like being in the middle of washing machine. This was the real-life Perfect Storm!
If any boat was equipped to handle rough seas though it was this. An 84ft, Russian built, steel hull monster, that coincidentally was built the same year I was born. Equipped with a wave breaker, she would punch through a 6 metre wave with ease.
With each crash of a wave on the deck, all I could think was 48 hours ago, watching a movie of some crazy blokes doing this exact same thing. “Reassuring” words from the skipper, Russel had me thinking we were in big trouble after he said “If we need to ditch, we can take the dingy to the coast line which is about 4 kms away”.
But like all storms, this one passed. Leaving a trail of destruction as they do. We had heard two distress calls in the past 48 hours of boats coming aground but were unable to assist as they were over the other side of the Island. I was told that this was a common event and not to think about it to much, however I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone made it there to assist those in trouble.
To give you an idea about how hard these guys work, a net would be sent to the bottom of the ocean every 3 hours and if you hadn’t cleared the fish off the deck from the previous catch, you were out there for another few hours or more until you had the opportunity to rest. Sleep was a commodity that was hard to come by, having to stay out on deck for days on end if the fish were on. The same went for eating as well. So much so that I would stuff meat down the front pouch of my wet weather gear to munch on when I had a spare second.
I could go on and on, telling you stories of more extremely rough weather, broken bones, catching a tremendous amount of fish or the time I almost steered our boat into an ocean liner cruising at around 24 knots, but after the season slowed down, I never went back to working on a fishing boat again. It certainly made a man out of me and I salute those that continue to fish in rough seas today.
To Cain, Moe, Doc and Russel, thanks for not throwing me overboard and putting up with me for 2 days while I got my sea legs and many weeks of learning the ropes. It was an experience to say the least and I will never look at Travelling to Tasmania by boat again!