Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Return from NOLA

Watching a movie many times over many years with the vague expectation that things might go differently this time is a funny quirk of my brain, and perhaps yours. I'm always a little sad when Dorothy decides to go back to Kansas. I think I'd have stayed in Oz. I definitely could have found a way to soldier on in New Orleans for a good while longer before I'd go looking for magic shoes, my trusty winter hoodie or boarding passes.

I absolutely would have stayed behind if I'd known what yesterday would be like.

Today's air travel system is an exquisitely complicated web of communication, logistics and hardware that works reliably most of the time. Fat Monday was not one of those days of sleek and shiny modern aircraft whooshing people and their bags of stuff in all directions to the right places on time.

I'm afraid that sophistication breeds vulnerability into the system. We observed this pillar of modern technology crumble pathetically on account of what appeared to be barely a whisp of a snowstorm.

We were dropped off at Louis Armstrong Airport at an uncivilized hour (especially for New Orleans), only to learn that our flight to Houston was going to leave a couple of hours later than expected. Simple arithmetic meant we could not possibly make our flight from Houston to Boston without a daring mid-air transfer of some sort. We'd also miss our 5 PM train reservations and be stuck in Boston in the wee hours.

After a leisurely coffee and a short numb spell, I approached the gate to politely inquire as to our options. The agent commanded that we run several gates to the eastward and immediately board for Washington D.C. which she assured us would get into Boston in plenty of time for the train and the rest our our journey. She was at least one cup of coffee up on me. But?...Wha?... Go!    Now!

As the day unfolded things became more inexplicable. By afternoon, I felt we were being slowly digested by this monster of human ingenuity, as well as by our own snap decision in a moment of stress.

The flight to DC was great. The pilot assured us during the descent in that great way pilots have, that he had heard of no delays or problems at Dulles. He had a different story after we had sat for a half hour idling 8 and a half or so feet from the snorkely thing that sucks people out of the plane and into their next gauntlet of peril. According to Captain Confident, we were just waiting for snow equipment because "it's a mess out there." During this period of contemplation, simple arithmetic again presented a problem. We needed the time travel Delorean to be warmed up on the concourse in order to catch our plane to Boston.

Things have a way of working out, though not necessarily a good way. Our concern over missing the plane to Boston was unfounded because the flight had been cancelled. The next patient agent of the empire kindly offered us a flight the following evening. nuh-uh. Then I had an inspiration: we could fly into Portland and catch the train for the last leg with time to spare. The agent said we were "lucky" and booked us for Portland.

Portland it was. The weather radar showed no precip in DC or in Portland. The tote board had the flight- still 3 hours into the future- on time.

Then the voodoo happened. After a leisurely lunch and contemplation of our clever choice to go straight to Portland and the good fortune to get seats, we headed for the gate. We never made it. The tote board-evil oracle of high irksomeness-changed our flight notation from "on time" to "cancelled". Several repeat starings made no difference. I was baffled that even and especially after the demi-storm was long over, the cancellations sprouted and eventually included 80% of the departures.

The line at customer service was 2 hours and a couple of hundred feet long. We were the lucky ones. By the time we were done and on our way to a friend's place in Silver Spring for a wonderful evening, the line was at least a quarter mile back along the corridor and out of sight. Simple arithmetic again leads to an inescapable conclusion.

I'm home now so it's funny for me, but some of those far back in the line may have just now reached the desk.

Friday, February 21, 2014

How Things Look on the Water


Near the end of my first day aboard the C. Kristy Lee, I learned the difference between being on the boat and being in the water. It was a swift and effective lesson.

For the first couple of months, that was probably the extent of my maritime knowledge. Aside from knowing that I was in the boat, I was Mr. Magoo. I did not know the names of ledges, islets or other features and I certainly had no idea what Pecker’s Goldmine or the Prong might possibly be, and wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.

I slowly became aware of my surroundings and of the limits of human spatial perception when on the water. Things that look close to me or near to each other are often neither. 

Charlie would make the occasional comment about this or that boat in the vicinity. To me, those vessels were more or less identical specks. I wondered how he could tell which was whose. Lobster boats share many features. They’re pointy on one end and square on the other. They have wheelhouses and antennae. 2 or 3 orange people are usually aboard.

In reality, every boat is as unique as a fingerprint despite the similarities. Now I’m pretty much aware of who is around me on the water without thinking about it or squinting.  This is a good thing for a naturally jumpy and inexperienced operator such as myself.

Then there are the buoys. Dazzling and individualized as they may be with bright colors and patterns, they all looked like black spots to me from more than a few dozen yards. This changed abruptly when I got my own. I’m still startled on occasion when I spot one of mine before I can really see it among many others at a distance.

The buoy is much more than a marker. It is a flag of a small independent nation. The colors and patterns represent the boat, the community and the family they’re connected with. Mine need a lot of cleaning and painting. This year I vow to fix my antenna and stick a buoy on at the base. Salute!

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.