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Go to Sea

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"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.

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith