The story resumes as I try to describe what it’s like to work for 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. Because the sockeye season is so short, and the boat has so little space for staff quarters, and, also, I think, just because, the hours on a Bristol Bay processor are brutal. I can’t remember what my shift was, but really, does it matter whether I got my 4-ish hours of sleep between midnight and 4 AM, or between 10 AM and 2 PM?
We start working within the first hour of our arrival on the boat. Oh, and, I forgot to mention, we arrived in Bristol Bay via a series of smaller and smaller airplanes, then, a couple of hours sitting on a beach, then skiffs that took us out to a tender (an open-decked boat that brings supplies to the fishing and processing boats). We sat on the tender for several more hours, in the eerie midnight sun of an Alaskan summer, while sophisticates from another tender shot at us with potato cannons. On a tender there is nowhere to hide, but fortunately our assailants had poor aim (or maybe everyone has poor aim when they’re shooting a potato cannon).
I work side by side with a pleasant woman named Sue, who has seen it all before. She gives me tips on surviving the long hours – the main one is to mentally divide the time into quarters and just try to get through the current quarter.
The days actually do go by fairly quickly. The work is so monotonous that we’re able to converse, and there is always music on in the background, though we have only a few tapes.
The hard part isn’t working the shifts, the hard part is waking up a few hours after going to bed after working a full shift. I share a stateroom with the other two female processors – Sue, and an 18-year-old girl whose name I can’t remember, who is the daughter of the captain. Apparently there is some plan to undo the spoiling she has undergone at the hands of the grandparents who raised her while he father was at sea.
We’re so tired after our first 18-hour shift, and the time allotted for sleep is so brief, that the foreman has to come in and physically shake us awake. The second morning I wake up with hands so stiff from repetitive fish-handling, that I have a hard time getting dressed. So, the second night I go to bed with most of my clothes already on. I wake up with stiff hands again the next morning, but since I planned ahead all I need to do is pull on my boots, then go out into the plant to put on my raingear and gloves. Even this is difficult because to pull something on you need to grip it, and to be able to grip something you need to be able to bend your hands and fingers, but somehow I get it done.
We kept up this schedule for about 10 days, and just when it seemed that we would all fall apart from sheer fatigue, we were told that we were to get a break – 16 hour days! Tune in next week to find out whether 2 hours a day really makes a difference when you’re sorting fish all day, and whether life on a 700-foot boat is any different from life on a small salmon processor.