We were drifting all night, waiting to set early in the morning on a “payow” that had shown a particularly large amount of fish on the sonar two days earlier when we found it. The raft and buoy themselves were covered in shells and sea life, and we could see fish swimming in and out around the slack net that was weighted and hanging below the raft. That was always a good sign, the more bait fish we see at the surface, the more prize catch will be deep below.
I got up early to see them set on the “payow” like I normally do because I think it’s fun to watch. It’s like black ops tuna fishing, everyone is in their masks (to protect from the sun later in the day) and moving silently around the boat deck. Occasionally the captain radios out a course and speed correction based off of the sonar indications below. The net tender boat has been rigged up with a portable generator and a pair of super powerful shop lights and is already in the water.
Then the time comes to set the trap, the skiff is released towing the net behind it and together, with the Caribe’ , makes a large circle around the raft. The two ends of the net meet, and that is when the net tender flips on the flood lights. The beams pierce the darkness and the water and the tuna get confused, thinking it is the sun they swim to the surface, expecting warmth and food. As their massive school comes to the surface the face of the water erupts into a froth as their fins break through. The trap is sprung, and the crew start to winch in the bottom of the purse.
That’s when I normally go back to bed, and get a few more winks before the day starts. But there was something about this morning that was different and I couldn’t quite peg it. Even in the darkness of my room I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes and go back to sleep – I felt compelled to get up, throw a shirt on and grab a cup of coffee despite the fact that I know I could drift off and snooze a bit more.
So that is exactly what I did, I grabbed my shirt and my coffee cup and started towards the galley. I was about halfway down the ladder from the upper deck to the fish deck when the call came over the loudspeakers. “Standby helicopter, standby!”
The Captain had been looking at the radar and wanted to check out some readings in the distance. I sprung back up the ladder and made my way quickly across the deck which was now starting to slope as the weight of the net pulled the boat over onto its left side. My mechanic was still asleep, so I needed to make sure he had heard that call. As I reached for the doorknob the door swung open. Sure enough he had been awakened by the page and was on his way up to start his preflight.
I keep a set of gloves, sleeves, and a buff right by the door so that when we do get activated I can grab them on the way out the door. This early all I would need are the gloves and the buff – and a piece of gum. It’s become my habit to fly with gum, and when I forget to grab a piece on the way up to the helicopter I feel like something is missing that entire flight – a little off. Anyways, with all my equipment in hand I ran up the ladder to the heli-deck to help with the preflight and un-strap my girl.
Everything looked fine, no change from the end of day inspection we had done last night before buttoning the helicopter up for the evening. The Captain showed up on the deck, tossed up a hand salute, and then climbed into the helicopter. I chuckled a bit, almost returned the salute too. The early morning flight was in nice cool air, and very smooth. We cruised around for 40 minutes or so looking for schools and searching areas of interest to the Captain at around 800 feet. Sadly there was no activity out there so it was time to land. Besides, they were still in the middle of a set and the Captain liked to be there for the catches.
One thing to consider when making an approach to landing during a set is that there are some very different elements to contend with than your normal landings. First, and most noticeable, the deck can be pitched to an obscene degree towards the port side, which happens to also be the side you land facing – which puts your tail rotor in precariously close proximity to the deck in a level hover. Next, the boat is stationary and tethered to a whole lot of net and fish so there is no ability to course correct the ship for a better wind profile – if it’s a tailwind, you will need to contend with that. And lastly, wires and ropes and cables; during a set there are a great deal of them strung about and under tension performing various tasks as the net is pulled in and the fish scooped up. There is also a long rope between the main ship and the skiff which is now acting as an anchor of sorts, keeping the ship from drifting into its own net by pulling at full throttle the other direction.
It’s a different landing environment for sure. The pilot who trained me said that sometimes it’s best to just land facing backwards (nose to starboard) keeping the tail plenty clear of the deck by hanging it off of the port side, and then correct it later once the ship is more level. Today I didn’t have to do that, even though the angle was getting fairly extreme, I still felt as though I had plenty of clearance for my tail rotor.