Capt. Michael “Murph” Murphy spent 90 days this summer as the navigator on F/V Judibana, a tuna purse seine ship in the South Pacific. Now back to yachting, he shared this glimpse of his first few days on the internationally crewed, commercial vessel, and the ship that would take him to meet it.
By Capt. Michael Murphy
I arrive in Western Samoa about 2130, and as we pull into port, I get my first glimpse of M/V Rafaello, which would transport me to F/V Judibana. Seeing her at night with all the deck lights on made an impressive sight. She is 174 feet LOA, 39-foot beam, and drafts 19 feet. Built in Tacoma, Wash., in 1972, she has cruised the world several times.
Stepping aboard, the chief engineer, an American from Las Vegas, welcomes me and shows me the cabin I will stay. It is disgusting. There are clean sheets, but old candy wrappers, magazines, and a trash bag on the bunk. I clean up and get settled.
The jet lag and a bed that felt like concrete allowed me a sleep to 0430. Later that morning, I meet the captain, a Croatian chap, 62 years old. He seems to me the quintessential fishing boat captain. The ship was waiting on engine parts that were still not there this morning so the captain decided to shove off without them.
There are 23 crew on board, and I make the 4th American for my short stay. My roommate is Primo, Portuguese, a nice and funny guy. He is 32 and has been doing this with this captain since he was 16.
June 6. It is 0345, and watch change is at 0400. I need to see how the change is done here, so I made the effort to be up to watch it. It was simple as this: Steve came in the bridge, Primo said goodnight and left. No discussion of course, speed, contacts, or anything that had happened during the watch.
I found out later that the guys standing watch at night don’t even stay in the bridge. They don’t have a radar on. They are fishermen and don’t have any training on standing watch.
The sunset this evening looks promising so I make my way to the bridge deck to watch. Several crew members mingle there, among them Primo. When I ask if he has ever seen the green flash, he looks confused. We watch the sun slip below the horizon and witnessed one, only the third time I have seen one in more than 20 years at sea.
Our course will take us near the equator. Little has been said about my transfer to the Judibana. I don’t have any duties so I pick up what I can, and accrue sea days and money.
There are three dogs aboard. They piss and crap everywhere, so you have to watch where you step.
Eighteen of us use a two-stall shower, and two toilets. The officers have their own private heads, as will I upon transfer. There is one washer and dryer for everyone, but after I saw how dirty the water was when the crew washed their clothes, I opted to wash mine by hand.
June 8: Sometime around 0300 the main engine fails, and we start drifting. At 1240 the motor is still inoperable. The captain has contacted the Judibana, which is about 60 km away, and it is en route to get me. About 1500, the Judibana stops about three-quarters of a mile away and launches the speed boat. The chop is 5-8 feet, so they run slow with three men aboard.
They come alongside the port side (leeward). A davit is lowered, hooked up and the boat and crew are lifted to deck height. Two guys climb out, and I crawl in, then down and off we go.
The same process again when we get alongside the Judibana, hook up, lift up, and crawl out. The Judibana is 205 feet and a welcome sight. I meet the captain and chief engineer and, after a few minutes, get settled in my cabin (finally, my own cabin).
We get under way and head south to an area with several rafts. They have locator beacons so they are displayed on a special software on a ship’s computer. They transmit data such as speed of drift, battery life, position, water temp, etc. The plan is to get near them, and check them first thing to see if any fish are underneath.
We cruise at speed until dark, then reduce speed to clutch ahead, and the night watch takes over.
June 9: After splashing water on my face and brushing my teeth, the day begins. It is still pitch black but we are slowly making our way to the beacon. We spot the flashing red light, and move within 800 meters.
The engineers lower the sonar (the control in the bridge is broken) and the captain looks to see what he can make out. It looks like a lava lamp to me so it’s just cool to watch. Eventually, the captain decides to make a set. The net is tied to a skiff and held in place as the ship moves ahead at 11-12 knots. It takes 15-18 minutes to deploy the net, circling back to the skiff, where he transfers the end of the net back to the ship encompassing the fish … we hope. This set is a bust and only rewards us with 3 metric tons.
During the final minutes of the set, the chef comes up with a puncture to his lower right leg. Blood squirts out like a squirt gun about a foot in a steady, bloody stream each time his heart beats. I get designated as medical person so immediately tie a rag around the puncture to stop the bleeding. I don’t even know where the medical kit is, so it is a scramble to get going. About 45 minutes later, I have the wound cleaned, dressed, and the chef resting with his leg elevated.
June 10: On the bridge by 0415. We motor adjacent to another raft (about 800 meters), and start marking the fish on the sonar. The captain deploys the work boat, which makes its way to the buoy, and ties off. At 0535 the captain gives the order to launch the skiff and net. The set begins. It takes about three hours to haul a set, and this one is a decent catch. We load up about 30 metric tons.
We start heading the 60 miles to the next raft. We make it to the next raft at 1830 and see a decent mark. But the captain calls it a night, so we move a few miles away and drift.
When I pass the watch I learn that none of the crew have their basic STCW. Many barely speak English, and none have any training on the navigational equipment. I won’t sleep very well from here on out.
June 12: The seas have built to 8-11 feet. We check a raft, and no fish. We start cruising west to check another set of rafts. At 1600 the lookout spots a large flock of birds. We scout around watching the sonar, the birds, the boiling baitfish, and the school of tuna when they surface. The winds are really howling now, with gusts to 30.
Finally, at 1735, the swearing and stomping captain decides to drop the net. It looks like a good set. Lots of backs showing, jumping, and birds working. At 2100 when all is said and done we don’t catch anything. Three and a half hours of hard work in windy conditions and heavy seas, we are skunked.
I can see how there are so many injuries aboard. Spray, rolling, slick conditions constantly. The boat is rolling substantially, and the pace is quick! There is a system to the whole process that has to be followed so the net is stacked properly, so it deploys on the next set. Guys are falling down and getting tossed around as they try to handle the net. The net itself is 100 fathoms deep (600 feet) and nearly a mile long. It takes 15 minutes at 12 knots to set out, and three hours to pull in. It is an amazing process to watch.
June 13 (Friday the 13th): On the bridge by 0415. Today, we are looking for school fish rather than fishing rafts. We dropped the net around 0825. The set was rough with the work skiff having huge issues transferring the cables to the ship.
About four hours later, we load 25 metric tons of yellowfin tuna on board. I have been given the duties of all of the ship’s paperwork. We have an official observer aboard with whom I fill out the necessary documents for the catch. You need to do this even if you get skunked. It was a fair catch, but we are only at about 250 tons, and won’t head in until we reach 850 tons. The ship has been out for 24 days. No telling how long it will take to reach the quota.
June 14: I went to the galley to make coffee, and the ammonia smell is super strong this morning. The cooling system for the fish holds is an ammonia-based plant, and there are strong blasts of the odor at times. I’m not sure what the health repercussions are to exposure to it, but will research that when I have access to Internet.
I have made a list of tasks to do in the mornings, so I keep myself busy, and actually get a little work done. There aren’t any work lists for the crew, so the ship is neglected and dirty. One of the first things I do is hose down the decks around the pilot house (little piles of dog shit all around), then hose off the bridge windows to get the salt crust off. I spend hours upon hours daily glassing around looking for signs of schooling tuna.
June 15: After I plot our position, I discover that we have stopped and are drifting 2.2 nm from a raft. We make our way closer to the raft and spot the telltale flashing red light. We move close to launch a work boat. The past few days have been rough and windy and today is even worse.
The work boat won’t start, so the captain orders the speed boat to tow the work boat to the raft. The boats are launched and begin their way to the raft. They bob up and down, in and out of sight in the 8- to 12-foot seas. They finally get tied up, and put on the sonar, but no fish here. We drift for an hour, waiting and watching, and finally the captain has them come back. As they are getting stowed, the chef brings the captain’s breakfast up. He watches TV and eats.