In the early 1980s, I took a commercial fishing job out of Bodega Bay, California. Captain Pete was a local meat cutter in the small coastal town who split his years in two. One part, he worked in his meat market (You Can't Beat Pete's Meat), and he fished the rest of the year on the Stone Bitch, his 60-ft cement salmon trawler. Whatever yahoo came up with the idea of making cement boats should have his nads caned.

She was named the Stone Bitch, Pete warned, because if she ever accidentally rammed something at sea (an outcropping of rock, a submerged log/deadhead, or ship), she'd go down faster than a Clydesdale with broken knees--thus constituting "one stone bitch of a way to die." If broken, the vessel's pieces would sink to the ocean floor like so many tombstones.

My duties included baiting hooks, running the gear, and sharing the galley work. I was Pete's entire crew. He was the entire captain, rarely leaving the wheelhouse during working hours, and navigating us through the waters between San Francisco and Newport, Oregon while I ran deep lines, baiting, checking, pulling fish, cleaning them, and icing 'em down below decks. At least, that's what I was supposed to do.

Having fished commercially four or five seasons myself in the Pacific Northwest, and Pete with over 10 years experience, it didn't take long for us to figure out something was horribly wrong. After nearly a week at sea, busting my balls, we barely had any fish onboard. Not enough to pay for fueling the boat (it takes a lot of diesel to run a cement block), and certainly not enough to cover our food expenses and personal gear required to survive on the ocean for weeks on end.

The water temperature was way off. It was too hot and there weren't any salmon swimming. We were averaging 20-30 fish every two days, instead of every hour. There was an abundance of porpoises and sea lions swirling around the boat while we trolled, often stealing what rare salmon we did catch right off the hook. Sometimes they'd bite off the body, leaving the gaping salmon head behind.

Tuna, which normally kept 100-200 miles offshore, were being caught three miles offshore. Barracudas were being hooked in San Francisco Bay. We didn't know it, but this was all due to the coming of El Niño.

Pete went a little psychotic. We weren't out there to simply pay our expenses and have a good time fishing together. We were supposed to be earning our winter's keep. At night, Pete remained silent. One week out, food and fuel were low. Pete nervously chugged vinegar out of a gallon jug, and when he did talk, all he said was, "We're not going in until we have some fish." We were also catching an overabundance of Pacific Blue sharks that tore up our lines, adding to Pete's growing financial burden.

Pete started putting the boat on automatic pilot, and leaving the wheelhouse to make sure I wasn't doing something to sabotage his livelihood. At one point, he noticed I was releasing undersized fish, and had a fit. He grabbed a young fish, put it on the measure, and yanked it from head to tail, stretching the fish until it measured legally. "This one just has a bad back," he noted. "You be their chiropractor."

In a desperate attempt to catch fish, Pete decided he'd circle the Farallon islands, a rocky outcropping 40 miles offshore of San Francisco--210 acres of inhospitable rock. The Farallons are a hostile place to fish, constantly awash with smashing waves, and populated with marine mammals and bird species, which sugar coat the rocks with foul smelling carpets of dung. Pete took us in so close, the bottom of the boat scraped the rocks a number of times, and waves of green water poured over me as I worked the gear from the stern. It seemed I would drown on my feet.

Surviving that, when the Farallons failed to produce fish, we pulled the gear and moved to safer water. Pete told me to drop anchor, which had me climbing up onto the bow and releasing the catch on a huge spool of chain. As I did so, my T-shirt caught in the links of chain, and as the anchor sunk at a rapid descent, it dragged me to the very edge of the bow. It took the very last of my strength--after fighting a one-ton steel anchor--to grab onto a mooring cleat and rip myself free, exposing my chest and a bloody rash where my chest hair once proudly waved. Pete didn't seem to notice or care.

That night, he told me we were going in the next day. He was calling the season quits, meaning I was heading home, completely broke.

It was dusk. I went to my bunk below decks, and through my salt-smeared portal, only slightly smaller than my face, I watched the tiny, distant Fourth of July fireworks going off over San Francisco Bay. I cursed Pete and his Stone Bitch the moment I was safe on dry land.