The Valhalla II is sixty-foot of tight grained, blond wood. Her lines are soft and long. Painted white with green trim, much of the wood is left with only a smooth, protective varnish. Her house is forward, and takes up perhaps a third of the total length of the boat, leaving maybe fifteen feet for bow and twenty-five for her back deck. The forward section of the house is the wheelhouse, and above that is the flying bridge – a wheel on top of the boat, out in the open where Phil often steers while passing between the jetties, across the bar. There’s a long green plastic visor out in front of the wheel to cut the wind and the glare of the low afternoon sun. The house has a small galley with a sink and a dining table. A diesel burning stove/range doubles as the space heater. Forward of that is a short corridor with a bunk on the starboard side, head on the port side, and a ladder to the engine room and crew quarters below-decks.
Down in the forecastle – or fo’c’sle – there are four bunks. Two run along each side of the boat, one on top of the other, coming together at the bow. Forward of the bunks is a v-shaped storage area, matching the arc of the bow. Each bed has a six-inch rail along the outside edge, holding in the mattress, and in rough seas, sometimes the occupant. Beneath those, there’s storage, and the three unused bunks are used for additional stowage. Above is the ‘light’ – a hatch in the overhead that, when open, leads out to the foredeck, bringing air and light into the fo’c’sle. It opens upward, and is propped on a notched length of wood to keep it ajar. There isn’t enough room for a person to escape without a lot of trouble, though a small, determined someone could. That’s not me. Although there isn’t an ounce of fat on me, I weigh 150.
Separating the crews’ quarters from the engine room is a sliding wooden door. Not enough to diminish much of the noise when the engine is running, but usually I’m so exhausted I can sleep through anything. At night, sleeping below decks, I can hear the wood settle and creak with the movement of the boat on the water. It sounds like steps in a haunted house. At first, the sound unnerves me. It seems like the boat must be breaking apart and sinking. After a few days however, it becomes a comfort. Like a lullaby sung through the heart of the wood as the boat sways me gently to sleep. These are the halcyon days of tuna fishing. But before I can enjoy them, I have to get over my seasickness.
My first week on that boat, I’m a mess. I don’t eat for four days, and only minimally for the remainder. I’m sick. Sick like I’ve never known sick. After the first two days of constant puking while running out to the tuna grounds, the seasickness comes in waves, and I work the fishing lines between heaves. Already cold from sickness, I sit out on the back deck in the chilly air, wondering what I’ve done to deserve this torture. I drink water just to have something to puke up. On day five, I accept a few crackers each meal from Phil, but nothing more.
And then, after a week, I wake up and the sickness is miraculously gone. The fish start biting, so I’m making good money, but more importantly, I’m at peace for the first time I can recall – ever. It isn’t quiet – the engine is constantly running. But it’s quiet inside my head. The ping-pong ball that constantly bounces from one edge of my consciousness to the other is silent. I have few thoughts other than when the line might grow taut from a fish bite, or when to move the fish from the deck to the hold. One of my most trying thinking jobs is to remember all of the verses to the old songs Where have all the Flowers Gone, and Sloop John B. I sing them over and over, reaching to the back corners of my brain to fill in a line here, a verse there until I remember all of them. The engines are loud enough that I can sing my heart out on the back deck without fear of being overheard. Up long before daylight and asleep well after dark, the days are cut into pieces – Wake up. Get dressed. Set lines. Cereal. Before morning bite. Morning bite. After morning bite. Brine fish. Lunch. Maybe an afternoon bite. Brine fish. Nap, glorious nap. Back on deck for the possible stray bite. Brine fish. Dinner. Evening bite. Brine fish. Day done. Undress and crawl into my bunk and pass out until Phil’s knock on the door the next morning. Start over again. Between bites, I read or practice songs on the deck, waiting for the monofilament to sing the news ‘fish on.’ As long as I haul the fish in and brine them, my life is complete. I have no other responsibilities.