In all the years I been on a boat,
commercial fishin' on the ocean afloat,
I always seemed to find a way to be
what you might call hygienic - and never use a bucket at sea.
Now let me explain - my first job was as a crew
on a Cook Inlet gillnetter - and I was new -
so I worked hard and kept my mouth shut
when given all the crappiest jobs, but
of all this business with work boats and fish
the hardest thing to stomach was the dish
my skipper fed me when he said with a smile,
like he knew just how I'd react all the while:
"There ain't no toilet on a boat, it's called a 'head.'
We ain't got one here, so use that there bucket instead."
Now the container he pointed to was black and thin,
tucked behind the ladder, it barely had a rim.
I found out later some guys have a toilet seat
that they put on their bucket to make it complete.
But the sketchiest thing was – I mean, what the heck?
I’d have to use it outside, in the fish-picking well, on the back deck?
Now everywhere we fished there were always other boats around;
seemed to me the only privacy was back on solid ground,
or in the head of another boat that might tie up for a while -
where I could close a door and do my business in solitary style.
I was convinced, but didn't show it or say it right out loud,
there was no way I was 'performing' in front of a crowd!
there was no way I was 'performing' in front of a crowd!
So I held it - sometimes for days
and I never really relinquished my restricted ways.
When we were at sea or even anchored up -
didn't matter for how long - I was one bound-up pup!
My skipper nodded at the bucket and said, "Do you EVER take a sit?"
"Not on THIS boat!" I shot back, and turned my head and spit.
"Well how do you go about that when we been fishin' out here for days?"
he asked, and shook his head at my unnatural ways.
"I have a strong sphincter," I began... "You see... ah, chuck it!
I'm telling you I'll never, ever use that stinkin’ bucket!
I won't have my turds slosh 'round when the weather gets rough
and slap my port and my starboard as the boat rolls in the trough!
And what if that flimsy sucker collapses under me
when I'm sittin' out there emptyin' my scuppers at sea?
I'm tellin' you, skip, I have a fishhold full of motivation
for me to maintain this extensive constipation!
And I intend on holdin' it 'til the season's over and done,
when I can pull down my raingear and rest my bum
on a nice, white toilet seat above a clean porcelain bowl -
where I can properly deposit a civilized roll!"
That said, we went back to work,
and though I was full of it, I tried to not be a jerk.
But I must admit that whenever a boat with a head tied alongside
I'd start to feel the surge of an outgoing, ebbing tide!
And when we hit the dock, it was always a lively chase
as off the boat I'd fly and to the cannery john I'd race!
I know my skipper, on more than one occasion
wagered a bet or two against me, but the rising sensation
inside me of impending jet propulsion
always seemed to result in a positive conclusion.
I always made it! I'm really not sure how;
but my sphincter and legs made sure my stern stayed clean somehow.
So I'll fly my flag high: I'm proud to say I always did duck it,
and never, ever - EVER - used that old black bucket!
The Bucket won second place at the Seattle Sea Stories competition in 2010, which makes it my most profitable poem. I can hear some of you saying, "Oh, really? THAT one?" Yep. Go figure.
Last year, I came up with a prose piece, "So You Want to Be a Deckhand", which was received well, but especially so by Cook Inlet gillnetters, which is where the reality behind the writing originated:
So You Want to Be a Deckhand? This is What You’ll Do:
Before the season starts, you’ll drive to the cannery every day for two weeks, park your car in a cloud of dust or a muddy drizzle and climb aboard the boat you’re deckhanding on. Your skipper may or may not be there yet. The boat is in the yard, up on barrels, where it spent the winter. The ladder you will use to get on the boat may or may not be there either. You’ll likely find it lashed to the cleat of another boat twenty yards away. This ladder will become an important element in your life for your first weeks of “fishing.“
You’ll go up and down it at least a dozen times each morning, and twice that in the afternoon. You’ll go down it to go the carp shop for wood to patch a hole in the cabin door, for galvanized screws, or to borrow a coping saw from the boat next door. You’ll go up it when you come back from the machine shop for engine oil, and you’ll take the old oil back down it in a 5-gallon bucket, trying not to spill it all over you. You’ll chase down coolant, hydraulic fluid, transmission fluid, bondo to patch fiberglass, splashzone to patch over snags under the boat that might catch the net, 5200 to stop leaks. You’ll bring back zincs, bolts, nuts, washers, lock-washers, cotter pins, fan belts, duct tape, black tape, plumbers tape, stainless baling wire, and more. You’ll be sent back when the bolt is too short. You’ll be sent back again when it’s too long.
While you’re doing all this, you’ll be getting to know the carpenter, the port engineers, the beach gang, the machinists. There’ll be at least one guy who will be outright unfriendly and mean. He’ll be the one who’ll ignore you when you need him, and ridicule your ignorance of the way things work. He’ll send you back to the boat empty-handed, asking the skipper if he wants to borrow the left-or-the-right-handed grease gun. You’ll learn to hate going on errands where he works.
You’ll go down the ladder on your way to the company store for your deckhand’s license, soda to bring back to the boat, and an ice-cream sandwich on the single hot day without a cold wind that will have you remembering what summer used to be like. You’ll go down the ladder to duct tape a hose to the sea-water intake valve so the pump doesn’t burn up while the skipper runs the engine. You’ll go back up again because you can’t hear what the skipper is yelling from the engine room, then go back down again to turn off the water pressure. You’ll run to the port engineers’ shop to get electrical fittings, solder, butt-end connectors, and silicone to seal them with to keep the salt air from corroding the wires. You’ll haul tools up the ladder from your skipper’s pick-up, sometimes carrying boxes in both hands as you climb, balancing on the balls of your feet. You’ll haul up sleeping bags, raingear, boots and electronics until your feet and legs ache. You’ll memorize where the missing rung on the ladder is, and you’ll vow to fix it when you get time. You’ll never get that time.
You’ll be sent to the skipper’s locker in the old web loft to gather up buoys, survival suits, a worn block of paraffin wax, some black paint, and old brushes wrapped in aluminum foil. You’ll wax the survival suit zippers with the paraffin. You’ll paint the boat name and license number on the buoys. You’ll have to go to the carpenter’s shop to get paint thinner to clean the brushes, and to the store again for more aluminum foil...and another ice-cream sandwich.
You’ll be sent to town for the stainless screws and clips the cannery doesn’t stock; while you’re there, you’ll be asked to pick up some beer, some burgers and fries, or maybe some pizza. When you come back, your skipper will be nowhere to be found. He’ll be BS’ing with some other fishermen who just came in that afternoon. You’ll be expected to find something to do. Cleaning the cabin is always a good idea. Don’t put anything away. Just straighten. Clean the windows. Get some water in a bucket from a spigot nearby and wash the dishes.
You’ll learn to budget your errands so you’re near the mess hall when the mug-up whistle blows. Homemade cinnamon rolls and muffins in the morning, pies and cake in the afternoon. And always fresh-brewed coffee, hot chocolate and juice for the kids. Mug-up is where you’ll learn to keep your mouth shut and listen. The fishermen will talk about their boats, their nets, who’s working with whom, the upcoming season, the price of fish. You’ll hear terms like monofilament, Grundens, Uroko, dog gear, hynautics and flying bridge. With any luck you’ll start putting them in context and figuring out what they mean. But everyone will agree - mug-up always is too short.
You’ll learn that fishing nets are called shackles, and in Cook Inlet each boat fishes three of them clipped and sometimes sewn together. You’ll load them on a four-wheeled cart and pull them out of the warehouse, coiled in nylon or canvas net bags, where you’ll load them into your skipper’s truck. You’ll drive them to the back of the boat and open them one-by-one and clip the ends to a piece of line - not rope. Never rope on a boat - a piece of line coming off the reel. You’ll stand in the truck and feed the net out of the bag and up over the stern of the boat and onto the reel. The reel is powered by a bit of magic called hydraulics, and while the boat is running, your skipper can make the reel turn by stepping on a treadle board near it. As the net comes on board, he will guide the web, the corks and the heavy line called a lead line onto the reel in a neat package, taking care not to cross the lines over each other. This is hugely important. Your skipper will impress upon you how important it is not to cross the lines. Remember this.
You’ll start to wish you had a truck.
There’ll be at least one guy (if you’re lucky), who’ll take to you. He’ll joke with you and tell you what a garboard plank or corking is. He’ll tell you who to avoid, and whom to seek out. And he’ll always be good for a warm chair beside the wood stove on a blustery spring day, and a fresh cup of coffee at mug-up. Whenever you get the chance, take him a cinnamon roll, or an extra burger and fries. Or better yet, show up at his shop before he closes the door at 5:00 o’clock with a bottle of Jack.
By now you’ve been fishing for two, maybe three weeks. Your skipper will keep talking about “when we finally get wet.” You haven’t been paid a dime - remember, you’re paid by the percentage of the fish you catch, and you haven’t even seen a fish. You’ll swear as you knock a Philips screwdriver off the cabin to land on the gravel below while you put up an antenna in the cold drizzle. One more trip down that damned ladder and back up again. By the time the boat is launched, you’ll hate that ladder.
Welcome to fishing.
And this year, after much struggle to find SOMEthing to fill up the page, I looked out my window the other morning to a scene of thick fog, and finally put something down. Here it is:
There’s been no snow to speak of this year,
and the fog drifts in most days after dark,
reluctant to leave until late the next morning.
We spend our early hours inside low-slung clouds
that draw the landscape in sketchbook gray.
Fog on land is unlike fog when you’re afloat:
it’s a muffled calm in these damp woods
that obscures the scene above the muddy ground.
The mystery it carries in its arms enhances:
sounds you know but can’t quite locate;
shapes you question, then recognize.
On a drift at sea, the fog is a mask the world hides behind;
a wall between you and the horizon,
disaster flirting behind curtains of mist,
every sound amplified,
every splash suspect.
Sandwiched between green radar and red compass
is the hollow in your chest where nothing is quite right -
the world’s edge hangs off the bow,
and you should turn the wheel before it's too late.
You are lost and out of breath on that sea inside you,
a colorless shadow towing a net inside a shroud.
Your vessel rolls and the sounds distort,
a boat passing by, its engine too close, too loud
- going too fast -
never materializes, and the noise fades into the dream.
You sigh and watch the corks bounce on the chop
as they disappear into fingers of mist.
A wave slaps the stern and reminds you
you have two choices when the fog creeps in:
pull the gear and limp off,
hoping you’ll steer clear of the spiderweb
of nets lacing the sea around you,
or wait, not knowing if the gear has fish in it,
not willing to check.
Because if it doesn’t,
you have to move,
and if it does,
you have to stay.