Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Just Lobstering Business with a few nerdy Star Wars analogies

The Sweet Pea and zero carbon lobster project is very much an idealistic and day dreaming sort of adventure. An adventure designed to showcase old and new hardware and methods of fishing, alternative energy, slow food, sustainable fishing and such. Despite the pie in the sky-ness, it's also my job. Thanks to good prices for the catch, a year's more experience and a whole lot of help from some key conspirators, it's also my job these days, and that has to be the coolest thing of all. I'm actually making something of a living. Go figure. Me and my pipsqueak of an operation.

I'm keeping much more data this year as well, such as how many traps and how far I run the engine on a battery charge, what kinds of fish come up in the trap, and how many pounds on the scale at the end of the day. Yesterday, there were three butterfish in one trap. One grayish green one, one pink one, and one really outrageous, audacious neon pink one. They come in bright blue, bright green and black as well. Why the butterfish has such a zany color menu I don't know. Lots of flounder this year, too. They're the most fun to throw back, because after the first confused juddering motion, they take off like the Millenium Falcon making the jump to light speed. Flounder are very quick like that. But the ocean doesn't rotate and go all streaky like in Star Wars.

In the "marine environment is tough" department, the solar panel and charge controller simply stopped working, so tomorrow, I have to parse out the chain wherein photons become worker particles in my galaxy to identify where the breach is. The happy yellow charge light was gloomy yesterday, so, being in doubt, I ripped it out and tomorrow will isolate the problem.

May the photons be with you, for electricity, hot water or beach enjoyment.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wooly Mammoth Hair

I got up dutifully at 5 ish AM and looked out to see leaves moving. That early, I don't want to see any leaves fluttering, especially a whole tree's worth. I went anyway and rowed several miles around to the west side of the island to start my day of hauling traps. In Burgess Cove and in front of Little Island, it was pretty tranquil, because the woods and shore were nearby and the wind had no fetch to create large waves.

So the first 15 pots were more or less normal working conditions. Then I ventured around West Point and started my pep talks. "It doesn't matter if it's slow, don't compare what's happening today with how it's supposed to go. Just do the job." That works for about a half an hour of clawing forward through a 15 knot headwind and a few knots of adverse current. As soon as I stop rowing, the boat makes an instant wake back from when I came, sluicing the wrong direction.

After the pep talk wears off, there is lots of demotivational cursing. Then I decide to switch to the motor that I've been stubbornly avoiding using, wanting that boost to be available later in the day. So be it. After a couple of pots, the water is shimmering with stiff wind from the north northeast. The chop appears to double by the minute. The boat starts to swivel any way but into the wind. The wrestling match turns into a rodeo event where staying on is the objective.

I decide to quit. Without the motor, I would've needed to beach, or get towed in, or spent half a day rowing in 4 inch increments back to the harbor at the expense of tendons and nerve function.

Once around Northeast Point, the head-on turns to side-to, and the waves get large and steep. Sweet Pea loves the rollercoaster, and I love her for being so happy even in very rough water. I also love my electric motor for getting me back to harbor.

I'm coming in with tail tucked, surfing into the harbor, feeling my day is over at 10:30 in the morning. I'm also realizing how little I know about compass bearings and geography, because it is instantly evident that a couple of coves are perfectly sheltered and cozy from the NNE wind. Sliding through the harbor and out the Gut, I'm in a sunny and tranquil world that doesn't appear to be even in the same area code as the shimmering, sloshing, wind blasted place I just came in from.

I almost make a day of it after all. In the afternoon, the wind flunks out completely and so I stuff a few more bait bags and head out.

After a great round 2 start, I meet a challenge worse than all the wind, rain, pain, inexperience and all other obstacles to date. Let's call it "Wooly Mammoth Hair"- a whole stampede's worth. This long, fine, stringy, brownish purply plant wraps around my ropes by the bushel. It all piles up on the trap end of the rope and weighs enough that those mammoths wouldn't have been able to move if they got wet. It also severely destabilizes the boat. I have to wrench the trap part way up with one hand and try to tear the hair off with the other and not fall overboard or capsize. It is the end of my day. Those traps are now inaccessible without hydraulic assistance and a multi-ton hull.

After all the ups and downs, I end up with a solid day's pay after all.

I wake in the night with a lump in my throat that soon comes loose in the flood. This life is really hard on the family. And my body. I'm searching for straight jobs in a tough economy while running down the mountain ahead of the financial avalanche and willing myself not to stumble.

Oz and Never Neverland are dazzling places to visit.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Up and Running, "Shopping"

The upstairs of the barn got warm as uspstairses of barns do. Especially with 50 or so people sitting close together on a Saturday night in June. This is a special barn. It has bamboo flooring, wall hangings, a full kitchen downstairs and some very tasty homemade pizza set out. Andy and Jeff Chipman are with me, playing our original songs to maybe the best listening crowd we've had. As the nearly drowned fisherman in The Secret of Roan Inish said on waking in a warm barn with several women looking down at him said: "So this is heaven, then?" It certainly was.

After the intermission, I gave the first public presentation on the zero carbon lobster project. I had a powerpoint slide show and thankfully paid little attention to it except for the pictures. I can't tolerate presenters who read their powerpoints, though I've done it more than a few times. The content is meant to be digressed from, embellished and so forth. I hope to give many more talks on the project. I'm pretty confident about what I'm doing, which for anyone who knows me, is an extremely rare circumstance.

I'm coming off the first week and a half of hauling gear. The experience is thoroughly different from last year. The pain, money, stress and blunderment are all way more tolerable this year.

I've been around to the west side, out to the islets, around Whale's Back Ledge. The catch is pretty skimpy, but the price is up, so a day's work is bringing a day's pay.

Last June, I'd been hauling for a few weeks, pulling wire traps up from the sea floor by hand. Realization was stark. I could not possibly haul enough that way to make any kind of financial contribution to my family. My wrists, back, neck elbows, shoulders felt like glass ready to splinter. The despair and panic lead me to wish I could give the boat back to the builder and do something else; what I did not know.

Then came the winch/battery/solar panel idea. It took a number of weeks to pull together. I set up the battery panel on a styrofoam veggie shipping tray from Lisa's store, put the battery under the seat and the winch on top of the seat. I took a couple of nylon cinch straps from a life vest that washed ashore and secured the winch so it wouldn't winch itself down overboard, but would instead winch the traps up and aboard.

After the bugs were worked out, that arrangement changed everything. The solar panel always kept the battery at 75% or better. My body was saved. My spirit was saved. I started making money.

This year, I've added a motor which changes the show as thoroughly as did the winch. I had no idea how to operate a motor boat. Especially where, instead of oars in the middle of the boat pulling it forward, the motor is mounted on the back, so it's a bit like pushing a pencil where you want it to go and only touching the tip to do it.

Holy wow, though, does it make life easier. I can zip between clusters of gear and then switch to rowing from trap to trap. I can get out to the start and back from the finish. I can multitask while cruising 'cause my hands are free. It does not care about wind and chop.

I feel almost (but not) guilty about how much easier it is to work with my solar team. I still know I've done a day's work, but I'm not feeling shattered when I come in.

The motor draws on the battery pretty hard, and I've had to charge up on household current a few times if I wanted to go hauling on consecutive days. Even at our very high electric rate, it's less than a buck to charge the battery from flat dead. So far on one charge, I've gotten a day's hauling and cruising plus a ride for our wonderful school teacher and his wife the next day. Not bad that I can fill my fuel tank for less than a buck and get more than a day's work out of it.

The bottom line is that I now have a fully functional solar/human/wind powered fishing operation that is beginning to make money. This is not a solar setup for charging a laptop or making coffee, but heavy duty physical work in a tough environment. My bones and tendons can tell how much hard labor is done for me courtesy of the sun.

I won't send kids to college or pay for braces with this setup, but I have a model and an understanding of the interplay between solar charging, weight and work effort. Now, as with every fisherman since probably forever, I say: just need a bigger boat.


I spent almost nothing to get ready this year. I bought some stainless steel and ferrous hog rings, a quart of paint and a few bundles of oak runners. Not $200 I don't think.

Bait bags, buoys, trap vents, bungee cords, cleats all litter the shore and are free for the scavenging. I climb along the rocks and walk the cobbly beaches and come back with armloads of trash that then gets installed on my traps and returned to production. Plastic trash converted to money I don't have to spend, and money I will make with my gear. Ah Hah!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

First Hauls, Alternative Energy and O Rings

The first half day back to hauling was pretty encouraging. Not the weather, but the lobsters. It was foggy and dismal as had been the case for many weeks. I baited up the afternoon before, realizing that I can bag bait even if it's blowing 25, but there are only so many calm hours to be rowing and hauling traps.

My first half day's worth of gear was pretty close around the island. I started behind the breakwater, worked around Wheaton Island, into Old Cove and Back Cove. I poked around in the fog, staying very close to shore, enjoying the boat, freshly painted trap flipper and solar charged winch- all the things that are now in muscle memory, but which were either totally unfamiliar, or which did not exist a year ago.

It was a knuckle cleaning, tendon wrenching, obsenity and despair filled few weeks at first last year as I discovered the set-in-stone limitations as well as painfully acquired some boat handling and trap pulling skills. I tell myself the same thing now when I'm doing something clumsily, which never seems to happen when nobody's watching: I am primarily an entertainer. Flailing around, messy moorings, bonking into my skiff, goofy almost balancing acts. Those are all part of the show. I got to skip all of that for the first day back. Besides, it was too foggy for anybody to see the stage.

Yesterday felt like vaulting from April, over May and June into July. I was hot and a little stifly as I started at West Point after a refreshing 42 minute paddle. I hauled a full day's worth of gear working back around the islets and ledges. I also feel as though I vaulted over the first few months of last year. I immediately took up where I'd left off in September. The setup worked. I seemed to remember how to work as well. I hauled 75 pots and scooted back in with my new motor. With the motor, I feel as though I'm sitting on the ledge of a convertible and should be waving as I putt along at a stately pace. It is regal, or at least like the second runner up at the sardine festival parade.

The motor, battery and I are still getting to know one another. Being that the winch is essential while the motor is a regal luxury, I can't run the battery flat with the motor early in the day. I don't have a battery gauge any more because the battery case marketed by the same company as the motor has corroded into nothingness in less than a year. As a result, I am starting out being very judicious with the motor, limiting its running time to official monarchical and regal occasions, or when I'm tired and there's a ways between strings of traps.

What the whole solar experience reminds me is how potent petroleum is as an energy form. I'm capturing photons a few at a time and a few hours at a time while oil is millenia of stored sunlight metabolized by plants, little algae in the ocean that died and piled up on the seabed in very large numbers.

The alternative energy experience has also helped highlight electrical and mechanical challenges in the saltwater environment. Every single time I've been out setting traps or testing the engine or whatever else, I come to an inevitable point where an electrical connection fails. Not just any electrical connection. Clayton helped me see to it that most of the gear is wired to open boat saltwater tolerance. There's this one particular connection that forever vexes me. The positive battery post on the "waterproof" trolling motor "power center," or plastic box that keeps the battery dry. I have sweet talked, dirty talked, taken apart, cranked back together every nut, bolt and ring terminal in this part of my photon supply chain EVERY SINGLE TIME I've come in.

As I was getting ready to haul my second trap yesterday- after the 42 minute warm up row- I hit the switch and listened to the gentle lap of wavelets instead of the hearty hum of my winch. The connection went again first thing, way out from the harbor. This stupid little thing was going to end my first real workday before it began. I decided to hardwire everything straight to the battery and use the box cover as a hood. The whole works was way more frisky with a solid connection. zzziinngggg!

That battery post was my o-ring, that little part that can disable an entire system. Since I don't want to spend any money on a new saltwater box until I'm actually making some money, I'll rig the box and bypass the external terminals altogether. I will zip about, waving as the Peapod Crown or Clown Prince of The Isle.

Sea you there.