Matthew Schuler writes: I spent summers in Brooksville, adjacent to the Holbrook Island Sanctuary, From the time I was a small
boy. My Dad had a wooden, lobster-style picnic boat, the Nancy, that we used to spend endless hours cruising Penobscot Bay. I loved visiting Stonington and watching the lobsterman do their thing! From those early days I dreamed of working on a lobster boat and have actually recreated part of this childhood by purchasing the Owl, another wooden lobster-style picnic boat with an extensive history on Islesboro. I have two teenagers of my own now…
August 19, 2007
It turned out to be a good day for the captain and crew aboard the Mollie B
yesterday, but it did not look that way when the day began. I awoke as usual at 3:45 a.m., had some coffee and toast - the traditional "mug up" that Nana used to recommend, and then stepped outside to a steady rain.
Ugh, I thought, this is hard enough work as it is - do we really need to do it in the rain?
I met Josh at the dock at 4:25 a.m. He already had the Mollie B
at the float ,which meant I got to avoid the skiff ride. (Just fine with me! )We loaded the rest of the bait - about 8 boxes of salted herring with each box weighing about 75 pounds - aboard, went through our own mental checklists of what we needed to have for the day, and then pushed off from the dock at 4:35 a.m. sharp.
It was pitch black and still raining. In the past the sun or moon had given light to make the trip out of the harbor easy. Not the case today. I knew even Josh could not see when he turned on the spotlight. Dodging boats and buoys, we gently made our way out of the harbor, allowing the huge Detroit diesel to warm up slowly. At the bell that marks the entrance to the harbor I experienced another first: Josh turned to the radio's weather channel. In the past this device has been used exclusively to monitor other fisherman, hear about the chatter coming in and out of Camden Marine, and hear who needed a lift aboard the Wayfarer launch. The fact that Josh was suddenly interested in the weather should have been more of a clue to me than it was. Although I am a morning person, I must admit at the time I missed the true meaning of this sign.
I had manned my station, which is located just behind the wheelhouse. It contains the lobster holding tank - a tank with circulating saltwater where we store lobsters during the day's haul. The top of this tank acts as a table where I'd stand and measure and band the lobsters and see that they are legal, the other part of my station are the bait tubs used to fill the bait bags. Each bag contains a mix of a piece of cowhide or a "puck-"synthetic cowhide-and herring. We used mackerel in the past but with disappointing results. Lobsters - and therefore the crew- really prefer herring.
The rain picked up, which really is a lousy situation for me as the sternman. I am exposed to the weather and Josh is covered by the wheelhouse and so cares less about the rain. I was about 30-40 bags into it when I figured I could take a break. Surely that number of bags will keep me ahead, I thought. A little after 5 a.m. the sky lightened a bit. Not the sunrise I was looking for, but not pitch black anymore. We hit our first traps at about 10 past 5. If I remember correctly, it was empty. Great, I thought, hauling empty traps in the rain - could anything be worse?That was perhaps the only empty trap of the day, or one of only a handful that were empty. One of the first days I was with Josh we pulled 85 traps and caught 7 lobsters - a really bad day. Seven lobsters don't begin to cover the cost of bait and fuel, which leaves how much for the crew? You guessed it, twenty of nothing is nothing! That was okay then, though; even with a bad haul the sun was shining, it was 4 p.m. and I knew that I would be ashore soon. Plus the excitement of hauling traps was still fresh.
At 5:15 a.m., a steady rain falling, the excitement of hauling traps had worn off a bit. The sky to the west was blackening, and I assumed I would be doing this until 6 p.m. or so. I never wore a watch onboard - I didn't want to be constantly checking the time, and a watch gets in the way of some of the gear. Josh noticed the black sky and mumbled something about how it was going to blow a bit this afternoon.
I wondered just what the hell he meant by "a bit."
We had been discussing fall lobstering as the sky darkened, how he would like me to join him next fall when the money is made, and he told me they don't go out if it is blowing 25 knots or more. I wondered again the meaning of "blowing a bit."
From that point on, I did not have much time to think about anything. We were working at an incredible pace for an old man like me. Josh knows that he wants to pull about 350 traps during the day. Wind and rain is of little concern to him. I am not puking, so I assume he thinks I feel similarly. (Little did he know sitting in Bah's Bakehouse drinking hot coffee and eating a chocolate croissant all of a sudden seems like a really great idea.)
I realize my pants were getting wet. I had my bibs over my raincoat - the way Josh has his and he must know the right way to wear a raincoat. Ah, but he was covered by the house. All the rain from my coat was running down into my pants. I lowered my bibs and took off my coat, replaced my bibs and put my coat back on. Now the rain runs down the coat, over my bibs, past my boots and to the floor. I realized getting to my knife, which was on my waist, would be difficult. In an emergency I might need to grab one of the other three knives strategically placed around the boat. I doublecheck to be sure the knives are where they are usually stored.
The picked up and so did the wind, and so are the lobsters. Each trap has at least two and as many as six lobsters in it. I don't even have to look. I hear the winch haul the trap, then that sound stops as Josh throws the first trap onto the rail and I hear the flapping of the lobsters tails, then the winch again to pull the second trap, that one is on the rail and more flapping. I move from the table where I am filling bait bags to the trap. I open the door, remove and replace the bait bag, emptying the old bait in a bucket to be dumped in a spot where there are no traps, and then clean the lobsters out. Any with a V-notch in the tail-indicating they are seed bearing females, or where at one time-can be immediately thrown over board. Any small ones go over also. The rest go on the table.
As usual, Josh had his trap rebaited and I was still frigging around with some part of the task. As the day wore on my fingers seemed to seize up on me and the most routine task is almost impossible. Seconds seemed like hours as I fumbled around with something. Josh was incredibly patient and calm. Occasionally he will yell "Move" or "We are going to set this right back" which I know means "Move it."
Our electronic equipment ensures that each trap is placed carefully after looking at the bottom and checking the depth. It is then logged into the chart plotter so that even in heavy fog we can move from trap to trap. (My son Chris would actually like the equipment, as it is more like a video game than anything else.) There have been days when you can't see 50 feet but by looking at the screen you magically come up on the next trap.
My last - and soon to be least favorite task - was in store: Lengthening the lines. About this time of year the lobsters start to go toward deep water. Where they used to be in close, in 15- or 25-feet of water, now they move to the deep holes and are in anywhere from 125- to 200-feet of water. Hauling them now means attaching more line to the existing line and its another task where you need your fingers to work nimbly. Each set, and there are maybe 16 or 20 traps on the back of the boat with all of the line strewn about, is adjusted in a certain order. I just about have the order now!
By this time the wind speed hits 15- 20-knots. Finally I know what is meant by "a bit." In a pleasure boat you head into or go with the sea to make the ride more pleasant for those aboard. That's not the case on a lobster boat. You go to the traps and use the same circular motion regardless of weather. In a heavy sea this means that the waves are crashing against the side of the boat and water is breaking over the boat all the time.It didn't really matter since it was raining hard. After frigging with my glasses for a while I decided to shed them. Although I could see very little in the distance, I figured Josh had that part handled, I could see what was right in front of me better.
Although the thought of heading in and returning another day crosses my mind, I realized this same thought had not come across Josh's mind. I trust that we were basically safe and kept filling bags and banding lobsters. Josh did stop and help me catch up several times. He is faster than me at everything. Sometime in the afternoon the rain stops and the sky really brightened - a relief except that this means the wind was blowing at its hardest. We had the bait boxes tied down (never did this before) but they still occasionally shifted. I was tossed around like a doll a few times and could only chuckle as I picked myself up from the floor of the stern, happy that I was still in the boat and had not been tossed overboard.
A number of really great things happened yesterday. We did not get anything caught in the wheel, we did not go aground, neither of us went overboard, and we caught 525 or 550 pounds of lobster. We filled our tank and four bait boxes as well. It was a really good and profitable day.
Today we pack up and I put my own boats to sleep for the winter. We head to Boston in the morning. Returning to graduate school to finish my Masters degree and providing therapy in a warm office looks appealing, but there is something about struggling and scrambling around on the Mollie B
that I will forever cherish and miss.
Matthew Schuler lives in Pennsylvania. After running Longacre Expeditions, an Adventure Program for Teens, for 25 years, he sold the business and returned to Graduate School at the University of Maryland to pursue a Masters Degree in Social Work. As a result, he had last summer off and worked for Ken Eaton at Eaton's Boatyard in June, and then was a sternman on the Mollie B for the months of July and August.