Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Setting Out 2018

There is a hummingbird outside my back sliding glass door. Stuck to the glass is a thermometer with a decal image of a male cardinal. The hummingbird is probably disappointed that the bright red spot is neither a flower or a properly marked hummingbird feeder.

After a chilly, foggy and very breezy morning, the air outside is warm and heavy and still, contrary to the small craft advisory and marine forecast. It was in the earlier conditions that I left the harbor this morning to set a boatload of gear. I told Clayton where I was headed, and that I was just looking for now. Leaving the mouth of Matinicus Harbor, the seas were rough, but just manageable enough to take a look, then try one string, then pair by pair, empty out the boat. Close Enough rolled around in the chop and I did a few dance moves, but never got to that point where it felt out of control. Visibility was shutting in as well so I needed to keep an eye out as I still have no plotter, haven't checked out the radar for the year and wasn't willing to add the variable of not seeing or being seen.

I had a fix on Wheaton and Tenpound Islands and western ledge and felt like that was enough to keep me oriented.

The visibility went out for good at just about the same time as the last pair of traps pulled down the 25 fathom lines 'out front,' which is Matinicus language for not very far from shore and to the east.

I was feeling pretty good for having persisted as I tied up and paddled in to Steamboat Wharf. I should not have stopped to chat with real fishermen. The early results are pretty discouraging for them, which most likely means dogshit for a tourist like me.

Maybe it was the last drive in this part of the work cycle, or too many days in a row of hurrying through other work to get here and of wailing on my back and hands, but my heart was sinking thinking it was all to just pay for bait and fuel.

Was I the hummingbird trying to get sweet stuff where there's none to be had?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Boat Time!

Boat ownership is not for the faint hearted or sensible. It is always an adventure. Just like jumping out of a perfectly operational airplane or handlaunching fireworks or other things we should know better than to do.

After 6 and a half years, I am no longer terrified of my boat or all the hundreds of parts that are waiting their turn to rust out, short out, give out or fall out. Now I am only very sad when these things happen. It is not the boat's fault that I get sad. It is my inability to absorb the basic lesson that shit breaks. Boat shit breaks more. It is a life lesson that I comprehend cognitively, but not emotionally.

Those things being said, yee-fuckin haw!!! Close Enough is back on the water, having come across from the very good winter home with the good folks at J.O. Brown & Son, Inc.

The crossing was no big deal, except for the fact that my plotter blanked on me and I had to get through Ledbetter Narrows and Hurricane sound by fuzzy memory. It's way easier than I'm making it sound, I'm just trying to act big.

On the run to Matinicus from North Haven, reaching the end of Hurricane Sound is still a little thrill. The rocks are a gateway to big water and the trip home.

It was also cold. WTF, hands take turns in the pocket or on the wheel it's freaking May 12 already kind of cold. Both hands were numb by the time I got into Matinicus Harbor. I was numb earlier in the day for looking out the window and not dressing properly with ski gloves and a gortex parka.

After mooring, I did my usual wiggling of wires, connecting and unconnecting and just plain hoping for a different result on reboot. The plotter was not having it. Based on the display, it was convinced I was a few hundred yards up onto Nantucket Island.

Plotter or no, I was determined to get a couple of boatloads of gear set. That meant setting the strings which hug the shore well enough that I can find them without waypoints. At one point, rounding the corner to the back side of Tenpound Island, I looked up and realized where I was. My plotter inside was happy and spot on.

Monday, April 16, 2018


I recall April on Matinicus as a mixed bag weather and workwise. There would be sweet days in the yard, underrunning rope or patching traps with tunes playing and birds singing. There would be rainy windy days to stay inside and avoid paperwork.

My April on Matinicus this year- which I worked so hard to be ready for- has been an unmixed bag of rotten weather; days spent watching sleet bounce off my deck or watching it rain sideways. Today featured a low of 32 and a high of 34 with 40-something mile an hour winds all day long. This is not what I pounded my way through months of office work to earn. I have not even begun boat preparation work, which I'm usually done with by now.

I spent Sunday neurotically cutting wood which I did not anticipate that I would be unneurotically baling into the stove the very next day. I thought I was being obsessive in sawing and splitting up the chunks which it turns out are half gone already.

I feel as though the entire calendar has slid a month to the henceforthward. Cold wet springs last til about the first week in July, and late summer goes to Halloween. I want my April back.

I also guess I should not read google news. There were several articles about the slowdown in the big-ocean circulation that keeps Ireland from looking like Northern Labrador and keeps the cold water churning  and upwelling nutrients southwest into the the Gulf of Maine. This slowdown could, according to scientists, deprive Western Europe of warm ocean currents, make Africa drier and hotter and create harsher winters here in North America. Thus is created the monster I am calling Apruary.

Apruary is bad. My crocuses were pressed not in a poetry book, but in a layer of ice outside my door. All my spring work is now late. Staring out the window makes no difference. Staring out any other other window is equally fruitless. It is 360 degrees of wind, rain and cold foulness.

Is this a good month to discover my old oil fired boiler is now an oil chugging smoke machine? Well, yes it is. When I got up, as much as I felt stingy about using heating oil, I saw the gale bent trees and the 32 degree temperature and figured my son and his buddy should have a habitable environment and that the old boiler should be fired up every once in a while.

There was initially a bit of an aroma that I wrote off to not having run the heater for a year or so. Then, after I had gone out to the shop in many layers of insulation to paint the very buoys I usually painted in shirt sleeves, Ryan came out in sock feet and asked if I was aware of the house being full of smoke and the chimney puffing gray, gooey smoke.

After consulting my expert panel, I set about pulling apart the boiler, vacuuming out the gobs of soot and figuring out how to detach the burner unit from the boiler. There was a disintegrated gasket. There were pieces of what looked like a liner of the boiler chamber. After reassembling the pieces, I was discouraged enough to not bother trying to fire up the old beast.

Now I need to bring out a professional to resuscitate the system or buy a different and simpler heater to keep things tolerable and comfy for my baby and me.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

I would've said this could only happen on Matinicus

We've been tormented by a malevolent winter spirit in Bristol. Once the temperatures go down, stove gets packed and the furnace kicks on, an unwelcome visitor always calls. It invites itself into the basement next to our laundry machines- just one of its devious tricks designed to confound our attempts to locate its source and kill it.

Based on some research I'd rather not have done, sewer gas is not only unpleasant, but toxic and potentially explosive. We moved in in May and didn't know we had a problem until the following winter. Some days it was faint, but if laundry was done, toilets flushed or showers taken, the stink-kracken became ferocious and embarassing to us in front of company.

One particular piece of sheetrock behind the laundry area has been on and off at least a dozen times over the last couple of winters. The smell seemed to be coming from a small enclosed space between the laundry and a bathtub only accessible by walking through the basement to the far end of that floor. On one occasion, I scrunched myself into the space, dug up what I could, reached as far as I could and at one point yogaed myself around and upside downish so I could shine a light under the cast iron tub. Underneath the tub, which could only be gotten to exactly this way, I retrieved a very rusty .22 revolver. As many great plot scenarios as this discovery invited, it brought me no closer to finding the source of our tormentor.

One or another variation of this exercise was reenacted every so often when the stench drove us over the edge. One time I was so sure I was tracking the smell, I decided to tear up a floor, only to find dry flawless concrete and a well sealed drain line headed under the slab to parts outside.

4 plumbers and 4 figures later, nothing had improved or made any difference at all. There were many false starts. Enzymes? It worked! Thank heavens! Oh no it didn't.  Ventilation, covering things up, reinstalling traps right side up and opening windows all led nowhere. 'Must be a dry trap... a buried floor drain...broken pipe...clogged vent.' Calls and emails to our realtor and home inspection professional were futile. The liberal use of air fresheners when the house was shown to us made more sense now.

Yesterday, we decided to try again as this long stretch of below zero to single digit weather has emboldened the beast. Off comes the sheetrock, away go the camping gear, tools, garments, bikes and other storage items so we can get at the walls.

Part of the challenge is having no real idea how one part of the floor configuration and plumbing relate to rooms, walls and piping in other parts of the same floor. Peering through a breadloaf sized hole near the ceiling where heat and water supply pipes come out, I could see a drain pipe a couple of yards down the line in the other section of the floor. I was also blasted by a steady river flow of badbad smell. Lots of measuring and running back and forth between different sections of the house got me to the point where I had some idea where the wall was that enclosed the drains.

That was as good as it got. I went to bed baffled and discouraged. None of it made any sense. The smell seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere. The places where it was the worst had no openings from which the foul spirit could emerge.

This morning I decided that exploratory surgery in the ceiling of the other section was the only option. I measured and cut out a section where the drain I'd seen from the ceiling of the other room was supposed to be. Using a mirror and a squirt bottle of soap suds gave me the posture of a guy who had a clue, but yielded nothing else.

In for a penny, in for a pound. I decided to open up another part of the ceiling and got a stronger smell. I cut one more section and out fell the answer to our 3 winters of suffering. An orphaned vent pipe hung open to the world spewing nastiness. At my feet was a plug intended for use when pressure testing new plumbing. It must have fallen out years ago. Why the thing wasn't capped properly I can't imagine.

The problem was ultimately found on the furthest side of the house from where the smell seemed to be the worst. The corridor in the ceiling somehow carried the smell to the other end of the floor due to the furnace running and the woodstove sucking air into that end of the house.  Possibly.

2018 should smell better here. The gas creature is back in its lagoon where it belongs.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Auto Detailing, Matinicus Style

Go ahead, reach for the jelly bean
When my family and I first moved to the island, on the very first ferry trip with our stuff, I brought my car. I was told told, 'you don't want that out here, it won't last.' 'That' was my gray 1989 Mazda 626, then a tender 17 years old. The car lasted about eight more years, which is six and a half more than most of the macho-man pickup trucks out here.

Vehicles, especially pickup trucks are inadvertently engineered to dissolve in our bracing mix of air and salt and humidity. The Mazda's advantage was that it had a single body instead of a cab and pickup bed, which tend to part company after enough years in refreshing salt air.

Most of us have at least one more vehicle than is operable at any one time. Cars and trucks break down and are difficult to schedule for repairs. Sometimes they just get left out of current rotation because the other one is better. Tires and batteries then go flat, things rust, shrubs take over.

The Mazda was still commissioned but not on active duty for a couple of years when I decided to fire it up. The exhaust system was left in pieces around the island years before, so the little car could be heard from some distance. It was a happy thing to have it running again, if only briefly.

A couple of days later, as I returned up Carrie's Hill from the harbor, old 626 seemed a little crooked, the body not pointing in the true direction of travel. A slight correction turned into a more dramatic misalignment as now I was really pointed a different direction than I was moving. So it went, this way and that way and not this way and not that way til I got to the driveway. The passenger's side rear wheel and whatever frame pieces held it in place had let go. I couldn't see a way to hank it back together with potwarp and so had exhausted my menu of solutions.

626 hobbled onto the ferry thanks to Nick Philbrook, highly skilled in such maneuvers. Since I paid $1,500 for it, drove it on the highway for a year or so and then had some good years here, I guess I made out well.


Humble vehicles work for me. My S-10 pickup is as style free as it is reliable. No hoisted up shocks or deerjacking light rack on top. No radiator grill with teeth or predator shaped eye holes. Just a cab and bed an a seemingly flawless engine at age 27.

The S-10 has been the dormant vehicle for a couple of years, cultivating berry canes and collecting a thick coat of dust in the interior as it sat by the road with the driver's window left open. That window typically stays open because it's easier to reach in and open the door than to crawl in from the passenger's side where the outside handle works.

I figured S-10 shouldn't sit too long and made a couple of attempts to revive. I figured out that it needed a new battery after which installation it fired up immediately. The engine sounded as smooth and hearty as new.

I decided to gild the lily and clean up the interior a bit.  There was no Armor-All involved, which wouldn't have helped much with the one dormant and one active wasp starter nest. The dormant one was poised on the opener of the glove box, and the active one I discovered in the gas filler compartment.

The cab had several years' worth of bits and pieces of things left in the cab and across the dash. I saved two items- one very weathered stuffed bunny (see above) and a small plastic disc from a music box found on a beach here and remembered from my childhood in Bowdoinham. The broken dandelion digger, stray computer mouse, a footwell full of change most of which I had lost to Tom and Rick and Steve at poker, a roll of blue crepe paper well past its festive days and bits of seaglass all were recycled or put away.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

July the 4th 2017

The lobstering, to put it tamely, has been absolutely appalling f-ing dogsh** kind of bad, so instead, some nostalgia.

I'm old enough that things were really different when I wasn't this age. Having a job as a child and teen, for instance, wasn't a recipe for exploitation by ruthless businesses, it was the foundation of self respect and character in my life. I worked for a family farm and was treated as family. Instead of being car-seated and airbagged through my young existence, I was empowered by doing hard work and learning to use judgment with big powerful pieces of farm equipment, all under the care of really good people.

That was in Bowdoinham, Maine. As a youngster, I thought there was only one way that the Fourth of July transpired- the way it was in Bowdoinham. There was a build-up something like that as Christmas approaches, with floats being constructed in barns, bike decorations being piled on, figuring out how to get my hands on some firecrackers and other anticipations of the day.

What Bowdoinham had on the Fourth that was unique was a chicken barbecue. A very large chicken barbecue. Large enough that any enterprising thief would've had a free run through all homes in Sagadahoc County for about 6 hours. There were hundreds upon hundreds of chicken dinners served, a midway, art exhibits, rummage sales, live music and at the end, of course, fireworks. It was a high point of the year.

I thought this was the only way the Fourth of July was done.

The Bowdoinham Chicken Barbecue made Time magazine as it was originally conceived to help finance a new schoolhouse. I loved the old Coombs School, 3 wood framed stories of slightly haunted feeling classrooms and halls. I guess some folks thought it was a falling down fire trap. 45 years after my last class there, the building defies those expectations and serves as office space and the town library.

Matinicus Island does up the Fourth pretty well, with its own parade, fireworks, parties and large music on the town wharf.

This year is a little different. My two younger ones are off the island for the first Fourth since 2005. The energy is down a notch from the usually Mardi Gras-esque vibe probably due to wretched lobster catches.

It being a different sort of year, Megan and I decided to go out and haul traps. I felt a twinge of being less than patriotic at first. I also questioned our ability to know when it might be time to take a day off. Some time around 10:00 a.m., though, I looked at the bright blue sky with the puffy clouds of a good haying day, the water, the rocks and the island and felt profound gratitude for my country, particularly this salty spruce-covered corner of it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Global Finance Meltdown Visits Lower Harbor

The 2008 global financial crisis is an enduring fascination to me.

It took a chain of the less admirable elements of human nature working independently, but also in concert to pull it off. Clinton signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Coked up and commission-incentivized mortgage brokers sold exploding adjustable mortgages to individuals and families who had no idea what they were getting into. Upward pressure on real estate prices ensued. Mortgages were batched together by the thousands and used as collateral for investment bonds. Bond rating agencies carefully examine the bond issues from 47,000 feet and pronounce them A-OK.

Then it gets a little fucked up. Financial geniuses figure out how to buy and sell the risk of default, meaning a company gets paid for assuming the risk of bond failures and the opposing party in the deal gets a payout if there is a default, creating a reward for a bond issue tanking.

Then it gets very, very fucked up. Investors start entering into these transactions multiple times over for the same underlying real estate equity, which is something like taking out 6 insurance policies on the same house and hoping for a sextuple payout when it goes up in flames.

Then it gets very extremely fucked up. In one corner of the swamp, and by way of example, one large investment bank and a savvy deep pocketed short seller actually see that loading bond issues with the worst mortgages will generate the largest payout. A bond ratings agency say "A-OK, good buddies." Said festering stinkpile of bonds is marketed to a German bank which comes to regret it. If I sound like Elizabeth Warren, google Abacus, John Paulson and Goldman Sachs.

The bigger tsunami took down Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, launched the Great Recession, and came barreling into Matinicus Harbor one beautiful September day in 2008.

For a short while in 2008, our lobster dealer tied the Jacob Pike in lower harbor, bought our lobsters and dispensed fuel and salted herring. As John and I left the harbor that morning, aboard Natalie Irene, the boat price for lobster was $3.40 or so, not great, but enough to make it worthwhile. It would be half that by afternoon.

Sometime while we were out on the water, Glitnir, an Icelandic bank, failed. Icelandic bank failures were not on my mental list of concerns that morning. As we moved from string to string, I was probably stewing about having enough firewood, or some family strife, or trying to write a song in my head. Lobsters came up. Traps splashed back into the cold, rich water. Wrists got sore. Bait bags got refilled. I tried to keep up. The day went along as expected.

Some time further along, New Brunswick lobster processors, to which most of our catch was sold found that Glitnir, being out of business, could no longer issue them letters of credit for operating funds. Letters of credit issued to New Brunswick lobster processors were also not high on my anxiety inventory.

When we sidled up to the Jacob Pike, we were advised of two things. First, the boat price was now $1.70, if I'm remembering the figure correctly. Second, as a bonus to getting our pay cut in half, we were advised that the dealer would not be buying any more lobsters this week. There was no market for most of our lobsters.

That was just the beginning. Fortunately, even though the housing crash triggered an employment crash, homelessness and large swaths of suffering, we can take some comfort that the good folks at AIG, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase and others didn't take too much of a hit on the bonuses issued in recognition of their achievements.