Go to Sea

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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."

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith