The Odysea is one of the smallest and oldest boats in the fleet — a 1988, 9.4-metre beauty, custom built and rigged for giant bluefin tuna, and powered by a single screw diesel engine (which means there isn’t a second engine for back-up!). Under the command of Captain Ralph Wilkins, Odysea frequently sustains high seas and severe weather, typically only endured by much larger vessels. Despite its small size, Odysea is equipped with all the comforts of home, including a stove, hot shower, two bunks, TV, satellite phone and even a barbecue. “She’s one of a kind, best little tuna boat ever built,” Captain Ralph said with pride. “I trust my life to her, over and over, and she never lets me down. I love her dearly!”
Ralph Wilkins, Captain
Back in the early 1990s, when cell phones were expensive novelties, Wilkins plunked down a princely $1,300 for one of those brick-sized early models and happily ran up $1,000 in monthly charges, just so that he could stay in contact with his family while he was out on the water. “Now that we’ve got satellite phones, it’s a lot better,” he says, echoing the loneliness that is an occupational hazard of the bluefin trade, where fishermen must be away from home for days at a time. “I’m in 9.4-metre boat, 322 kilometres off the coast, probably closer to Nova Scotia than the U.S.,” he explains. “You’re isolated out there.” Nevertheless, for Wilkins, the challenge of wrestling a 227 kilogram plus fish into submission outweighs the psychological hardships.
The Brooklyn native started fishing in Sheepshead Bay, in north-eastern US, at age 7, when his father would leave him at the pier to fish while the elder Wilkins went to work. At age 11, he started going out on fishing boats and catching the same 9 kilogram that grownups were after. But once Wilkins learned about the bluefin fishing off the New England coast 25 years ago — “I think it was from reading an article in National Geographic,” he laughs — he knew what quarry he was meant to pursue, and put his boat on a trailer and headed straight to Gloucester.
Ralph takes a different approach to tuna fishing, preferring to go out on the boat alone. “Once I caught my first giant bluefin solo, I was hooked. The thrill of the solo battle, the risk and danger of what could happen being alone. This raised the bar for me. I found renewed excitement and thrill, but also found double the workload. I still love going alone, it’s so peaceful.”
Kit Vallee (AKA Pirate), First Mate
Traditionally, Captain Ralph Wilkins fishes alone, but this season he’s brought on first mate Kit Vallee to help out. Vallee landed his first bluefin, a 98 centimetre, 148.6-kilogramer, in his early twenties. “Just seeing something that big was amazing to me,” he recalls. “Of course, it wasn’t really a big one. I can say that now because I’ve gotten a few that are much bigger.” Since then, Vallee has worked full-time as a fisherman on various boats. He likes the challenges of stalking a physically powerful, resourceful prey, and the fact that catching one requires as much brainpower as brawn. “It’s not about having a lot of strength, but about knowing how to use leverage,” he explains. “I learned this the first time I caught a bluefin. I was going to be a tough guy and haul it in, but after a few minutes, I started getting tired out. That’s when I realized that if I was going to get that fish, I had to start using my head, instead of my muscles.” But Vallee, who got the nickname “Pirate” because of his habit of wearing bandannas, says that what he really loves about being a fisherman is simply being out on the sea for long periods and having a chance to observe nature. “I like seeing the sunset, and watching the birds,” he says. “Whales, seals, all sorts of marine life — I see them all. I get to see a world that most people see only in books or on TV.”