Lobstermen in the Sea of Maine

Lobstermen in the Sea of Maine

I still can’t believe how people have sent me exactly where I need to go!

When the hairdresser, in a small Maine town, sent me to a fishing village to learn about the ‘real’ life of a lobster town, she suggested I contact their harbor master as soon as I arrive. “My father is one here, in this town. They know everything you’ll want to learn about rural life in lobster land.” 

She even recommended a place to stay. This trip sometimes feels like a scavenger hunt for truth, with everyone (in rural America) cheering me on and creating a ‘tag team’ of support.

I got to my hotel, and asked owner or the harbor master’s number. He asked me about my project, asked how he could help, then had to get off the phone to handle a pressing issue, saying he’d give me a call back.

Next, I desperately needed a cup of coffee.

I had taken a far-too-early ferry to avoid the tourist backup. My brain ached for caffeine. When I checked in, I spotted a pot of coffee. I headed back to the office for my desperately needed fix. By chance, the new owner’s dad, who was passing the hotel on to his daughter in a few months, was at the front desk. His dry, deadpan humor brought me back to my younger days when I worked summer stock in Massachusetts. There I’d met two types of men of his stature: stuffy ones with generations upon generations of wealth, and dry-humored, witty men who had a smart, fascinating take on life. This man was the latter.

Just as we were getting into his family history as 4th generation Mainers, the harbor master came by, looking for the woman with the RAM. The hotel owner/town elder introduced us. The harbor master, a leathered man with grey, ocean blue eyes, looked at me from head to toe, as if to ask, “Who is this older, city woman and what does she want here?”

I learned, early, on the reservation last fall, to play it cool and ride the wave of doubt.

He was headed to do some errands and asked if I wanted to tag along. I looked at the hotel owner. He said, “Yeah, go ahead. I’ve got work to do anyway.”

Just to be clear, I only get in cars with men who have status in their community. In rural communities, I’ve found that when a man of ‘stature’ says, “Let’s go for a drive,” it’s important to go. 

That drive began a journey with the harbor master that I will remember for years to come.

Like all the men who took me for ‘drives’ before him, the purpose of this drive was to ‘vet’ my worth and readiness. During our drive he talked about island life, lobster life, and the lobster union he is part of to help even the playing field. Along the way, he shared his failures and then ultimate success of his online, international, search for a loving, honest woman.

We never really went anywhere. He drove me to the other side of the island, then to the wharf, and finally back to his house where he showed me where he tied his own lobster cages and introduced me to to his wife. We never actually ‘met’. She had just gotten out of the shower so we spoke through the wall and made our ‘hellos’. 

He then dropped me off at the wharf. 

The next day, he stopped by the hotel and asked me if I wanted to go get fuel with him. (This meant a boat ride to a ‘floating’ fuel station.)

I grabbed my coat and headed out the door.

As we navigated the waters to the fueling and bait station, he asked, “How are you feeling?”

I respected that he was checking out my ‘sea legs’.

“Fine,” I said. It felt good to be on the sea, the breeze cooling me. 

After we got fuel he dropped me off at the wharf, “We’ll be going out tomorrow.” 

“We leave early. Are you sure you’re up for it?”

“Absolutely.”

“Make sure you take Dramamine, and drink lots of water.”

I was super jazzed!!!! I would be going out on a commercial lobster boat!

We were to leave at 3 AM the next morning.

I slept in my van, again, right on the wharf, and made sure I was awake and on the dock long before he arrived. We got in his skiff and rowed out to the boat.

I wondered, where were the other two guys?

“How do the guys get here?” I casually asked as he started the engine.

“We’ll pick them up at the dock.”

We headed out to sea at about 3:45 AM. It was pitch black.

As the guys were preparing the bait, the captain said to me, “Just know, when you need to pee, let me know, we won’t look.” 

How had I not noticed there was no toilet on the boat?

I said, “Sure.”

I looked out the window.

“Shit,” I thought. “This is going to be painful.”

I took pictures of the guys through the glass. “Keep it cool, Campbell,” I said to myself. “Keep it cool.”

My inside voice said, “No frickin’ way am I peeing on this boat.”

That was at 4 AM.

The harbor master (now captain) turned the wheel and headed to the sea.

The three of us, his two lobstermen and I, sat in silence on coolers and boxes stuffed with gear, as we motored out thirty miles offshore.

Forty-five minutes later the engine sound shifted.

The captain did a 180 degree turn.

The guys stepped to the back.

The captain stepped out and grabbed hold of the winch. The rope looped in a circle as hundreds of feet of line coiled like a snake at his feet. The first cage came up.

One guy grabbed hold of the cage and pulled it along the ledge of the boat with his left hand. He dragged the cage toward the back of the boat, along the ledge. With his right, he speared the fish head from the bait bucket (which was behind him) and looped it into the cage where the previous head had been.

Once the cage was ‘positioned’ along the shelf, the second guy opened the left side of the cage, took out the lobster, and tossed it into the bucket.

From my position inside the cabin, I took pictures. 

The process, from the time the cage exited the water to the time it was pushed to the back of the boat, took less than 40 seconds!

Once all the cages, about 20, were positioned at the back of the boat, the captain turned the wheel and headed back out to sea. For the next few minutes, the two guys measured the lobsters, throwing most back to sea (they were too small to keep) and banded the ‘keepers’ with purple (large) or yellow (average size) rubber bands. Once the banding was completed, the ‘head’ guy called out to the captain how many were banded and tagged. The captain charted the number.

Once the ‘call’ was complete, and the boat underway, the second guy, the assistant, would go to the back of the boat and prepare to toss the final bouy into the sea after the cages were ‘released’ into the sea. All told, four hundred feet of rope and cages whizzed back into the sea. As the last cage went in, the ‘assistant’  would heave the bouy into the sea.

I watched this synchronized dance with awe! I was out at sea! I was on a commercial lobster boat. I was tremendously proud of myself. I took a ton of pictures! The precision was impressive. The teamwork was beyond compare.

This went on again and again as the captain ushered the boat further into the sea. Again cages came up from the depths, bait was laced into the cage, lobster was counted, and the cages released back into the sea.

After hours had gone by I thought, wow, the day goes by so fast.

I looked at my watch.

It was 7 AM. 

We had been out for three hours.

We had, at least, 10 more to go.

It hit me — hard. “This is going to be a very long day.”

For hour upon hour, this dance would be repeated.

In between, the guys would go to the back of the boat, pull down their rubber overalls and pee on the floor. 

I watched and thought, “Nope. No frickin’ way am I going to pee today. No frickin’ way!”

I wanted to get better pictures so I asked if I could step outside the cabin and tuck myself between the 3 foot bin of bait heads and the bucket of scalding water used to clean algae of the ropes coming from the sea. 

The guys all said, “Sure.”

I slid myself into the 10 inch space. From there I could turn to the right and photograph the captain and to the left the stern men preparing the cages. The air was cool and brisk. I was glad I’d worn my hoodie. It was the perfect spot to take pictures.

After standing there for almost an hour, the stern man looked down at my feet, then motioned to the rope whizzing by, “Be careful,” he called, as the wind caught his words and threw them back his way. “See that rope?” he yelled louder. “Make sure you don’t get too close?” 

I looked down and watched as the rope whipped by with incredible speed as it unraveled, hurling cages off the back of the boat and into the sea.

“What would happen,” he called to the captain, “If her feet got caught in the line?”

“She’d be pulled into the sea with the cages.” The captain replied.

They weren’t kidding! I pulled myself closer to the wall.

They went on to talk about the knives they all should carry, but none had, in case anyone of them got snagged by the rope that took the cages 400 feet down into the sea.

There were, at least, eight hours to go.

More hours passed. More peeing at the back of the boat. More cages. More line. More numbers called.

The kindness they extended to me, as I took pictures and asked questions, was truly extraordinary.

More hours crept ever so slowly by.

As I tired, I moved into the cabin. I didn’t want to take a risk getting caught in the line.

I now realized, it could be hours before I stepped back on land. I thought of John Cabat Zinn and his meditative practice. I willed my body to be steeped in the rhythm of the ocean. I thought, “I can do this. I will let ‘time’ engulf me.”

I let myself be Zen.

I looked at my watch. 

Ten minutes had gone by since I decided to be steeped in Zen.

My jaw clenched.  

It would be hours.

I went back to being Zen. I squatted on the boxes.

I had squatted on one of the guy’s cigarettes.

“SHIT!”

I looked at the page of lobster counts next to the captain’s chair.

I knew there would be about 20.

There were now 21. 

“Please, dear god, when would this be done?” I thought.

I looked out to sea. “When, dear god, when?”

The captain turned and said, “Wow. I’m impressed. Most men can’t even endure this. You are impressive!”

I smiled.

“It’s fun,” I said.

Breathe. Breathe again.

“I can do this,” I said to myself.

I started to see the shoreline and thought the day was coming to an end.

“See….” I thought. “You can.”

The shoreline receded.

An hour later it came back into view. The horizon got bigger. I could see trees. Then houses.  

“Hallelujah!” I thought, “We are headed to shore.”

A porpoise leapt up out of a wave and I smiled. The weigh station came into view. 

There would still be another 30 minutes.

Ah. Soon.

I had made it for 15 hours without peeing. Glory be!

As we came closer to shore I said to the captain, “Would you mind dropping me at the dock? I’d love to get off and pee.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t pee all day,” he said. “I could have never done that.”

He pulled up to the dock.

I shook his hand.

I stepped off.

I have never been so glad to get on land, and never been so glad I did something that took all my mind strength to endure.

I was proud. I was humbled.

If I hadn’t spent this day on the boat, I never would have really understood what a day in the life of lobster fisherman is. If I hadn’t spent this day on the boat it would have been a fairy-tale visit to a gorgeous land with little understanding of the life that is what keeps this land alive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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