Saturday, June 26, 2010


Bycatch refers to things you get when fishing that aren't what you intend to catch. For me, it consists of snails, baby crabs, codfish, pickerel, flounder that shoot off like the Millenium Falcon when you throw them back, a plastic Bart Simpson head, strawberry jelly squeeze bottle, a full 12 ounce Bud Light and lots of kelp.

I'm squeamish about terms like "self-discovery," or "personal journey," so maybe I should call it "doing something to see what happens." From there, we get to some bycatch.

I've made lots of righteous declarations about the zero carbon lobster project being about energy and food and economics; being about ancestral wisdom, wooden boat evolution and the natural beauty of the ocean. The agenda items that emerge as bycatch include:
a. doing something really nuts to find what I'm made of;
b. doing something really hard to see if I can;
c. discovering things about my relationships with family, friends, community and fishermen;
d. learning not to bail on a good idea even though a lot of experiences and experienced people try to persuade me to come to my senses;
e. Learning not to bail on myself when I've undertaken something really ambitious that isn't really working, but sort of is working, and even though I may be the only one who really believes.
f. Not wanting to turn into a crackpot/novelty act.
g. Being mentally prepared and alert enough to bail when it really is time. If it ever is.

Neighbors, friends and loved ones look at me with sympathy, bafflement, exasperation, worry, admiration, humor and that look that says "I give up- you'll just have to wise up on your own." I have a keener appreciation and gratitude for what people say, what they don't say, how much they care about me even if I seem to be endangering myself for an untenable dream. I am closer to me-good and bad. I'm much more in tune with the people around me. If nothing else the whole goose-chase is putting me more into the middle of my own life. But...

I write all this as though the whole thing is just an exercise in mid-life rebellion. I should also add that I am catching lobsters, I am listening to the fisher-voice inside and to fishermen on the island, I am learning to work the Sweet Pea in very close to the rocks in a variety of surf conditions, I've produced healthy food that saved a couple of dozen gallons of diesel fuel. I get to sail. I am building a model of a truly sustainable commercial fishing operation

It's small scale. It's very tough going. I don't have a reality show, Gatorade endorsement deal or an endowment from a railroad fortune. I do have stiff hands. Someone just pulled up on a Bobcat Excavator. Only so many suspects for that. I'll go check it out. 'Later.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Father's Day

I do not know what other fathers enjoy on Father's Day. I can skip it mostly. This year was extra special, so I'll add these items to a good Father's Day menu. 

Start on Saturday night with music on the wharf. It is cold and windy, but people show up, in particular, a pile of kids. I do a bunch of Papa Goose songs and then a few Diesel and Driftwood tunes. The adult audience members take their hands out of pockets to clap and then hunch back down into the wind, milling about looking for a lee among the trucks and gear on the wharf. "Thank you. I guess we'll call it good on account of the wind and chill." I'm taking refuge indoors with friends when the first of the next wave shows up. My head out the second floor window, I tell them too bad for tonight, it's cold. They tell me otherwise. "We're here. There's more coming."

Playing with cold fingers requires some adjustment downward of the complexity of my playing. This much more so in salt air, which seems colder and finger-stickier, making it very difficult to do much more than strum chords. No matter. This crowd is having a good time. I was going to write that I haven't been anywhere where people would be so determined to have a good time in such uncomfortable conditions, but then again, one week earlier, Fiona and Lisa and I got soaked watching a three act concert- Keith Urban, Dixie Chicks and the Eagles- at Gillette Stadium. From this perspective, I'm honored that my little show with the one guitar and a couple of clip-on lights with colored bulbs goes so late into the night with people dancing, singing and smiling the whole time.

Then there is the more traditional, but just as delightful Sunday morning with me having the rare good sense to sleep in (after running out at 4 a.m. in my skivvies hung over to get the music gear undercover because I was wrong last night about it not raining). 

Pouncing by the younger two kids. Fiona's 20 page book with 20 ways of saying how great I am. Ryan's hearts drawn on his own stationery. 

Lydia and I do many rounds of Mario Kart. One purpose of this blog is to look at the tension between my Peter Pan nature with its selfish desire for adventure and exploration and things like parenthood, mortgage payments and the dangers of working alone on the ocean in a tiny wooden boat. I feel compelled to confess that Mario Kart, being designed for 9 year olds, is a hilarious, sensory overloading, silly bunch of fun. Extremely rapid and intense visual image changes combined with car noise, mario characters flying by and hollering and beeping at me, and hyper-speed recklessness from the safety of the couch.

Lisa and I get a rare chance to sneak off for some nature time. 

That is pretty much the ultimate Father's Day.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

When Lobsters Molt, Think of Something Else

The molting, as I’ve written before, is a time of soul searching. It is a time of traps being heavier because there is nothing inside to eat or sell. Yesterday seemed like the beginning of the 2010 molt. Something like three quarters of the traps were empty, whether bait stayed on or not.

Early in the journey, I was sailing around Wheaton Island- a transit even quieter than rowing- when there was a solid fwushmmph behind me. I was startled and suddenly aware of the tiny size of my wood survival zone. Some sea creature had surfaced and disappeared, leaving an upwelling of water 50 feet behind me. Maybe seals and porpoises just sound a lot bigger in a small quiet craft. Maybe it’s like Lydia said: A Giant Squid.

The southwest wind at 5 to 10 knots called for felt a lot more like northwest 10 to 20. At one point, it was so laborious moving forward that I decided to give up and sail back to the harbor after finishing half my gear for the day. My sail trimming and steering skills are green enough that I slipped sideways and wound up at Two Bush ledge, where I decided to take the sail down before the boat struck rock. I stopped almost on top of one of my 5 buoys and, after a hem and a haw, decided to pull those since I was already there.

After crossing over to the Beach Ledges, I tied up to a buoy to reassess, give the lobsters a break by putting the crate overboard, pump out the boat and have a bite. The wind and waves seemed to have settled enough that I decided to go back out to Two Bush Island, where I’d surrendered earlier to have another try. It was a wrestling match because I left the lee and worked directly in the wind. Pulling up and tending each trapped allowed me to slip 50 feet or so downwind so I had to claw my way back each time. When those were done, I only had five left, very much in the lee, 25 degrees warmer and much easier work.

All these mini adventures had a common thread. Empty traps, one after another. The only real satisfaction was getting them baited, getting back to the harbor, cleaning up and putting things in order. Having brunch tied to a lobster buoy 50 feet from the easterly beach ledge on a summer day was pretty cool too.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sweet Spot

I feel obligated to report that: Today everything worked really well. The weather made it easy to haul traps and set them back without laboriously rowing back upwind after tending each one. Having traps closer together meant less “steaming” between strings. Stand-up rowing made it possible to cleanly approach each buoy and make corrections without having to stop rowing and turn around to see I’ve missed. The new oars don’t want to slide off the boat every chance they get. There were lobsters in good numbers.

 The sum of all these variables means I made a decent day’s pay, had time to stop and visit with the school kids, teachers and Lisa on Markey’s Beach while they celebrated the end of school, and got into the harbor by noon. The wind started blowing just about the time I got home. Sweet!  Now I’m tired. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Red light Green Light Red Light

I’ve not had much to do with lobstering lately. This is because today is day 8 of not being able to haul either due to weather- Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday-Monday; or an off-island commitment- playing music on the main street sidewalk on Vinalhaven on Friday; or Lisa’s many work commitments; or three kids, one of whom just got back from school in Vermont.

This morning, I dutifully arose and flipped the coffee switch at 4:40-something a.m. and packed up to haul. The view from the wharf was not encouraging. I observed a brisk wind and large breakers around all the ledgy places that I’d be visiting. I turned back and worked on a legal project til about 8, then got back in the skiff to go finish my last winter job commitment. Had serious second thoughts about bagging because the sea appeared to be flattening out and the weather more welcoming. After finishing the trail work, I skiffed across the harbor and realized I had no vehicle to get my chainsawing gear home from the wharf. I tried not to make eye contact with people because of irritability cramps and frustration from wanting to get something doneand having to hurry home to be ready for school music after lunch..

At lunch time I decided it was lovely outside and that I’d go haul after school music concert preparations. Of course, by the time I was done at school, the wind was back up with enthusiasm. Well, maybe I’ll at least pump out the boat from another big rainstorm, mount the radar reflector and bag some bait for tomorrow. As I’m drilling the first pilot hole, *drip* in the harbor. Ugly wet gray wool approaching from the west. What I’ve failed to recognize up to now is: This is not a boat day for me.

I put the tools away, row back across the harbor. The pickup is full of cardboard from a large delivery to the store, so I rush to get that in the recycle shed up in the middle of the island before it’s papier mache sculpto-mush.

I’m dry at the moment which is as it should be. Everything else is pretty fetched up. I will vote in the primary and referendum, go to Latin America night at school and let today fall behind and tomorrow wait til the morning.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rocky Bottom


Rocky Bottom

Today is the first day of getting through all the traps in the water, except, of course, for the very last one which got stuck on rocky bottom behind Ten Pound Island. The wind is blowing hard and I am getting pushed toward the rocks, so I abandon that pot for a nicer day. The boat is very difficult to control as I try to round the corner in a cross wind. Aggravating, physically brutal and scary all at once. It won’t go where I point it. I am exhausted and a long way from the harbor.

Then the sail goes up and everything changes. It’s quiet. The boat wants to go smoothly to the harbor. I stick an oar over the side to steer and slide home with no effort at all. By the time I reach Old Cove and start taking the sail down, I have about 45 minutes’ sailing experience. 15 yesterday, 10 this morning and a 20 minute scoot across to the harbor. Every minute of that is pure magic. I’ve never even been on a sailboat, and now I have a working commercial vessel under sail.

That’s about as good as it got. Things went down hill steeply after that. I ended up being two hours and change late getting in. The afternoon turned to evening and the personal and financial realities started hitting head-on.

I fell asleep on the couch and woke to a muscle spasm in the back of my leg that felt as though it would tear all the meat right off the bone. That wrenching pretty well matched the anguish inside.

I can’t. I can’t do it physically. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The gripping on rope and pulling up a metal box from the sea floor. Every foot of rope requires every bit of strength. By the time I’m rowing into the harbor, my forearm bones feel sprung apart. Roofing, sheetrocking, farming, woodcutting, and being a sternman were all easy by comparison. And I’m a 47 year old guy waking up with a charley horse fit to tear my leg apart.

With all that effort, I’m not making money. Mortgage and power bill are due. I have a barrel of bait rotting on the float because the quantity I have to buy is more than I can use on my schedule. Money gone into the stink of rotten herring. Oh yes, and the boat is not paid for.

I can’t do it physically, financially or emotionally. Now I’m awake in the wee hours wondering how to get the boat shop to take Sweet Pea back. My question to myself is: Is it dumber to give up and bail out or dumber to keep trying?

I hope this is rock bottom.


The next day, Wes and I are sitting in the kitchen. It’s foggy and drizzly on the other side of the slider. I tell my woe and he tells me- again- that, yep, it won’t work. You’ve got to get rid of that boat. “I’ve got thirty years into this. I’ve seen the boats change, the gear change and the business side change. You can’t do it the way you’re trying to do it.”

Then I tell him how great it was to sail on the northerly breeze in the morning and the southwesterly in the afternoon. Then he grins and laughs. “You know, it’s really pretty cool what you’re doing. Let’s go set the rest of your traps right now.” And we do.

Bagging bait, loading 40 on the stern of Shameless, steaming out to Two Bush Island, slogging through rain which turns to downpour when we get in the harbor, getting the outboard stuck on a derelict buoy in the harbor. All of these things he put up with to help me.

That’s today’s lesson. Thanks to the Max, Peter, Frank and all the other predecessors who left tools and boat stuff in the barn. Thanks to whoever left the sail that fits Sweet Pea perfectly and makes me so happy every time I put it up. Thanks to the fishermen watching out for me. Thanks to Lisa tolerating yet another “adventure.” Thanks to Clayton for getting me into the water. Thanks for all the advice, even when it’s directly contradictory:

“You’ve got to get wooden traps. They fish great”
“Wooden traps don’t fish for shit.”
“I loved wooden traps. I bought 300 of them and lost every last one in a storm.”

I’m thankful and relieved to have 100 pots out now. I can visit more of them with a lot less traversing.

I’ve hit walls and taken them for granted, especially where I don’t know what I’m doing, there aren’t suppliers for key things I need and I get advice like “you’ve got to get rid of that boat.” It takes a good night’s rest to realize that I just need to look at the wall and figure out how to get over, under, around or through. The next big wall is getting those heavy wire traps up to the boat. I spent days getting the flipper functional to make boarding the traps easier. I know I can’t hand haul them without some help from Archimedes. Or a good 12 volt winch.