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  • Writer's pictureMiguel Villalobos

The Deep Blue Sea

Originally Published 8 July 2014

I had never been to sea. I had not even seen the ocean with my own eyes until well into my nineteenth year on this planet. It has, for this reason, always been to me something of a great and terrifying mystery, an unforgiving immensity of force full from crest to its depths with peril and spook. But there is a first time for almost everything. And so here in Recife, in the docklands of the Capabaribe River, I stopped off during an afternoon bike ride to chat with some local fishermen. I asked. They said, sure, come along. It would be eight days out on the high seas. Could I handle it? Sure, why not.

When one approaches an unknown group of men unannounced, there is typically one among them who takes the lead in either receiving or deceiving the newcomer, and the others usually follow suit, whichever way the directed attitude flows. This man was Rocam, a mousey looking fellow about five feet tall and skinny as they come. He was my age, thirty-five, but thanks to twenty-five years in the sun and persistent crack and alcohol addictions, he looked to be much older. His gift to me was immediate and unquestioning reception. The next day he introduced me to the boss, a plump and kind figure named Biu, who gave me the green light for the boat trip. We would leave the next morning at sunrise.

I asked what I should bring, food, clothing, or otherwise. Biu assured me that food had already been stored on the boat, and there would be more fresh fish than I could ever dream to stuff my face with during a lifetime. They found me a foam mattress to sleep on, and that was it, I would need nothing else. Following my own good advice, however, I made sure to stop at a pharmacy before departure to buy some sun screen for my pale white skin and some Dramin for what they call sea sickness, just in case. These extra things turned out to be life saving.

At sunrise the next morning I met the rest of the crew. Claudimir was to be captain and pilot. He was a beauty of a man. Also my age, his bulk and muscle made me look puny and helpless beside him, which is how I felt before all of these men, eventually. His indifference convinced me that he might not like me very much, but later he saved my life, and I no longer cared about whether or not he liked me. I was thankful for him.

Antonio was what they call the “talheiro,” who is in charge of reeling in the multitudes of plastic web bound wooden cages the men drop into the sea to catch fish and other strange sea creatures. My first impression was that he was going to be a problem, for my first interaction with him consisted of him opening a can of pure cachaça and smoking a rock of crack rolled tightly into a cigarette. I have come to distrust crack addicts and alcoholics, always falling back on the old heuristic that says that the drug is stronger than the man. Indeed, it is, but that doesn’t take the man away completely, and in the following days I would be thanking him for saving my life, too.

Ericson was the oldest member of the crew, perhaps in his fifties but fit as a young buck. He spoke little, and when he did, his voice sounded like that of a small child. He didn’t drink or smoke or use drugs. He just fished. His duty was that of “meio campo,” or mid-fielder, the job of whom is to take the cages from the talheiro, empty the fish in buckets according to their species, and then pass the empty cages back to the “baudeiro,” who stacks them in tightly roped columns ten high and six wide. The baudeiro was Rocam, chosen for this position for his small stature, light weight, and agility, for his was a job of extraordinary balance in high places.

Rocam also smoked one last crack rock wrapped in cigarette paper with a pinch of tobacco just before debarking. He curled into fetal position as he sucked in the smoke. Between puffs he told me that he hates himself every time he does this, that he knows it has ruined his life and has broken apart his family, and that despite all of this, the urge to do it again, and do it more and more, will never let him free. I thought of the tobacco cigarettes in my own pocket. Despite years of being smoke-free, I had still come back to this nasty habit, and like him, I had come back out of spite for a world turned cold and cruel. I would quit again soon, but like Rocam, I will always be a smoker, whether I smoke or not. Such is addiction.

As we pulled away from shore, Claudimir suggested I take a Dramin tablet so that I would be ready when we hit the real waves. I followed his advice, thank God. As soon as we made it out of the bay of Recife, passing the old city on the way, the real waves did hit us. And they hit hard. Claudimir smiled and said, you’re lucky, boy, the sea is calm today! I looked at him, feeling my brain turning to jell-o, and told him he must be crazy. He laughed and said it again. The sea was indeed calm that day, as things go.

Twenty miles out the coastal waters turned from emerald green to a dark navy blue. Forty miles out there was no longer a trace of shoreline anywhere. We were in the middle of absolutely nowhere, I thought. And there was no turning back, no taking a break, no room for anything but a determined effort to get used to this bizarre adventure I had gotten myself into. If I got sick or hurt, I would have to be sick or hurt for a week. If I didn’t get along with any of the men, I would have to just deal with it. If I tried to swim back…let’s just say that I’m not a very strong swimmer. Not strong like the sea. Who is?

That first day was party day. No work. It was a cachaça fest to the tune of romantic “brega” (look it up on Youtube, it’s awesome) music at full blast. The men all drank about three tall cans of pure cane liquor each, all except for Ericson, who seemed to be quite accustomed to ignoring the obscene behavior of his compatriots. Claudimir drank some, but held it together. Rocam and Antonio, for their part, scared me with their drunkenness, for their eyes had glazed over like jelly fish, concealing their souls and shielding them from reason. They pranced around the violently rocking boat like maniacal children on a sugar high, laughing and singing off key, off beat, off kilter. After a while, Rocam became obsessed with telling me I was his best friend, and that best friends—those few people in life who you can really trust—only come around a handful of times in one’s life. He kept promising me that I could come live in his house for free, no rent, because I was like a brother to him. I thought you lived on the boat, I asked. He does. He hasn’t been back to his house on land for several months, ever since one of the local drug dealers put out a hit on him for not paying his debts. Thanks, I told him. I’d give it some thought.

By the time we arrived on site, out in the middle of nowhere, locatable only by GPS or by traditional nautical calculations that to me are just meaningless words and numbers, the men had tired from their three-hour binge, and fell like logs onto the open deck to sleep. I slept, too, feeling a rumbling vomit surging in my throat. And while I slept, the boat kept rocking back and forth, up and down. It filled me with a sense of terror, if you will, that I would not be able to make it through the week like this. And yet I had no choice.

I had brought three packs of cigarettes, thinking that would be plenty to make it through the week. But in the haze of their crack highs—what Rocam called The Agony—the only other two smokers on ship had forgotten to bring their own cigarettes, and so I declared mine public. By noon the next day all three packs had been smoked away, mostly by Rocam and Antonio, who treat any addiction like a binge. If the drug is there, they will drink it, snort it, or smoke it non-stop until it is gone. No matter what. And when it is gone, well, they manage. They don’t even seem to suffer, which leads one to think that they might not be so addicted after all. And yet they will always go back to it as soon as it is available, and the binge begins again.

That is why, were it not for their profession, which keeps them out at sea twenty-five days out of each month, they would probably have succumbed to complete destitution, prison, or death long ago. There are no drug dealers, liquor stores, or money to purchase anything with way out there in the high seas.

And that is where they are happiest and most productive. Onshore they are outcasts, hoodlums, wastes of human capacity, persecuted by the police and laughed at by society. Out at sea they are well tuned machines working day in and day out like clockwork, casting out cages and reeling them in, cooking, cleaning, eating heartily and sleeping like logs. Out at sea they are proud men. On shore they don’t even eat. They live off of cachaça and hard drugs, and they spend what little money they make in a matter of days.

How much money do they make? The men are compensated according to the weight of the fish load they bring back. Each of the crewmen makes about 10 cents (USD) per kilo of fish brought to shore. Claudimir, the captain, earns about twice that. A month’s work earns each man an average of one thousand dollars, depending on the catch. That can easily be spent in two or three days of a crack binge. The situation is more stable for those who don’t smoke crack, of course. Claudimir, for example, has been able to buy a home, a motorcycle, and support a wife and three children.

All of the men dream of having their own boat one day, for they know full well that they, as paid laborers, get the worst end of the deal. While one four-man team will bring in an average of fifteen thousand dollars worth of exportable fish each month, their pay collectively constitutes only twenty percent of the gross profits. After gas, food, taxes, and other expenses are taken into account, the legal owner of the boat pockets about eight thousand by himself, without lifting a finger. But a boat like this one, the Qualipesca I, a thirty-foot long, fifteen-foot wide beast driven by a six cylinder diesel engine, costs about seventy-five thousand dollars to buy, and banks simply don’t give loans like that to poor people. And so boat ownership remains a dream. A pipe dream, as they say.

By sunrise on the second day the men were already hard at work, packing Styrofoam coolers with ice and preparing the boat to reel in four hundred and fifty cages, a job that would require almost non-stop labor until well into the dark of evening. Watching them work, I soon realized to my dismay that I could not realistically do anything to help out. I was still clutching my stomach and holding down fits of vomit, expending what little energy I had on simply preventing myself from falling over as the boat rocked at 45 degree angles in the ocean waves. Even if I could learn to secure my balance, it would have taken me weeks of practice to perform their duties, which although relatively simple, required a knowledge and dexterity far beyond my natural capabilities. And to do these jobs safely, ay, that would require months, if not years. All of the men had numerous scars that spoke of such dangers.

Balance. I could barely secure myself to take a piss off the side of the deck. In the afternoon of the third day I figured that out the hard way. A ten-foot wave smacked into the port bow and sent me arms flailing over the starboard side and into the dark blue water. Since I had already seen the men dive in and climb aboard again with relative ease, I though it was funny, at first.

But water was never my world, especially not ocean water, and the boat suddenly seemed enormous once I was below it. And I could feel my energy slipping away from me second by second as the current pulled me away. Just treading water left my arms weak as a sick child’s. When I was finally able swim my way back to the boat and grab the railing on the starboard side, I no longer had any strength left to lift myself up. Then another wave crashed over me. My mouth open and gasping for air, I swallowed a good pint of it. My hands slipped from the wooden railing, and I fell back into the water. I realized then, with some panic, that my life was not my own anymore. So quickly things had changed. So quickly the sea could swallow me.

Fortunately, Antonio had seen me fall overboard, and after my failed attempt to climb up again, he tossed me a rope. I was still too weak to climb up with it, but at least the current wouldn’t carry me away. At least as long as my aching hands could grasp hold of the rope. Noticing my panic, Antonio called out to Claudimir, and the two strong men then reeled me in. I could feel myself sinking. But they reached down, grabbed hold of my limp wrists, and hoisted all of my one hundred-ninety pounds of flesh and bone out of the water and onto the deck. I lay there panting like a dog. Man, you’re heavy, Claudimir said. Cast iron bones, I told him, like an anchor.

The men retrieved several buckets of fresh water from the cistern and splashed me clean. My arms were burning from the strain. My entire back burned, too. Rocam saw why. A jelly fish had clamped itself to the back of my shoulder. He peeled it off and chucked it into the ocean. The men offered to piss on my back to get rid of the burn, but I declined the good deed. It was just a small jelly fish, after all.

As Biu had assured me, food on the boat was plentiful, and it was delicious. Each morning before sunrise one of the men prepared coffee while I lay sleeping in my bunk, and we drank it down loaded with sugar and accompanied by crackers. Two hours later the men would break for brunch, usually salted pork or beef with corn based couscous. By one or two o’clock in the afternoon another meal. This time something fancy. Fresh fish, octopus, lobster, or shark, with an abundant base of rise and beans and mandioca powder. In the evening, fish soup and a cup of coffee. Then the men would labor well into the night before collapsing to sleep in their bunks or on the floor.

I did almost nothing to help, although I often tried. But even cleaning dishes was a challenge, for each time I shifted my focus to anything other than maintaining my balance, I fell over. And yet no one seemed bothered by what felt to me like inexcusable laziness. Much to the contrary, the men all seemed more than happy to do everything for me. Cook my food, serve me coffee, clean my dishes. Everything but shit and piss for me, for those things grown men simply must learn to do on their own, no matter the circumstances.

But, of course, even that was difficult, particularly in light of my unexpected overboard experience. Shitting was even more difficult than pissing, however, not so much for the problem of balance—I could secure myself with two hands while I sat my ass over the stern—but for the constant swinging and rocking of the boat in the ocean’s waves. No matter how much food I stuffed inside my gut, none of it passed through. My intestines were frozen. The result: I didn’t shit for four days. On the fifth day, when I finally did, it was a small triumph, if anything. From then on I resolved to eat as little as possible, certain as I was that in any moment my entrails would rupture.

Meanwhile, the men ate huge bowlfuls of food at each sitting, and they looked at my tiny portions with incomprehension. You gringos don’t like to eat much, do you? Oh, I assured them, we like to eat plenty, just look at our obesity statistics sometime, you’ll see. Ah yes, they nodded their heads. The obesity of Americans is well known the world over.

For me the passing days were an ever increasing tedium. Although I had grown accustomed to the incessant rocking of the boat, I found little to do but read, sleep, or sit on a water bucket and contemplate. It was peaceful in its own right, so far away from the distractions of modern life, cellular phones, internet, traffic, walks in the park, freedom of movement. But I read my only two books in just two days, and I could not brace myself still enough to write down my thoughts in a notebook. And the spatial confines were limited to just a few square feet as the men worked, stacking cages, casting lines, and sorting fish. There was, furthermore, a language barrier between us, for fishermen of any nationality speak their own language, have their own codes and references and modes of communication. Add that to the constant din of a roaring diesel engine and the relentless winds of the high seas, and what became of our conversations was often limited to the most simple of matters. More coffee? More food? Who am I rooting for in the World Cup?

On the fourth day Brazil defeated Colombia in the World Cup games, which the men had been listening to over AM radio waves. It was a brief explosion of joy. Off on the distant horizon, Rocam pointed out to me, were nearly imperceptible flashes of white light. Hundreds of tiny explosions. On shore, forty miles away in Recife and Olinda, jubilant crowds of soccer fans were firing rockets into the sky in celebration of the host country’s path towards victory in the world’s second largest sporting event, second only to the Olympics. Two billion people worldwide, more than twenty percent of the planet’s human population, were tuned in. Just a few days later Brazil would be annihilated by Germany in the semi-finals, but I was to suffer that from the comfort of a fourteenth floor apartment.

On the morning of the fifth day a storm rolled in westward over the Atlantic ocean. The waves hit before the rain. During the previous evening I awoke numerous times to nightmares as the boat lurched to and fro, straining the binds of the wooden hull, which creaked and groaned in its effort to keep together amid the onslaught. The men couldn’t sleep either, and so they went out to the deck to drop more lines hooked with chunks of dead fish in hopes to lure larger beasts than those that could fit into the entrapment chambers of their cages. I laid still in my bunk, shivering under my only blanket, a long-sleeve shirt wrapped around my torso, praying that the hull wouldn’t burst asunder.

Rain came with the winds. Sweet cool water from the sky. A natural shower to clean the sea water from our pores. It was beautiful, but frightening. I had already become afraid of the dark blue waters around me, but the rain and the visibility it eliminated had heightened this fear many fold. If I were to fall in the water now, I thought, I really might not make it back aboard for. Paralyzed, I kept myself tightly braced to my quarters in the middle of the boat, holding my bladder hours longer than I’d rather in order to avoid the dangerous expedition ten feet over to the starboard pisser space.

The men, for their part, never stopped working. They feared nothing. No wind, no rain, no flashes of lighting, no violent swinging and rocking of the boat. Nor did they fear any of the vile creatures of the sea that frequently came aboard, trapped in cages or clung from hooks. Small sharks, poisonous fish, and the most diabolic demon of them all, the “cobra fish”—some sort of eel—which writhed in infernal agony as they clubbed it on the head repeatedly with a long steel pipe.

By the time the skies cleared, in the morning of the sixth day, I noticed another small yellow boat rocking on the horizon. It was the Qualipesca III, one of five boats in the company’s fleet. Claudimir told me it was heading back to shore that same day. Could I go with them? I asked. Already? Claudimir seemed surprised. But he understood. The high seas are not easy on newcomers. He remembered well his own beginnings at the age of thirteen. He had vomited for eight days straight his first time around. He didn’t have the luxury of Dramin in those days, of course. Okay, he said, and he radioed over to the distant boat, and asked them to come pick me up on their way to shore. It would be just a matter of hours.

The news quickly spread to the rest of the men. Ericson, who rarely spoke at all, said nothing. Antonio just shook my hand and smiled. It was Rocam’s reaction, however, that made me feel regretful. He pleaded with me to stay, that there was still so much adventure to be had. He told me that I had given him hope that he might be able to break his crack habit, because when he was around me he didn’t feel the urge to smoke. Sure, he didn’t have any more crack to smoke out at sea anyway, but he still saw me as a friend and as a point of reference for a better life. And you’re just going to go back and smoke cigarettes if you leave now, he said. I know, I said. I don’t know what to do, Rocam, but I think it’s better that I leave now while I can. I will miss you. I will miss you, too, friend.

But there was one last terrifying step I would have to take in order to return that day. Because of the intensity of the waves, the boats cannot be positioned side by side, for they would slam into one another and potentially break apart. That meant that I would have to jump in the water again, and swim some thirty feet over to the other boat, which continued to swing up and down in the ten-foot waves. Jumping in and swimming was the easy part. But I feared the other ship would lift up and slam its hull down upon me, crushing my skull. And I feared that in such big waves I would never be able to pull myself aboard again, that my energy would seep out of my arms in seconds, and that I could be left paralyzed and floating away in the current.

When the Qualipesca III approached within its thirty-foot limits, the neighboring crew tossed over a rope, which Antonio used to string up my backpack and zip it over to them. He yelled out for them to be careful, for I had an expensive camera in the bag.

And then, from the cockpit, Claudimir, yelled out to me. Jump in! Now! Jump!

I felt like a baby on my first outing to a public swimming pool. Everyone yelling for me to jump in, knowing full well I was not really in so much danger, and yet I felt that my life was about to end. But there was no time for hesitation, for the two boats could only maintain their position in these high waves for a matter of minutes at most. And so I jumped. And I swam. The two yellow monsters buoying like mighty gods above me. I heard yelling from all sides. Grab the rope! Grab the rope! I didn’t see the rope, though. It was black and hidden under the water. So with all my effort I swam to the starboard side of the neighboring boat until I found where the rope pierced the water’s surface. I grabbed it with two hands, and the men reeled me in. And then, the part I feared most, the pulling my one hundred and ninety pounds of flesh and bone up the side and over the railing. I sucked in one last breath of fresh air, and lurched upward, grabbing the wooden railing with both hands.

There was a moment in which I felt my strength begin to vanish again. It was the halfway point, and if I were alone, I would not have made it. But before I could worry further, four dark hands reached down, grabbed me under the armpits and by the wrists, and hoisted me quickly up and over onto the deck. When I stood up, there were cheers all around. Rocam, Antonio, and Claudimir all swung their arms in the air and hooted like Brazil had won another round in the World Cup games. The men who had hoisted me up also cheered. And then they sat me down in the middle of the deck, and without letting me lift a finger, brought several buckets of mineral water and dumped them over me from head to toe, cleansing me of the salt of the sea.

The four-man crew of my new boat, my ticket back to solid ground, was the spit and image of the old crew. Such good hearted souls. So simple, so humble, so giving of themselves, asking nothing in return. Francisco, Ragiane, Chico, and Eduardo. Their faces aged beyond their years by decades under the tropical sun. Their teeth the rotten remains of what they once were. Their bodies, dark, sinewy, and strong, human physical capacity at its purest. Ragiane cooked up two octopi in a beaten metal pot on a tiny stovetop in the boat’s cabin while the other men continued to reel in and cast out cages. Francisco, the captain, told me of his twenty-five years at sea. It’s the only life I can imagine for myself, he said.

Chewing up and swallowing rubbery chunks of octopus, Eduardo asked if I had a special lady waiting for me on land, perhaps some beautiful Brazilian girl I might have met. He said the octopus would make her a satisfied woman, and all the men laughed. Why’s that? I asked. Boom boom! They said, laughing. It makes a man strong! Ah, right, I replied. But no, there is no one, I told them.

I asked if they had any special ladies waiting for them. No, they didn’t have anyone, either, except for Francisco, who has been married for twenty years. Everyone else had children, but had long been separated. The cheating bitches, they spit. But that is the life of a deep sea fisherman. When you spend twenty-five days of each month out at sea, it is hard to keep a woman satisfied. Frustration turns to fits of jealousy, and jealousy corrodes the initial magic that marked the early months or years of sweet passion. Distrust consumes every interaction, and the sea once again becomes a refuge from the inevitable conflict and pain of life on land. Love disintegrates, families are broken, and a new generation of young boys and girls grow up without their fathers, who now belong to the sea and only to the sea. Such is life.

The waters calmed again as soon as we exited the open sea and entered into the reef shielded bay area of Recife. Passing by Francisco Brennand’s giant phallus sculpture to our left, and the old port of Recife on our right, I felt a strange delight, as if I were returning home to a long lost friend. Hordes of tourists looked on at us from the plaza of Marco Zero, waving their hands as our big yellow boat chugged slowly by. It was a magical homecoming.

Fifteen minutes later Eduardo and Ragiane were roping in the boat at a small dock in Brasilia Teimosa, a slum founded by fishermen nearly seventy years ago. When I set foot on the dock, I nearly fell over. The deck was stable, but I was no longer. In fact, I could feel and see the earth everywhere wobble and rock under my feet for a full two days before my senses came to.

After saying thanks and goodbye to the men, I walked the twenty yards or so up the plank of the dock, but just as I reached the street, Francisco called out to me. You didn’t take any fish! No, I hadn’t thought about it. Come back! Okay, I came back down to the boat. Eduardo had stuffed a three-kilogram bag full of a variety of freshly caught and iced fish, and he handed it to me. This will make for a good party, he smiled. I was delighted. Indeed, it would make for an excellent party.

And it did make for an excellent party, or so I was told by Ismael, the doorman who works the nightshift at the condominium where I have been living, thanks to the generous hospitality of old friends. I gave the entire bag of fish to him, for there was no room left in the storage freezers in my friends’ apartment. Abundance ruled the day, at least for some. For many millions of others, well, their’s is the Kingdom of Heaven, as they say.

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