The Fishermen of Bonacca by Doris Dugall

The warm summer breeze arrived in the Island of Guanaja in Honduras Central America, while my sister Reina, wife of a fisherman, packed her husband bags to make sure he won’t forget important items needed at sea: pills, batteries, flashlight, 20 changes of clothes basically shorts and t-shirts, toothpaste and a warm blanket among other items.  Reina Rosa, a resident, says, “Wives play an important role in being the ones packing their husband bags, because they know which are the items they will need since at sea there is no hospital or grocery store to buy anything”; the only panorama for these men for the next 6 months will be ocean and sky, along with sunrises and sunsets”. Wives make sure their men leave fully equipped because if there is an infection, fever or stomachache, they will have medication to fight when sick.

Fishing season in the Island of Guanaja has begun and most of the men, between the ages of 17 and 55 from the Mangrove and Savannah Bight communities in this small Island off the coast of Honduras, Central America, are ready to depart in order to provide for their families. It’s a bitter sweet moment for all, but that is the only way of life they have known for over a century. Even though their families will be left home alone for half a year, once they return they will have made enough money to stay home for the following six months and try to catch up the time lost while they were at sea. I called my childhood friend Richard Hurlston, he mentioned how excited he was when he graduated from high school at age 18. “I couldn’t believe I was ready to begin my life at sea, because I knew that soon after I would be marrying my girlfriend Janice.”

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Lobster season is open and a boat is departing filled with lobster trap boxes

The way these fishermen catch lobster is by trapping them into these wooden boxes, Reginald Dixon states that the first time he went on a fishing trip at age 18, “I was vomiting for a couple of days because I couldn’t tolerate the strong and almost unbearable odor of dry cow’s skin (hide).” These small boats are loaded with huge amounts of cow’s skin because it’s used as bait to trap lobster. These crustaceans have a certain attraction to this special scent and once they smell it they enter the box and become trapped.

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The traps are filled with cow skin in order to attract lobsters

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Cowhide (skin)

This is not life for everyone. They did not choose this destiny, but it’s what their ancestors have done and the legacy they left: catch fish in order to provide for their families. They have extremely long working hours as their day begins at 3am when they have breakfast; then at around 10am they eat lunch and finally at 4pm they end their hard working day with dinner, to then head to their bunk beds because as soon as the sun sets they need to say goodnight and get enough rest to then wake up the following day at 3am to continue with the very same routine day after day, week after week for the next 180 days. The bad weather will be the only reason to have a day off work. They continuously monitor the weather in order to move north, south, east or west in case a storm approaches their location.

As soon as the young boys in my community graduate from high school, they know what awaits them: A life half lived at sea, catching shrimp and lobster. They initiate their training in the middle of the ocean, in the small kitchen area in order to become cooks, where there are a couple of small tables that are built within the boat, stuck to the fiber glass floor in order to prevent them from moving and keep them steady. The sink is quite large and next to it sits their new best friend, the one they will have at the beginning of this journey to become fishermen: The Stove, which is covered with iron around the top in order to prevent the pots to samba dance with the waves.

The first couple of weeks at sea most of these young boys become sea-sick, they usually throw up because at moments the ocean waves are rough and the winds are too strong; but this is a natural reaction for a beginner and soon they will get used to the ocean’s split personality.  Later on, as the weeks pass by, they accept their destiny and fall in love with the ocean and what they were meant to do for the rest of their existence. A young fisherman called Jimmy Jackson said, “The first lesson in this journey (to become cook) is possibly the most difficult job at sea and could be the most rewarding after the Captain off course.”

It is not an easy task because they need to be the first ones to wake up to begin work long before the sun rises and they are the last one to go to their bunk beds and get rest after a long day of work. The cooks need to have breakfast prepared when the rest of the crew is up at 3am. There has to be coffee, fried beans, scrambled egg, sausage and bread when the nine or more crew men along with the captain are up. It’s a never ending job because when breakfast is over, all men head to the platform of the boat to begin work, the cook needs to clean up the plastic dishes and pots used ad immediately begin to prepare lunch.

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Liberty Belle boat leaving loaded with wooden trap boxes to catch plenty of lobster.

One of the most appreciated rewards for these fishermen is the time of trade, which happens when several boats meet at sea in the middle of the ocean. The captains of all boats are always in constant contact with each other over the radio and organize to meet when they are catching lobster or shrimp near their peers.  Once they meet, they chat, joke and also exchange soft drinks, beers, cookies or any other supply with the fruit that the ocean gives birth to: Seafood. This is a way of earning extra money because when these fishermen return home they can sell lobster or shrimp and make more money. When they meet at sea, it’s also a good opportunity to receive a box of goods from home; I remember when my brother in law sent home some seafood or mail to my sister Reina, who was so happy to receive his mail. Gone to sea for six months does not mean the seafood will reach port in six months. There are also special ships that go to meet with the rest of the boats in order to load them with fuel, water, food, medicine and mail from home; at the same time the crew members in these boats have the opportunity send their product home.

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Most fishermen become very attached to this way of life that they have fallen in love with it and do not long to work in land. “I love the breathtaking and beautiful scenery of the sunrises and sunsets I have the opportunity to just watch every single day.” Captain Bryd Rosa; he adds how little he feels in the middle of the immense ocean and he thanks God for protecting them because living and working at sea it’s a constant danger, as the weather can change and they have no place to run and hide in that immensity. But they constantly monitor the weather through the radio, because there are specific radio frequencies that are destined for this purpose.

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Daughter calling her daddy on the radio.

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Captain Bryd Rosa trying to establish contact with his family

While these hardworking men are gone, their families are left with relatives that live nearby and the church has become their main support.  Life for the wives is not as easy as we think; children miss their dad on special occasions, birthdays and holidays like Christmas time, also during school presentations because they can’t be with them and congratulate or give a hug when they receive awards. My sister Reina Dugall-Rosa said that when raising her girls, she somehow felt as if she were a single mother, because her husband wasn’t home to see the girls first steps or listen to their first words; she alone had to deal when they had a midnight fever. When the girls were little, their daddy arrived after 6 months and they did not recognize him and cried thinking he was a complete stranger. Later when the girls grew, and started to talk, she tried to make them talk on the radio every day, at least a few words in order to create a bond that the distance did not allow, the radio communications somehow helped.

dugall814 feet long Great White Shark caught, they will let dry under the sun in order to obtain 10 gallons of oil that is good for bronchial diseases. Capt. Bryd Rosa (red shorts).

The men in my community are away from home for such long periods of time but thanks to the high band frequency radio signal, they are communicating with family on a daily basis and can hear the voice of their loved ones and learn what’s happening back home. Every fishing boat has a personal radio frequency known by all in the community in order to contact them; each family (house) is always on standby in the same radio frequency as the boat where the spouse or relative is working at. They all have secret radio frequencies to transfer to and speak privately with their relatives or spouse at sea. Since the communication on these high frequency radios is not continuous or same as a telephone conversation; when you talk you have to press a button in order for the other end to receive your voice; so, to begin contact you must enter the frequency for example 8216.0, and call the boat name, for example,  ‘Lady Champ’, and you must repeat the name of the boat you are calling up to 3 times and you must say your home radio name also (Little Jem) then you must say ‘over’; once you have said ‘over’, it means you are ready to receive their response.

Both radios have a unique name to know who is calling which boat, or what boat is calling your home. Example: Little Jem, Little Jem, Little Jem- Lady Champ! This means someone at home is calling the boat Lady Champ. The communication is real time same as on the telephone, but, when you speak you must hold the button. One must speak short sentences and need repeat them twice and then say ‘over’, when you said ‘over.’ That’s the signal that the other end can start to speak, so you will stop pressing the button in order to hear what they are saying or receive their message. There is no arguing over the radio (laugh), means both sides can’t speak at the same time.

The children’s point of view is somehow painful. I spoke to Bridgette Gabriela, a fisherman’s daughter. She’s just 15 years of age and lives with anger because her father is gone away from home for too long. “He’s never home for my birthday or school recitals.” This is heartbreaking because it is really affecting her emotions, “I hate my dad’s work.”  This is very sad because her father job has a tremendous impact in her life, there is money but there is also a lack of quality and quantity time between father and daughter.  She also mentioned that her mother tries to please her buying all she wants. Her mother never says no to her and she, as young as 15 is aware that her mother should sometimes say no to her. By talking to Bridgette, I noticed that even though she has all the material items she wants, there is more she needs than just a latest cellphone model, IPad, IPod or modern clothing; children need both parents love and affection. Bridgette added that instead of having money, she would rather to have her father home all year round.

“I know I can talk everything with my mother, but sometimes I want my dad advice too” adds Bridgette. She dreams of being able to eat lunch with her dad every day; It’s painful to hear a teenager speak this way but she really misses her father and wishes he was home all year round. Life is not easy for these children, but the rest of the family try their best to fill the father’s gap.

The only bridge of communication are the high frequency radios because technology has not arrived to these small boats in the form of internet.  Most of these boats have a satellite telephone, because the captain has bought it in case of any emergency; it is only used for emergency purposes and not on a daily basis because the connection is too expensive. “Somedays when the rain is too heavy and the wind is blowing too strong, we lose radio signal and we are left with the satellite phone signal; but it’s used only for emergencies” Captain Carlos Cruz… “I know that during hurricane season my family is worried for us but we always get to contact them and let them know we are all right. He is aware that having this lifestyle and job is hard for him and his family, especially my girls; but he does it to make more money and give them a better life. “I want my girls to have a good education.” added Cruz.

Life at sea is not easy for newlywed that many wives have decided to go for 6 months with their husband; this is an opportunity only for the Captain’s wife because they are the only one to have a private cabin, a small air conditioning unit and private DVD player. ‘A lady at sea is too complicated’ said Reina Rosa because all day when her husband is working she remained in the small cabin; he would check on her every hour but it’s quite boring to be in a small room all day and not able to walk. The only items in the room is a bunkbed, a night table, a small television, a DVD player and small shower. She did it for love as a newlywed even though it’s not easy for all the reasons: food not good, you cannot shower every day it is extremely boring but love made her tolerate this instead of being 6 months alone. She did this for about 3 years until she became pregnant and had to stay home to raise her first child.

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My sister Reina and her husband Bryd Rosa married in 1992

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The Rosa-Dugall Family portraits.

The houses in my community are usually wooden and have stairs to go to the second floor; they have big windows and stairs; all are fully equipped with big stoves and fans and modern refrigerators. We have washing machines, but no dryers, so we hang the clothes in the corridor so the wind can dry them off. All of the houses are built close and have big yards where the children can ride their bikes and have their own swing. They use small boats to transport themselves to the main Cay when they need go to the bank or buy groceries. Life is peaceful and at moments it seems it has been frozen in time. There are now few cars in town. There is no movie theater, no dance place, only schools, church and grocery stores.

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Panoramic view of Mangrove Bight, a fishermen community in the Island of Guanaja, Honduras.

Most of the people in my community are of the 7th Day Adventist religion. They follow certain strict laws from the bible’s Old Testament: no makeup, no jewelry, rest on Saturdays, no alcohol, no smoking, they don’t consume pork meat, and certain seafood like shrimp, conch and lobster. On Fridays when the sun sets, they stop any kind of work and all businesses are closed because for them its officially Saturday and they must worship God. They reopen the small shops and resume work when the sun sets on Saturdays because once the sun has set its already Sunday for them. This community is very united and a special bond is created between the women because their husbands are all at sea during the same time of the year and they all return home at the same time to spend quality time with their families. When fishing season is closed and they return home, there is a big celebration to honor the men that risk their lives at sea in order to build a better future for their families.

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The Fishermen of Bonacca by Doris Dugall

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