Conversation with a prawn fisherman or, can the world get any smaller; and the bleed screw shears, I make friends with the Canadian Coast Guard

I apologize in advance… this is not edited and does not have graphics, but I only have a few minutes here in Klemtu before the float plane arrives, and then I will race back to Caro Babbo in Quigley Cover ahead of weather.

Cruising is defined as breaking down in exotic places. It is also meeting the most wonderful people and in my case seeing a thread through my life that I would never have thought would show up.

Nordic Spirit came into view as I rounded a dogleg in the channel between islands.

She was at anchor in the channel in a marked anchorage with no lights, sitting dormant, not answering any radio calls from the Coast Guard. I wondered if the crew had left the vessel. I turned down the outboard when I saw a man’s silhouette in the wheelhouse.

As I came alongside he stepped out of the wheelhouse, and I called up to him, “Has the Coast Guard contacted you?”

He replied, “No. We’re disabled. I have all the power off.”.

I told him that I knew he was disabled, and that the Coast Guard told me some parts will be delivered later. The Coast Guard also mentioned to me that he had a sat phone, but we would get to that as we move forward.

“What’s your name?” I asked.


“I’m John.”

“I have a plane coming in a few hours, around noon or so. Do you want to come back then?”

“I’m anchored a couple miles north, I could come back then.”

“You want to come aboard?”

I said I would, and Joe helped me tie up alongside.

Viking Spirit is a 65-foot fishing vessel. Black with orange floats hanging on the port side and 500 prawn traps stacked on the aft deck. The wheelhouse is forward with only a large anchor winch between it and the bow.

There is no boarding ladder, nor gate through which to board.

Joe said, “I’ll pull that table back. Tie up there.” I came along the starboard side where Joe and I had been talking.

The table was an aluminum work surface extending outboard over the rail. I stood on the center thwart of the dinghy, put one foot in one of the fishing vessel’s scuppers, grabbed hold of the rail and pulled myself up and over.

I was wearing complete foulies with Helly Hansen rain pants, Xtra-Tuff brand boots, a wool sweater, foam lifejacket and a waterproof jacket. Joe was wearing ripped brown jeans, a sweater, socks and slippers.

We entered the wheelhouse through a door on the starboard side. There was a stairway that led down to the galley. Aft, and above the stairway, was a sleeping shelf with a sleeping bag where Joe had been sleeping.

“The crew’s all asleep,” Joe said as we settled in and started speaking.

Early that morning, Jennifer and I were preparing to weigh anchor and get moving again.

We had anchored in the pool behind a group of small islands called Quigley Bay. Multiple entrances had all been small and narrow. The pool itself was 80 feet deep in the center with very steep sloping sides.

Access to shore was difficult, so stern tying was considered, but not an easy option.

We dropped anchor in 45 feet of water with a swing that would take us well into shallows, but with a low tide of 4 feet, we’d have a few feet under the keel. (4 feet, means 4-feet above dead low tide – in Canada. The definition differs from country to country.)

A few days ago Jennifer rigged up a “lead line” using a Scottie downrigger lead weight that looks more like a 5 pound cannonball than anything else, and a piece of very attractive (and I’m not being sarcastic) polypropylene line.

She verified that our depth sounder is in fact very accurate displaying the distance from the waterline to the bottom. In Quigley Bay, Jennifer measured down from the transom, versus the depth under the keel.

At its lowest, we were down to less than 2 feet under the keel.

Hilary was still asleep while Jennifer and I prepared to get underway. I opened the table that covers the engine in the main salon in order to bleed the fuel line.

I opened the bleed screw and found that the amount of air in the line was more than ever, but the line bled easily. Grabbing the ratchet by the head, not the end of the handle, I closed the bleed screw, which rotated further than I had loosened it, and it sheared off.

There is a moment of complete disbelief that something this serious could actually have happened. I pressed the lever on the manual lift pump, and yes diesel fuel flowed freely from the bleed screw. We were not leaving.

Jennifer could hear me hyperventilating and asked what the problem was. Without profanity, I explained that the bleed screw had sheared off and the engine is now unusable until it was repaired.

The nearest place for cellular reception is Klemtu.

The previous day, Jennifer and I had watched the Canadian search and rescue (SAR) ship Tamu, move south on AIS, and listened to the Coast Guard arrange a tow a for disabled 65 foot fishing vessel.

The tow was to be from quite near where we were to Shearwater more than 50 miles away, no matter which way you chose.

I commented to Jennifer that would be an expensive tow.

Although I have had a three horsepower outboard in Seattle for the past three years (thanks, Dad), I only mounted it on Caro Babbo for this trip. I saw it as a safety issue.

I’ve been a good kid and have rowed almost everywhere we’ve traveled in the dinghy, so I have been exercising.

Now the decision would prove to be a good one. But, would what remained of the US gallon of gas get me 20 nautical miles to Kelmtu? I had no idea.

I called Canadian Coast Guard on VHF channel 16.

The Canadian Coast Guard, unlike the Americans, is charged with more than protecting the borders. They will actively help you to safety, track your safety and become involved in your safety, and wish you a good weekend at the end of an exchange.

A woman answered on 16 and asked me to switch to 83-Alpha (83A), ‘‘83, on the US frequency,’’ she explained . We have never heard anyone use any channel except the american channels (16 is the same everywhere in the world, and is the distress/hailing frequency. The conversation starts on 16, then switches to an appropriate channel. Channels are designated for traffic control, bridge to bridge, commercial, pleasure and restricted. 83A is a restricted channel.)

The woman and I spoke there.

She asked what the situation was. I explained we were disabled, and wanted to know whether they thought a gallon of gas would get a dinghy from here to Klemtu, 21 miles away.

The woman took care of business first: Please spell the name of the vessel, please tell your exact GPS locations, please tell the weather conditions – sky, wind and sea state. How many people are on board, are we safe, how long could we remain in this location?

I explained what I hoped to do, and asked again whether the gallon of fuel would get me to Klemtu?

She said she would ask her colleagues and left us standing by for about ten minutes. When she returned, she told me there was a disabled 65′ fishing vessel 1.9 mile away from us. They were expecting parts to be delivered by sea plane.

Perhaps, we could speak with them, and have some parts delivered on their plane. I agreed this was a plan. She said she would contact them.

After a few minutes she returned, saying she couldn’t reach them, perhaps they weren’t up yet. It was 7.30 in the morning.

She came back in a few minutes to say, still no luck.

At 8.05, I called her and suggested that I just go there and bang on their hull. The woman said that sounded viable. Jennifer and I mounted the engine on the dinghy, and after a few pulls, the engine started and off I went.

As Joe and I started to speak, getting to know each other, passing time and figuring out how he would get his parts aboard and how I would get my parts at all, I took a look at the man who had been the silhouette.

His voice was a young man’s confident voice. His beard was full, his hair tousled and neck length, both light brown with very blue eyes. His face is somehow familiar, part Jim Morrison, part Brad Pitt – stronger beard than Pitt and stronger, cleaner features.

I think he is very good looking, as someone who looks like me with darker skin and dark hair looks at the Hollywood image of good looking. But then, I once moved from New York to southern California. The woman I was married to marveled to me shortly after we arrived, ‘‘They think you’re good looking here!’’ So perhaps it Joe would be good looking back east, and is just a face in the crowd here.

I arrived with the broken hollow bolt with the sheared off bleed screw, which is about 2 inches long and half an inch in diameter, and Joe showed me the shotgun-shell sized manual primer pump that had sprung a leak disabling his vessel.

‘‘This is costing me ten thousand dollars a day,’’ Joe said as we spoke.

The sat phone rang and he spoke, ‘‘We now have a skiff. We can get the parts from the plane.’’ He listened, on this particular call, he referred o me as someone, a man, or a guy. In a later call, he referred to me as a Yachty.

‘‘There’s someone here who’s disabled a mile or so. He came aboard and has a skiff.’’ Followed by some yeahs, that’s rights, and other phrases that one uses when ending a call.

Joe turned to me and said, ‘‘We’ve been searching for a plane that can come up to us to give us the parts. We need a small enough plane. Now we don’t.’’

I asked Joe to explain the mechanics of ‘‘how things worked.’’ I meant how the money worked, referring to the $10,000 per day.

Instead Joe referred to how the mechanics of fishing for prawns works. They are allowed to set 500 traps per day. They do this in trap lines that are 50 traps long. They set out ten lines, then loop around pulling them up, emptying the caught prawns, and reset the trap.

There are 480 minutes in an eight-hour day, 600 minutes in a twelve-hour day. I didn’t ask how many work hours were in their day.

The explanation was short, concise and clear.

I said that I was interested in how the money works. Why is it costing him $10,000/day? Isn’t he just allocated a certain catch limit or number of days he can fish?

He explained, ending his explanation with a weak smile.

‘‘No, this is last unlimited fishery in the pacific northwest, but the season is only 35 days.’’

‘‘I catch ten thousand dollars worth of product everyday during the season. Sitting here is a lost day, ten thousand dollars.’’

I asked, ‘‘Do you own this boat?’’

No, Joe leases it. He then went through his expenses working down to an expected net. It was enough to live on for a year.

‘‘This is about $1.5 million dollars,’’ he said indicating our surroundings. ‘‘The return isn’t there. Besides, I just walk away from this, no worries. The owner is responsible for repair.

‘‘I’ve been doing this for twenty years. It’s time.’’

I asked what else he does. He named a couple of things and then said he was a writer.

What does he write? ‘‘Poetry and a novel. I have six books of poetry out and the novel.’’

I paused. He heard the unasked question: do you sell any of them?

‘‘The poetry brought in $8000 last year.’’ He read the expression on my face and knew that I knew this was damn good for a poet.

‘‘Are you promoting the novel? Do you have a real publisher?’’

‘‘Yeah, a real publisher. No, I could have played the game, but decided I didn’t want to.’’

He asked about our boat, which at thirty-one feet, he pronounced small. Yeah, I agreed, but small enough that I can handle without electric motors or hydraulics.

We moved onto family and I spoke about Jennifer’s children. He expressed an interest in Jennifer’s son’s academic history and what was following after graduation. We drifted into this when I mentioned that we needed to be in Ketchikan by the first so Jennifer can catch a flight to Providence, RI.

I told Joe Owen’s academic history with the underserved pride of a step-father who had no hand in the child’s success. But, Owen is talented and a star in anyone’s book.

Joe may have qualified to be called ADD, but found he didn’t need to attend high school classes but did very well academically.

At age eighteen, if I have this correct, he was looking for a job; he’d been a short order cook in high school.

A friend of a friend needed a deck hand that day. ‘‘It paid well, $300-400 per day, which in the 90s was real money.’’

Joe said this was the hardest physical work he had and has ever done. ‘’36 hours straight,’’ then a few hours off and back to work. But the money was enough to live for the rest of the year.

After a couple of years of that, Joe leased a boat and a license. Not a big boat like the boat we were on, but a smaller boat with ‘‘live’’ tanks that circulated sea water to keep the catch alive until Joe and crew dropped it at a processing plant.

Most of the people fishing I meet lease their license.

In a later conversation Joe, when we returned to fishing licenses, Joe and I talked about the parallels between newspapers (my home industry) and fishing.

When Joe started, the season for prawns was eight months. This year it is 35 days. Joe said the catch was once 4 million pounds. This year’s will be about 1.4.

When we returned to Joe’s plans, he is forty this year. It’s time to change.

I commented that forty was a dangerous age for a man. We discussed that for a bit. Joe feels safe from the more typical dangers that forty-year old men face.

Did he have the resources to make a change? Yes. He started off by naming a very large debt he and his spouse were carrying. It was an attention getting number. I asked abut equity, he named another number, subtracting the two I ended up with a good-sized but not impossible number, which I commented on.

He nodded, then looked up quickly and said, no. That equity was the net beyond the debt. It was enough to change careers.

What did he want to do?

Building he thought.

We returned to my problem at hand, getting parts.

He spoke with the people at Shearwater Marine about his part and the man on the phone about me. He passed the phone to me and I spoke with Robert. Robert thought he could get the part for me, but reminded me that Monday was a holiday. Yes, I remembered, it was Queen Victoria’s birthday. Growing up in Toronto, we referred to it as Fire Cracker day, though I did not mention that to Robert, he did ask where in Toronto I grew up, as he’d grown up there as well.

Robert and I would speak three times that day, all thanks to Joe kindly giving me access to his sat phone.

Joe asked if I’d like them to bring 20 litres of gasoline on the plane. When he spoke to whomever, they said they needed to check whether they could fly gasoline on the plane. While they were checking, he asked me would 20 litres be enough.

When the person came back saying yes, they could fly gasoline, Joe said bring two 20-litre Jerry cans. I asked that they also bring two-cycle oil.

Joe finished telling me about his academic career. ‘‘I was like your stepson: professors spoke with me directly, kept track of me. I studied English lit. They wanted me to go to conferences and speak in Tel Aviv and other places, but I was never comfortable in academics.’’

We spoke about building houses and I talked about my friend Ed Kobrin’s ‘‘pole houses.’’ Joe listened politely and asked questions, but it was clear he knew what kind of houses he wanted to build.

He thought he might get a construction barge and build waterfront houses for rich people… that is a condensation of a longer part of our conversation.

He also thought with the equity he might by some arable land. Live off the grid, I asked.

He told me that when he was first married, he and his spouse lived on an island, he said I would never have heard of called Lasqueti. Joe explained where it was in terms of island names I did and did not recognize.

Then I said, yes, I know that island. He doubted me, so I mangled that name of a harbor Jennifer and I anchored in. He by then had brought up Lasqueti on one of the two laptops on the wheelhouse console, showing me where they had had their off-grid house.

He looked at me sideways while he looked at the screen and said, ‘‘Squity Bay?’’

‘‘Yes! Jennifer and I anchored there.’’

He showed the distance to where his house.

I later regretted not asking whether he knew the wharfinger Jennifer and I had gone skinny-dipping with that afternoon we were there.

Joe said he was currently living in a house near Sechelt (pronounced Sea-Shelt) and showed me where it was on the same laptop chart.

Not quite expecting his response, I mentioned the friends Jennifer and I had visited in Gibsons, the next town over, ‘‘Trudi and…’’ I faltered over Trudi’s husband’s name.

Joe paused, ever so slightly, then stunned me by saying, ‘‘John. Trudi and John’’ and mentioned John’s surname.

‘‘John taught me how to build houses. John and I were business partners.’’

I replied that Trudi had mentioned a business partner. Joe told me that he lived in the house that was their last project together. ‘‘Here is the story, though Trudi it might look different from Trudi’s point of view.’’ I told Joe Trudi never told any story about the partnership that I remembered other than perhaps the last house didn’t make a profit.

Somewhere in our conversation, the crew woke up. I met Cara, Liam and Quinn.

Joe and I climbed down from the wheel house. Everyone offered me breakfast which was great looking bacon, fantastic looking scrambled eggs and other wonderful lumberjack breakfast foods.

Under the banquette table was a copy of Confederacy of Dunces.

Quinn is, I think, a nephew. Cara is Joe’s spouse’s sister. She’s been crewing on Joe’s boat for 12 years, now. Liam is tall and looks fifteen, maybe, but is eighteen.

Cara fixed tea for Joe and me. Back in the wheelhouse, I said I saw female crew members on other boats, was it common? Joe said on prawn boats it was not uncommon. For years he had female-only crews.

They make better crews in his opinion. They work harder, complain less, do better work and pay more attention to details. But ‘‘they get pregnant,’’ and then don’t return the next year.

Throughout our conversation Joe and I had been watching the shore. Had his boat been dragging? He hadn’t had tracking turned on in his nav(igation) software.

We both looking at the shore. It was uncertain. The swing of a boat on an anchor can change perspective enough that the view out the right angle of the boat is indeterminate.

He called down to Cara, ‘‘Are we dragging?’’

‘‘I don’t think so, ’’ she called back, but with speed and authority she walked around the wheel house to bow, reached through the opening for the anchor rode held it for a moment, and yelled, ‘‘I don’t think so.’’

Joe opened the wheel house door and called, ‘‘Do you feel a tickle?’’ Cara replied, ‘‘No.’’

Events picked up speed. An aluminum fast-moving boat was coming up quickly behind the Viking Spirit. Across the front was written Kitasoo Watchmen.

END OF PART 1, Part 2


Author: johnjuliano

One-third owner of Caro Babbo, co-captain and in command whenever Caro Babbo is under sail.

6 thoughts on “Conversation with a prawn fisherman or, can the world get any smaller; and the bleed screw shears, I make friends with the Canadian Coast Guard”

  1. Funny, that’s what I still call the holiday, but young people today refer to it as May 2-4, referring to not only the date, but the libation they plan to consume all weekend ☺

    1. My canadian jargon is out of date… the libation?

      April 20th is big date in Seattle, and I suppose other cities, as well.

      Fill me in.

  2. WOW . . . small world indeed! But what a situation to find yourself in! SO much more complicated than a motorhome 🙂 The biggest drama we had was a flat tire on our car (the one we pull behind the motorhome). Fixing that was easy, put the spare on, then finding a Les Schwabb, they fixed it in 20 minutes . . . for free! So wishing you good luck with getting your spare parts, hopefully in a timely fashion!

    1. What is a Les Schwabb?The adventures have been fun. I haven’t been reading your blog — very limited internet, but will catch up next week in Ketchikan

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