Book review: Last Man Off (a.k.a. “Why fishing in a lake or stream is probably a better idea”)

If you want to stop feeling sorry for yourself and/or can’t find a gift for that co-worker who constantly complains about the job, Last Man Off: A True Story of Disaster and Survival on the Antarctic Seas is an awesome book. Certainly you won’t be surprised to find that fishing is the most dangerous occupation in the U.S. (BLS paper), though of course our workers face nothing like the risks presented by those going after Patagonian Toothfish (“Chilean seabass”) in seas where the standard characterization is “Below the 40th latitude there is no law; below the 50th no god.”

The book is written by an English marine biologist who signs on as a “scientific observer” that fishing boats are required to carry as a condition for hunting this semi-endangered species with 15,000-hook longlines. His particular boat is operated out of South Africa with a multinational crew that does not include any Americans:

After picking up our licence from King Edward Point [South Georgia Island], we sailed sixty miles north to the edge of the continental shelf. We would be fishing in water 800 metres deep, but just a few miles further north the seabed dropped off into the abyss. When darkness fell it was time to put our first fishing line in the water. Boats hunting for tuna, marlin or swordfish will set their long-lines to float near the surface, but we were interested in Dissostichus eleginoides, also known as Patagonian toothfish, which feed near the bottom.

Toothfish do not have the gas-filled swim bladder that allows other fish to adjust their buoyancy to cope with changes in depth. Many deep-water species lack these and are forced either to sink to the bottom or waste energy by perpetually swimming to stay up in the water column. Instead, toothfish have changed the very composition of their bodies to become neutrally buoyant. Their skeletons and even the fringes of their scales contain more cartilage and less calcium than do shallow-water species, making them lighter. Their big, dense muscles contain large deposits of lipids, and these buoyant fats are carefully distributed through the fish’s body to be most abundant near the centres of gravity and buoyancy. At their largest, the streamlined and powerfully finned toothfish can reach well over a hundred kilos in weight and two metres in length. They are an abyssal cruise missile with a toothy grin.

It takes a toothfish nine or ten years to reach maturity, when it can reproduce, at which point it is about three feet long and its only predators are elephant seals and sperm whales. The seventy-kilo fish we were hoping to catch may well have been alive for thirty, forty or even fifty years.

Death is always just a few seconds away:

Hannes leant over the rusty guardrail to hand the end of a rope to the deck below when a hook snagged his jacket arm. Within seconds, the fishing line began to tighten. He wouldn’t stand a chance if he was pulled overboard, whether he could swim or not. The water was just above zero, and the shock of the cold water would probably kill him before he could be freed. Within ten metres of the boat he would disappear into the ink of the night, no floodlights to illuminate his flailing arms as the anchor and weights towed him under, like a sardine bait in cheap oilskins. Even the weakest component, the nylon monofilament snood holding the hook, was strong enough to hold a struggling hundred-kilo toothfish underwater, which was plenty strong enough to pull a man overboard and down. Near my feet, a knife stood with its tip embedded in the wood of the bench. I had guessed that it was there for emergencies. It would take minutes to alert the bridge and to stop and turn the boat around as it steamed at six knots. Even if Hannes managed to free himself of the line in the water, I reasoned that he would flounder and drown before he could be found in the darkness. ‘Wo! Wo! Wo!’ Hannes cried out. His voice rang out over the thrum of the engine and the wind. The line went tight. Joaquim grabbed the knife and leant over the guardrail. Moments before Hannes was dragged overboard, the thin nylon sprang apart under the blade.

Whales can be formidable competitors:

The orca were not popular with the crew and were known to steal fish from the line, but I had been waiting to see them all trip; I tried to restrain my excitement. The fishing line twanged and Hannes swore as the whale plucked a toothfish from the hook just before it broke the surface. A dangling pair of fishy lips was all that remained on the hook, taunting the fishermen. The whale was not black and white, but brown and cream, like a sixties retro version. The tint is due to a film of diatoms (planktonic algae) that builds up on the whales’ skin in the Antarctic waters. No less intimidating than their northern cousins, they usually arrive in pods of seven to ten animals. There are several types of killer whales recognized in the Southern Ocean. Some are bigger, and are thought to specialize in attacking minke whales. Others patrol the edge of the ice pack hunting seals. The killer whale now lurking around our boat was of the type thought to eat mostly fish – two thirds of its diet – with seals making up most of the remainder. Toothfish would normally be out of their reach in the depths, but now they were like sushi on a fourteen-kilometre conveyor belt. More orca appeared, as the rest of the pod joined in. We were losing more to the whales than we were hauling aboard. I looked up to see a whale, fifty metres off to starboard, throwing a large fish into the air.

The boat gains a lot of weight mid-voyage:

The boat we were to meet, the Hai Gong You #302, was a ‘reefer’, one of the nomadic tankers that act as fuel stations for the world’s mariners. A bitter-sweet triumph of modern cost-cutting and efficiency is that a boat no longer needs to return to port to refuel or even to offload her cargo. Our reefer was waiting just outside the twelve-mile limit of the Falkland Islands’ territorial waters.

We had taken on ninety-two tonnes of diesel – much more than the small top-up we had required – and had offloaded only one sack of toothfish. This meant that we were now carrying over one hundred tonnes of fuel, sixty tonnes of fish and a few tonnes of bait, food, water and kit. The Sudur Havid was low in the water.

With our decks now closer to the sea’s surface, we would be more prone to taking on water from incoming waves. A heavy load could also affect our ability to return upright after being rolled to one side. Instead of bobbing like a duck, in the way Bubbles had described, the boat could struggle to rebalance after each swell. Almost forty years old, altered again and again from her original design, the Sudur Havid was being made to carry a dangerously heavy load.

The sea turns rough from Force 7 winds (Beaufort scale) and the senior officers decide to keep pulling in fish despite the fact that this requires some doors to be open that also admit water. The pumps clog from fish guts. The backup pump can’t be started.

At this precise moment, as I was on my knees, a tipping point was reached and passed. Unannounced, unacknowledged, but apparent to all of us just minutes later. The boat had been taking on more water than she could drain for some time but now the process had accelerated. Click. A light suddenly went on in my mind. I was no longer getting wet, the well was not being refilled. For once, the water hadn’t come back over to port. I looked over with dread at the starboard side of the factory, which was now six feet deep in grey murk. The water almost reached the ceiling, and the weight pinned the Sudur Havid down. A bird’s eye would see through the spray that she now lay with her heavy bow low in the water, and her stern slightly raised. She leant heavily, with her port side twelve feet up in the air and her starboard rail down in the sea. Waves broke over her and ran down her decks. The boat was no longer rolling, she was listing.

There had been no evacuation drill and the officers don’t have any plan to take EPIRBs or other essential gear into the life rafts. It turns out that an inflatable life raft is a wonderful device for abandoning ship in flat sunny conditions. With high winds and waves, though, getting into the raft and away from the boat is a challenge:

Relenting momentarily, we rolled away just enough to pop out from underneath her. The swells took us in the right direction away from the hull – five metres of freedom – only for the wind and the painter to reel us back. … It felt as if the boat were out to kill us. The underside of the stern tried to crush us, and the once-protective railings were now sharp edges to catch and tear the rubber tubes. … Morné had found a safety cutter, a small plastic item the size of a credit card, attached to the inside of the raft. He passed the serrated blade to Big Danie, who cut the painter. … Just when we thought we were clear, the boat shifted and the stern gantry came slamming down. This arch of heavy steel had once supported the trawl cables, but now the girders were slicing down on to the raft’s roof, folding the raft in two and forcing us underwater. The gantry caught my head: an irresistible force bearing down on me through the canvas canopy. The flat steel pressed against my skull so hard I wanted to cry out, but I was being smothered. Cold water rushed past my cheek. The raft flooded instantly as its rim was submerged. Frigid grey seawater plunged in, swirling around us. To my right, Morné felt someone push his head underwater at the last second, narrowly avoiding the full brunt of the crushing gantry. Fighting for breath, it felt as though he was metres below the surface. And then we were free. The boat shifted in the water and the gantry relinquished its hold. We were less buoyant now but still afloat and the wind and waves carried us slowly away. Our collision with the gantry had flooded the raft with thousands of litres of freezing seawater. Only the top tube of the raft now sat clear of the ocean’s surface; the other two that formed the walls were submerged. The floor bowed down away from us, sagging under the weight of the flooding. This made standing difficult and we were up to our waists and chests in –1°C seawater. But, thank God, we were leaving the boat behind.

The author sits in about three feet of freezing seawater:

At first we bailed through both hatches on the raft, but the waves breaking over us and bursting through the windward side were undoing all of our hard work. Hannes and Big Danie held the windward hatch closed, and Morné and I bailed through the leeward opening instead. But when the raft rotated this soon suffered the same problem and the water poured back in. With the doors held closed, I tried bailing through a gap between the tubes and the canopy, but the amount I could discharge was piteous. … We busied ourselves checking the raft for more supplies. Morné opened the bag that Bubbles [the South African captain] had been packing on the bridge and looked inside. It contained our passports, Joaquim’s video camera and a bottle of KWV brandy. What a disappointment. Where were the EPIRBs, the handheld VHF radio and the flares?

Perhaps they had been washed or torn away in our battering as we departed, but if there had been any other supplies or equipment in the raft, we couldn’t find them now. We had no way to communicate with the outside world, and no way to attract the attention of potential rescuers. There were no paddles or bailers and, crucially, no sea anchor. The latter was a big loss. Like an underwater parachute, it would have dragged below us through the water to stabilize the raft and stop us from spinning around. Instead, we were at the mercy of the wind that could blow us far away from the potential search area.

We needed to fasten the doors, to seal out the weather. Until now we had been relying on an elastic hem on the door, but this was not strong enough to hold against a wave or a strong gust. Inside the doors, Morné and I found inch-wide Velcro straps. Once threaded through an eyelet, these could be attached to a corresponding patch on the rubber tube. It was not an easy task and, as our fingers chilled, it became more and more awkward. Infuriatingly, each time I succeeded in fastening the strap, a large wave swept through and crashed against the canopy, ripping open the doors and soaking us. My bare hands stiffened. I knelt in the water, holding the flap of the life-raft down with my teeth while I threaded the Velcro strap through the eyelet with my two numb hands. Finally, after I strapped the last Velcro down, I leant back to admire my handiwork once more. Seconds later the hatch ripped open again. We abandoned our attempts to bail and retreated to find our own spaces within the raft, jostling for positions at the edge, away from the deepest water in the centre. I managed to squeeze myself into a gap at the back of the raft and hooked my arm over the rope that ran around the inner edge of the tube.

The book exists due to Ernesto Sandoval Agurto, a Chilean fishing captain:

On the bridge of the Isla Camila, Captain Ernesto Sandoval Agurto heard Bubbles’ Mayday and wrote on the whiteboard: Barque abandonar: 53º56´S, 041º30´W He picked up the radio microphone to hail his sister-ship. ‘Isla Sofia, Isla Sofia . . .’ The frantic Spanish voice heard on the Sudur Havid as she was sinking was actually Chilean, and belonged to Captain Sandoval. At fifty-four metres and with a GRT of 653 tonnes, the Isla Camila was substantially larger than the Sudur Havid and probably almost twice her weight. Now registered in Punta Arenas, Chile, but built in Holland in 1972, she was old but capable.

Any fisherman working in such distant seas knows that, when it all goes wrong, there are no rescue services to be called upon. There are no lifeboats to respond to a Mayday, and no helicopters to lift a crew to safety. A distress flare fired high into the sky will most likely fade unnoticed. In the Southern Ocean, boats work hundreds or even thousands of miles from the nearest port, city or rescue service. A boat’s best chance lies with its competitors.

Of all the boats in the Southern Ocean, the Isla Camila was the closest to the Sudur Havid’s last position, but she was still thirty-three miles away. While the Captain continued to issue calls for assistance, the crew attached a massive buoy to the half-hauled line and prepared to cut the ropes. This would free the Isla Camila to sprint towards the Sudur Havid’s final co-ordinates, and to whatever was left behind.

For the next three hours the crew of the Isla Camila pushed the boat as hard as they dared, crashing south-east on a bearing of 117° through the furious seas. …  The Chilean fishermen changed into thick layers of jumpers, coats, hats and gloves, and put their oilskins and boots back on to keep the freezing wind and spray at bay. Taking into account the wind chill factor, they could expect –15°C on deck. They knew the search could take hours, and that they could expect to be outside the entire time, directing spotlights and peering into the darkness.

Thirty minutes into the search and more than four miles from the last known position of the Sudur Havid, one of the deck crew at the rail started waving his arms frantically. He had glimpsed a flashing light.

Pulling people from the rafts is a non-trivial task:

Although the Isla Camila was a long-liner like the Sudur Havid, her line and the fish were brought aboard through a more sheltered hatch positioned higher in the hull, about two metres above the waterline, on the starboard side. This was the best point on the boat from which to mount a rescue but the timing would be crucial – the rise of the swell would have to be judged to perfection to lift the raft close enough to the boat. With swells seven metres in height, or more, the raft would drop down the side of the boat. A fall from that height could easily result in injury or the casualty being pinned underneath the boat. Normal training scenarios are designed for the recovery of a single man lost overboard. On this night, the potential numbers involved, combined with the weather conditions, raised the complications and danger immeasurably.

With no strobe aboard that raft to mark its position, it was imperative that the Isla Camila kept the new survivors in sight. Once the men were recovered from the first raft, Captain Sandoval ordered their vessel to be hauled aboard to avoid confusion. Paco turned the Isla Camila and gave a burst of throttle. The ship rolled as she went broadside to the swells.

Illuminated in the harsh glare of the Isla Camila’s work lights, the flooded bowels of the second raft came grimly into focus. Phil [the scientific observer on the Isla Camila] shuddered. After years of service with the Whitby lifeboat, he was used to the sight of death, but it was the state of the survivors that shocked him. Those within were lying awkwardly: a knotted melee of arms, legs and heads floated in the water, and the odd foot or hand protruded from the surface, or was caught in a twisted web of lifejackets and ropes. Full of water, and sitting lower in the waves, the second raft was going to be much more challenging to recover. Phil’s fellow deckhands began throwing ropes to those inside, but their arms weren’t working; the men in the raft seemed to be frozen from the shoulders down. A few casualties came within reach, and were hoicked over the side of the boat. Others waited in the raft, their arms outstretched in a desperate plea for rescue. They were unable to help themselves. Phil found a rope and tied a bowline to make a loop, gesturing to his crewmates to do the same and to lasso over their shoulders. When a man was hoisted out in this way, it looked painful but there was no other alternative. He counted seven men alive, some almost unconscious. Many more remained in the raft, inert. Once the survivors had been hauled aboard, the crew of the Isla Camila faced the problem of recovering the inactive bodies, which were either comatose or already dead.

Being prepared is useful in the Southern Ocean: “Watching the crew of the Isla Camila, I studied their clothes. They weren’t just differently dressed, they were better dressed than us. Their chunky, thick-soled wellington boots, which had at first looked silly to me, offered insulation from the cold metal deck. Their oilskins were neatly belted in at their waists to seal out the draughts and spray. Each belt held a sheathed knife where it was needed: to hand. I knew that they would not have been caught as unprepared as we were.”

More: Read the book.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

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