500 hours afloat with fishermen: Part 1, Stormy adventure

I had had a “stormy” adventure with the fishermen of Dinh Tan village, Binh Chau commune, Quang Ngai to the Trung Sa area, which located in the Bien Dong Sea, about 1,000 km off the mainland. 500 hours afloat on the sea, I had witnessed the sea changing from gentleness, generosity to anger, and cruelty.
September 28, 2020 | 07:54
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(Photo: Thoi Dai)

Missed the trip

Mr. Nguyen Van Hung, vice-chairman of Binh Chau commune, and Mr. Nguyen Van Tu, chairman of the local fisheries association, took me to the house of Mr. Tran Luan, the captain of the boat QNg09360.

"Let me consult the net team. I could only let you go if they agree”, Luan told me, after mulling over Hung and Tu’s convincement for a while.

The 09360 boat started the engine, slowly head to the Sa Ky gate. After running for only a few hundred meters, the boat gently hit the shore. Luan rode on a basket boat, taking me to the checkpoint of the coast guard to hand in the personal papers.

After skimming on all the papers, Major Nguyen Van Tam, the head of Sa Ky checkpoint, looked me in the eye and said “You’re the first journalist in Vietnam wanting to sail out to Trung Sa with the fishing boat”. Once said, Tam called to inform his higher-up of a journalist with no letter of recommendation from Quang Ngai Border Guard Command but insisted on venturing out to the sea with the fishermen crew.

Not sure what he got on the phone, but Tam was determined to keep me at the mainland, saying “if you still want to go with the fishing boat, you’ve got to have the paper recommendation with signs and seals. There were already a lot of fishermen who lost their lives to the sea or even got abducted by foreigners. If you fall into either case, Sa Ky checkpoint must assume responsibility for that”, he said.

I missed that trip. A few days later, I heard a bad news, Tran Luan’s boat had crashed into an underground rock while fishing. It was badly damaged, its engine was broken. Fortunately, there’s no casualty, all the fishermen were rescued by a fishing boat from Ly Son island. However, the fate of the boat still remains uncertain.

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(Photo: Thoi Dai)

Inform the crew is a must, even it’s toilet time

After viewing all kinds of papers and got the red stamp by the borders guards, Mr. Nguyen Van Leo, captain of the boat QNg05985, said “Even people born and raised in coastal areas, living almost two-thirds of life by the sea like us got chilled to the bone when we reach Trung Sa. The journey lasted 4 days, 4 nights. There were always strong winds and big waves. We never had peace of mind throughout the journey. Could you stand it?”

After inventorying all the items needed for 9 people during the 2 months offshore, including 400 rocks, 9,000 liters of fuel, rice, oil, Leo hasten to ask other fishermen doing the departure ceremony, then turned the key to start the ship running.

Looking at me, Leo said, “This boat has 8 fishermen, we are all family members and relatives. While the boat is running, make sure you inform us if there is anything you need or want to do, even if it’s toilet time”.

Leo then pointed at Mr. Nguyen Van Chinh, known as the “Fishing King”, added “had it not been for the help of the crew, today would be his death anniversary. He was blown to the sea that time when the boat was also driving near Trung Sa area”.

It was the first sailing after 5 months resting for storm-avoidance. On the second night, Chinh got blown away by the waves, falling down into the sea while he was toileting. Den, who slept next to Chinh that night didn’t see Chinh return, rushed to inform everyone about Chinh’s absence. The boat turned back and found Chinh after 2 hours.

“I almost become the preyer of fish that night”, Chinh remembered.

The crew has 8 fishermen, four of them, Thoi, Nhot, Quy and Chinh had once accidentally fallen down the sea.

Wives of the fishermen preparing for the long journey before sailing
Wives of the fishermen preparing for the long journey before sailing (Photo: Thoi Dai)

Trung Sa area was discovered by people in Ly Son island district about 25 years ago. Back then the seafarers had only one compass, no GPS, Icom radios, or detectors. Due to the small engine, the boat could only run towards the east. After around one week, the boat would anchor and cast out net where there were black stones. Fish were very abundant, there’s no need to probe water, or find water flow like now.

The entire Trung Sa area has about 53 reefs, with a depth of 15 to 250 meters. This area is equivalent to 3 provinces of average size area in Vietnam and is 1,000 km off the coast of Quang Ngai sea. Amidst the rock mounds are canals. Just like on land, water surface is like the sky, rock mounds are considered undersea forests, and the canals are rivers. The fish are “human beings”, they need to find a rock mound to shelter in after preying out in the daytime.

When it was first discovered, this sea area is a “fish mine”, with an abundance of fish. It often took the fishermen three catching times to fill their boat. Those fishing on flying fish only needs to out in the sea for one day longer. There hardly any foreigners' boats sailing around the Trung Sa area at first. However, the fish source has been getting rarer these days, and there are also many fishing boats from oversea, making it harder for local fishermen to make ends meet.

Looking far away at the sea, captain Leo said “It’s that far, that stormy, but fishermen have no other choice. We keep heading forward to search for fish, though we all know the further we go, the more dangers are waiting for us”.

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