Text and photography: Arnar Logi Hákonarson
I was a so called "deckhand" on the trawler Júlíus Geirmundsson ÍS 270, which docks at Ísafjörður on the Westfjord of Iceland.
A deckhand is the one on board who has to facilitate the general processing of the fish, from the moment it's hauled into the trawler, until it's stored below deck. The deckhands classify and sort the fish based on its type and weight, they gut and clean it carefully, then they pack it neatly before they load everything down to the fish hold (a large freezing compartment in the bottom of the ship).
The deckhands are also responsible for fixing the nets in case they are torn, cleaning the engines and the fish processing floor, and basically any work that needs to be delt with.
This wasn't my first time out on sea, but each time is always a vibrant experience. You are set on a ship with 24 other male colleagues and there's nowhere to go for the next 30 days.
The only thing you see is the horizon all around, and packs of flying seagulls.
It really depends on the shifts and the days whether you like it there or not. Just like it is with so many things in life.
Some days you think to yourself that you're never going back out there, as it's the most boring thing you can imagine - but other days it's actually just very decent. You put you headphones on, listen to some good tunes or a good audiobook, and do what you're supposed to do - whether it's gutting or packing.
That's how the days go by, nothing but routine.
The shifts are 8 hours each. 8 hours working and 8 hours off, and between the shifts we have a half an hour lunch-break. The off-time is usually just used for sleeping or wathcing movies and tv-series. We have an access to a gym, sauna, hot tub and a Playstation console aboard, which can be convenient when there's time that needs to be killed.
Usually, the crew sails out for a round of 30 consecutive days - and when we dock, it's usually not longer than 5 days. It's an unwritten rule that one day ashore, equals one week out on the sea. If there are 4 weeks out on the sea, there are 4 days ashore.
"Stuck" out on sea
Being “stuck” on board with the same individuals for this amount of time can supposedly be challenging. In my case, it’s been nothing but fine. Of course, you get differently along with many of your colleagues on board, but there’s nothing else really to do but to make it work.
When 25 male colleagues are together for this amount of time, a certain “guy-atmosphere” materializes. Playful mockery is a part of the daily life, which one has to be careful not to take too seriously. This kind of tease isn’t much of a negative sense, but could rather be described as a typical “sailor’s mockery” which is hard to explain to someone with no experience of it.
The work can be very physically tiring, especially when the weather is raging. Then you of course have to get your job done while trying to keep still and when everything else is flying around the floor, fourth and back.
The same goes when the trawls are released and hauled in bad weather. Then the deckmen need to perform all that while still making sure they don’t get thrown off board. They are however always connected to a “lifeline” when working up on the deck, but you never know what could happen.
It can also be psychologically difficult being away from your loved ones, not to mention when something happens ashore. Then there’s no “jumping ashore” and really nothing you can do, but to finish the days you have left on sea. Fishermen often encounter such situations and I can only imagine how though it can be to deal with.
Despite everything, it’s still a very inspiring job and I think it’s a very healthy experience for everybody. The fishing industry is indeed the industry that men have been practising since the actual settling of Iceland. Also, this is a very physically beneficial work, you become a lot stronger if anything – lastly, I think you start to appreciate everything back home a bit more than you did before.
As intimidating and dangerous the ocean can be, it can also be very quiet and beautiful. Standing on the bow of the ship with nothing else but the ocean, the sky and your thoughts in front of you can be extremely relaxing, pleasant, and good for everybody.