Sadly for some inexplicable reason which I believe to be a possible quirk in the fabric of the universe, on that particular day, the laws of gravity were clearly not in his favor…
Even through the noise of the diesel engine; even through the noise of the hydraulic haulers; even through the noise of the waves crashing against the hull of the boat; yes, even through all this noise, we were able to hear the scream. And it was a scream unlike any others; transient by its nature but unending by its quality.
To this day when I think about pain, this scream comes to my mind sending waves of shivers through my body. It had carried such a protest of the soul against the unforgiveness of life; the kind of ultra high-pitched cry a newborn would make shifting into a falsetto screech compelling us to jump to our feet; compelling us forward towards the source of this ungodly distress, away from sorting the snow crab which were lying on the deck. We all had the same question upon our minds. What happened and what triggered such a scream?
I had arrived at the wharf of Port Bickerton located on the rugged eastern shore of Nova Scotia yesterday in the middle of the afternoon. Port Bickerton was a small fishing town in the county of Guysborough which was settled by fishermen in the 1840s. For the urban dweller, as you entered the town, you were left to wonder if the town had grown since its founding. “Is that it? Thank God there is a nice lighthouse to see.”
But as a fisheries observer, I was not interested with the local tourist attraction. I had a boat to catch. I turned right toward the fishing plant following the road to its very end where there was a small parking; a nice piece of real estate facing the ocean.
The old wharf appeared deserted but as I was getting out of the car, I heard shouts and curses coming from the direction of the pier to my left.
“Here we go again!” I said out loud taking my gear out of the car. The voice behind these curses was unmistakable and easily identifiable which did not come as a surprise. John was renowned for his use of profanities when he was upset and this happened often. The extent of his imagination was remarkable with the use of such a small vocabulary.
“I wondered what has set him off this time,” I muttered again to no one. I had known John for about ten years. We had formed a strange friendship. There was myself, a very reserved fisheries observer with my eternal black notebook in one hand and my scales in the other and then there was John, a Captain that had acquired the reputation of having the most unfriendly tongue in the fishing fleet.
With most captains, I kept a very courteous relationship which was more professional then personal. With John it was different. Fate had decided otherwise and our friendship had been forged on the night of our first trip together with him helping me in the water as our boat was sinking. But this is a storey to be told another day.
I took my basket out of my car which contained my rain gear and my boots. With the other hand I reached for my bag which had always raised a few eyebrows. It was quite colorful but I did not care. The bag was the result of the amazing work of Indians. I had purchased the bag in Guatemala. It could withstand anything. This was what I called true craftsmanship.
I slowly walked towards the wharf under all my heavy gear. This is when I saw Rick Finlay, one of John’s crew walking towards me. As usual he had the perpetual cigarette in his mouth. I never had seen someone smoke so much in my life. He was shaking his head laughing at some kind of personal joke.
“Hey Rick. What’s happening?” I called out to him.
He smiled not bothering to answer me. Instead he offered me his hand. I had to drop all of my gears to shake it which did not make me happy. I knew he had done it on purpose.
“So, what’s the problem with John? What or whom is he swearing against this time?”
“Shit happened. That’s what. Thomas just called. Appendicitis. He needs to be operated.”
I shook my head now understanding the nature of the problem. Thomas Young was one of John’s crew. There were three crewmen and Thomas was the youngest and as such he was responsible for packing the crabs in the haul of the boat.
“Are we still going out?” I asked knowing that while it was feasible for John to fish with only two members of his crew; this would not be a pleasurable experience.
“Yes we are. Thomas has found himself a replacement. His young cousin will stand for him.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Rick smiled again savoring the last bit of information he was keeping from me. “He is a greenhorn.”
I started laughing. If there was something John hated, it was a greenhorn. With this greenhorn being Thomas’ cousin, he could not refuse to take him with him.
“How old is he?”
“Barely eighteen. I heard he does not want to come. But you know most members of his family are fisherman and he won’t be considered a man until he has fished crabs at least once.”
“I’ve heard this from Thomas. His family takes fishing pretty seriously. I am just surprised his cousin has never been on the water fishing yet.”
“Something about an overprotective mother being a townie and him being able to avoid it. But this time he’s out of excuses or he will be considered the family’s failure for the rest of his life.”
“And as a result, I suppose John can’t simply refuse to take him?”
“Yeap. Unless he is willing to insult the whole Young family. So he is stuck and he is in one of his mood…” With this last statement Rick started to laugh again taking another puff from his cigarette while continuing on his way to get some gear at the fishing plant.
I continued towards the boat. She was a nice boat. Not one of these newer boats now appearing in the fleet which had all the bells and whistles. The newer boats were easily recognizable because of their width which was one and a half time more than the older boats while their length remained around 40 feet. In her previous life she had been a dragger but now she was chasing crab pots around area 24.
I threw my gear on the boat jumping aboard a few seconds later. Grabbing everything again, I entered the wheelhouse. I did not bother to salute John who was sitting in the Captain’s chair. In his current mood I knew it was a waste of my time. For the second time I threw down my gear. The crew’s quarters were in the bow of the boat which was accessible through a very steep ladder. This was because the boat while being narrow had a large draft. This made the boat stable but limited the amount of space available for the crew. This ladder represented quite a dangerous ride in heavy seas. However despite this disadvantage, the boat was cozy. I had seen a lot worst.
I climbed down picking up my gear and throwing it on my bunk. The crew’s quarters were simple. There were six bunks with three bunks on the port side and the other three on the starboard side. This was it for our quarters aside from a door to what look like a closet located by the ladder on the starboard side. However it was not a closet. It was the heads or toilet for people not familiar with boats.
The location of this heads was a bit bizarre. To access it, you literally had to climb up to make it through the door which was two feet above the floor. When you sat on the toilet, I always had the impression of being above the ground; sitting on a throne. This is probably the closest I would ever come of knowing what a king feels sitting upon such a high station.
After stowing my gear we waited for the kid. He arrived later and he was fashionably late. I tried not to laugh upon seeing him. He was dressed like he was going to meet a bunch of kids at school. His jeans were half way down his ass and I wondered again why kids did this. How can you go through life wandering if your pants were going to drop half way down to ankles? He had a baseball cap which rested sideways on his head. He did not look at all like he was going fishing or that he was going to work. This did not bode well for him.
The crew helped him onboard and as soon as this was done we let go of all lines and John took the boat out of the harbor. This early in the year, we were fishing inshore and as a result the fist traps were only one hour out. The weather was beautiful. The sea was almost a mirror but I knew this was going to change with the forecast predicting winds coming from the northeast increasing to 25-35 knots by end of tomorrow afternoon. It was therefore John’s plan to do as much fishing today and to stay out as long as possible tomorrow.
There were problems as soon as we started fishing. The kid did not know what he was doing. Also I noticed he was pale. It was obvious that he was facing a very light case of seasickness. He was not throwing up; not yet anyway.
The first two hours he was silent trying to keep up with the pace but after a while he kept asking when we would stop to eat or to take a break. We laughed. Unless there was some distance between traps, when fishing crabs you did not stop. This meant fishing for about 12 to 14 hours straight if you had to haul 60 traps or about 20 hours if you were fishing with 90 traps and then you would start all over again for a second time. You ate on the fly and in the next few days, we would survive from eating a lot of chocolate bars and Vachon cakes. It was a diet of sugar and quick energy boost.
By the fifth hour, I noticed something changing in the kid. He was slowing down and I had the impression that he had made up his mind. He had enough and he was about to quit. He was just gathering his courage before letting us know.
By slowing down, he quickly attracted the anger of Rick Finlay who noticed there were no bait bags ready for the next trap. Insults started to fly and this is when the kid threw his gloves on the deck.
“I’ve had enough!” he shouted. “I can’t do this and I don’t feel good,” he added leaving the deck and storming into the wheelhouse. He did not say anything to John. He simply climbed down the ladder jumping into his bunk. He was done working. John was too astounded to even utter one curse. For a moment, he kept looking from the door of the wheelhouse to the ladder leading to the crew’s quarters wondering if he had seen a ghost.
I have to say that when John recovered his faculties, curses started to fly and what was truly amazing was to see the kid totally ignoring them. John threatened him but he got no reaction from the kid. It was as if the kid had totally shut down. John had no choice and he had to leave him be; lying there in his bunk and this was the last time I saw him until the scream.
Hours later, the nor’easter had caught up with us and the wind was now blowing and waves were crashing against the boat gathering up their strength. The major danger in this type of weather was the trap swinging out of control. Luckily, John’s boat had a good setup which minimized the transport of the 7 foot trap unlike many other crab boats. I was pitching in to help the guys when my time was not required sampling crabs since they were one man short.
This is when a freak wave hit us. I was surprised that John had not seen that wave. We hit it front and center at a good speed. The bow flew in the air coming down quickly crashing in the water sending spraying water all over the deck. And this is when we heard the scream.
We froze. I was near the door. It was up to me to find what had happened. I entered, rushing into the wheelhouse. John was not there. Looking down below, I saw him in the crew’s quarters. I could hear someone moaning and whimpering.
“What’s going on? Who screamed?” I shouted.
John did not answer. He was looking down at the source of the moans which seemed to originate from the location of the heads. I decided to join him and halfway down this is when I saw the kid. He was laying on the floor his pants half way down, not his usual halfway down. The halfway down I was seeing meant real business. He was moaning holding his crutch. John looked at me with guilt and then said: “He’ll be ok. Anyway now at least he has a valid reason not to work.”He climbed around me to go to back to his post.
I did not understand the meaning of John’s words. This came later. From what I was able to surmise, the kid had finally showed some signs of life when he left his bunk to ask John about the location and the workings of the heads. I can imagine John’s frustration and anger upon seeing the kid. However he had no choice but to give him the information. I do not know what John thought when he saw the wave. He could have slowed down the boat. However he did not. Was this on purpose? He still will not say.
What happened is simple. The bow upon hitting the wall of water suddenly surged upward launching through the air. Once or twice a boat I was in had hit such waves when I was in my bunk. I still have some scar from this type of encounter where my whole body was catapulted upward to be suddenly stopped by the ceiling and then suddenly be slammed back into the bunk. This made for a rude awakening.
When the boat hit the wave, the kid was sitting on the toilet getting ready to do his business. Suddenly without expecting it, he was catapulted into the air like a projectile being forced out of a canon. This would be his first scream but unfortunately for him; a prelude to what was to come.
For some inexplicable reason which I believe to be a possible quirk in the fabric of the universe, on that particular day, the laws of gravity were clearly not in his favor. The order upon which he and his personal parts were launched in the air was not the same order upon which they landed. Such thing should have been impossible. There was a race between the toilet seat and his private parts regarding which would land first. For his misfortune, his private parts won that contest. When gravity reasserted its right upon this situation, his private parts were in prime crushing position between the toilet bowl and the seat.
It is impossible for me to continue with the description of the event. Too many shivers associated with this accident make it impossible to type.
Now some of you may think evil of John. I did too at first. But then this whole accident saved the honor of the Young family. When the kid had to admit he quitted, members of his family asked why. He only had to allude to the particulars of this accident and he was told to shut up as this was too horrible to contemplate.
A fisherman may lose a finger while fishing and he is expected to continue to work. However as we can see from this story there are things which are even more sacred than work for a fisherman. Fishermen can be sensitive too and they can show empathy to someone who literally had his nuts in a vise.