The S.O.S came in the form of a phone call. On the other end of the line was the stressed-out voice of an old mate of mine, Steve Norman, the mackerel fisherman.
He was under the pump.
Things were tight financially and the only light at the end of the tunnel was to fill up with fish when the mackerel season started. He needed a good deck hand. He was up against it, plus I’m always the bloke they ring when there’s a job no one else wants to do. But what could I say? He was a mate and he needed help. Having had not much to do with the sea before, I thought, what the hell, catch a few fish, have a look around… yeah, count me in, I reckoned.
Now Steve was no ordinary mackerel fisherman. He had a relationship with the sea that went deeper than most. It was a spiritual thing with Steve. The sea was a living, breathing entity. It was alive. It had a voice, and thoughts, and it had moods. But above all, in control of the whole show, was THE SEA GOD.
Now this might sound far-fetched, but you have to take into account people that live and work all their life on the sea form certain views, and I suppose you have to respect that.
So Steve used to sit on the bow of his boat, go into a trance, chew the fat with Sea God, and hopefully get the good oil on where the fish are biting. Now I knew all this because another good mate of mine, Mark Johnson, worked for Steve a bit and he filled me in, but Mark had taken off to Indonesia… That’s how I ended up being roped in.
But old Steve was a good operator, Mark reckoned, tough, safety conscious, good humoured, reliable, and as well as all that, he had the added bonus of these visions where the fish were biting. What more could you ask for from a skipper?
Sounded good to me.
In the north of Australia the strong winds of the dry season ease off around September and that’s when Steve usually headed out to sea in search of mackerel, his bread and butter… But not the year I helped him. Steve heard the winds were going to drop off early this year. Now I’m not sure where he heard that, whether it was via Sea God or someone at the Yacht Club bar. I never found out but, as we steamed out in early August, waves breaking over the front of the boat, I’m thinking, if this is the wind when it’s dropped off, I’d hate to be around when it cranked up.
I went green and lost me bacon burger just as we passed the jetty. And for some strange reason that old song, Livin’ and workin’ on the land played over and over in my mind… Not a good sign, I’m thinkin’.
It was rough and getting rougher, but this was the good bit. About six hours later it was really rough… even for Steve, so we detoured in behind a pretty island called ‘Truant’ and sheltered in a lovely horseshoe-shaped bay. The place was full of dolphins, obviously hiding out in the bay as well. You know it’s really rough when actual sea creatures don’t go out in it.
Steve thought it was a good time to put me through some training before things got serious. Mackerel fishing, he pointed out, was a gentleman’s fisherie, nothing too high tech, it was a pretty old-style way of fishing and over the years hasn’t changed much… of course the mackerel still get belted on the head with a club and their throats slit, but it’s all very traditional, Steve pointed out.
Towed behind the main boat were two smaller craft, actually a fair bloody bit smaller. These little dinghies were called dories and you each head off in one of these and trawl a couple of lines out the back with lures attached. When you hopefully hook up a mackerel, you ‘patch up’. This means going around in circles trying to pull in as many macks as possible. In theory, it all seemed great and in the sheltered waters of Truant Island, it was fine, wheeling around in the little dory, going through the motions with Steve yelling instructions from the other dory.
There were no macks in the bay. That would have been too easy. They were probably schooling out in some rough-as-guts place, no doubt. So we just poked around for the next few days in the bay, did some maintenance on the boat, rigged up fishing lines, and basically, I worked on my dory-handling skills.
Truant was a fascinating island, turtles nested on the beaches at night in their droves. Also there seemed to be evidence of goats on the island as well. Apparently back in the old Captain Cook days, they dropped a few goats off on the islands here and there, so they’d have a few chops on tap next time they were in the area. Then there was the wreck of a trawler on one reefy point on the island. I don’t know the story there. I didn’t really want to find out, as I was trying to keep my confidence up a bit. Also birds and gulls of all denominations inhabited the island, not to mention the dolphins.
The dolphins were good operators. They’d obviously come to the conclusion they weren’t going anywhere in this weather and throughout the day, gangs of them would swim up to Steve’s boat and have a good old look at what the humans were up to. I’m not sure. Maybe Steve communicated with them, who knows?
But one sunset Steve sat on the bow, reclined back into his tartan deck chair, let his eyes roll back and tranced out. I watched the whole thing from the wheel house. Steve went deeper and deeper, letting out the odd mumble and even twitching a bit. I’d say at a rough guess he was getting some vibes. Whether he’d got through to Sea God, I couldn’t tell. For all I knew he was out with the dolphins. But I figured being a dedicated mackerel fisherman, it wouldn’t be long before Steve would forget about the weather and start chasin’ fish around.
And I was right.
The sea was in his blood, it was ingrown in his toe-nails, the sea was his church. Steve was just another living organism on the ocean, he was part of its ecology and when Steve dies, his parting wish would be, no doubt, to be filleted and boxed and placed in the chiller with his beloved mackerel…
With Steve it was a spiritual thing.
Early start, Steve reckoned, we’re gonna steam to the top of the Wessell Islands… get amongst them. Wind will be droppin’ off, he announced.
So next morning, we’re up and we’re gone.
It was early and the sea hadn’t had time to turn blue, it was still that gunmetal grey colour of the pre-dawn. I took one look back at the bay and the dolphins-they weren’t goin’ anywhere. They knew better.
Phil O’Brien (born 31 December 1930) is a former Australian rules footballer who played with Hawthorn in the Victorian Football League (VFL).
This story is an extract from Phil’s book ‘You Can Always Find Someone To Have A Beer With!’, a very entertaining collection of stories in the life and times of Outback Raconteur Phil O’Brien. Reckless, financially irresponsible and prone to bad luck, Phil OBrien has turned drifting around Outback Australia into an art form! Containing about 30 short easy to read stories [including pictures] this book will appeal to a wide range of readers, from city dwellers who enjoy an escape to country folk that will relate to the real-life events and characters. Also, travelers looking for a light read while in transit and overseas tourists looking to take home a genuine piece of Australian literature. Stories are based on Phil’s adventures across the Northern Territory, the Kimberley region and beyond.