Chapter One: Fish Guts
The first thing that strikes you about working on a fishing boat is the amount of fish gut stains. Black, brown and purple spots cover the boats’ walls and floors, inside and out. Fish guts on the tables, fish guts on the windows. Crusty fish guts on the rails and on the bottoms of coffee cups. It’s a fact of life for a fisherman that no place is safe from the bladders, stomachs, and hearts of the sea. You have to wonder if they dream about fish guts.
It’s the first thing that strikes someone like me, anyways: anyone who knows next to nothing about fishing – commercial or otherwise. Fish guts are a shocker when the only thing you know about cod is that it tastes good when you fry it in beer batter and serve it with French fries. That’s exactly how removed I had been from the process. I had never even seen a picture of a whole Icelandic cod.
So as I suited up for a day on the trylla (Icelandic for small cod fishing boat) Happasæll, fish guts were the last thing I had expected. I suited up in oversized waders, waterproof pants, and a waterproof jacket. All of them covered in dry fish guts. I hesitated to put them all on, and before it became too exasperating, I had been breathing through my nose. It was the kind of thing that made me ashamed to come from a big city.
Fish guts. Fish guts. Fish Guts.
Chapter Two: Out to Sea.
At 6:30 am I show up at Keflavík Harbour. It’s the earliest I have been up in three months without being schnockered at Kaffibarinn. I see the captain of the boat, Halldór Halldórsson, is standing on the Happasæll looking out for me, the scrawny Grapevine journalist who’s come to work on his boat for a day. Halldór is young, maybe 29. At first sight, he seems like the kind of guy you’d expect to see cruising Laugavegur on Friday night in a blazer, with an entourage of beautiful girls. You wouldn’t think that he has been working on fishing boats since he was 14.
We shake hands and I am introduced to Guðmundur and Frímann, both of them in their late 50s, and double my size. We exchange very few words aside from a coffee offer as we head out into Faxaflói, the bay that stretches from the hallucinatory Snæfellsness peninsula to Keflavík. I watch Halldór steer the boat using a GPS system with two computer screens, one that shows the longitude and latitude of the Happasæll, and another that gives a 3D view of the ocean floor. Halldór switches one of the monitors to a camera that surveils the engine. I look up and see that it is a cloudless day. The sky seems to go on forever.
“We’re going to find our nets,” Halldór says, “And then we’re going to get our fish.”
Chapter Three: The Coming of the Cod
Happasæll rocks dramatically when the elaborate pulley system reels in the 2 km long net. Guðmundur stands at the port side, concentrating on undoing tangles in the net as a spinning crane rips it through his gloved hands. He tensely instructs me in busted English to move to the other side of the boat, where a knife slides around frantically in a metal bin intended for the day’s catch.
Knives and a rocking boat. My mother would shit a brick.
I turn around to see that in a loud splash of seawater and wriggling net the roaring pulley has introduced a huge cod to the boat. The yellow-green monster nearly does a Kobe Bryant hop into the mound of net on the table. It is the size of a small child and as it thrashes violently I see its incredible strength. Using a small and dull hand-hook to remove the netting from the creature’s hyperventilating gills, Frímann quickly loosens the cod and effortlessly tosses it to Guðmundur.
“You see,” Guðmundur instructs, slitting the animal’s throat like he’s pouring himself a glass of water. “You cut the throat here, underneath the gills.” As he cuts, the fish blood paints his face like a little girl at a birthday party. He doesn’t flinch, saying: “Then you slice down the middle.”
One move of his thumb reveals the fish’s fleeting organ system. I recognize heart, intestine, piss-squirting bladder. The fish’s mouth is still moving and I can see that its fins are still shaking. Then, in one simple move, Guðmundur rips the animal’s life system right out of its body and tosses it to the hundreds of waiting seagulls that have surrounded the boat.
“Your turn,” Guðmundur says, handing me the knife.
“Honestly?” I ask. “Maybe I just need a cigarette first.”
Guðmundur laughs and pulls my ass back to the metal bin. “I’m serious”.
I lift the fish up but it immediately flops out of my hands and begins to wriggle on the floor. I had underestimated the animal’s 40-pound girth. Again I pick it up, but it thrashes itself out of my slippery gloves. The seagulls wait. The pulley roars again.
“Look!” I hear Frímann command, “a demon.”
He emerges from behind machinery with Rosemary’s freaking baby. “Steinbítur” he says. “He eats the rrrrrocks.”
The nasty grey fish is enormous, with rounded, baby finger-like teeth that jut horizontally out of its wrinkled old-man face. He demonstrates its biting powers by placing a wooden hook in its jaws. Then he throws it into the metal bin where my cod is. The ugly Steinbítur (or Ocean Catfish) throbs around in the bin before it attaches its jaws to the crushed head of a small fish and mauls it. Fish blood is splayed everywhere.
Oh, and by the way, all of this smells like shit.
The pulley roars again. I lift the cod up with a yelp and pull its head back to reveal its throat, which I awkwardly saw through. Using the backside of the knife, I exert every bit of my strength to tear the underside of fish in half. It takes a few tugs and tosses, but my hands successfully get the guts out. The final tear sounds like Velcro. I want to ralph, but I’m too proud of myself.
“Hey, I did it!” I shouted
“Great,” Frímann says. “Now gut the rest.”
Chapter Four: What a Fisherman Does
What a fisherman does is intense, trying, and often thankless. It’s about untangling 75 nets a day at four different locations, loading heavy and slimy sea monsters in and out of containers. It’s about gutting, head-slicing and the most brutal of fish murder techniques. It’s about what you can stomach. It’s about market prices and salting cod for Spain and Portugal. It’s about competition for net space. It’s about net placement – tides, currents, depths and where the fish will be from one day to the next. It’s about luck.
Imagine doing this in winter, when the sun doesn’t give and the North Sea doesn’t forgive.
At the end of the day, Guðmundur translates the Icelandic seamen prayers that hang on the walls of the boat. They are about humility, god-given strength, and respect for the harsh Atlantic.