For every profession there are tools of the trade—equipment that’s vital to success. Chefs have their knives; hairstylists have their scissors. For commercial fishermen, it’s what’s beneath their feet – their boat. It’s the one entity that separates them and their crew from the ocean’s murky depths. And before they head out to sea for weeks or months, their vessel needs to be prepared.
“Their boat is their life,” explained Blaise Holly, lead shipwright at Haven Boatworks in Port Townsend, Wash. “All the conditions have to exist to ensure that boat brings you back and all the supply systems (are ready) for your fishing operation. When you’re heading out you want to do everything in your power to make sure your boat’s going to float, it’s not going to burst into flames , and it’s going to go forward.”
Holly offers some basic advice for boat owners.
“Keep the people in and the water out. Make sure the boat doesn’t catch on fire. Make sure you can go forward, backwards and steer,” he said.
Commercial fishermen have to pair economic feasibility alongside basic survival. A breakdown is not only a pain to contend with but will mean a blow to the trade budget as well.
“If you go out to sea and your gurdy breaks, you can come back safely, but your trip is not going to be profitable,” he said.
“Make sure (you have) the gear you need to catch the fish—that is as important as anything else,” he added. “Make sure the hook or the pot comes over the rail. Make sure you can purse up the seine and swing it aboard.”
Mike Babich, captain and owner of a 58-foot commercial squid and salmon boat, agrees. Babich’s family has been commercial fishing out of Washington state for generations. “I’ve been fishing since I was 15,” he said. “My brothers all had boats. We all fish different areas.”
As a veteran fisherman, Babich points out that boat maintenance is a never-ending process.
“If you blow a hose, you just lost a whole day,” he remarked. “And if it happens on a good fishing day, it hurts. You’re broke down ‘til you can fix it.”
Babich said he has learned to stock up on little things that can cause big headaches if they break, like spare hoses and multiple winches. He brings along plenty of long hoses that can be cut and sized for use in different areas.
“The worst part is when they sit for a while,” he said. “If (a boat) sits cold for three or four months you could have problems with something that worked perfectly the last time you were out.”
Holly pointed out that any mechanical device is going to have a lifespan and most (boatyard) projects are driven by boat owners.
“Most folks that we’ve had as customers work from either their mental or their (physical) logbook,” he said. “They’re really in tune to what is wrong and the problems we need to solve are fairly common. This fall we’ve put in a stem, rolling chocks, reframed the well-deck bulwarks and installed complete new electronics.”
He explained that rolling chocks ease a boat’s motion at sea.
“Folks are out there working with their hands, and this makes the platform slightly steadier and life easier (for the crew). At night they’re drifting out to sea, they’re not anchored and this (slowed-down motion) can help them sleep a little better.”
“We take care of structural issues like hydraulics, refrigeration, the driveline, all of that bread-and-butter stuff, while paying attention to the modernization of electronics,” he said.
Fishermen and shipwrights agreed that keeping up to date with fishing-boat technology is a must.
“Our navigation equipment has gotten incredibly advanced,” Babich said. “My boat is at the point that on my computer I can draw a line from Gig Harbor to Valdez and the boat could drive itself.”
”What we find is the fisheries nowadays have thoroughly modernized electronics,” said Holly.
“Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds,” he remarked. “(Most of the northern fleet) is equipped with bathymetric mapping of the bottom that allows them to see the ocean floor.”
He explained that certain fish like certain bottoms, so this can help the crew locate a particular species. It also helps keep the gear intact rather than hung up on pinnacles.
“(The industry) is always inventing and refining things with astonishing frequency,” Holly continued. “The power block, the gurdy—somebody just says, ‘I’ve got an idea’ and innovation happens. For example, the black-cod fishery recently stampeded away from hooks to slinky pots.”
Many of today’s fishermen have also adapted by rigging their boats to catch different types of fish in order to expand their geographical area and fishing season. Holly explained that a ‘combo boat’ is industry shorthand for a boat engaged in more than one fishery.
“So many are using combo boats and are now are engaged in multiple fisheries,” Holly remarked. “You can long line or crab from that same boat.”
“We (spend a lot of time) helping the vessel owner make switching fisheries as efficient as possible,” he said.
Babich and his crew fish for squid in California and salmon in Prince William Sound. He explained that the main difference is the net’s mesh.
“For squid, the mesh is a lot smaller,” he remarked. “We use one-and-a-quarter mesh for squid and a three -and-a-half-inch net for salmon, but they’re built exactly the same way.”
Even with technological advances, the net remains one of the key tools of the trade and nets must be inspected and repaired prior to the fishing season.
Babich’s family has access to a net shed, something that used to be common in the industry, but is quite a luxury in the 21st century. That makes a difference in the Pacific Northwest, where fishermen may have to deal with bad weather.
“We have all the tools you can think of,” Babich said. “I work on my own boat and repair my own net. Some guys hire people to do it, but I do it myself.”
Repairing the net could take weeks, he explained, depending on how much damage was done the season before. It can be a daunting task.
“We pull it through our 60-foot-long shed, thumb through the webbing and make sure there are no holes,” Babich said. “About every four to five years, we have to replace whole sections.”
Fishing nets often get damaged when they snag or are hung up on objects on the ocean floor.
“We have mishaps,” Babich said. “Our nets are 1,500 feet long. We have a lot of net in the water to deal with. When we’re sewing nets, that’s not the fun part.”
One of the inevitable realities of maintaining a boat is the all-important seasonal haul out to care for boat’s hull.
Babich said he usually takes his vessel to the boatyard in May.
“This is to make sure everything is working, like the engine and steering,” he explained.
Years in the business have taught Babich to take a test run after the haul out.
“It takes about six hours to travel from Port Townsend to Gig Harbor,” he said. ‘If something goes wrong, it usually goes wrong on the first half day. It often happens sooner rather than later.”
Technology, haul outs and nets aside, one of the most valuable cogs in the fishing wheel is still the crew itself. And many fishermen will tell you that this one vital element is becoming one of the most difficult to address.
Apparently, fishing is not on the employment agenda for upcoming generations.
“I’ve been lucky and had a good crew,” Babich declared. “But a lot of guys haven’t. Having a good crew makes the whole season better. It makes life easier.”
“The crew is the hardest part (to find) now,” said Mike’s brother, Nick Babich, who is also a fisherman. “I used to feel bad about turning them down— now you have to check for a pulse.”
The saying “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” applies to fishing crews. The crew operates in close quarters all day long, for days at a time, and if the members don’t mesh, it can make the whole trip a floating nightmare.
“If one person doesn’t get along, you can’t just ignore them,” Nick Babich said. “It’s like cancer—it spreads, and then everyone is in a bad mood. But if you can get four guys that get along it’s wonderful and it can be fun. We all try to have fun.”