Do you remember why you wanted to come to Australia in the first place? How exciting it all sounded? Boarding a plane and then heading off to this mystical land with its incredible landscapes and wildlife. An adventure – that’s what you were looking for. And for me, that was the plan. Having an epic adventure down under. However, I could have never imagined what kind of crazy experiences I would make before I took the leap and left Germany back then. The job that I will never forget while I was on a working holiday in Australia was spending three weeks on a fishing boat just off the coast of Carnarvon in Western Australia and working on a prawn vessel.

Where to find a job as a deckhand catching prawns

The best spots to look for work on a prawn vessel in Australia are in the area around Shark Bay in Western Australia, along the coastlines of the Northern Territory and Queensland.

There are several seasons for prawn fishing in Australia – the Banana Prawn season (late March to middle of June), the Tiger Pawn season (August to the end of November) and the Endeavour Prawn season (March to November)

So now you know where to find these jobs and when the best time of year is. So then, how do you get one of those jobs? Of course, it is always worth to have a look at Seek, Indeed, Gumtree and other job boards. However, the most promising way to get one of these jobs is by talking to the right people.

As it so happened I got talking to one of the fishermen who was staying at my hostel while I was looking for a job and he told me he was the skipper of one of the prawn vessels. He didn’t offer me a job, but we exchanged numbers and a few days later I got a call while picking beans – a job I found and didn’t really enjoy.

If I could be down by the wharf in two hours I could go out with the crew for three weeks. So on the spot, I quit the job that I’d had for about half an hour (I explained it to my boss and he understood) and drove back into town. It was exciting and I didn’t know what I was getting into. 
A few men in a ute picked me up and we went to the store to get some gumboots and supplies and off we went.
At the wharf I met other backpackers looking for work as well – this is how you should approach the job hunt. The best thing to do is to go directly to the wharf and see if you can talk to one of the skippers or go to the other place where a lot of them spend their time – the pub. Seriously.

Job requirements

There are no particular job requirements that you need to meet. You’ll need an ABN as you will be employed as a sole trader. In my case, they helped me with the application at the office at the wharf. It was super easy and the cost of it was deducted from my earnings. It was about $60, but you can save yourself the money if you do it beforehand.

Other than that you should be physically fit and you should have a good command on the English language as the sound of the engine can be quite loud and sometimes it is crucial to understand what you are supposed to do to not get hurt or endanger others. In addition, you should be a hands-on person and oh yeah, a few cooking skills could come in handy.

What to expect?

What exactly should you expect? How should you be prepared for it? That is a tough question. Just about anything. This is a one-of-a-kind backpacker job.

You’ll most likely get seasick. It can get very rough out at sea. You’ll see creatures of the sea in all sorts of colors and shapes. A few of these animals are dangerous. Either they are venomous or they might bite or sting.

I spent a lot of time boxing crabs in – they can be quite annoying because of their claws, but they are not dangerous. However, you’ll probably see stonefish, sea snakes, turtles and much more. All of these are definitely dangerous.

On the plus side, during the day I got to see a lot of whales that were very curious and came super close to the boat to say hello.

How long do you have to commit to it?

I did not have to commit to anything. Usually, the boats are out at sea for three weeks and then back on land for one week. Then the next trip starts. I was out there for one trip which is not unusual as the skipper’s demand for additional help on board (often backpackers) can change quite quickly. Hence, the crew on one trip might not be the same as the crew for the next three weeks out in the ocean.

Working hours

You generally work from just before sunset until after sunrise. So basically you are working all through the night on a prawn vessel. Don’t worry, you get used to it sooner than you think. Still, the whole ambience out at sea is hard to describe. It is pitch black all around you. All the noise from the engine and lights from other boats in the distance. Then there are dolphins looking for an easy feast and seagulls that appear to just stand still up in the air like kites. It’s spooky, especially around 4 am when everyone is exhausted and not speaking much.

Working on a prawn vessel boat

What a working day on a prawn vessel looks like

Afternoons on a prawn vessel

My day looked like this: I got up at around 2 pm and made myself some breakfast – if you want to call it that at this time, your whole day is turned upside down. Then I spent some time out on the deck and relaxed in the sun until I got ready for work at around 4 pm before the sun had set.

First, we would lift the anchor. That means I had to crawl into a confined space and make sure the chain did not get twisted. Quite a dirty and especially loud job. Afterwards, I prepared all the machinery on deck. Turned on a few tabs here and there, put a few crates into place and sometimes after that came to my least favorite task: going down into the massive freezer to rearrange boxes of what we had caught so far. About half of the interior of the boat is made up of the engine room and the other half is a giant freezer.

After every run we would take all the prawns, squid and whatever else we got to fish (mostly prawns), put it in cardboard boxes and it went straight into the freezer. The whole boat generally smells like fish, but down in that freezer, it just reeks. I wore gear that you would expect people to wear in Antarctica and it was quite slippery down there on top of that.

So after I prepared the deck for the night to come I went back inside and waited, watching movies with the rest of the crew (there were four of us) and occasionally it was my turn to prepare meals in the galley; an experience in itself. Then we had lunch together while we waited for the skipper to shout that it is time to get the nets in.

The fishing part

We got into our wet weather gear and then it was time to go outside. We had to reel in the two massive nets. In order to do that two people had to go on either side, throwing a hook into the water to catch the rope and pulling it in. Believe me, seaweed can be quite heavy.

Then you needed to grab the rope, unhook something here, hook it back in there and a machine lifted the massive weight up in the air.

Now you had the nets dangling up in the air above a container that all the prawns, fish, sponges and what not got released into. Once they were released you threw the nets back into the ocean. I got to learn a fair bit about tying ropes along the way.

Then came the most interesting part. We got to sort what we had caught. Everything came down a conveyer belt and we stood on either side and had to quickly grab what was valuable before it got flushed into the sea again.

Good tiger prawn down that shoot. Broken tiger prawn down there. And so on. At the same time this happened all super fast. And it was all tangled in seaweed. So it was not always easy to spot. ‘Ohhh, look, there, you missed a prawn’. Back into the sea it went. And you shouldn’t forget to watch out for those stonefish. And all that other stuff you better didn’t touch.

To me the whole thing felt a bit like a twisted kind of game show; catch as much good stuff as you can, as fast as possible, but watch out!

Packing and preparing for tomorrow

So when all of this was over we packed everything into cardboard boxes and down into the freezer it went. Then we went back inside and spent time watching movies and chatting until the skipper shouted the next time. And it all started again.

This went on until sunrise at around 6 am. However, we got to spend a fair amount of time not doing much after finishing our last run and before we prepared for the next one. It took somewhere between five minutes to more than an hour.

The last hours felt like being on a ghost ship..

At around 4 am when everyone was tired and the crew would rather go back to bed to have a quick nap before we had to go outside for the upcoming run it truly felt like a ghost ship.

When we were finally done after sunrise I grabbed some massive hoses, cleaned the whole deck and went for a shower. Believe me, the feeling of this shower in the morning was indescribable. I felt reborn. After that, it was time for brekky and time for bed at about 9 am. After such a night I did not have any problems falling asleep.

Then I woke up at around 2 pm and it started all over again. There is a reason why the fishermen refer to it as groundhog day.

Working on a prawn vessel 2

How much can you earn as a deckhand?

Having a great adventure in Australia is one of the reasons you might be thinking about this unique job. Then, of course, you also want to make some money to fund your upcoming road trips.

So then, how much can you earn? First off, you won’t be paid hourly, but depending on how much you catch. Every box of prawns, squid, crabs and so on is worth a certain amount. You will earn a certain percentage of that and this might differ from boat to boat.

In my case, I had to pay a little share of my commission for food and accommodation, but it was not too much. So as you can see it is all relative and depends especially on how promising your trip is going to be.

After I was out at sea for three weeks I was paid almost $3.500 after my trip (I was told it can definitely be more) which is not too bad for a backpacker job and bear in mind that this is all money I managed to save up. Well, almost.

Remember that you will need an ABN to work as a deckhand. So this means that what ends up in your pocket will only be your gross earnings and you are responsible to pay your taxes on what you earned at the end of the financial year at the end of June!

Besides decent pay, there is another advantage of working as a deckhand on a prawn vessel. It will count towards your farm work, so it helps if you want to extend your working holiday visa.

Working on a prawn vessel

Is this the right job for you?

Do you think you have got what it takes to do this job? Are you aware of the dangers that come with working on a boat or a prawn vessel, and are you still thrilled to do this? Then don’t hesitate and find the next coastal town further up north and find some skippers who are happy to welcome you on board.

So if you would ask me if I would do it again the honest answer is “No”. I am grateful for having it done once – it was a great experience, a great adventure – but I wouldn’t do it again. One of the reasons is seasickness. I haven’t even mentioned it much so far. I was struggling with motion sickness until around the third day. Then it got better. Still, bobbing up and down while you sleep does something funny to your head. At least to mine it did. So I am better off on land. Back on solid ground, you will also need some time to get your land legs back. Working on a prawn vessel is a unique experience.

Altogether, the fishermen and fisherwomen are truly unique and I am sure anyone who worked a similar job or on a prawn vessel will agree. If you are ready for an adventure, not worried about getting seasick and still curious after reading this then I recommend you to go and work on a fishing boat while you are in Australia. At least for once.

Disclaimer: Before you consider working as a deckhand on a fishing boat like a prawn vessel, you should be aware that this is a job that can be quite dangerous and you should know what is waiting for you.

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