Documentary: Waving Vietnamese flag in the East Sea (Part 1) - Over 20 days living at sea, two Tuoi Tre journalists were given a chance to truly comprehend the hardship of the fishing profession as...
Documentary: Waving Vietnamese flag in the East Sea(Part 1) - The endless ocean and its treasures have always attracted mankind. Yet, to uncover and bring home these treasures - fish from dozens of meters under the sea and hundreds of miles off the coast, it takes the most dedicated fishermen tremendous efforts and sometimes, even their own lives. Over 20 days living at sea, we were given a chance to truly comprehend the hardship of the fishing profession as well as the profound love for their beloved country that burns within the heart of each and every seaman.
To experience a fisherman's life and learn to appreciate every fish one may catch, in mid-August 2012, we boarded the BĐ94439TS, led by Captain Nguyen Minh Vuong, who was born in Mỹ An, Phù Mỹ, Bình Định Province, with 18 sailors on board and embark on a journey to the fishing ground of sacred Truong Sa - Vietnam's flesh and blood.
The BĐ94439TS led by Captain Vuong is a large vessel of its kind, measuring 26 meters long, 7 meters wide and 5.5 meters high. The vessel is equipped with a 900-horsepower engine and, with a loading capacity of roughly 260 tonnes, it can easily carry up to 100 tonnes of fish and fishing gear.
Despite the fact that we have been longing for an opportunity to sail the sea with real fishermen, the night before our dream comes true, none of us can sleep. We toss around in our bunks with our heads filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Arriving at 9:00 am at Ba Ngoi sea port in Cam Ranh City, Khanh Hoa, we immediately get our hands busy with the preparations for the trip to come. One by one, refrigerated trucks transport blocks of ice to the sea port. These ice blocks will be crushed to flakes and sprayed directly into the ship hold from ice crushing machines. The ice flakes are used to keep the fish fresh after they are caught from the ocean.
By 3:00 pm, 1,200 ice blocks have been crushed and loaded into our vessel, along with 11,000 liters of gasoline. Food supplies, including 6 tonnes of rice, vegetables, instant noodles and seasoning, and 3,120 liters of fresh water are also prepared to supply a crew of 18 throughout a long fishing trip to the Truong Sa fishing ground. The total expenses for the trip is VND300 million (roughly US$15,000). All is set to go.
Captain Vuong tells us that to make a good fisherman, first one has to be a good cook. This cook can only become a fisherman when someone else replaces his job. On this boat, Tran Van Tien takes care of the cooking. This 19-year-old is assisted by a junior fifteen-year-old sous-chef, Huynh Van Suy. And of course, as newcomers, the two of us Tuoi Tre journalists, are also permitted to get onboard as cook's assistants. Though quite exotic, our first meal on the boat was amazingly tasty.
Right after lunch, Captain Vuong announces the departure as he voices "Full speed ahead!" From Ba Ngòi sea port, the vessel heads to the open water of Truong Sa (Spratly). Onboard, the deckhands spend their down time fixing and weaving fishing nets as the ship surfs peacefully to its destination. The calm air is filled with hopes for a productive trip.
Though only 35, Captain Vuong has had up to 23 years of experience in the East Sea. His life, just like the sea, is whimsical. At the tender age of 12, he already had some experience with his father in the waters near his hometown. The family's little boat soon became smaller when the young man needed more room to grow his ambition. Vuong finally decided to pack his bags, leave his family and drift to Ba Ria (Vung Tau). He found his way to bigger vessels in Phuoc Tinh village, hoping to make his name on the open sea one day.
The ship that welcomed Vuong ended up in harm's way when Storm Linda hit the Pacific Ocean back in 1997 with its dreadful 103-mile-per-hour wind gusts. The ship's poor captain desperately wrestled against the wild waves, trying to drag his vessel and her crewmen out of the storm. The vessel started to turn side-to-side, and at times was almost swallowed by the deep blue sea. The exhausted captain was finally defeated as he fell to the floor. Fortunately, Vuong was there. He quickly grasped the wheel and took charge of the ship. After over a day struggling relentlessly with the fierce storm, Vuong managed to lead the ship back to the shore safely, saving 12 lives including that of his captain.
After the near-death experience, Vuong packed up his bags up and went back to his hometown without hesitation, telling himself to never fare the sea again. But the love he has for the sea once again takes him offshore. After 23 years of experience, Vuong now knows the sea and the fish within it just as his hometown of Xuan Binh.
It has been two days and nights. The boat is now approaching Đá Lát Island which is located in the water near the Spratly Islands - Vietnam's own flesh and blood. There, we are welcome by the first light of a new hopeful day.
Our vessel is a purse seiner. A purse seiner employs a fishing technique whose success depends greatly on spotting floating objects. As the vessel surfs, each and every member of its crew is to keep their eyes wide open all the time to look for anything that floats in the water, such as a decayed log or just about anything occurring on the sea surface. Fish tend to aggregate near these objects to find food and take shelter. Once the aggregation is located, the crew will start making sets, that is, surrounding the area with nets.
The first floating object we spot is a piece of a bamboo raft tangled in a bunch of fishing nets and cork-lines. Captain Vuong speeds up the vessel while other crew members start to throw dozens of baited hooks to the water to find out if there are any fish underneath. A big mahi mahi, around 4 kg, followed by some tuna quickly take the bait. The fishermen immediately reel them in as Dat, another fisherman, hurries to put his goggles on and dives into the waters to calculate the fish before deciding to flag the school.
Upon positive confirmation, the vessel turns around and moves itself away from the flagged location roughly 2 nautical miles. The crew starts making sets around the area and keeps the vessel surfing at the same speed as the movement of the school of fish, which is roughly 0.4 miles per hour. We wait until 4 pm the next day when the fish begin to aggregate to rest after a night hunting and start rounding them up. After that, the crew swiftly activates the power block to close the lead-lines, forming a giant mesh bag with a closed bottom, and trap the fish inside.
On the following day, we haul in the fish at first light with great hope. Roughly 400 kg of various species, including mahi mahi, piscaso, tuna, striped bass and swordfish are pulled in. For newcomers like us, the haul is pretty much a success. But by look on the faces of other crew members, it is not hard to see that the result is an obvious disappointment. In fact, for a commercial fishing trip, a few hundred kilograms of fish is meaningless. Soon, we also understand what these offshore fishermen mean by "a game of luck" when referring to fishing in the ocean. The game depends solely on the mercy of the ocean. But accept it or not, it is the way of the ocean, mysterious and hope-provoking.