Working in the Shipyard

Aug 8, 2016 by Mike Bibb

After several years of wanting to tour a local fishing trawler, I finally got the opportunity in mid-June. Along with wife Eilene, and friend and fellow columnist Joe Houchin, we managed to obtain permission to explore the Puerto Peñasco shipyard, take pictures of various ships under construction and repair, and actually entered the interiors of a couple.

While the vessels are basic working boats, intended to do what they are designed to do – provide transportation, fishing capability and storage capacity for the catch – the ships certainly aren’t a Royal Caribbean or Carnival class luxury liner. Or, even close.

Crew’s amenities are equally fundamental. No excessive creature comforts here. If you’ve sensitive noses or hyper-active olfactory faculties, then it’s probably wise to reconsider a career as a commercial shrimper or fishing boat driver.

All work and very little play amongst an environment of unique smells and conditions common to things associated with the sea.

Most of the crafts appear of similar size and layout: approximately 100 feet/30 meters in length, lower portion of the ship contains large storage bins for fish, shrimp, etc., as well as the engine room, fuel tanks and related mechanical equipment, repair and work shop area, generator, freezer, fishing paraphernalia and ice storage. The main deck is the primary working section of the vessel involving nets, rigging, winches, and outriggers. The crew’s and captain’s quarters, galley and bridge/wheelhouse are located forward in the upper deck.

A functioning fishing boat isn’t a thing of exceptional beauty, rather strictly a floating utilitarian platform dispatched to retrieve food from the sea. Nothing more. As such, the ship contains only those essential elements required to accomplish the task. Additional luxuries are not cost-effective and only contribute to excessive expenses. The boats carry enough provisions and fuel to remain at sea for 10-14 days if necessary or until they’ve filled the storage holes.

Like any metal object constantly exposed to salt water and sea air, periodic maintenance is a regular necessity. Refitting equipment, sand blasting old paint and rust, patching deteriorating steel or damaged hull plates and generally making the vessel seaworthy is a never ending chore. Downtime is costly. If a boat can’t properly function, it can’t make money.

As a result, both new and older ships crowd a cramped harbor-side shipyard, each awaiting its particular repair, renovation or build-up.

Shipyard workers, Ricky and Monti, were busily welding together a new ship’s steel hull, which will be completed in about four months, or so they say. Following this process, fabrication of the remaining parts of the craft will take another seven or eight months. Finally after installation and testing of the operating equipment, the boat could be ready for its first fishing expedition in a year to fifteen months.

Keep in mind, these ships are hand fabricated from the ground up. No outsourced modular bolt together sections on the premises. I did not see any white helmeted supervisors walking around with lap-top computers, or structural engineers peering over the shoulders of workers and certainly no robotic welders mechanically cutting and welding sheet steel and reinforcing bracing. Piece by piece, weld by weld and wire by wire, the project gradually comes together by the ingenuity and skills of experienced ship builders, many second and third generation craftsmen.

Another remarkable feature of this adventure was the unimaginable fact that we were permitted to freely roam about the property without a company representative; no hard hats, reflective vests, steel toe shoes or required safety meetings. Just a friendly okay and wave from an office employee and the guard opened the gate to let us in.

I can’t even begin to imagine the rigmarole we’d be subjected to in the States to experience a similar situation. If, in fact, our request was taken seriously. More than likely we’d be escorted off the property by a couple of burly dudes with unpleasant personalities, given a stern reprimand and reminded if we showed up again, next time it’d be an all-expense paid trip to the city slammer.

Before the days of the condo invasion, fishing and shrimping the Sea of Cortez was a major component of the Puerto Peñasco economy. The fleet was larger and the seasons were longer. However, due in large part to international over-fishing of the gulf by large corporate trawlers and factory ships, the sea gradually became depleted, forcing the government to step in to try to salvage what was left. New regulations have been implemented restricting non-Mexican fishing fleets, protecting certain species of sea life, limiting length of seasons and compelling boat operators to upgrade to more environmentally friendly catch nets and equipment. Gradually, with both private and government cooperation, fish and shrimp stocks are rebounding to more sustainable levels.

Nevertheless, even with federal intervention fishing remains a viable segment of Rocky Point. In addition to boat crews, dock attendants, ship yard workers, marine equipment and hardware suppliers, processing plant employees and related businesses, fishing and shrimping the northern gulf pumps millions of pesos annually into the local coffers.

Shrimp is the world’s premier sea food and Mexico supplements a major portion of the United States market. As a result, Puerto Peñasco’s fishing fleet is an indispensable link in that supply chain.

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