Friday, August 27, 2010

Back to the Stern, Part II and Sweet Pea Goes Solar!

Tuesday, August 24.

I am the Black Lab just enjoying the ride in the pickup truck. The breeze is whipping. The Miss Madelyn is fast. The waves are bright hills of water here west of Matinicus. The wind tears the tops off the great heaving breakers that rear up over the ledge every couple of minutes.

Today is the second day aboard Miss Madelyn, another of the big-boy boats. Fast, roomy and catching many, many lobsters. Yesterday, day 1 on Miss Madelyn, was gray and wet and very rough. We worked the whole day behind “The Ball,” the Wooden Ball Island.

I’ve never seen so many lobsters in my life as I have in the last 4 days of Man Fishing on Cynthia Lynn and Miss Madelyn.

Being a sternman once again is fun. It is frenetic, and not so much like a hockey game as maybe basketball. I never played, but I imagine that when the team is flowing together- anticipating the others’ moves, keeping the ball moving, going where the ball is going to be- that it is like this. I never played sports, but the close, fast moves, independent and intertwined must be similar to this. Except they play for an hour or something and we start at 5:00a.m. and go til afternoon. And our court tilts a lot. And is splashy. Cold splashes down your neck.

What I forgot was: I really like this kind of work. The ocean. The action. The teamwork. The way the pace and the tilting blur together and I find a speed and grace and reflexes (relatively speaking) that no other experience brings out. The Wild.

At a different moment I realize that I’m looking at a fall ocean. Waves, wind and color are of fall even though it’s still August. I start feeling the need to finish up my project for the season. With this sea, sky and wind change and the financial and personal stresses that accompany the project, it feels like time to pull them up.

The feeling passes. At the end of the week, I’m back aboard my beloved Sweet Pea, catching a tiny amount of lobsters slowly, and paying tiny overhead.

Sweet Pea is now solar. The panel says it’s charging my winch battery. I obsess about my wiring and the solar setup as a whole, because I cannot really tell if the battery is getting charged. My amateurish marine wiring is very wet and covered in all manner of marine plant life by mid morning. The winch keeps on turning for the rest of the day, making my job exponentially easier.

The sunlight goes in the photovoltaic window, turns into electrons that run down the wires, through the charge controller and onto the battery terminals, then out into electro magnetic motor of the the winch that turns and pulls up the rope. The sun pulls my traps up for me now. How sweet is that?! Free photons for me and Sweet Pea.

Now for an electric motor...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Return to the Stern

Some nights and early wee mornings, Papa just can't buy enough mockingbirds. No amount of rockabye babies, or hear the wind blow dears is enough. Feeding, reading, rocking, and walking will not do the trick. What really works is a drive in the car. Ahhhh. She's asleep at last. Internal combustion has the soothing vibration that all my daddy tricks can't match.

Diesel engines, especially when they first start up on a cold day, have a very comforting sound to them. Diesel engines, when they quit on a cold day, really make you aware that you don't know what you got til it's gone. Now I've said it. No matter how much my project is about working without internal combustion, diesel power has some things going for it.

I've been asked to sub on a few boats recently. Monday, I went out with June. She's got a 30 foot Repco, surprisingly steady on a choppy day. June teaches more than she realizes about bait, soak time, fishing strategy. She has an efficient operation and runs the boat and handles traps and buoys with deceptive ease. Steering the boat, gaffing the buoy, sliding it forward up the rail so it slides down the rail on its own instead of having to fiddle it out of a tangle of rope on the platform. She flips tiny fish off the washboard with a dustpan, reducing bycatch mortality and maybe paying in some karma. For comedic relief, she has me run the boat and the hauler for one trap.

I worked 4 years in the stern, then jumped to a totally different way of lobstering aboard Sweet Pea. Coming back to the stern felt very comfortable. I also learned from hauling with June in a much deeper way than I would if I'd never been in my own boat hauling my own traps. Duration, location, and luck. I went back to Sweet Pea for two days with those lessons in mind.

I thought I was a mighty fishin' man for hauling with June and then hauling all 150 of my own traps the next two days and probably rowing 15 miles in the process. I came home on Wednesday evening from my tax collector office hours with sand in my eyes and thoughts of a day off the water, a morning to sleep in, time to catch up on neglected housework, paperwork, play with the kids and maybe rest the spine for a day.

Then Robert called and talked me into hauling with him for a day aboard Cynthia Lynn, one of the big, fast, heavy duty boats. There are different tiers of lobster boats, though they all have more or less the same classic profile. I believe you could fit three of June's boats inside the Cynthia Lynn.

The hauling was of a type I hadn't experienced before. On this boat, it's a 10 hour hockey game with two five minute timeouts and no face mask, a dog fight and a wet, ocean debris-covered factory assembly line with a runaway malfunctioning conveyor belt.

Big, heavy duty traps come aboard. The fourteen inch hauling plates bring up a 20 fathom trap line in about 4 seconds. Travis gets the first one down the rail and whips a couple of fathoms of extra rope toward the stern, flips the door open. I get the old bait out and clean the kitchen and middle chamber and put new bait in, with a bait bag, pogey speared through the eye and a crab speared on the bottom, while Travis measures the money crawlers in the parlor. Then he loops out around me to take the first one down to the stern while I get started on the tailer- the second of each pair. I dance over the rope he has to pull around so it stays under the rail. Then he zips behind me to finish measuring in the tailer trap. In between, a couple of lobsters get banded and a bait bag or two get filled and tied shut. Then the tailer gets placed on the stern. The process takes seconds and happens 200 times in a day. It is a fast, long, hard day.

One day aboard Cynthia Lynn is such a frenzy and overwhelming physical challenge that I do not want to do it again. When Robert asks if I'll go the next day, my answer is "no," which means yes a short while later. It's easier the second day, with easier being a relative term. The day is impossibly long, relentlessly fast. We have 300 hauled by 11:30 a.m. It takes me til 3:00 p.m. to haul 75 by myself.

When we reach Northeast Point on our way in for the day, I tell Robert it takes me 23 minutes to row from there to the harbor. After taking a few precautions such as making sure the hose won't explode out of the lobster tank, Robert goes for it. Sweet Pea takes 23 minutes. Cynthia Lynn takes 1.

We hauled 800 furious traps in 2 days. On my own I haul 150 in that much time.

The incessant hurrying, slashing bait iron, spearing on pogeys and a crab, the frantic moves all catch up with me at about 12:30 Saturday morning. My left arm is being pulled apart inside, and poked with needles outside. For all the pain, the arm and wrist are simultaneously numb. Fingers won't do what I tell them. I wake up a dozen times to wake the hand up and ease the pain. In 2 and a half months of rowing everywhere, pulling algae covered ropes tied to steel traps by hand, doing everything "the hard way," I never had any kind of pain like this.

Let me see now, the two days from last week aboard Sweet Pea, then two days of 40 foot, 1,000 horsepower mayhem as a deckand. Counting my door-to-door sales from Sweet Pea. Hmm...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Secret Summer

While hauling a few days ago, I looked across from Ten Pound Island to Condon Cove. The awareness was immediate. Our good friends' house had its white plywood shutters back in place. It seems only a couple of weeks ago I noticed the white plywood gone and someone inside the window opening the place up. The point was made a little more sharply this morning with our island fellow's departure on the ferry after 2 years of countless contributions, and generous, good humored service to the island. 

People are leaving. Thoughts of school and woodpiles creep in. So begins secret summer.

The runup and passage of Labor Day weekend felt like an arbitrary boundary even before we moved here. Leaving the hayfields and sitting inside a classroom. As a parent, getting kids back into morning routines. Standing on the sidelines at soccer games. It's still summer dammit. It can't be time for desks, schedules and straight white lines on the grass.

Here the sweet weather, warm water, garden growth all stretch out far past Labor Day. Yet so many departures and a lot less traffic change the atmosphere prematurely away from the summer parade. 

This is secret summer. The beach does not know of semesters. The grass is green with no straight white lines.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Not Endless Summer

The ripening breeze so well captured in Jud Caswell's song Blackberry TIme reminds me that summer is not forever, though it may feel that way. I'm on the north shore of the island working from West Point past the end of the runway to Northeast Point. 

The neurochemical cinches around my middle have loosened. I breathe easier. The work is hard, but it is work now, instead of all day panic and discoordination.  I row. I pull traps in the boat. I measure lobsters and put new bait on. Baited, closed, over she goes. 

The north shore of the island looks like it could be the Alaskan coast. Aside from the windsock, it's all cobble beaches with driftwood piles and spruce ranks behind. There are no houses or human activity visible. In the blue distance opposite, there is the mainland, low and miragical.

I'll paddle and tend my way around Two Bush Island, then go back to the harbor, splash the lobsters, get more bait and head back out for a few more.  

The lobsters have dropped off a bit from last week, but it's still worth coming up here. 

By the time I get out south of the harbor for round 2, the wind is thrashing from the southwest. Once a trap is aboard, I slide backward, gaining speed to the point where I need to row hard to keep from hitting the rock walls in Back Cove at 6 or 7 knots. I won't get in my 75 today. 60 will have to be enough. 

I'll do live music tonight on the dock. This tradition began because state law prohibits hauling on sundays in June, July and August. Only three more concert/dance/party nights left this year. Then everybody gets down to business for real; hauling every day that the weather permits, putting in longer days. Then it's firewood and storm window time. 

Right now, though, I'm warm clear through. It takes me til August. I cool off a lot quicker. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

End of July Report

July is down to hours. I've been out to haul 27 times. I've brought in 1,438 pounds of lobsters. I'm finally ready to start. For real.

I'm also ready to enjoy what I'm doing, though I'm a little superstitious that fishermen are supposed to love what they do, but not irritate the gods by being happy about it. Every morning now, and several more times each day, I'm sharply aware of how privileged I am to be paddling to work on the ocean. To be physically part of the environment. To peer down at the sand, the kelp forests, the eel grass. That big fish that just swam under the boat.

One of this week's lessons is that some things seem like they'll never happen, and then they do.

The oarlock saga-God bless Clayton and his machinist friend- is at an end.

I began rowed sitting down, looking over my shoulder, slow, laborious and obscenity driven as much as by muscle power. Then the stand-up oarlocks finally arrived from Oregon some time in early June.

I discovered a couple of things within the first few clumsy minutes messing about with them in the harbor. First, they were several inches too low, resulting in the hunchback sidecar pumping action, also requiring many horsepower worth of expletives.

I had been doing sort of a semi circle pattern where I bend down to plant the oars in the water, row up in a half circle and then way down to get the oars back out of the water. I must have looked like a strange bird trying to take off across the water.

My second discovery was that in spite of how comical and awkward the motion was, it was far superior to rowing sitting down. I could see just where I was going. I could steer very precisely without twisting around.

Many a fisherman reminded me daily that "your oarlocks are too low." "You need raised oarlocks." "Your life will be a lot easier when you get your oarlocks up where they belong." I had a fresh memory of how long the wait was just to get the proper oarlocks. The thought of starting over was too much. Veins pulsed on my forehead. Eyelids twitching. The pressure to produce a viable catch and make something of a living was strong enough that I just kept going; flapping across the harbor and around the island.

Clayton's friend produced a beautiful pair of stainless steel risers to make the oarlocks about 4 inches higher. We tried them out yesterday. The 4 inches entirely changes the rowing posture. Now I'm learning to row a third time. Now I am a swan. Or at least not an injured herring gull.

July is down to minutes and I finally have the rowing setup I had expected to start out with in May. I finally have all this year's traps in the water. My winch is on the boat waiting for its first tour. The light is green. In a month or so, the light will turn yellow and I'll have to reverse the whole process.
One of the continuing lessons is that when I'm doing something no one really does any more, in a way no one has ever done it, there will be many little problems without a fix waiting at the marine store. We have a thousand accumulated little handy fixes for simple problems. Getting a cork out of a wine bottle is really hard without a corkscrew. Loosening a phillips head screw is hard without phillips head screw driver. We take drain plugs for granted until we don't have one that fits. The wrong sized battery won't be any use. Keys open locked doors. A car with no steering wheel or spark plugs is almost all there and yet completely inoperable.

So it is with my beautiful peapod lobster boat with the wrong oarlock positioning. So it is as well with other aspects of fishing in a discontinued style and a modern adaptation. I can't just go to the marine store and buy a trap flipper or brackets to hold my winch to the hull of this boat or a roller to direct the rope through.

Update Friday- July is even smaller ahead of me. Today was day 1 of rowing standing up. I made it from the end of the breakwater to Northeast Point in a leisurely 23 minutes. Then Weston gave me a tow to West Point. That took about a leisurely minute and a half.

Today was also day one of learning to run the new 12 volt trap hauler. This addition to the boat came about because in the cold-sweat-oh-s--- weeks when I started hauling, pulling the wire traps up by hand was excessively brutal. Harder than anything I did when I was 19 or 26 or 36 or 46. It was not like the old days with wooden traps. One late night conclusion was that I could not pull up enough traps barehanded to make my quota. Or to save my wrists from early gnarlalysis and clawfinger. It hurt a lot. Even though I'm quite a bit stronger and much more comfortable with the task, the hauler will allow me to work longer and pull in more traps and make the numbers work. I'll run it off a solar-charged 12 volt battery.

Another new task that I'm clumsy at. Another construction and installation job that I know nothing of. I've never done any kind of automotive or boat wiring and only the simplest household work.

I never got past the clumsy phase. The winch worked spectacularly until about trap number 6. As I was trying to learn to avoid riding turns where the rope backs up on itself and gobs up the whole works, the thing went unnhhh.... Nothing.

Every previous feeling of failure, foolishness, frustrated rage poured back into my brain and belly instantly. All the progress seemed for nothing.

A little fiddling revealed that a wire connection was loose. Of course. I know nothing of maritime electricianing.

I found the loose wire and tightened things up back in the shop. How many traps next time, I'm wondering. (Turns out, a whole days' worth. Major improvement)

The standup rowing left me considerably less exhausted and crumpled over. It felt lazy by comparison with the previous configurations. I roved around the north shore, Two Bush Island and over almost to No Man's Land. Planes landed yards away at one point. Banks of fair weather clouds never got here.

It's July 30 and the operation is pretty much in place. Lobsters are present. Large ones. Weather is spectacular. La la la. Whistle, whistle. Probably should complain on ceremony just to not be boastful or irritating to the gods.

July 31

I haven't seen any in a while, but offices once had doors with rippled glass windows to allow light and color through, but maintain some discretion for important meetings and office functions. At the Northeast end of Condon Cove, the water has the same shape, but on the other side there is magical green sand and eel grass instead of filing cabinets and coat trees. Polarized lenses on my new sunglasses enhance a view that Pixar can't approximate. Silver blue July sky above, aqua green below. Perfect globe shaped school of baby fishes. Overwhelming beauty.