notes from the field

No. 21 - Lean and Mean

Learning to fish on a big scale takes a little time. Patience and tolerance also help. Until recently our ship -- our home away from home, the YUHZMORGEOLOGIYA, we call her the "USE-MO" -- conducted investigations for a Soviet geophysical institute located on the Black Sea. When the Union fell apart they lost much of their funding and decided to put three of their ships out for charter. The USE-MO was originally built as a standard 330-foot sturdy Soviet stern trawler; added were improved living spaces, lots of laboratories, and tons of specialized gear for probing, photographing and sampling the bottom of the sea. The ship maintains a crew of 30 to keep her running and a technical staff of 12 to operate the gear -- whatever the gear the client wants to deploy. The guys who help us put our instruments over the side and maintain our camps are ex-geologists, hydrographers, and engineers -- not fishermen.

We had broken new ground last year by setting up the ship to fish and conducting test trawls under the guidance of a very successful, loud-mouthed skipper from Oregon. It was slow going but it gave everyone a chance to see how big our gear was. This year, as a result of mysterious Russian administrative logic, we began with two trawl masters: Captain Peter, a retired American fisherman originally from Iceland, and Captain Constantine, a Russian fishing skipper of immense physical dimensions. Both were used to being in charge, neither had seen the ship, and neither understood what the other was saying. It was decided to put Captain Constantine on the deck, in charge of deploying and recovering the gear, and Captain Peter on the bridge (which has big picture windows looking aft over the trawl deck), where he would direct the overall operation including positioning the ship and monitoring the net's performance. The latter was accomplished by a sonar mounted on the front of the net -- when it worked it would allow the trawl master to tell if the net was open and flying correctly and how close it was to the bottom. Oleg, chief of the technical staff, was to interpret instructions from Captain Peter. All well and good.

But the mix of cultures (biologists, physicists and fishermen) and the mix of languages (English, Russian and German) made for an interesting brew. The deck officers on the bridge and Captain Constantine on the deck had heated exchanges over the loud speakers; Valeriy (the brilliant but often sullen engineer) kept fiddling with the net sonar; there were a half dozen more on the bridge, each with an idea as to how the gear should be deployed; Captain Peter couldn't understand a word and wondered why no one was listening to his directions; and the bloody weather just aggravated the chaos. The scene was very Russian, richly confused and anarchic.

But we eventually got our act together. We defined the roles that each of us would play and adopted a common vocabulary. The weather took a turn for the better and we started to get more efficient. Instead of setting the net once or twice a day, we're now setting it five to six times a day and our confidence has grown. We're now a lean, mean fishin' machine.


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