Wednesday, September 10, 2014

I Miss my Peapod, III: The Matinicus X-Files

Last year, Scully and I witnessed the incredible pageant of comb jellies- iridescent zeppelins in the water with moving multi-colored light strings down the five longitudinal lines; these are straight out of James Cameron's The Abyss.

Today, at what I hoped was the end of 3 weeks of break-downs and cat-and-mouse games trying to figure out why the boat was marginally overheating, having been towed in 3 times and having to steam in at a dead idle a few other times, at the end of all that, the boat still wouldn't cool normally. This was very much in spite- in vindictive, deliberate, spiteful, gratuitous spite- of the fact that I just spent lots of money having the water pump rebuilt and many, many hours taking the entire cooling system apart piece by piece to try and isolate the problem.

But also today, as I scooped up a bucket of water to wash the rancid bait grease off my hands, the bucket was full of serpentine ladders of gel with a little black dot on the end of each rung. The bait was many weeks past its prime, so I needed to rinse my hands after bagging for the next string of traps.

Since my attention was riveted primarily to the temperature gauge and the radar since it was foggy, it was only because of the very large number of these creatures in the water around Two Bush Ledge that I noticed them at all. I've seen plenty of moon jellies, the big red ones and the aforementioned comb jellies, but nothing like these. They made even moon jellies look sophisticated. These critters were what I'd picture drifting in the primordial seas of early life on earth.

Back to the sorry history of recent mechanical difficulties and human aggravation and discouragement. Pretty much the day the lobsters hit for the season, I had an alternator fail. Close Enough was reassembled and the engine enclosure bolted back on confidently. I noticed the motor seemed a few degrees on the warm side steaming to Spruce Head, a little over labored after passing through some flotillas of rockweed and debris, and sort of noticed but dismissed a little dripping noise at the end of that run.

Coming back a couple of days later in marginal conditions, the temperature alarm started whining and the red light was fully ablaze just past Big Green Island. I slowed down, hoping that would allow me to limp the rest of the way. Then I shut the motor down. Lapping waves and whistling sea breeze lose all their appeal while broken down, being smacked on the head by the side-to rolling while trying to peer into dark recesses to figure out what's wrong and drifting toward unfriendly ledges.

I quickly exhausted my diagnostic expertise and decided to flag down a couple of boats working nearby in hopes of a tow a little ways toward Matinicus where one of my brothers could hopefully drag my sorry ass the rest of the way.

Since these boats were close by, I was a little surprised they hadn't responded to a dead stopped boat from out of town and a bug-eyed guy jumping up and down and waving two safety orange PFDs. I set off a smoke flare which finally brought another vessel along side. Let's just say that the introduction and greetings didn't go all that well...

Bless his obscenely high powered diesel soul, Robert came and got me back to the harbor. It was a slow and humiliating ride, punctuated only by a spectacular parting of the tow line and said line's choice to become wrapped around various underparts of my vessel. Once on the mooring, it was obvious that a coolant hose had let go. I had an inkling that the coolant hose failure was a symptom rather than the underlying illness. My sister and mother and nephew were headed out for a visit and picked me up some hose and coolant. I was able to share important lessons with my nephew, such as never, ever get a boat.

The following Monday, after having been out of commission for the better part of a couple of weeks, it was great to get out for a day and work. That winning streak was a short one.

The engine would not cool normally. It wasn't overheating to the point of damage, but it wasn't cooling off normally either. Megan and I tried the next day and came in after an aborted attempt to haul the few deep water pots I put out this year to the northward.

I recalled Capt. Griff having seaweed get stuck in an intake which put an undue strain on the rubber gear inside the water pump known as the impeller. This seemed logical in light of my recent passage through the debris field. I took off the water line and could see one of the fins on my impeller had come off entirely and gotten lodged in the outflow part of the pump.

Again there was confidence as I grabbed the relatively modest priced impeller from the marine store. Confident feelings continued right up until I test fired the motor with the new impeller and found the outflow to be bone dry. Many, many experiments followed over the following days. Priming, tearing apart the cooling system and blowing into this or that hose or fitting only to discover no resistance or apparent obstruction. The were numerous calls for a replacement gasket and consultation from Art's Marine Service.

I would occasionally remember the peapod during these times. Sweet Pea had no impeller save my arms, no hoses, pumps, rust, filters, or other technology. If I pushed on the oars, it moved.

I finally settled on having the pump rebuilt. There were another 5 days or so of delays and office work to push that chapter into the future. Today, I walked to the harbor without much confidence, but found the newly rebuilt pump was actually moving water through the system and decided to head out and haul a few to use up the wretched old bait and start paying for all my new parts.

After a period of normal operation, the motor once again would not cool down to 160 or 170 degrees where it normally sits. I decided not to ever be a pirate or cowboy or fisherman ever again. Again.

I got the boat beached just as the tide was headed out. The only remaining variable I could come up with was maybe there was something stuck in the intake vent. After taking all those pieces apart and jamming knives and a screwdriver up the works to disinvite whatever was up there, Megan shined a flashlight down from above and it was immediately clear that the water intake was unobstructed.

Now what? I have been through 2 straight weeks of everything I and all the experts could come up with for possible causes and solutions.

On a whim, I decided to check the strainer which in all previous experiments had been virtually empty. This time, though- cue the X-Files theme- it was half full of jelly blobs with little malevolent black nuclei. Hmmm.

I want to believe (that I can haul tomorrow). The truth is in there (meaning the innards of the Cummins 210B) along with some shredded jellies.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August Random II: Why I miss the Peapod

No, I was not out early on Monday hauling traps. I was out having smelled a not so good smell and seen a little erratic electrical activity on the volt meter. I was out listening to the engine not running and very glad the breeze was blowing away from the bluff as I waited for a tow back into the harbor.

I didn't know it yet, but I was going through alternators like Frank Sinatra and wives. All I knew was the engine quit and the key wouldn't even muster its formerly annoying but now very comforting squeal. The whole thing was unresponsive and in need of major defibrillation.

My ignorance of diesel motors-with their hulking cast iron, pipes, hoses, wires, rust, ooze and such going all ways incomprehensibly-is vast. I knew there was a breaker panel, but had not a glimmer of awareness that there was an engine circuit breaker ("port side aft of the cylinder head" "ok, what's a cylinder head?"). It didn't help that whoever spray painted the engine entirely obscured the breaker button and box.

What ensued was an unbroken sequence of paddling off the boat, driving home, calling the boat doctor, driving back down, paddling out, trying this or that diagnostic or remedial procedure. The result was ordering a new alternator.

The low point, or if you will, the boilover of my sympathetic nervous system and anxiety juices occurred this afternoon, when I tried to go the extra mile and disconnect the main power cable to make sure it wasn't fried and likely to fry another alternator. I'm no macho man, but I managed to break off a very unusual and specialized looking brass bolt from the starter. This was despair on par with Pooh getting stuck in the honey pot down in the heffalump trap, but far less endearing and full up with curses. Fortunately, the boat Doc thought I could just crank what was left together and be fine. Me, I was thinking an odd, specialized and expensive bolt must have a particular purpose. I liked his answer.

Bless the good boat docs at Art's Marine for taking all those frantic calls and getting me the new part just as I was surrendering and flying off for a couple of days of office work. Those plans got reversed in a hurry.

I had great focus and determination which withered rapidly when I got the new part mounted and could tell something was wrong. The fan was loose and flopping.

There were the tense moments of holding a tiny nut in an impossibly cramped position over a yawning and inaccessible bilge and trying to get it started with two fingers before the washer slips off, along with fervent appeals to patience and fortune. Then I had to take it off without losing it when it was clear something was amiss. And then put it back on after Clayton figured out that the washer they sent with the new unit was a few thousandths too thin and used the one off the old unit.

Many trips to Clayton's shop, requests for advise, tools. Many calls and drives to the airport. Many feelings of helplessness and of being the village idiot.

Now the crickets are chirping, kids are doing what they're supposed to which is run around outside as dusk turns to dark.

The peapod I could just row, bail out and put on a little trailer for the winter. The solar setup was simple and easy to fix. There was no engine circuit breaker anywhere aboard.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

August Random Stuff


This past week, without much forecasting hype, we had a hell of a blow. My sailing instructor acquaintance called me and said several or her boats came undone and that their float had been damaged. I began stewing and made some calls about my own vessel, but couldn't get any enlightenment. I got busy with office work and thought no more of it until I got aboard and saw my tool box tray had launched itself across the cabin. She must've been buckin' somethin' wikkid.

In August, the grass slows down. The lobsters pick up. On this Sunday morning, my muscles and I are grateful for the prohibition against hauling on Sundays from June 1 to August 31. There is time for a solitary walk around the southern shore. There is time to sit on June's porch with the brain trust and go over electronics, the physics of boat propulsion, and the convergence of law and old fashioned island lobbying efforts having succeeded on behalf of a good family in peril of losing their place.

There is time for just about my favorite and saddest downtime activity- getting rid of stuff. Fragments and broken bits of a different phase in life get carted off and recycled.

A plastic truck Ryan used to enjoy, but which is now bleached to a pale yellow on one side.

Kites that will not fly on account of aerodynamic inadequacies and missing spars.

 My dead vhf marine radio, probably all functional except that it makes no sound.

Outgrown books and beach toys.

Broken things I meant to fix, but now know I won't.

Shards of the gazing ball that came from the mainland and was not appreciated except by me, and then blew off its pedestal probably to my spouse's satisfaction in an 80 mph gale one February. I dutifully picked up each and every sliver the next morning, which freakishly turned out to be sunny and placid and 50 degrees. That morning there was also a channel marker-meaning a 16' iron bell buoy designed to handle the North Atlantic- that had hopscotched its way up into the harbor and nestled, wobbling around in the surf, against a couple of shop wharves. I helped reset a metal chimney segment that had come loose. It was a beautiful morning.

The pickup truck filled up very quickly.

Tomorrow morning I expect most every boat will be out of the harbor early. I'll be out just a little after that, but I won't be the last.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sweet Sunday at Home

Doubts and uncertainty and financial stress have been part of my landscape for years now. Can I justify paying for this house, staying in an unpredictable business that I'm inexperienced in, bringing my kids out here, beating on my joints and back, not pursuing the conventional job situation? On this chilly breezy late July Sunday afternoon with windswirl sounds coming through the screen as I wake up from a short nap on the couch, having had breakfast of Cait's egg's, Eva's bread, my crabmeat and Megan's alchemy with those ingredients, I have no doubts at all. It's home.

"Any idiot can fish the shore" one mentor told me. That idiot would be me. I started out in the peapod among the rocks and kelp. I've started learning my way outside a bit more on Close Enough, but I still like working around the shore. This is my fifth season running my own boat, which seems impossible-I just started. This year, though, I'm not sinking, snarling or losing track of as much gear. The workflow is steady and consistent and more orderly and rational. The steadiness gradually turns to better paychecks and fewer nightsweats. The boat is itself a home of sorts and helps us stitch together a life where we have transportation options for the kids and ourselves, and can keep the house up. That way it's not a house on the island, its home.

So today is not the Downeast Magazine kind of late July day, not like last week when we went in the water and stayed in, but it is a sweet Sunday at home.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rise of the Jellies- Cue the Theramin

At my office on the Damariscotta River, I get distracted and need to walk outside. This is because I have never quite adapted to indoor sitting work, or because I am lazy, or both. Several times over this early part of summer, on the bridge between Damariscotta and Newcastle, I've seen legions of moonjellies rushing up on the tide or back. It struck me as improbable if for no reason other than I'd think the current and rocks would shred them. There sure were a lot of them.

Then I recalled doomsdayish prophecies of acidifying ocean water making conditions hostile to many forms of sea life but friendly to jellyfish. My ocean biologist friend Pati at the Bigelow Lab said that moon jellies eat all the plankton in sight. Plankton as in base of the food chain and indirectly the base of the livelihood of many fishing families. Cue the theramin.

Last year, on one occasion late in the summer off Matinicus, I saw my first comb jellies- fantastic five sided whispy zeppelins with dazzling light shows up to one end and back. This year, they're already everywhere and it's only June. Hopefully if it's an invasion, we can figure out how to make them a delicacy.

The lobsters are numbed up as they say.

Time to enjoy the place for a few days, play some tunes on the dock and crack a few crab claws. Life is good, even with the impending jellyfish takeover. Cue the electric guitar.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Recycling, Fava Beans and Anadama Bread

Any reference to criminal activity is for entertainment purposes only. Any resemblance to me is purely coincidental. 

She decided the bathroom wall color had to go, and rightly so. It was a shade best enjoyed with fava beans and a bottle of chianti- f-f-f-f. We both enjoy painting projects, but hadn't done one together. I came in late, but was happy to cut and roll the ceiling.

Two rooms away is a possession I've had longer than most anything else. At a job site in Bowdoinham, I was tasked with continuing a paint job also from the internal organ series- the kind of grotesquely poor taste that can only be obtained from pricey architectural firms. In a pile of sawdust, lumber scraps and other construction debris was a half gallon cardboard paintpot, half crushed in. I picked it up, straightened it and put it back to work. Many colors later, the pot was no longer flimsy cardboard, but could probably be run over by a lawn tractor with no damage. Thirty years on, it lives in my den and holds things like pens, audio adaptors, spare guitar strings and such.

I've had a nerdish compulsion to reuse things all my life. Part of what drew me to setting my own traps here on the island was the great abundance of lost and abandoned gear. There was a giant mound of rope in my back yard, along with some well aged traps. Along the rocky shore are tons of lost buoys, rope and mangled traps.

I was running short of buoys  a few days ago and knew where to find them. On the wild southwest corner of the island is a rocky cove that is prone to buoy accumulation. We walked down the trail to the shore and picked our way over the rocks to the sweet spot. Dozens of buoys were wedged between rocks, driven up into the puckerbrush and in twisted bales of rope and other gear.

We cinched up three dozen or so, and dragged them back over the rocks and up the trail. One I recognized and took to my neighbor. The rest have been whale-proofed, scraped and painted and now hang in my cherry trees off the side of the shop. They're all different sizes and shapes, but all my colors. They are no longer abrading microplastic bits into the ocean.

It is very satisfying.


P.S. along the lines of reuse, Eva's anadama bread stands up very well to a longer life cycle than you would think. I only had use for half a loaf a month ago and the rest went in the freezer. After thaw, its still very sweet and fresh.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

You're Really Back When...

How I can tell I'm really back on Matinicus:

Aside from starting work at 5:30 on Sunday and going 11 hours or so, it was really the lawnmower afterwards that confirmed my official welcome home.

After said day's work and a couple of congratulatory brews with a friend, I got inspired to start mowing the lawn. This is the season when about the time you finish one end, the other has grown 4 inches or so. I am exaggerating. It actually looks plush for at least 6 hours before becoming shaggy.

I pulled out the Trusty Rusty and found the throttle cable to be corroded in place. Somebody probably left it out half the summer last year. WD-40, pliers and eloquent profanity all fail to loosen the cable. So here it is- how I know I'm really back. I clipped off a piece of trap wire and muckled it around the throttle lever on the engine, and off I went, plushing up the place.

I hadn't thought about how to stop the engine. Usually, thick grass works fine, but not so today. Pliers come back out and silence the motor.

After supper, I went out to finish and knew I was really, really back. The last couple of tablespoons of gas went in the tank and then wouldn't you know it, the elastic band holding my ziplock baggie gas cap in place lets go. After installing the new rubber band, I give a stout tug on the starter cord which parts company with itself.

I pull on the tail end what's left and get it done anyway.