Sunday, August 15, 2021

A Bad Day on the Boat (still beats a good day elsewhere)

 Those close to me would be justifiably sick of my bitchiness. As for many, this has been a bumpy summer for me. To compound the daily challenges, I've missed no opportunity to respond as poorly as possible, take offense at everything and make the worst of every situation. It could be the Delta variant and its promises of future masking, lockdowns, business disruption and braying about tyranny and oppression by those hell bent on incubating new variants. It could be that we're supposed to be going 33 and 1/3 in August, but it's more like 78 rpms with work demands. It could be bad wiring in my brain or the stankin' heat. 

Nowhere have I been more sour than in my office work. Things are actually great in that enterprise, but again I'm snatching misery from the jaws of happiness whenever possible. I don't understand me that way, but that's how it is. [cue the Babe mice: 'The Way Things Are']

Today, for example, the trap hauling day started with a visual migraine and unexpected trip back to the wharf for a snort of immutrex, which if you have migraines, I highly recommend. Laurie and I then set forth out of the harbor on a truly beautiful morning. There were a couple of lobsters here and there so all was going pretty well. 

About half way through our gear, two things happened. Actually, one thing didn't happen and the other thing really, really did. The thing that didn't happen was the pot hauler rotating such that my trap would come up. Quick and confused look at the switch. Move the handle back and forth. Nope. Seconds later, I discovered the thing that did happen, which was a boisterous fountain of bright red hydraulic fluid arcing across the forward compartment and down into the bilge. 

Fortunately, we weren't far from the harbor, and Laurie is way cooler under duress than I am. She got a bucket under the fountain so I could get most of the way in without committing environmental infractions. 

Just outside the breakwater, Jeb, savior in many a situation in Matinicus Harbor, came out and towed me to the mooring. 

I've taken apart a few hydraulic components, but the usual fog of breakdown stress had me questioning whether to lefty lucy or righty-righty to get the substantial fittings apart. I also prefer not to break things such that a small problem gets much bigger. The top piece came apart with a few swears and a pipe wrench. The bottom fitting pretty much gave me the finger with its rusted threads. Glistening though they were with recently liberated fluid, there was no give. 

Uncertainty about how something comes apart or goes together is often the hardest step of any repair, especially for those of us who have no training and only know how to deal with what they've already broken. I understand alternators, fuel and pressure sensor lines, temperature gauges, gear coolers, steering valves and other things I've become familiar with only when they fail. 

Clayton, as always, is the go-to person because he has broken everything that can be broken on a boat as well as a few that make Art Stanley, guru of all things marine diesel, to say 'well, I've never seen that before.' My sense is that Clayton is very proud of those moments. For me, he always knows the what and how that I do not. 

Since he was just climbing the ladder as we paddled in, I asked. "Thrust and pipe wrenches." Laurie interpreted that as muscle and wrenches, but Thrust with a capital T is spray goo that penetrates stubborn rusted parts even better than WD-40 or PB Blaster. I helped myself to a can and an extra wrench from his shop and had the business apart a few minutes later, plus a couple of paddles across the harbor. 

The rest of the day was a merry-go-round of calling Penobscot Island Air, finding out they had a plane landing in 5 minutes, calling Megan to pick up the dead hose from PIA, her getting it to NAPA to fabricate a new one and a lengthy cleanup process wherein multiple gallons of hydraulic/salt water broth were pumped out of the bilge into buckets followed by a great deal of swabbing, wiping and scrubbing. Added features were having to find my phone on the road in 3 separate pieces after taking pictures of the hose and carelessly leaving the phone on my truck hood. 

Throughout the day, I was more content than I've been for weeks in the office. A bad day fishing...

Friday, July 16, 2021

Sour Cherry Pie and Mental Wellness

Megan did all the pretty parts

Scraggly, lichen covered cherry trees sit at the southern edge of our lawn. Most of the time, the only color below their limbs is from freshly painted buoys hung there in the Spring. This year is the second time they've borne fruit since I arrived in 2006. 

The first time, some serious foragers from Australia came and picked a bunch, in exchange for which, Olive and I had a really cool tour of their 44 footer; their home for several years running. I asked Bernie if the electric fence warning sign was for real, and he replied 'it is when we're in Venezuela.' 

Megan and I puzzled about how to get at the fruit as the branches are feeble and the good stuff was up high. We backed 'Jaws,' the great white pick-up truck, in underneath and were able to get a bunch that way. Then it was stacking a lobster crate in the back which extended our reach and harvest. 

There is a vast wealth of random items in the barn, some of them useful. The giant plastic candy-canes from many Christmases gone by turned out to be great for hauling down branches and bringing many more sour cherries into reach. 

Megan figured out how to slickly pit the cherries with a chopstick while I did up the crust and then the filling. She then did all of the crust finishing, saving me from whatever embarrassing presentation I would've come up with.

Cherry pie from your front yard is a random act of kindness from a beautiful world. 

I intend to deploy pictures of mine to respond to fellow members of the classes of 1990-1992 at the University of Maine School of Law who thought it necessary to post pictures of their sour cherry pies. Janet's also originated here on Matinicus Island, so she beat me to that fair and square. Mine, however, is inherently superior based on the following reasoning: a) it's here in my house; and, b) it hasn't been eaten yet.

Having worked for years to achieve some balance between legal work demands and being out here and working on the ocean, I can say that the last couple weeks have been an excellent example of not achieving that balance. The Maine Bar Journal's most recent edition was all about attorney mental wellness. It couldn't have been timed any better. Not being in the criminal/divorce/child protective realm any more, I don't think about work stress as something needing any real effort to deal with. It turns out, however, I can turn even the nerdiest, most transactional legal work into a nightmare with a little effort. It also turns out that coordinating lenders, buyers, sellers in different states, along with big piles of money, super tight time constraints, wire transfers, time sensitive document shipping and keeping title clear is actually somewhat demanding on occasion.  

So it was joyous to me to go out last Saturday in the post-tropical storm swell to set and haul gear east of Matinicus Harbor. I was reminded that there isn't much that a good ass-kicking on the water can't put into perspective. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Breaking Bar

 May 19, 2021 - One of the difficult things I've had to learn as a perpetual novice lobster boat operator is that diesel engines need to get run hahhd at least once a day. "It's the worst thing for 'em, idling around all day hauling traps," Art Stanley told me, "those engines need to work."  

My instinct is to baby every machine- to go easy around every corner and over every bump, start and stop gradually - be gentle. 

This I learned from Malcolm. Before leaving for college, I only ever had one job, starting in 3rd grade or so. I started by following Lucille around taking care of shrubs and 'helping' with yard work, lamenting my fate when weeding on a wet mosquito-filled morning, but also marveling at my $.25/hr salary when I got it. I graduated to mowing lawns, and then headed for the big time with Malcolm and the haying crew, where I stayed until leaving home at 18, learning about the coefficient of friction,  weight in motion and to operate and respect heavy machinery with big metal teeth.

Back to Malcolm. One year he purchased an F-150, for, I believe, $100.00, and got many seasons out of it on the farm. He could drive a vehicle slower than anyone else I've known. I believe I could count each RPM, especially on those rare occasions when 2nd or even 3rd gear was called for. Perhaps the velocity dilation actually changed time in that truck, which could possibly explain the longevity of what was already a fully depreciated piece of equipment. It probably also helped that the 1970s F-150 was made of actual metal.

What I took from these lessons was to try and feel the moving parts and joints, listen to the mechanical conversation from the vehicle, and go easy on 'er. You'll get a little more from things that way even if the world passes you by.

As much as I respect Art's advice, Mal's is hardwired. Which brings us to Black Beauty.

Megan bought a 1996 Mazda B4000 pickup truck for $800.00 in the Spring of 2014. Already fully depreciated itself before journeying to Matinicus, BB has trucked every single trap from my yard to the Steamboat Wharf and back for 7 seasons, going into #8. Well, almost every trap. At the end of last season, while trucking gear back from the wharf, a pronounced smell of burning rubber and overheating temp gauge put a premature end to Black Beauty's season. 

I ordered a serpentine belt from NAPA last week. Somewhat amazingly, there is a decal beneath the hood showing which pulleys the belt goes over and under and, more importantly, how to relieve enough tension to slip the belt onto the last one. There's also a fan to be navigated which makes for some Escher-esque spatial visualization in getting it threaded into position. Then the easy part is finished. 

The hard part is never having heard of a 'breaking bar.' I tried for a good long while to use my 3/8" socket handle to torque out the tension. Then I went and got a metal tube from the barn, thinking I could slide that over the socket handle for some extra yoink. Then I went and got a hacksaw so the tube would fit under the hood. Not happening this day.

Bart stopped in the next morning, and since his idea of winter relaxation is to tear down a '92 Volvo and rebuild it from scratch way prettier than brand new, I figured he might have some ideas. 'There's a hammer here. That can't be good. First, get rid of the hammer.' 


Bart's insight involved us applying a lot of upper body strength to push down on the tensioner and the belt at the same time. 20 minutes or so of stubborn diligence, but again, no.

The decal was trying to tell us something. It showed pulling up on the other side of the tensioner as the path to success, rather than pushing down on this side. The problem though, was that with the fan and its plastic hood getting in the way, there was no chance of getting the bulky tube and wrench combo into position. 

Clayton stopped in and mentioned a 'breaking bar.' Now I'd learnt something. I can see why it's good for breaking  stuck bolts, knuckles and for tantrums. This ingeniously simple implement is just a long, extra heavy, but relatively thin and stripped down version of a socket handle. 

 A few seconds of fiddling into place, one good yoink and on goes the belt through a combination of leverage and pulling in the right direction. 

Air in the tires, gasoline in the tank, a charged battery and she's off.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Two Way Recycling 2020

Many thanks to Eva, Robin and the whole Matinicus Recycles Enterprise. As the successor to a barn and house full of items- debris, steam era tools, unuseable old fishing gear, somebody else's Christmas decor- to which I've added my own 15 years' worth, I have a deep appreciation for being able to recycle this stuff the F out of here.

Today was light; only 1 pickup truck load, comprised of oil jugs, buoy paint cans, boat work trash, a vhf boat tv antenna that took its last flight off our roof some time over the winter, a fuel pump from the Ford truck and a big yellow tool box I found floating one day and never put to use because it wouldn't close.

It's not a one way relationship. Last week, I crawled over the multiple ton rope discard pile beside the recycling sheds and harvested a number of coils of purple rope. I find this precious now because I am not inclined to pay money for spray paint or new rope to create marks on my trap lines that comply with the latest North Atlantic Right Whale protection measures. I also have the luxury on not needing to convert 800 pots' worth of rope because I am small-time.

How, you ask, does purple rope save whales? It, of course, does no such thing. It may help save the lobstering community from misdirected and fact-starved efforts to increase the NARW population. This measure is intended to demonstrate that these whales are not becoming entangled in Maine lobster gear. For the interested person, I'd recommend following the ubiquitous allegations that lobster gear is implicated in right whale mortality back to the source data, which is from an extremely small sample in an extremely small time window, and of very dubious statistical validity (remember accuracy and validity from science classes?). It's junk science but one can find it repeated, mantra-like on well funded and very selective advocacy group web content. One can read the sentence, but it's more informative to follow the links all the way back to the source

My preference would be to outlaw lobstering entirely in the Great Lakes if Canada and the U.S. can agree to do so. This would have every bit as much benefit to the whale population as the proposed new rules without putting fishing families out of business.

I am separating the rope into its 3 threads and weaving 1 and 3 foot strands of those through my trap lines at the proper intervals. It looks cool and perhaps will help the fishery.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Christmas Lights

My hands are sore on account of my Depression-era parents. Last year I purchased a long string of LED Christmas lights which by the end of the decoration season, needed 4 wire repairs before I put them away. Today, they wouldn't light at all. Ryan and I checked all the repairs and plugged another string into the far end which showed that juice was flowing if photons weren't. After checking the fuses and sanding the ends, I gave up and decided to pull off all the colorful globes that cover the actual LEDs and make some other recycled decoration out of them. You know what happened next of course- the string lit up just fine, at least for half its length. Wiggling other LEDs in the dark section identified the culprit. There was a spare bulb taped to the plug, so the string leapt to holiday cheeriness once again, Seamus the cat leaping and grabbing right along with them. This repair then necessitated replacing the 75 or so globes I'd pried off. By the time that was finished, fingers and wrists were not happy.

If not for my parents' fix-it-or-do-without-approach, I would've heaved the mess into the trash. Now I have the satisfaction of knowing I can look forward to more broken wires, faulty lights and hours of tinkering.

All of this effort had the purpose of talking shit back to the holiday blues. With family and personal struggles and seasonal distress, the happy lights and decorations I see while out driving just make me feel blacker and bluer inside. What helps is to curate my own collection of gaudy and silly decorations and hang them from trees and shrubs outside. It works.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

That's a Wrap

August went straight to November. A forecast with less than 15 to 20 knots has been rare, even though it's only mid-October. Summer and lobsters staying in the shallows seemed to stretch extra long, but then I was looking for my Amerigas hat, the one Rex gave me in 2012 when we picked up a truckload of propane in Waldoboro. The hat is the warmest I have, and converts to armed robbery or Northern New Brunswick mode if needed. In addition to putting on the Amerigas hat, I tucked tail and ran from the 2018 lobster season, though I don't' think the season noticed because the weather was too busy being cold and nasty.

When Megan and I travel in the winter, there have been several occasions when everything says 'you ain't goin nowhere,' or 'everything's canceled.' We've learned to navigate those situations by at least getting close to our jump off point in case something changes. One time, I think our plane was the only one that left the snow-caked reaches of Logan all day; it left for San Juan, so being there when basically everything else was canceled was a clever move on our part.

I tried applying this logic to taking up gear. Well, at least if I/we get out out to Matinicus, then if the forecasts with gale warnings through next July are incorrect for a day or so, we'll be ready. Henry, my super fit and hockey player/skateboarder/ninja-like nephew and I flew in a couple Fridays ago and headed out to look for a lee to haul up some pots and coil some rope. My first guess was no good, so we tucked in next to the Bluff for short warps and then a few strings of 25s that were somewhat, but not really sheltered. It was blowing briskly from the northeast, so after the first load, I figured we'd go around to the southwest side of the island. We did, and discovered the wind had swung and it was even worse over there.

Because I am stubborn, I subjected my nephew to an hour and a half or so of thrashing about to get another load aboard.

Taking up gear is normally- on a good day-  irksome and unpleasant. All the rope gets coiled, traps get cleaned out, stacked on the boat, unloaded on the wharf, stacked on a truck and unloaded in my front yard. On this particular day, I had to coil rope, run the hauler and keep steering the boat into the chop because if I didn't, she wound up side-to in no time, threatening to dump our precious cargo of junk shit old traps into the water. Since I'm still less than an old salt, there were times when it seemed that I was trying to coil the helm, steer the hydraulic hauler and point Close Enough into the chop with the pile of rope- my signals got crossed a few times.

We managed to get two boatloads to the wharf and then to the yard. This was made all the sweeter by Megan having got a fire and food going. It was black and windy and unfriendly on the water.

The next day was a great relief as far as wind, but a mixed blessing as it rained all day. Cold rain. Soak into your fleece hoodie and not let go rain. Again, thanks to Megan, there was a warm house and large food. Simple things as these are everything when one is soaked and sore and cold.

Sunday was bright and sunny, but included the return of the wind. Forget Gone With The Wind, how about just Wind Is Gone? I would pay to see that. Two boatloads later, we loaded our aching selves into the plane and flew back to Owls Head.

After another straight week of ugly forecasts, there was one calling for Tuesday's wind to be 'around 10 knots.' I hopped the afternoon mail flight on Monday and managed to tuck myself into a lee in the afternoon to get a jump on the process, because, of course, for all I knew, the 'around 10 knots' would be rounded to the nearest 25. I knew.

Tuesday was rougher than expected, and was made so by a very vigorous tide as well as generous upgrades on the wind.

I don't believe in an afterlife or what religious institutions tell us, but I did find myself spontaneously praying that the sea god should not take my good new traps when Close Enough rolled into a jolly pocket in the water and my stack suddenly slid and large gaps opened up in the pile. I may need to reexamine my position on the power of prayer.

The last load of the season did not cheat me of my hardship narrative. Those last 16 traps took more out of me than any batch twice that size. Since I missed the tide, those pots would need to stay on the boat and get offloaded the next day. 

Taking up gear requires timing boatloads with the tide, and also having weather suitable for stacking the traps on the boat. However, once traps are on the boat and the boat in the harbor, it doesn't matter how nasty it is outside the harbor. The flip-side is that it doesn't matter how poorly timed the tide is if the weather is good for taking up.

This time, both sea conditions and tide were against me, so I left the boat loaded on the mooring overnight. A better test loomed.

Matinicus Harbor is sheltered, but this morning was sloshing like the Whirlpool agitation cycle. Rowing out to the boat and getting aboard required some stuck landings and ugly moves. I was aware that my Carhartt coat and other layers would weigh about 85 pounds if I were to dump myself off the skiff or I got the boat into the wharf and offloaded traps, which was the easy part. I knew there would be a challenge ahead of time and so tied an extra length of rope onto the bit that holds the mooring pennant. This was a good move.

I got Close Enough turned around and headed to the mooring. Sure enough, with the tide being full-on high, and the wind blowing as hard as it was, I couldn't get my line up before the boat sailed away sideways. Instead, after a couple of do-si-dos, I gave up on my navigational and sailor skills and  tied the mooring pennant to the extra line and let her sag back so at least she was pointed straight into the wind. This made it possible to go forward and gradually yank the extra rope until I could get the loop aboard.

I give thanks to June Kantz Pemberton for that trick. June taught me a few simple but very useful things about being a square peg lobster harvester in a unique environment. June also taught school here on Matinicus. Once a year she would ask me to tune her guitar so she could play Summertime for her mother. I can tune a guitar. For everything else out here, I really need advice. Thanks June.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

One Small and Very Powerful Metal Fragment

Each time I broke another drill bit, I was shocked, surprised. No fing way did I just do that for the fourth time. Inconf'ingceivable! Panic had taken hold of me in the form of a 3/8" by 1/4" bolt fragment. This small intransigent piece of metal was now in complete control of the other 6 or so tons of Close Enough.

If I can't get the bolt out, I can't refasten the lower alternator brace, reset the alternator, put the engine covers back and actually run the motor.


There was some excitement a couple weeks ago when the lower alternator brace broke for the second time in two years for no apparent reason or purpose other than causing toxic levels of frustration and bewilderment. The problem makes itself known by dropping my voltage a few tenths. Not enough to fry anything, and still enough to charge batteries, but just enough to keep me obsessing over the readout.

I've been through a few alternators in 7 years and bought one last year just in case. I decided to swap them out when the voltage got wonky, but only got as far as loosening up the lower brace and finding it broken. How this short stout little hunk of metal could ever break, let alone twice was way out beyond my limited base of salty diesel knowledge.

Clayton welded the brace back together and I ordered a new one. All seemed well enough until the second day back when voltage readings started going way up instead of sagging down. As in, instead of a few tenths low, it was reading up to four whole volts over. Tail tucked and hoping we didn't trip the main engine breaker or burn to a crisp, with the merry chirp of the VHF telling me it did not like 18 volts, we headed back to the harbor and tore the engine box apart to install the new unit.

Aside from one bolt that chose to shear off instead of cooperating, that was a relatively easy repair.

All was well until the ferry was canceled on Tuesday. The Matinicus ferry is an important lifeline during the two to four days per month that our fair state indulges us with a trip aboard the Everett Libby. Two to four days per month unless something breaks or someone installs a bilge pump backwards on that lumbering partially decomposed ox carcass of what passes for public transportation infrastructure in Maine.

Meara really, really wanted to come out to the island with friends for a couple of precious days between farm work and heading back to school and work. 'That's part of why we have this boat, ya know,' I said out loud to Megan while the interior monologue was less confident.

Crossings are usually memorable. I had been lulled by a couple of boring ones to pick up new traps in Rockland earlier in the season and hadn't left Matinicus waters since then. The next would stand out.

We set out through fog so thick you're sure you have something in your eyes and that they are making cartoon spirals. A friend told me when I first bought Close Enough that its kind handle very poorly in a following sea. I would refine that. In a relatively bigger following sea, she's fine. In a medium size following sea, she is a drunken mess, with stern trying to pass bow. I wouldn't want to watch me on radar as I was constantly swinging 30 degrees off course in both directions.

I was worried there must be a rudder problem until we headed back out into the fog toward Matinicus at which time she tracked elegantly exactly where I pointed her.

All was again well until just outside the harbor when voltage dropped from the normal 13.8-14 to 13.6. Charaist, what now?

I was astonished that ignoring the problem did not help, and after a full day of stewing and watching the voltage change for no good reason, I started taking things apart again. This time, it was yet another bolt on the alternator brace assembly that had broken. That doesn't look so big and bad I reassured myself.

Clayton outfitted me with an assortment of boat dental tools and I set off to drill, gouge and coax out that small metal fragment between me and employment.

As with all boat work, the space is cramped, slippery, asymmetric and very hard on knees, back and neck. This is the only excuse I can offer for drilling off-center and actually making a small virtually cost free repair into a much more expensive and time consuming one. I fixed 'er until she was good and broke.

With the hole drilled cock-eyed, the extraction tools wouldn't work. After some consultation, I decided to try and drill another small hole, and hope to get the fragment turned into smaller fragments. This was a very bad idea and I pursued it relentlessly. Drill bits snapped like pretzels. Knees pleaded for mercy. Brain overheated. Now I had misshapen oversized hole(s) in the wrong place.

That would be a fail.

After the obligatory emotional breakdown, I decided to head home where I needed to clean up and get ready to play some accompaniment for a wedding at the church. The next morning, my plan was to temporarily bolt the mess together and hope it held until the new parts arrived.

So far so good.