Coping with my trauma on a trawler
After three weeks of working as a seaman on a trawler in the Timor Sea, my palms were crisscrossed with cuts and calluses, I could haul the nets on my own, and I had stopped counting the time in hours. We woke up, gathered on the bridge and called through the escalating engines as the nets fell; we watched the sun come up and we watched it go down. There were snatches of sleep, hammering on doors, and then we gathered together again, hoisting, untangling, watching the mass of life, color, skin, tumble over the stage. Only one thing mattered to Ocean Thief: Were you awake and ready for capture?
Beyond the broad spiers of the Ocean Thief was perfect liminal space, without boundaries, without restriction. There was the dark curve of the horizon, his kiss against the sky. But in this endless space, I was contained by 50 feet of steel, the large metal trawl spanning the outer edges, spanning the sea. Nameless birds flocked on the boom, on the flat. -side, on the roof of the wheelhouse. Like the grip, I saw them at first as an unidentifiable mass: wings, beaks, squeals. Black or white, an occasional flash of brown.
At night, when the skipper was in rags, we took turns on watch, sitting in the wheelhouse, watching the navigation lights of the other trawlers dotting the water. At night, alone in the wheelhouse on watch, I finally felt perfectly lonely. On deck, I was again surrounded by male bodies moving and jostling each other, but here it was silence and darkness. Just the flash of sonar, its bright green lights a friendly beacon, the gentle ping of the radar a comfort.
Mick had decorated the wheelhouse with shells and amulets: an amethyst hanging from a cheap gold chain was falling from the ceiling; a faux-antique miniature chest was stuck in the shelf above the desk. Gulf maps, shaded in blues and browns, covered the table, and I traced my fingers on the lines that demarcated the boundaries of property, property, territory.
Beside the table, a pine shelf was attached to the wall, each shelf fitted with its own railing so that books and objects did not fall out. There were no novels, just books on boats, big game fishing, one on zoology. A paperback book by How to win friends and influence people, so damaged that the cover came off completely.
On my second night’s shift – my third week on board – I found a dusty hardback book on the bottom shelf, half hidden by a child’s kaleidoscope. The Australian Seabirds Handbook. The pages were soft with a smell of high quality glossy paper. With the thin beam of yellow light above me, I leaned over the photographs until the end of my shift and Davey climbed the ladder, a cup of instant soup in hand, then j took the book with me, sliding it into my bunk and the cool shell, my wall.
Streaked shearwater. Small frigate. Caspian Tern. In the quiet hours between catching and trawling, between waking up and sleeping, I watched the birds line up along the metal dam and began to name them. The forked tail of the frigate. The black hood of the tern. With my legs crossed, my back against the sun-heated wheelhouse, I rested my fingers on the page, scanning the portraits.
From names given, titles given, birds have emerged in forms, have become less shapeless. Sometimes an osprey hovered above us, keeping a perfect rhythm. A roseate tern returned every day, wherever we were, remained rooted at the dam as the wind shook it. Its wings spread widely as we trawled, the tail feathers trailing like kite ropes as it moved closer to the hull, looking down, awaiting our catch.