What may be my last day of taking up traps started bright, cold and breezy. After breakfasting my two younger kids and taking care of a customer with 5 vehicles to register and three fishing vessels to pay excise tax on, I head down. Rounding the top of the hill before going down to the harbor is the spot where I get the first look at sea conditions; except of course in the summer when I don't look because it’s presumed to be tranquil. Summer it is most certainly not on Saturday November 17, 2012. Great frisking horsetails of spray arch up off the distant ledges. The temperature difference between water and air creates a serrated horizon and vertically stretches far off islands and oil tankers and such. Not a particularly inviting seascape.
The skiff is even less enthusiastic, trying to go every which way other than toward Close Enough in the wind, perhaps trying to tell me something. Nick and Samantha pull into the harbor around 9:45 or so and tie up at the lobster car. I don’t want to call and ask why. Again, not encouraging. As a sentient being, though, I can go out and turn back if need be, though I’ve decided I really need to get the job done this weekend. I have a new job to perform for, November is only going to turn into December if I wait, there are nautical miles to go before I sleep, bills piling up waiting for the next cash flow to start dripping. Today really needs to be the day. Arrggghh, as opposed to Yarggggh!! such as pirates with more fortitude and chest hair would say.
The roller coaster delivers as promised. The first pot I try bringing up is preceded by a haybale sized tangle of balled up trap wire and some chrome automobile trim caught a couple of fathoms from the bottom of the line where my trap awaits. I wrestle the mess into the boat as a wave hits. A wave of panic splashes across my imagination as I picture getting yanked over by this giant wire burdock.
It is great to be back aboard the boat. Really.
Traps come on slowly and dance merrily on the platform. They are not where they belong. They are where they do not belong. Over the course of the day, I come to know that many were either junked by superstorm Sandy, or have hopscotched off and waltzed with Matilda off into the distance and the depths. It’s irresponsible to leave gear out, so I expect I’ll need to do a cleanup day some time before putting the boat up.
Even with the assumption that some lost sheep will be returning to the fold, I have lost a lot of traps this year. Poor rope work, old rope, sinking them by not anticipating tidal drift and thereby sending them off the continental shelf, snarls and who knows what else took a heavy toll on my string of gear.
I've learned so much this year, but have only just begun. I feel intimately familiar with the neighborhood of my work, the waters, the rocks, the paths between hauling areas, how to get from here to there without ski jumping over a ledge. I can sort of think in two dimensions on the water. I am utterly in awe of the fishermen here who see what I see plus the third dimension of the shape of the bottom, plus the fourth, fifth and Sixth dimensions of tide, lunar and migratory cycles of lobsters.
By Saturday night, however, I deeply and personally despise each and every trap I was not able to lose on account of incompetence or natural forces. They are heavy and grabby with rotten bits of wire bent on seizing themselves together when I am trying to stack them- each one needing to get moved about six times before it’s in the yard for the winter. I am in pain and in foul temper.
Then the last one is on the truck in the yard, and I'll unpack it tomorrow. I look at the glow fringing the western tree line and breathe. I guess I’m done. Mostly.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
At the moment, I’m riding the Capt. Neal Burgess from North Haven to Rockland inside my minivan. There are gruff northeasterly whitecaps covered with capillary waves. They are being summoned by a monster storm off the mid Atlantic. The low pressure down there has demanded air from up here, which moving air mass is scraping across the water and gruffening up the whole of Penobscot Bay. The van is getting a saltwater rinse. November is here. It is a good time to write about July.
July is a month of overpowering blue and silver on the water, beach days, early sunrises and late sunsets, social gatherings- planned and invited as well as spontaneous and initiated across the yard when someone passes by and waves. The workdays are hypnotic. The traps are all in the water, the kinks are worked out. The dance moves come subconsciously. The dread- filled starts of cold days with large green seas and zillions of capillary waves that signal rougher water to come are far in the future.
Lobstering is a unique livelihood even on the mainland, but here on Matinicus, the days start in even more unusual ways. I may bike to the wharf with a lunch and thermos, or I may take the ancient little blue truck that saw its last inspection sticker many, many years ago. Most often, though, I walk across my lawn, down the dirt road to the island’s only cross roads, turn right with the sun not quite over the tree line and songbirds long since having shifted into full swing. I climb down a ladder at the wharf, drag my little skiff to the water and head out to the boat. The morning walk is about the nicest work commute imaginable. At the end of the day, though, the uphill seems a lot longer and steeper, especially if I promised somebody a bucket of lobsters.
There was a day in July where I tore off a lot of checks and sealed a lot of envelopes. I paid bills that had been etching my insides since the prior year. Even though the price of lobster paid at the boat was historically low, and even with 10 days or so carved out of the month by either dealers or fishermen unwilling to conduct business, I made some decent money in July. I thought there would be several more of those days before the season ended, but they never came. I did finally finish paying off the unpaid 2011 bills in October of 2012, and paid my first year’s worth of big principal payments on the boat.
There is a great Simpsons scene where Homer unintentionally skateboards down a steep incline and hurtles out across a canyon. There is a rising moment of exhilaration when he thinks he’ll make it to the other side. Then the horizon sinks slightly and -ka-splat- he does not make it. So it was with my season.
I’m ending pretty far short of where I’d hoped to be financially. I’m starting my winter work abruptly sooner than expected for the same reason. I am again facing a winter of financial terror, this time with a senior looking at colleges. In spite of all that, it feels like a success.
I survived my first season as a boat operator. I learned how to take help in the stern. I managed not to give myself an aneurysm every time some part would let go in the engine and I’d be looking at the rainbow colors of oh fuck I can’t be fisherman around my boat. I got handier with wrenches. I even rigged an alternate gear oil cooler so it would work on my boat and I wouldn’t have to wait 3 weeks in the make-or-break month of September for the exact part to come in. I am not quite as afraid of my 210 Cummins diesel as I was in April. I left the harbor on many dozens of mornings, worked hard, sang out of tune, cursed frequently, partied too much, let the grass get too long and got on with it as much as I could.
I do not know if I’ll fish next year or not. Financial pressure and family changes have made it even harder for me to be on Matinicus. As I was getting ready to leave to start my part time position onshore, I took lots of walks and realized that every inch of that island had dozens of memories for me- every road, path, yard and ledge around the shore prompted many vivid moving pictures and sounds. The people are family. The place is my place. I’ll be back. Especially since there are still 350 pots to be taken up.
Learning to take help
“You’ll make more money and do less work.” “You’ll be a lot safer.” “What, fa Chrissakes, of course you got to have a stern man, whatya thinkin?!” After about the first 5 minutes of having a sternman, I wondered what took me so long. The business platform evolved around boats of a certain size and configuration, taking on or two crew along. It only makes sense for me to go with the tried and true model. Which is, of course, exactly why I didn’t do it. Nature abhors a vacuum the way I resist doing things the correct easy and sensible way.
In my predictable square peg fashion, I wanted to haul on my own. I didn’t have any quarters to put a sternman up in. On Matinicus, crew people do not drive to work from their home. They inhabit the upstairs of shops and fish houses, couches, bunkhouses, trucks, overturned skiffs, ditches on Friday nights into Saturday mornings. I guess I’m exaggerating, but the point being that having a crew person means having a place for them to crash, eat, bath, smoke, drink and so on. I also resisted because as I am learning to run the boat, find gear, and operate the business, most if not all sternmen are far more qualified than I am to be at the helm. The only difference is that it is my name on the note at Bar Harbor Bank and Trust.
There was also the matter of me enjoying being by myself when working.
The day came, however, when I needed to at least try and do it right. My first sternman came on board in July during her break from a private liberal arts college, the basement halls of which my brother and I made years of mischief in. She knew about as much about sterning as I knew about taking her as crew. She caught on extremely swiftly. It took me about 5 pots to see the reason the business functions this way. Well, duhhh, again, what took me so long? We were grotesquely over educated, but managed not to have our top heavy brains completely overtake common sense. Neither of us fell overboard or got paralyzed by overanalyzing the kelp scraps and crab shells.
Next year is a big question mark. Insolvency, incompetence, stress and all I wouldn’t trade this one for anything.