Wednesday, November 13, 2013

It's More Than a Business

On paper? Well, the fishing business didn't look that great for me this year. Fortunately, the lobstering business doesn't live on paper.  With all of the changes I've already whined way too much about, what I can now say is that the year was a huge success. My goal was to not lose the house and boat and also to have the wherewithall to get my kids back and forth so they could come home for good portions of the summer. Done.

I wish I could also say my goals were also to have great weather and a fairer, steadier price for lobsters, but those were just falling ass backwards into luck.

A former leader in Maine's maritime executive branch once declared that fishermen should think of lobstering as a business and not a way of life. Aside from how dreary that sounds, it is not true in my case. My P&L sheet may not look so big and horny for the year, but I kept my home, my boat and provided those opportunities for my children. My way of life means a hell of a lot more than money, as follows:


The swiss chard grew like bamboo where I piled my ropes up last year after taking up gear. I have no scientific authority, but what I've heard, and now seen, support the idea that sea weed has gobs of nutrients that make land based plants wicked happy, and are healthy for people.


Fiona and I went apple picking in September and, as in years past, there were a couple of scraggly little trees on the shore that were just bent over with the sweetest apples you could ever taste. Our reusable shopping bag was full to the top in a few minutes. We were very glad to have the offer of a ride home. Apples in pie, sauce, cake and by the slice. Matinicus has countless feral apple trees. It would be pretty cool to do an inventory and know what varieties there are.


Taking up gear was always my least favorite part of the season. This year, though, magic happened despite the physical demands. We started before it was light and went past dark until it was done. Ropes got untied and coiled, traps stacked on the boat and then onto the wharf. After the boat was tied up, the traps got trucked up to the yard and stacked along with rope and buoys. One extremely cool and special feature is the bioluminescence on the ropes and trap runners- bright green points capping the day.

Yeah no- it's not just a business. Next year, though, I'm planning on making more money.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Where're the Toothpicks?

When I’m on Matinicus, there is no other place. That’s a sensation I always had, even as a vacationer. Once you’re here, there’s no other there over there.

The other sensation, which you can only get if your tourism goes on long term Year of the Cat style, is that the treadmill is set a few paces faster than your feet can go.  And the treadmill doesn’t just turn in a line, but also right, left, backwards and in three dimensions, and you need to carry buckets and tools and try to not spill your refreshment.

Without quite saying it out loud in my head, I am constantly telling myself: ‘don’t blink, because it is midsummer on the island.’ I do not want to miss a chance to haul traps, socialize, notice a flower, play kickball, walk, beach, look up at the stars, lay in the hammock, appreciate the bird songs, try to keep up with the grass, breathe, fix things around the house and clean up that colossal mess in the barn. ‘Hurry up and soak it in,’ I semi-consciously think.

This summer is an extra concentrated cocktail because I am back and forth between home on Matinicus and the mainland. I duffle-bag it three days a week in order to work the office job I took last fall when the fiscal cliff opened up underneath me again. 

I have a friend who travels hundreds of days a year for work all over the northern hemisphere. For me, there is some major jet lag involved even without crossing time zones. I also still have three or four island jobs to do, only in half a week instead of on a 7 day cycle. Then I have to at least appear coherent on Monday morning.

That, folks, sounds like summer in Maine for a lot of us.  Now, where are the toothpicks?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Farewell to Sweet Pea

Sweet Pea came out of the water at the pebble beach in Owl's head, exactly the same spot as she'd gone in just three years ago.

I was glad to see the boat go to an enthusiastic forager who planned to use her for that purpose.  I would have been a whole lot happier to keep the boat, but running before the financial avalanche for a couple of years made it a necessity to let go.

Sweet Pea had lived for the last year and a half in my barn. This was not where she belonged. She was not meant as a storage bin for drum sets, immersion suits and other culch that seemed to get dropped in. Megan, Matt and I tugged her out of the barn and into the sunshine. Fiona and I went and borrowed a trailer.

Fiona and I put her into the inner harbor at Matinicus so she could soak up before the 10 or so mile tow into Owl's Head. Rowing out around the ledges in the harbor, it quickly came back to me what an incredible boat she is. Sweet Pea has the balance of being super sturdy and stable while also rowing as smooth and sure as a knife through butter. With the raised oarlocks-many thanks Clayton, for everything- the rowing is, well, not effortless, but very comfortable and efficient.

Fiona and I poked around Dexter's ledge, enjoying the view of the seaweed jungle from above, tucked in tight to the rocks in a way that can't be done on a full sized vessel. I was aware how much more comfortable I was maneuvering in close to the rocks than I remember being when I was actually working the peapod. I suppose that's what comes from a couple more seasons of daily work on the water. I wish I'd been more relaxed for the two seasons I worked out of Sweet Pea.

The night before the tow to the mainland was restless as I worried about wind, sea and all the other things that can so quickly and thoroughly go wrong when a green boat operator is combined with challenges on the ocean. The worrying must have paid off, as the tow and the weather were both very peaceful. As soon as I got out of the harbor, I lengthened the tow line out and, through dumb luck, got the length such that the pod sat just on the back side of a wave in my wake and towed without any swaying or sliding sideways.

On the way across, I retraced the whole adventure in memory, from visiting the boatshop in December of 2009 through the building, launch, hauling, inventing things to make the job doable, making the boat solar, sailing, fishing, hauling out in front of big storms and now letting go.

I rowed from the wharf where I'd tied up Close Enough over to the beach, aimed the peapod toward Jon's trailer and helped winch her on. After a few minutes of conveying the unique features and things I'd done to adapt the solar setup, off they went up the hill, on their way to another part of Penobscot Bay.

This important and magical chapter is over. I am happy and sad.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Homecoming 2013

Cliches pro and con about island life aside, there are unique experiences to be had, at least as far as Matinicus goes, which is pretty far out in every direction in spite of only being about a mile longitudinally and two miles the other way.

One thing I never imagined myself doing is spooning baking soda in through the fan housing on the back of my refrigerator. It is part of the adventure.

Back in April, we came out to clean. I was riding the twin horses of 'oh f***, we have to clean this place up and sell it' and 'no f-ing way is somebody taking my house.' Either way there was cleaning to be done. Big heavy putrid rat-ransacked mounds and dozens of contractor bags for landfill and Goodwill- that kind of cleaning.

When I opened my shop two things occurred. Several rats took off in different directions, hurried, surprised and rudely not observing any sort of courtesy or welcoming me back. I was also forced to confront my hasty and foolish departure late in the previous year. I did not recall leaving such a banquet or so many piles of rubble from several years' of stashing things to figure out another day. Today is the day. As I gaped, I also had to admit that I'd sent Paul in to open things up and he had to walk through this. Sorry, Paul.

A week later, we left. The place had never looked better. The shop was wide open and ready for productivity; buoy painting first, soap making later. As we readied to leave, I put out lots of rat poison. This indirectly led to the eventual spooning of baking soda through the fan blades into the innards of the fridge.

The first three decomposing rats were easy. The fourth got revenge. A couple of weeks later, I returned to a stench, the inescapable olfactory equivalent of crash cymbals next to your head, only more constant. I looked everywhere. I sniffed every cupboard, got in crawl spaces, searched from basement to top floor and found nothing. Pulled the stove. Pulled the fridge. After several days of intense self hypnosis, I convinced myself that the smell was subsiding to a mere nostril hair dissolving, eye watering level.

Eventually, I came to believe that the revengeful critter had somehow crawled into my kitchen ceiling because that was where the smell was most noticeable. After more weeks of patience and delusion, we decided to pull out the fridge again. I got behind and noticed the cheapo particle cardboard stuff had been pulled away from the lower right hand corner. With a flashlight I peered into the dusty cavity and could just make out a tuft of fur. Inside the fan. A more diabolical place to make your last statement I cannot imagine.

I tried reaching in. I'd need to borrow my eight year old's hands to do this, but I don't think he'd go for it. Needlenose pliers did the trick after a lot of profanity and fiddling. First, all I got was some fur. Then I delivered the rat back into daylight.

My biggest mistake was turning the rat over as I got him out. He'd been in a puddle of foul liquid. Why did I look? It was not his good side.

I'd love to have used gasoline in there, but went with baking soda. Even with the rat out and some smell absorbing stuff in there, the project wasn't quite over. I bent one of the fins on the fan, so it started going buckety buckety when I plugged it back in. That problem was easy enough to fix. On the other hand, the extraction took place yesterday, but the smell is not really gone. I hope the rat was alone.

Most of my homecoming proceeded more smoothly. Charging vehicle batteries, blowing up tires, painting buoys, getting rope ready, playing some nice loud tunes with Dennis, mowing the lawn, catching up with friends, journaling the migratory birds.

It smells really nice outside.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Feet Up

I'm in Bowdoinham today, beside the woodstove. It is snowing. More remarkable is that the wind is up and my nerves are not on edge. I am not obsessively watching the marine forecast and checking the Matinicus Rock wind data every hour. Matinicus seems very distant. It's a hard place to live. It's a hard place to leave. When the weather starts to turn I have some agonizing decisions to make.

Sweet Pea made some decent waves for a 15 foot boat. The oar/solar/sail powered lobstering operation was why I got into the business in the first place. It was a conceptual and publicity success, but a financial fiasco that put my family through much suffering. Other people actually made money off the project. I was at an art fair and saw two different depictions by two different artists, both of which had sold. One was a nautical chart with a painting taken from a picture of me off Markey's breaking a trap aboard. Someone paid a decent sum for that piece. The other was a beautiful photo giclee print of Sweet Pea hauled up on the bank in the fall of 2010 when a storm was on the way. I bought that one. It now hangs in my office, reminding and sort of taunting me.

Was it all for nothing more than a crater of debt and family strife?

I now own-sort of- a small, but viable diesel powered boat, Close Enough. I love her almost as much as Sweet Pea, maybe more some days. This vessel actually offers a decent chance of making a living if I can learn and earn enough and get through the long months with no income.

What about bringing together the best of both worlds? What about the punchy, reliable 210 Cummins to get to strings of gear and steam up the bay, and electric power when I am going trap to trap? The Prius of lobster boats; A hybrid with the diesel as primary big, horny power that charges batteries, together with solar panels that charge batteries any time the sun is shining.

Lobstering does not appear to be going away any time soon. Neither are the problems associated with fossil fuels. On this snowy day far from my home, there's a thought.