I was raised in an abnormally small town, even by Newfoundland standards.
My mother worked in the community fish plant until the moratorium in ‘92, the same year as my birth (one of the contributing factors as to why my older sister labelled me as the plague). My father has been a fisherman my entire life. I am the epitome of a Newfoundlander, something I have prided myself on since I learned how to appreciate my roots instead of despise them (growing up in a town of seventy-five has that effect on you). But up until recently I had never truly understood what that history meant.
I was raised in the fishery. My father co-owned a boat with my Uncle from my earliest memories and later went on to skipper his own. As an active union member, my dad brought me along to conferences and out of town meetings. I’ve known the familiar faces of the FFAW since I was a kid. The evening fisheries broadcast was the soundtrack to my childhood, while conversations on crab prices and RAP negotiations filtered through the semi-closed living room doors to the kitchen as I cleaned up after supper.
The fishery has always been a huge part of my identity as a Newfoundlander. I have always known that; I just never knew what it meant. I never knew the weight of being a fisherman. I never understood the significance behind the title or comprehended the grit that goes into shaping the men and women who have fully lived the fishery throughout their lives.
I owe everything I have to the ocean and what it has yielded my father and in turn my family. But I never truly understood because I had only lived it from the shoreline, as an onlooker who watched as my father steamed offshore time and time again. I never thought about the struggle that awaited him on the ocean. Until I met it myself.
When my father owned his own enterprise and boat, my sister and I, two arts oriented individuals, joked that if all else failed we could always go fishing. Like spending a life on the water was an easy task. While the fishery was something I cared about and held close, it became very distant from me as I grew farther from my hometown and my identity evolved throughout my years in St. John’s. None of the people I met during my five years in town knew anything about the fishery. Instead I met people whose lives seemed shaped by everything but traditional and rural Newfoundland.
I met and became friends with people who had barely seen anything outside the overpass and who were stunned to learn I was from a town of fifty people without cell service. These were people who had travelled the world but thought the experience of rural Newfoundland was encompassed by taking a trip to a giant inn. They were and are great people, but people who never seemed to understand why I took the six hour trek back to Wild Cove every opportunity I got or grasped the deep connection I had to a place and a way of life that seemed, dare I say, beneath them? I am not trying to paint the people of St. John’s with a townie brush, but I believe there comes a certain responsibility with being a Newfoundlander to see as much of this beautiful province as you can and to understand the history behind everything you have. Seeing everything this province has to offer is something I’m still working on, while my dad would unintentionally gift my history to me in its entirety when a short time after graduation and a personal struggle, he told me to come fishing with him.
“Why don’t you come out for a couple trips of fish?”
It all happened very fast. My dad had landed in St. John’s with a trip of turbot. I was working my last couple shifts at a chain restaurant in town, intent on moving back to my hometown for the duration of the summer, figuring out my next step. I had spent the last three months in a state of grief and what can only be described as seclusion. I had three consecutive days off in a row and my mental state at the moment made all of that spare time look terrifying as opposed to welcoming. While discussing my situation, a light went off in my dad’s head.
“Why don’t you come out for a couple trips of fish?”
My life was in limbo anyway, dad pointed out. I could make some quick money and give myself something to do, and fishing was something I had always wanted to experience. So I went to work and finished my last shift, packed a bag and got on board the following morning. I was nervous. I had no idea what awaited me onboard. The concept was familiar to me. The boat, the water and the image in my head were all things I had grown up knowing. There was a strong sense of familiarity mixed with apprehension as I met the sixteen hour steam to the Grand Bank.
It was rough. I fought off queezyness the first night as the boat rolled and slapped violently against the water. I took a roll across the floor of the bunk room. But I eventually learned how to stand when the ground beneath me wasn’t still, a both literal and metaphorical lesson I needed to learn as the previous months had uprooted and destroyed my sense of a safe foundation. During the long night I moved with the water and my thoughts did too. I had never been scared of the ocean. But when three and four am roll by and you realize you’re sitting atop the violent atlantic with no land in sight or any other humans besides the ones surrounding you and nothing but fibreglass and the trust of a few men you barely know between you and drowning, your thoughts can quickly turn south. I envisioned being thrown overboard and thought I would never see land again. I imagined having to put on a survival suit but being unable to execute it in the moment and my inability to properly use a zipper becoming my inevitable demise.
Panic had set in but the ocean quickly rocked me back to my senses. The familiarity and infatuation I had always had for a life on the water became more welcoming than it did terrifying. Soon I was fast asleep and being woken by the call of my dad that we had arrived and it was time to get on deck. It was five am.
Lucky for me there were two other women on board whose lead I followed throughout the trip. I eventually made my way on deck after them, suited up in rubber clothes and my Dominion bought rubber boots whose sole purpose were to get me through the rain, drizzle and fog of St. John’s, not keep me warm and sturdy while floating atop the Grand Bank.
I got my bearings and stood alongside two women and learned how to properly gut a turbot (not without butchering the first few dozen). As my hands became familiar with the movements I began to think that there is something to be said about an honest day’s work. There was something about standing onboard and looking across the deck to my dad who smiled at me reassuringly. There was something about the taste of a ham and cheese sandwich and a can of pepsi at eight am that had never tasted so good to me, something about the fresh ocean air, and about looking across at my Uncle whose familiar silhouette looked completely at home.
The experience soothed me as much as it took me out of my element and pushed me. At the end of the day my arms ached and my fingers were so sore I questioned ever being able to hold a paintbrush again. I had never felt so tired in my twenty three years. But it was a different type of exhaustion. It was a sleepiness born through labor and one I knew I deserved. I would go to bunk at eight pm and rise again at five having never slept so good and having never deserved it as much. I was fortunate that my first trip was a quick one. Within a couple days we were headed back to St. John’s after landing 16,000 pounds of turbot which between me and two other women (who are a hell of a lot faster at gutting fish than I am), we sliced open all ourselves. I landed in St. John’s dirty, tired and sore but I had a sense of accomplishment that I’d never gotten from my five years of academia.
Before my trip, I had been frightening myself over my future. I was planning on moving abroad to teach English and the thought of leaving home and living in a foreign country was a dream I’d always had but one that was scaring the absolute shit out of me. After that first trip of turbot I felt like I could leave the day after and I would be fine. I had the strongest sense of urgency to do everything I’d ever wanted to. I felt strong. I had pride in myself. I laid in my bed on land that night still feeling the rock of the ocean and slept better at home than I had in months.
A week or so later dad told me to come back out for a trip of shrimp, claiming it was a breeze. “Nothin’ to the shrimp,” he said. “Lots of time in the bunk,” he said. So again I packed a bag and headed aboard. This time familiarity was stronger than apprehension. I had a sense of ease as we steamed out. I was expecting an easy trip. The next morning I got on deck and suited up again. I was going to be picking (throwing out the the fish in it that no one wanted) and bagging them. Within a few hours, I agreed that shrimp fishing was easy. My back ached a little but it was only a couple hours of work at a time.
But by the third day my body hurt no matter what position I put it in. I threw up through one tow, sleep deprived and stressed the fuck out by these never ending piles of shrimp filled with endless amounts of garbage that seemed to take years to get through. I slept for periods of just a few hours. Shrimp fishing is an all around the clock gig. I am not an all around the clock operating person. Getting up at midnight to bag 150 bags of shrimp is not my idea of a good fucking time.
When our last tow came I was ecstatic. “LAST TOW! LAST TOW!” I danced as I geared up. But when the net came up and the shrimp let go and we started picking, I met the most difficult mental battle I had ever laboured through. Nevermind the raging ache in my back as I leaned over the table picking. Nevermind the ache in my hand from constant leaning on the table to dull the ache in my back. Nevermind the entire body ache from bending over to tie those damn bags and throwing them behind me. Nevermind all the fucking shrimp thorns stuck in my fingers. There was so much garbage in the last tow that I would eye the side of the boat, wondering if going overboard would be a better fate than picking through this pile of fucking shrimp that wouldn’t seem to move.
I raised my eyes to look at how far we had gotten and thought “Fuck you dad for making me endure this! Fuck fishing. Fuck this boat. Why is this so hard. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. How do people do this for their entire lives? Why?! Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” Three and a half hours later, we had cleaned and bagged a mere 240 bags of shrimp. Which the day before had only taken us an hour to do. My excitement at the thought of going home had drained to a mere fizzle. I was so mentally drained, I could care less about what happened to me at that point. All I wanted was a hug from dad and my bunk.
I know, it sounds like I’m complaining. Like I’m an entitled piece of shit who had never worked hard a day in her life. But believe me when I say it was really fucking hard. It’s not like you can look forward to clocking a few hours and getting home to your couch and a cold beer after work. It’s hard to see the end when you’re out there and you’ve still got days of tows left or weeks of trips. When you can’t see land or anything other than the boat you’re on and the work looming in front of you, it’s tough on your mental state.
My dad said to me “Yeah it’s hard. We don’t do this because it’s fun. We do it to make money.” I had never felt so much appreciation for my father. At the end of a tow, I would go to the wheelhouse where Dad would be sitting. A quick hug and a few words eased me. Dad had said to me at some point, “You know you’re doing a good job. I’m watching you in the camera and you’re smiling and laughing still. You’re tying those bags pretty fast for someone who’s never done it. You’re not easy, Sabrina.” It wasn’t much. But it was enough. It gave me enough push to get me through.
I cannot think about how much harder it would have been to get through those trips without my dad. I without a doubt would have cried. I probably would have thought a lot harder about going overboard too. But after all he had given me and our family, endless battles like the one I had just endured, the least I could do was shut my mouth and get through it. Yeah, I bitched a little, said I’d never go back out. But here I am contemplating another trip next week.
Like my father had told me, we all have those moments where it seems impossible and we wonder why we do this for a living. But you can’t dwell on it or otherwise you’d never survive. This applied to fishing, of course. But it was so relevant to my personal life. I was dwelling on a very heavy hurt and sadness and unless I stopped, I wasn’t going to make it out of it. I was proud of myself. I had gained an infinitely deeper understanding and respect for my dad and the people who made a life on the water. I had watched my dad stress for years, wearing the fishery sometimes as a weight. He had spent his life meandering through the politics of the fishery and had taught me both respect and concern for the industry.
Somehow both my parents had birthed two very creative girls. My sister and I are both very arts oriented. We both dream of living a life filled with art and modest possessions. I can thank the fishery and my father for giving us that luxury, for giving us enough where survival and money-making isn’t a concern. I am forever indebted to my dad and everything he has done for us. I cannot and never will be able to thank him enough. I only wish that my passion lay in the lifestyle he has. I wish I was interested enough to go get a ticket and be a captain and own a boat. Alas, that is not my fate. But it has to be somebody’s. People of my generation need to get out and go fishing. The fishery desperately needs new blood. We are watching rural Newfoundland disappear.
Within my lifetime, there is a very good chance that I will see the end of my hometown. Like many relocated communities, Wild Cove will probably become a place to have a cabin and go spend some time in the summer. It will never see a thriving plant like the one that shut down with the moratorium. The wharf where most of my childhood was spent will never be filled with longliners like it used to be. The life I grew up knowing is and will become a thing of the past.
Who is going to go fishing when the current generation of fishermen die? Who is going to take on the stress of an unstable industry that needs an overhaul in order to continue? Kids my age need to be told the fishery is a viable career, a lucrative one even. Just like we’re told in high school to go be a teacher, doctor or an engineer. Go be a fisherman. Go be a fisherwoman. Go breath in the ocean air and let it fill your veins. Reap the soils of whatever you can pull from its depths. Go get your ticket and invest in an enterprise and take the necessary risks and keep the Newfoundland I know and love alive. I’m sad to say it won’t be me. I’m too selfish, too Generation-Y, too hung up on literature and art and travel. But it has to be somebody. For the love of all that is Newfoundland, it has to be somebody.