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Go to Sea

In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago, the aged Cuban fisherman, redeemed himself through long-in-tooth courage in the face of defeat. A triumphant allegory, sure, but Ernest Hemingway had it wrong about one thing: No one lives long enough on the sea to become an old man. You just...
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In The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago, the aged Cuban fisherman, redeemed himself through long-in-tooth courage in the face of defeat. A triumphant allegory, sure, but Ernest Hemingway had it wrong about one thing: No one lives long enough on the sea to become an old man. You just become old at an early age. I know. I just met a 26-year-old club DJ and student here in Phoenix who's aged a lifetime after just four seasons on a Northern Pacific fishing boat.

It was 1996 when Chris Robson nearly cashed it in for the first time. Robson was an upstart deckhand in his second season on the Harvester Enterprise, a 188-foot fishing vessel that trawled for cod and pollock in the waters of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea.

The day was a typically cheerless one, heaving and wintry, and tarnished with the inescapable foulness of dead fish and diesel, a day as good as any for a routine harvest of Alaskan pollock. The huge trawl, used to exhume fish 20 tons at a time, rolled from the hydraulic net reel and into the water. The net itself is like a giant sock, 15 to 18 feet wide and 60 to 80 feet long that goes along the sea floor sucking up nearly everything in its path.

As the net dropped from the sloping ramp in the ship's stern, Robson was standing nearby. A plaited steel "spaghetti" strap connected to the net lashed out and hooked on to Robson's life preserver. There was quick movement. The weight of the net guaranteed enough pull to snap Robson back-first onto the steel deck. It then yanked him side to side toward the stern. His helmeted head bounced off the deck like a basketball in the hands of an amateur. Robson could see the boat disappearing in front of him and deckhands signaling the bridge with closed fists, the sign for the captain to bring the vessel to a stop. He could hear shouting, a muffled strain of Norwegian, Japanese and English as the mesh line pulled him down the ramp, down to darkness. Within moments, he was in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, tangled in the net. The water's metallic, hypothermic sting felt like certain death. He figured he was as good as gone.

The ocean moves at a different pace than a ship or its net, and the Alaskan waters are, of course, severe and unforgiving. The trawler steadily yawed, undulated and pitched into steep swells, redefining for Robson fate and God and despair and evil and hope and joy.

His body temperature took a tailspin plunging toward hypothermia. A gutsy Harvester fisher known only as Greycen slammed on his survival suit, moved fast and made it down and off the ramp to Robson. Made it in time to jump into the ocean, pull his knife and cut him from the net.

Hot water bottles were placed in Robson's armpits and crotch. The captain instructed two beastly Samoan men to disrobe and lay atop him to restore body heat.

Commercial fishing, including the sea and air rescue teams that support it, is historically the nation's most hazardous industry, riddled with traumatic injuries and fatalities. More people die on fishing boats, per capita, than in any other job in the U.S.

"I could have gone home for that," says Robson. "I could have won a lawsuit, easily. Those kinds of things you shrug off because you are a man. It makes the others think you're a tough-ass."

There were times Robson wanted to bail. He felt hollow inside, spiritless, like he was running on fumes. His depression was the consequence of a job that's an obstinate mix of triumph and loss. Robson found an end to his struggle. For one thing, he'll be married soon to a woman named, of all things, Angela Troutt.

"Talk about your irony," he says, laughing. "I go fishing and look what I bring back. For some reason, fish is my thing."

The couple's four-month-old son is christened after the man who had Greycen stenciled on his gear, the man who saved Robson's life.

Robson is somewhat strapping, thick-waisted but not fat, with a mess of Syd Barrett hair. He has trouble keeping his left eyelid up, gives the impression that he's tired, or bored. He talks in a kind of stoner-ease, like he's got it all figured.

After high school, Phoenix started to take on a bleak complexion for the precocious skater kid. He spent a year at Yavapai College. He traveled to Seattle to hang with his older brother George, who had a job on the fishing boats making bank. He told the younger Robson that all he needed "was a strong back."

Robson applied at a number of fishing vessels, but none called. On his 18th birthday, he was arrested for having sex on Jimi Hendrix's grave.

Finally, Tyson Seafoods called.

Over a fish platter and beer, Robson explains how he negotiated life on a commercial fishing vessel, a factory trawler. When he went to work on the Harvester, he describes himself as a "skinny skater kid who ran with a crowd that liked to mix it up." A boy trying to be a man.

"My attitude [on the Harvester] was like, if there is a problem, deal with it. Very barbaric, very curt, very frank. All I had to deal with on the trawler was violence. If you show any weakness, they're gonna take advantage of you. So I became very violent."

A "trawler" is any fishing vessel that pulls a bag net through the water. A factory trawler is a fishing vessel designed to catch huge amounts of fish and has onboard fish processing plants, freezes fillets at sea, and is equipped with enormous nets that could engulf a city block. In one hour, the factory trawler could seize as much fish as a typical boat of the 16th century could all year.

"When you are on a boat with 45 people, you know everything about them," Robson continues. "You know so much about them, they start making things up. Because you talk about the same stuff over and over and over. Once you get on land, everything is chaos and pandemonium."

Every fishing boat excursion is an all-or-nothing gamble. That's what Robson dug about it, life as exhilaration, and fraught with risk.

Robson started in the hull -- in the factory -- which is where the fish are processed and stored. He shoveled fish into live tanks with a snow shovel. He stood in a giant funnel that receives fish from the deck and "you go ape shit kicking fish through a doggie-door-like hole." If you don't do it fast enough, you risk being buried alive. Later he worked the H-and-G line (heads and guts). For a spell, he lifted 50-pound cases, 2,500 a day. "My first day they were throwing cases and one got me in the jaw. It knocked me out. I got right back up and I was bleeding and kept working. That's how I got respect, you know, 'This little fucker's crazy.'"

His longest workday? 48 hours.

"I worked my way up the deck. When you are a deckhand, you make more money. You have to be Coast Guard certified. I had to learn how to put out fires, grease fires, all this training."

He worked the hydraulic crane, learned to weld and torch. He built and repaired the nets. "You become a jack-of-all-trades out there. It's you against the elements. The net itself weighs five or six tons. There's a lot of different parts to it. Basically, it's like a pillow case, then at the end of the pillow case . . ."

He's seen guys crushed by fish, saw one extreme case of cabin fever result in a man sawing off his own hand. Robson says he was stabbed just above his right eye by a Samoan machete expert. "He was a fucking crazy-ass Samoan. He was working so long he lost his mind. You're staring at fish on the conveyer belt the whole time, 18 hours straight. You stop 20 minutes for a meal and every four hours you get a 15-minute break.

"Barbarians," he continues, "you are not supposed to fight. The guy who stuck the knife in my eye? He ended up owing the company $3,000. Every day that he worked, he owed them 50 bucks. He broke his contract by starting a physical confrontation with me. You're held to it [the contract]. You're bound to it by law. I got sick of hearing them cuss me out in Samoan, so I learned it. I just basically learned their talk and had fun with it. And they respected me."

Robson says the myriad languages spoken onboard -- English, Russian, Spanish, Norwegian and Vietnamese -- lets you experience distinct cultures. The sea and the drudgery of the work unite the opposites, regardless of your background. Eventually, the similarities outgrow the contrasts.

Another time he described the cramped camaraderie thusly: "If you talk shit to the wrong guy, you're gonna get a fist in your face."

Brian O'Connor is a Phoenix warehouse worker who got into fishing for the dough. He knew Chris in his skater days. O'Connor lasted one season in the North Pacific. "It was pretty much a culture shock for me," he says. "I don't even know how many different languages were on the boat. I worked the head-and-guts line. It was brutal; there's a lot of things that can happen. The boat's always moving, always rocking, depending on what kind of water you're in. You're bound to get hurt one way or another just because of the work that has to be done on completely unsteady ground."

"You can really get into yourself," says Chris Robson's older bro George, a onetime factory quality controller for Tyson Seafoods.

"The isolation, the hard work. A lot of people can't handle it. You fill a guy's pocket with 10, 20 grand after a few weeks and he comes home and blows it on coke and whores. It's gone in five days."

The brothers worked on sister ships but never on the same vessel.

The elder Robson quit commercial fishing altogether when Tyson Seafoods was sold last year. His wife had a baby. He's back in school. "I am, in a way, really relieved to be out of it. Just the waste, tons and tons of fish wasted because it was the wrong quota, or it wasn't the target fish."

Though, he continues, "It's an honest job because you honestly give every ounce of your blood and soul, then you honestly get a pocket full of money and every ounce of your time, blood and soul when you are off. You get these big windows of time when you're not working. Sometimes two, three months. I'd travel to South America and other places around the world."

The brothers agree that a mythlike bond develops with the sea. The idea of a last frontier means you're able to get away from society and all its influences and madness, the perimeters and corruption.

You become just one more shape cloaked in foul-weather gear pulling in the fish. A Joseph Conrad adventure laced with fisheries, narrow inlets and empty canneries.

"A friend of mine just got out of prison and we're changing stories, and we both have the same feeling; once I got on land, once he got out of prison. . . . These situations here would make him nervous. When there's a lot of people around, a lot of women around. . . . Problems we've never had before."

Off-season, between trips to Phoenix, he often worked the Tacoma docks and lived in "a sleazy dock-workers hotel in Fife. Hookers, drinkers, steel workers and dirtballs and truckers everywhere." A few months of this and that mythlike bond had him longing for boat and sea.

Robson says his search for adventure morphed into a search for truth, an integrity. He developed a sense of pride, not an arrogant pride, but one of self-respect. The inaccessibility to dry land, the onboard knuckles-and-gore were a physical and moral battlefield.

A year and a half ago, Robson suffered an accidental blow that changed his life. While on deck, a steel, medicine-ball-like bobbin swung around the air and smashed the side of his skull. His left eye popped out. The weather was the worst it could be, freezing spray, high seas and zero visibility.

"It was toward the end of the season, but we were catching good fish," he says, detailing the nightmarish episode with obvious discomfort. "Your eyes pop out pretty easy. When it happened, the captain wasn't too worried; he's seen eyes pop out before. You see 'em in bar fights. They shoved the eye back in, taped it up and called the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard wouldn't make the trip because of the bad weather. So they filled me full of pills."

He wound up on an Aleutian island on pain pills with two drunken ambulance drivers. A private jet took him to an Anchorage hospital where he learned his retina was shattered. The doctors told him there was little they could do.

"I remember sitting next to me was a man sitting very calmly with a bungee cord stuck in his eye. His wife sat next to him holding his hand. He politely asked me how I was doing."

From Anchorage, he flew to a center in Seattle that specializes in retina reconstruction. It was there he learned that he had a pre-existing degenerative retina condition.

"That's how I got screwed in my lawsuit," he says, half self-mockingly.

A maritime law called the Tuberculosis Act says employers are not liable in instances of pre-existing conditions.

"I had all these lawyers telling me what I needed to do. Tyson Seafoods offered me a job on land. They really valued me 'cause I was a good worker. I was winning best employee bullshit, this and that."

He says he'd rather not talk about his ex-employer because the lawsuit is still pending.

Five surgeries and bucketloads of eye-growth steroids later, there was no improvement. His new shrink said he showed signs of posttraumatic stress syndrome, said he feared Robson might off himself.

His fiancée at the time bailed and she emptied his bank account on the way out of town.

"I pretty much lost it. My life would consist of going up the hill to talk to the shrink and they would dope me up even more than I was doped up. I wanted my left eye back. Then I would walk down the hill and hit my favorite pub. I was drinking like a fish, 15, 20 pints a day.

"They say my right eye could go at any time. I can't skateboard anymore, I can't mountain bike, and I can't life weights."

With less than 50 percent vision in his right eye, Robson is now considered legally blind. A lawyer had to sue on his behalf to receive disability from social security.

A good deal on turntables inspired Robson to take his downtown discotronic mix of pop, jazz and hip-hop public. He spins at parties and small functions. He spins the first Friday of each month at a downtown bar, a scene in which artists present their work.

He's attending school with hopes of becoming a special ed teacher with a focus in Braille. He's getting married soon.

In the end of The Old Man and the Sea, Santiago takes to his bed and is "dreaming about the lions." He's found his maker and has a sense of calm with the world around him. That's why we cared about him, even envied him, despite his hard life.

Robson remembers sitting one night on the stern of the Harvester, so tired he could barely think. He says he looked down and saw something that will stay with him, something that made him a brother with Santiago.

"I saw an orca pawing a giant halibut and mouthing it to a smaller whale. There's another smaller whale following 30 feet away cruising with the boat. It was a pod of killer whales. In my mind I knew I would never see this anywhere, particularly Phoenix. That's why I was there. It's not because of the money; it's because of the adventure, because I could see things like this. You know what? I can't see very well anymore, and my head is filled with all this beauty."

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