My Cray Days
During my teenage years I was lucky enough to often travel a few hours North of where we live to stay in a friends shack. Every school holidays we used to fill up their big F250 truck with clothes and supplies and venture up for two weeks of fishing, off road motorbike riding, shooting guns at targets and eatting big cooked breakfasts every morning...and odd can of beer too!
As you could imagine we would excitedly look forward to these trips, and the fact that we were not staying in luxury accommodation added to the character of these trips.
Whilst out fishing off the boat I used to see numerous big cray fishing boats motor past with deckies (deck hands) wearing only board shorts in the warm weather, utilizing the water hammering through the deck hose to cool off. I would envy them, and always said to Dennis, the father of the friends we were staying with, "If a job ever came up, doing that, I wanted in!"
Sure enough, not long out of school and working in a hospitality job at a 'Hard Rock Cafe' style Diner called 'Jimmy Deans Diner' I got a phone call. A deckhand job had come up on a cray fishing boat but I needed to get my butt up there immediately and so began My Cray Days. I can confidently say I did not know what I was getting myself into. My parents always supported me no matter what I desired to do and in that vein my father dropped everything and drove me 4 hours North to a location further up the coast to where we used to holiday.
It was similar style accommodation, in that they were just sheet metal and wood shacks with no permanent services. I remember finally finding the turn off to what would be my new bosses home. His name was Mick Foster and his wife, at the time, who was half his age was Vanessa. They were the only full timers in Sandy Bay. The other shacks were simply used for holidays, often by farmers that lived inland from there, & would sometimes fly in for the weekend on small helicopters.
Mick had taken the opportunity at the time, losing his Deckie, to pull all of the cray fishing pots out of the water and give them some TLC. That included fixing any battens that had snapped, replacing ropes and rubbing a steel brush over them to get rid of any build up algae. Looking back it was probably a good way to ease into what life was going to be like there, rather than getting straight into the fishing which was a 5am starts, 7 days a week for 7 months.
I was lucky enough to score my own shack several bays down from Mick & Vanessa's. I was in Docs Bay and the only full timer also. The beach shack that I had been allowed to stay in was nowhere near as flash as Mick's. I was in a one bedroom place which was run by a generator. I had no fridge, I had an ice box and used to buy massive blocks of ice in a hessian style bag, off the truck that would collect the catch each afternoon. I used to ride my push bike home with it slung over my shoulder, with melted cold water running down my backside. I had rain water however showering entailed using a bucket shower and to flush the toilet I would venture down to the ocean to fill a bucket of water to pour down the loo. I remember one afternoon venturing down to the water line with my bucket. On the trip back up to the shack with my bucket full of sea water, I heard laughing coming from one of the other shacks. Not realising I had company in the bay I had walked down not wearing any clothes!
After a few days of repairing the pots and getting acquainted with my new accommodation we got into the fishing. The bosses place was about 15 minutes away. Riding down their long limestone driveway, or entry to Sandy Bay, at 4:30am, their two dogs where well aware of my arrival & would bark constantly right up to Mick's front door. Like clockwork he would instantly turn on all the lights, open the front door in his undies and get straight onto the task of turning on the kettle so I could make us coffee. After about 15 minutes of Mick chain smoking we would load up his rusted out ute and venture down to the waterline. Load up the dinghy with boxes of bait and jerry cans of fuel and motor out to the boat a couple hundred meters out in the middle of the bay. Once set up, we would head out to sea in the pitch black & I would start cutting mackerel in half getting ready to replace the bait that was in the pots from the previous day.
One of my fondest memories of doing this job was seeing every sunrise for 7 months straight after the madness of getting prepped for the day I would sit back for a brief moment before pulling the first line of pots. Appreciation for the light show over the land in front of me as we motored out to sea was inevitable. At that time of the day, especially in this region bring out all of the wildlife I remember copious amounts of birds flying around, turtles in the water dolphins, flying fish, you name it. This region really was inundated with huge amounts of wildlife.
It wasn't just from above the waterline I would see the wildlife either. Having a scuba diver ticket is a prerequisite for a job as a deckhand on the cray boats. I had attained my ticket previously to ensure when the job came up I was ready to go. Every couple of weeks or so Mick would make me don an oxygen tank and work my way down the line (rope) to the bottom. I would dislodge pots that got stuck in a reefy hole and we were unable to winch to the surface. I thoroughly looked forward to this part of the job as I would get to see some of the sea life below the surface as well.
It also gave me an appreciation of Mick's masterful skills to time the release of the pot at the surface. Getting it to fit within some of the tightest holes in the reef, right where all the crayfish live. One standout was an approximately 5 metre tall rough, pyramid shaped limestone formation with a hole straight down the centre similar to a volcano. Mick warned me before I went over the side of the boat that the hole down the middle may be too tight and dangerous. I should look at the bottom of this formation for a hole or cave to get access to the pot, untie the rope. Then proceed to go to the top of the pinnacle grab the line go back down the side of it and pull the pot out, re-tie for him to be able to winch to the surface. Sure enough true to his word, this is exactly what I needed to do. Getting in the cave at the bottom I could look up to the heaven's and see the light shooting down the middle of the reef formation. The silhouette of many fish were clouding the light coming down to the sea bed. It truly was an amazing experience.
One time I did not want to jump over the side to retrieve a pot, actually I remember things getting heated between Mick and I because I refused to do so. Grumpy old Mick would not take no for an answer. The reason for my disobedience was, pulling up to the plotted position where the pot was stuck at the bottom we passed what is possibly the worst stench I have ever smelt in the air, it made the old abattoirs smell like roses! A huge turtle shell was floating on the surface and unfortunately something had eaten most it. Mick ended up winning. I backed over the side of the boat and proceeded my way down the rope to what seemed like the deepest, murkiest cray pot that was ever stuck. I can tell you that was the fastest I've ever dislodged a pot and got back up on deck.
During the season the fisheries department allowed big commercial boats to venture to the Abrolhos Islands for a two week period. The cray fish were in such numbers around these Islands that the fisherman and the crew make in 2 weeks what they would for the rest of the seven months season almost.
Unfortunately Mick's boat was not large enough to journey this far. As an alternative we would travel 2 hours west of the mainland to the continental shelf where the ocean floor would just drop away too monumental depths. We tied on ropes that were triple the length that we usually ran. Each pots rope coiled on the deck, was the height of my waist.
The shelf was about 22 kilometres from the mainland and we were fishing in a 30 foot boat. We had to pick our days very carefully & go when the weather was perfect, and the surface would be like a sheet of glass. This was exciting times as we fished in the relative shallows for most of the rest of the season. One particular day, out deep, we grappled (hooked) the line & buoy to the boat winch and proceeded to bring the line in. I could see the pot deep down it was tiny & very slowly getting closer. I could see something circling and I excitedly said to Mick "there's all fish circling the pot!" he replied "They are not fish mate!" The pot seemed to take forever to come upfrom the depths. As it got closer I realised Mick was not stiring me up. There were 8 large sharks slowly following the cray pot to the surface. I got more and more excited. These were blue sharks, an open water species often found in the deep waters around the world. The larger were 10 foot in length which excites you when you're in the middle of the ocean & they are the third size of the boat you are in. I quickly realised however they were very mellow and as I threw the smelly old bait over the side it was not a situation of a feeding frenzy but more of a slow process of swimming past the old mackrell & inhaling it. As we would motor off to the next pots location the big sharks decended towards the depths and would do the same when we arrived at the next pot in that line. I felt very fortunate to have my SLR camera aboard. Mick who was normally a grouchy old man actually let his guard down long enough for me to try and snap some photos. He even gave me a great tip when I commented the photos probably wouldn't turn out too well with the sharks being under the water. Mick probably being in this situation more times than I have had hot dinners instructed me to cut corner of one of the waxed bait boxes off and cut cross to stab one of the mackerel tales through. This ingenious tip enabled the heavy mackerel to float on the surface making the large sharks slightly breach on their side to get the food, setting up a fantastic photo opportunity. Unfortunately this was in the days before Digital SLR's so I was shooting on film. My old Grandfathers hand-me-down camera had masking tape to secure it closed after the film was loaded. Unbeknown to me small amounts of light were getting into the camera so weeks later when I finally had the chance to process the film I was to find out the photos had not worked. At least I got to experience it and will keep the memories until my dying day.
Another memory which was quite a buzz living up that way was having a buoy possibly 2 or 300 metres straight in front of my shack. At the bottom of this buoy was a hole in the reef. Once in the hole it opened into a cavern in all directions, just filled with crayfish. I could turn on a pot full of water on the gas cooker, throw on my snorkel and by the time I returned with a couple of crayfish the water had just began to boil. This was a real blessing especially as never my boss and Skipper Mick never relinquished a single cray the whole season.
I was recently reminded of these days and what was one of my one of my first jobs out of High School when I was deep in conversation with a gentleman, named Peter, that was buying a treadmill from me. He mentioned he was from a small town called Mingenew when we were on the discussion of Australian rules football. I was intrigued as he had played 400 + games in the region. The area he had spent most of his life was in similar vicinity to where I used to work on a fishing boat. The Gentleman's brother had worked the cray or lobster industry since the mid seventies. This industry interestingly enough producers more millionaires in our state than any other industry, and his brother was no exception. A humorous part of that equation is that the Skippers making the millions of dollars do not necessarily look the part. Most have thick leather skin from the Australian sun, dress very casually and often drive rusty old cars due to all the salt in the air.
The stories these old Skippers could tell would blow most people's minds. Peter mentioned one of the first boats his brother owned ended up capsizing leaving them stranded in the water 4 over 7 hours. The deckhand alerted Peter's who was the skipper of the boat and Peter added that he was not allowed to skipper as he hadn't worked up enough sea hours. The deckie's warning went unheard and & they kept on pulling the cray or lobster pots. Not long after when coming to a halt the water that had been leaking into the hull rushed to the front of the boat. The water tipped the boat forward then rushed towards the rear of the boat instantly turning it on it's end and beginning to sink. The deckie and skipper had no time to do anything other than jump off and cling to what they could to float. The Deckhand had cut his leg quite badly and had blood pouring out into the water making them all the more nervous. They were fishing 2 hours from the coast and luckily for them another boat had passed on its way in for the day and the deckhand on that boat alerted the skipper he had seen something in the water otherwise they would have been toast. He mentions stories of going from one of the Abrolhos Islands to another (Little Rat and Big Rat) for Sunday sessions. All the fishermen would get together and drink heavily and smoke heavily also.
Half way through the season I made friends with some other Deckies a few bays around from where I was staying. We often were finished fishing for the day by early afternoon. For fun we used to take the dinghy out and tow each other around skurfing (skiing with surfboards). The boys had big wacky backy trees growing at their shack, which introduced me to gardening and how to prune plants etc. Similar to the pre-requisite of having a dive ticket to get a job up there it seemed it was compulsory to drink Bundy Rum straight from the bottle also. This was an effort but I honed my skills in an attempt to fit in. I scored a puppy one day travelling to the closest town to cash my cheque. I left my wallet on top of a pinball machine in a gaming arcade filled with $1000 cash...no one had seen it when I went back!
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