It must have been the third week on the job when I first got to experience the disastrous sensation of jelly fish stings to my face.
Until that point, I had no idea jellyfish would even be a point of concern while commercial fishing in Alaska, nevermind, catching their microscopic barbs with my face and eyes…everyday…for four months.
Filled With Doubt
As we putted over to the fish processing plant to have our catch removed from the holding tank, I was deep in thought about what I had gotten myself in to. If I couldn’t get through this, my dream of riding a motorcycle through South America was in serious jeopardy.
I knew fishing would be tough. I had seen Deadliest Catch years before and knew commercial fishing was one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.
As this was my first actual day of fishing following weeks of boat preparation and travel through the inside passage, I had to now confront this reality. My natural penchant for sea sickness had reared its head and I had also become an apparent beacon for jellyfish stings; I was genuinely worried about how in the hell I was going to make it through this madness.
I Need A Sign!
At the fish plant, we lowered the largest vacuum hose I’d ever seen into the hold. The hose began to buck and wriggle as it slurped and whooshed the salmon up, through, and into the processing plant.
With my face still burning from repeated jellyfish slaps, I slipped back into a thousand yard stare as my mind tried to wrangle with how the fuck I was going to make it through this nightmare.
Just then, my vision focused as I followed the vacuum hose to its VW Beetle-sized pump. Plastered on the side was the brand name, “CanaVal.”
It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Carnival! REMEMBER why you’re doing all of this crazy shit! And remember what is at stake if you don’t finish your mission!
Part of me wanted the experience of commercial fishing in Alaska, but the vast majority of my reasoning was financially based. My plan was to ride a motorcycle through South America and this was how I was going to pay for it. Carnival was one of the first major experiences that I hoped to get to. And now I had it staring me in my stinging face.
In that moment, Carnival and the freedom of motorcycling through South America became my WHY.
It seems obvious. Of course it was my Why. I said South America was the main reason for pursuing a fishing job. However, there’s a difference between having a reason for doing something and finding the Why within the reason.
To me, the reason was the overarching idea. The Why was my intrinsic driving force to push through pain, suffering, and misery. The Why was a tangible reminder of what I was specifically wanted – the vision – the tangible experience – the sensations – the feelings – the moments I hoped to be wrapped in.
While the stinging on my face didn’t stop, my mood immediately changed, I stood up straighter, and my thousand yard stare shrunk to a more functional and present distance.
All I needed was a brief reminder. A little nudge.
I knew I wouldn’t quit.
So, How Did It Pan Out?
Not only did I come to learn and appreciate the scale of acid-like stings that different colors of jellyfish produce; the clear ones were the least severe – pink and purple meant sulfuric acid-like misery. But, the tentacled slaps were experienced so frequently that by the end of the season, I actually began to build a tolerance to the stinging menace.
However, if my only adversary were the barbarous jelly tentacles, it would have been more tolerable. But there were other battles to be fought – not just day to day but hour to hour.
The obvious and most dangerous culprit was the sleep deprivation. 15-20 hour days of hard labor – everyday – for four months. It was maniacal and by the end of the season I was nearly hallucinating. There’s a reason that sleep deprivation is a form of torture.
As a landlubber, my sea legs were rubber. In fact, I threw up my dinner in the first two hours of our voyage from Seattle to Sitka, Alaska. It wouldn’t be the last time.
Every task required a new way of moving and/or suffering. Sleeping in my bunk required learning to brace yourself against rolling seas. As the cook, preparing meals as quickly as possible while battling motion sickness was a necessary misery.
As a deckhand, hauling in nets and fish while trying to maintain balance on those net piles was exhausting and it caused leg cramps so severe that every night I had to leap out of bed to untangle my muscle fibers without waking up the rest of the crew; silently screaming as I wrestled my legs straight.
Then there were the purse rings.
These metal rings are attached the bottom of the fishing net and are cinched closed to trap the fish. These rings would pop through the hydraulic block above my head and drop down on me with hate and spite.
My hands and arms took the majority of abuse and were peppered with chunky coagulated blood by the end of the season. However, my head and face took serious abuse. More than a handful of times I was dropped to a knee by a clattering ring – a swollen egg would form and then blood would follow. Those fucking purse rings…
You may be saying, “wow that sounds pretty shitty.”
And you’d be right.
But it’s commercial fishing in Alaska…where’s the untethered vitriolic anger from the captain?
Oh don’t worry, it was there in droves and it was the main reason I never went back.
Despite my callused skin, the vitriol that spewed from the captain bordered on psychotic. It was beyond unhelpful and in no way reasonable. I was called more derogatory names in those few months than in my entire life combined. It was never constructive feedback or usable instruction and in no way was it helpful – a sure fire way for me to lose respect and patience for someone.
With all of the suffering and misery piled on, it was easy to lose yourself. But, I kept thinking back to the Canaval pump and imagined myself riding across the desert in Bolivia or through the Andes mountains.
From those thoughts, my vision would relax and I was able to push through hell and keep working toward where I wanted to be.
Did I Achieve My Goal?
You fucking bet I did.
I went on to work two more seasonal jobs following fishing and within a few months I was riding a motorcycle through South America for what was to become one of the greatest adventures of my life.
I pulled myself back from the brink of insanity and refocused to achieve what I set out to do. Seeing my Why took me from a hypothetical desire to a tangible confrontation that I was either going to accept or cower and quit.
Closing Thoughts On Finding Your Why
What I have described here is more of a fanciful tale involving using my Why, rather than the exact process to discover it. There are countless books, articles, and videos that all go into far greater detail than what I am able to provide.
What I can say is this:
- Suffering on a fishing boat is not the only scenario where I’ve needed to find my Why to get through difficult times – it has helped me more than once
- Defining your Why is like defining your Purpose – It’s so ridiculously important and not that easy
- Explore the concept of Ikigai to help conceptualize your own Why/Purpose
- Keep a visible reminder of your purpose to help you through tough times
- It can be a note, a picture, object, bracelet, a phrase, etc.
Lastly, I’m not a psychologist nor an expert on the Japanese concept of Ikigai. I believe that formalizing the process of finding your why and Ikigai can be extremely helpful in determining a life path or simply help you get through a trying time.
However, I don’t believe that it always needs to be that formal. Sometimes you just need a deeper, more intrinsic reason to push you forward. And it can come from anywhere if you’re paying attention.
Read more about my South American motorcycle adventure