IT was, it’s fair to say, not your average first day of a new job.
The captain of the prawn trawler Ant Anderson had joined hours earlier passed him a saw and pointed to the net where a sawtooth shark was tangled by its long serrated nose.
“Get in there,” he said. “And cut it free.”
“The only time I’d seen a shark before was at a sea life centre in Newcastle,” recalls the 25-year-old. “I said: ‘You want me to get in with it and cut the net?’
“He said: ‘No, not the net, cut the shark, cut its nose off.’”
So he did.
“I positioned myself so my foot was on the top of its head and...cut,” says Ant, of Ecclesall Road, Sheffield.
“That was the job. There wasn’t much blood but it wasn’t happy. I didn’t kill it, just did an amputation. When its nose came off it slid back into the water.”
It was, in hindsight, a fitting welcome to a job which, in today’s sanitised world, seems almost beyond belief.
For three seasons Ant worked on prawn trawlers off Australia’s north-east coast, a bandit world of ex-cons toiling 52-hour shifts in an industry where more limbs are lost than any other in the world.
Here, on an eight-man boat, stingray barbs are never far away (“one guy took one straight through his hand”), sudden cyclones have been known to sink ships and any deckhand who puts on a T-shirt to go into the snap freezer (temperature: – 40°Celsius) is considered a time-waster.
But if the risks are great, so are the rewards: in just a single season, lasting between eight and 12 weeks, even the lowliest deckhand can earn up to £15,000.
Now, Ant, an English Literature graduate originally from Newcastle, has recorded his experiences in an absorbing book – Travelling, Trawling and the Utterly Appalling – which will make anyone who has ever complained about working an hour’s overtime cringe with shame.
“It was living outside the rule book,” he says. “You sink or swim. You’re testing yourself to every limit but that’s the appeal.... well, that and the money.”
It was while travelling across Australia he heard about that money. In Cairns in 2009, he chanced on a Scottish chap who went by the name Johnny Rotten.
“He had grey hair, no teeth and the first time I met him he was teaching a girl how to headbutt,” says Ant. “He told me he prawn fished for eight weeks then lived off the money for the rest of the year, and I wanted in.
“He said I was just some backpacker who wouldn’t hack it but whenever I was struggling on the boats I used that as inspiration.”
He got himself aboard a trawler called The Karumba Pearl and on day one found himself with that saw.
“The captain was reluctant to take me on,” he recalls. “But I think he was desperate. Maybe the shark was an initiation test but I worked hard to prove myself.
“You’re out there without seeing shore for weeks so you have to. My first week, we found a huge boil of prawns and we had a 52-hour shift without rest.”
And he enjoyed his eight weeks so much – and the accompanying £12,000 – he went back in 2010.
“There was a cyclone coming in from the north before we set out,” he says. “But my captain was pretty insistent we got out on time. He said we’d whip round it.
“I don’t know much about cyclones but I don’t think you should whip round them. The waves were 30-feet high. It was scary but we survived.”
Survived, and earned another £11,500 in 12 weeks, prompting him to go back one last time in 2011.
“That was the last time, though,” he says. “I didn’t want to become a career fishermen so I figured it was time to come home and write a book.”
Travelling, Trawling and the Utterly Appalling is available on amazon.com now.