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‘I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky; and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’ – John Masefield

Herman is trying to get me to take surfing lessons with him. He has several tactics ranging from blackmail to bribery, to methods just shy of what Guantanamo recently termed ‘within the legal limits of the Patriot Act’. He tells me that oceanographers should surf and that I’m the world’s worst. I respond with ‘that’s what she said,’ as I often do when he speaks, but this time it’s true. The “˜she’ in question is my mother. In fact, when I told my mother I’d decided to study oceanography and marine biology, she stared at me for a while, unblinking, and finally replied ‘Really? Really?’ Yes, the dreaded double really, uttered with more sarcasm than a mother should be allowed to use.

It’s not that I don’t like the sea. I love the sea. I just don’t like waves. Or boats. Or sharks. Or drowning. But other than that, I love the sea. If I take a moment to psychoanalyse myself, all these issues stem from a combination of three separate sources: a very overactive, and strangely morbid, imagination; older brothers and Peter Benchley. Give me a scenario and I’ll give you a sudden and horrible death. Hey, don’t judge, it’s not paranoid if sharks really are out to get you.

Anyway, as luck would have it, there were no openings at the cotton wool and marshmallow factory, so I became a marine scientist, and with that, developed a much deeper understanding of all the things waiting kill you beneath the waves. Also, with that came amazing opportunities to study life beyond Table Bay and explore parts of South Africa that very few people ever think about, such as the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the Prince Edward Islands.

Setting the scene

This particular story takes place on the Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian research vessel, at the beginning of 2010. The mission: to survey the status of the hake stocks around the southern African coastline for the United Nations FAO. The crew: there was Dale – climatologist extraordinaire and hater of all things fish (although he didn’t know it yet); Mel –  ’this is not my first time’ (an allusion to the fact that she’d been on the Nansen the previous year, I swear), who I was lucky enough to have studied with; Dylan – who brought his fishing rod, a begrudging respect for yellowfin tuna, and a penchant for talking about himself in the third person; Shaun – oceanographer and obsessive surfer by day, model and DJ by night; Danielle – fresh out of high school and ready for adventure; Bongi – father of two and lover of bad movies; Jess – the Colombian shark expert with absolutely no ties to Pablo Escobar; and me, just back from a Dutch winter, tanless and doubting whether I brought enough sunscreen. Of course, there was also a variety of random Norwegian crew members, who kept the ship steaming ahead, and Marek, Shaz and Odgier – the mighty Chief scientists – but this story is not about them. It’s about us – eight strangers, transplanted into a 50 m long steel box without the possibility of escape … for a month.

We set sail from the V&A Waterfront and spent the first hour getting acquainted, and the next 23 hours in varying states of seasickness. The ocean had decided to welcome us with 15 knot winds and a choppy surface as soon as we left the safety of the breakwater. But, long acquainted with seasickness, I hunkered down, determined to wait it out, and discovered that the bathroom floors were heated. The next morning, we were all up and about, testing our sea legs and exploring the wonders of the ship. Being a Norwegian ship, I was pleased to discover several treasures that are sadly lacking from most South African vessels. A gym, complete with treadmill and spinning bike (not good in rough seas!), a giant flat screen television, Norwegian literature – yes, it exists – and, my favourite, a hammock tied to the bow. There was also food. Lots and lots of food.

Food for thought

Being trapped at sea for months at a time is not actually as  fun as it sounds. And so, in an attempt to coax us back time and time again, they do one thing really well – feed us. After a few days on board, you stop telling time the usual way, become obsessed with food, and just relate everything to whichever meal is next. Time ceases to matter, and all you can think about is:

  • Breakfast time
  • Second breakfast time (aka snack time)
  • Lunch time
  • Cake time (so much cake, so little time)
  • Dinner time
  • After dinner snack time

The quality of the food depends on the quality of the head steward. Ours was good. Yes, head steward, not chef. When you’re on a ship, the first thing you need to learn is the appropriate nautical terminology. Its port – not left; starboard – never right; obligatory titanic photos take place on the bow; and if you’re looking for a good place to watch the albatrosses that follow the ship, the stern is the place to be.

But back to the food. Each meal was a veritable smorgasbord of flavours. It was always buffet style, and always far too much choice. Being limited to only the ingredients that they take with them when they leave port, means that stewards usually have a set menu plan. On a month-long cruise, foods tend to come around in cycles. Everyone has their favourites, and will corner the steward and question him harshly, to find out if this is finally the day that will bring with it the foodie joy they have been dreaming of. For Mel, it was cheesecake, for Dale, anything covered in Norwegian mustard, and we were often reminded that ‘Dylan wants Pizza.’ Lasagne, taco’s, burgers, salads, pancakes, chocolate mousse, ice-cream, Chelsea buns – if you could dream it, it would arrive. Some of the Norwegian favourites raised a few eyebrows and were subtly bypassed, rehydrated salted beef, anyone? And once even whale stroganoff (tastes like beef – or so I was told – luckily I was sick that day). And of course, once we started trawling, there was fish. Lots of fish – hake, kingklip, angel fish, prawns, lobsters. More seafood than you could imagine. You know you’ve been at sea too long when a plate of lobsters goes untouched, and you’re all fighting over the frozen chicken nuggets (winning).

Once well fed, we all made unfulfilled promises to ourselves to spend whatever time we weren’t eating or working in the gym, and headed off to be scientists.

It came from the deep

So how do you figure out how many fish there are in the sea? I’ll tell you how. You catch them. And so we did. Five or six trawls a day, sometimes more when Marek was feeling cruel. We started at sunrise and went on until sunset each and every single day, unless the weather was too bad – and by ”˜too bad’ I mean it had to look like The Perfect Storm outside, so it was hard to wish for that. But this was no relaxing fishing trip. Trawling is hard work. You discover muscles in places you didn’t know they existed (mussels too). You get blisters. You cut yourself. You bleed. You hurt. You bake in the midday sun in your waterproofs. You gain a new understanding of the term ‘this smells bad’. But let me break it down for you:

You’re sleeping, or trying to. You’ve managed to wedge yourself into a position which, although uncomfortable, ensures rolling from side to side is minimised as much as possible. It’s dark in your bunk. And warm. And happy. Suddenly, you feel a vibration, you hear a thunk, more with your soul than with your ears, you groan and ignore it. A heavy feeling settles over you. A sense of dread. The phone rings and you fall out of bed, becoming entangled in the curtains. You try to navigate your way across the cabin without stepping on everything that’s fallen over during the night. You answer with a grunt, anything to stop the ringing. ‘Trawls up!’ ‘Mmmrgh,’ you mumble incoherently, and hang up. You grab whatever clothes are closest. Oh no! Not those! They’re covered in fish scales and you can almost see the odour rising from them, like an Asterix comic. Finally dressed, you squint out of the porthole and see that it’s underwater. This should be interesting. You practically fall out of your cabin into the hallway, take a moment to stabilise yourself, and then hurry up towards the wet lab, bumping into things as you go. When you arrive, you find seven groggy faces staring back at you, all in various states of undress. You’re pretty sure that Mel is sleepwalking. You grab your waterproofs only to find they’re still wet, and shudder as you pull them up over your cold, bare legs. The next step is gumboots, and then hardhat. Where did you leave it? Oh, there it is, next to a bottle of what you think used to be a jellyfish. Probably. Once you’re all suited up and ready to go, you step outside into the sunrise. No time to appreciate it. The sea is stormy, and the water is threatening to break over the bow every time the ship crests a large wave. But it’s not so bad that George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg couldn’t make it home, so you’re going to have to just brace yourself and go with it. The trawl is up.

Plenty of fish in the sea

Once the net has been winched up, the crane is out of the way, and the fish are all flopping around on the deck, the real fun begins. You wade into the sea of fish and, awake or not, you get to work – SpongeBob’s life depends on it. Larger and hardier species that can survive the trip up to the surface are collected as quickly as possible, counted and weighed. Sharks are the favourite. All but the shy sharks, who hide their noses under their tails, snap at you as you crawl around on your knees picking them up. Count, weigh, measure, release. You watch the lucky ones swim away, and hope the birds don’t get them before they can regain their senses. Once anything that can be released has been released, things slow down. Sorting begins, and each species is identified, counted, weighed, measured, and in some cases, sexed. Shoving matches break out, as everyone would rather measure the large hake than the gurnards, whose spikes pierce your gloves, and stab you to the bone.

When everything is finally done, you wash the buckets, the measuring boards, the sorting table, the deck and yourself. If Dale happens to be in charge of this, it’s likely that it’ll end badly, with you soaked to the bone and spluttering in surprise. But if you’re lucky enough to still be dry, you yawn, roll your shoulders, click your neck, and head inside for breakfast. You eat fast – the next trawl is already on its way up.

Bring me that horizon

But it’s not all bad. Any time not spent trawling, is spent filleting and freezing fish. Waste not, want not. At the end of the month I had to buy a chest freezer to store all my fish in. And my friends have all become experts at the art of the fish braai.

In those rare moments we had to ourselves, we formed great friendships. We watched seals racing the ship as Dylan fished his elusive yellowtail. Mel lived in hope of the moment he caught one, and had a bottle of soy sauce and wasabi close at hand at all times. Sadly,  he only caught barbel, shy sharks, a giant octopus, and on one memorable occasion, a very disgruntled albatross. We rocked back and forth in the hammock in the sun, with nothing but the sea around us for miles, occasionally rising to hang as far as we dared off the bow to watch the dusky dolphins surf the bow wave. We watched the sky turn red as the sun set the ocean on fire and told jokes that probably wouldn’t have been funny on land. We invented card games, drank too much wine and realised that you’ve never had a hangover, until you’ve had a hangover in two feet of dead fish.

Memorable things we found in the trawl

  • 1 x boot.
  • 1 x bucket.
  • 1 x three metre long great white – she was fine, but angry. We let her go and she swam away, biding her time until those surf lessons.
  • 1 x 5.5 m long swordfish, in the very next trawl, there’s definitely something in the water in Port Elizabeth.
  • 1 x dead seal.
  • 1 x live seal.
  • 1 x cold-war-era computer housing with mysterious Cyrillic instructions on it.
  • 1 x very large squid that kept changing colours like a disco ball.
  • And lots of scary looking fish with huge teeth that I was doing quite fine imagining on my own.

So, will I go surfing? Probably. After all, the Patriot Act has a very loose definition of the term “˜torture’. And would I go hake trawling again? Well, Mel and Dylan went back this year … the rest of us, not so much. I’ll stick to the kind of raw fish that comes with ginger and wasabi.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

- John Masefield, Sea Fever

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