Friday, April 24, 2015

Oak Runners and the Soothing Effect of Sore Hands

Oak runners protect the bottom of a lobster trap and let it slide as the trap is pulled upward toward the boat. Hopefully, the trap on that journey is crowded with keepers. Since lobster traps sit on the bottom of the ocean for months on end, the wooden runners rot eventually.

For the dub like me who is always trying to get the most gear out with the least effort, the decision when many a trap is heaved onto the operating table is whether the rotted runner(s) can make it another year, or whether they will instead partially or fully come apart and fall off a week into the season. The decision is made by observation, by pulling on the runner, an internal tug-of-war between laziness and diligence or just whacking it with a hammer or my faithful blue wrecking bar to see if I can break it.

Since the hammer has disappeared-probably for some project dreamed up by the younger two kids-the wrecking bar calls for some digression. When I was on North Haven one winter, I worked a for Rex, the Plumber. Rex had tools going way back. He'd call for "that green wrench." I would look stupidly about and only see tools with the standard brown rust and grease finish of proper workmen's implements. Rex might grow tired of waiting and fetch the item himself. Where I saw dark brown, he could see the green paint which was probably very cheerfully applied during Prohibition, and in an American foundry at that. In somewhat the same way, my wrecking bar has only a few flakes of paint left, but it'll always be bright blue to me.

Back to oak runners. The trick with the blue bar and with that task is to hack away at the runner and dislodge it without destroying the rest of the trap wire. Therein lies the irony of the rotted runner. That same runner which will fall off a week after I set it will fight me to the death before it lets go of the trap. Those corroded screws and worm eaten pieces of oak can be mighty obstinate. I'm sure there is something to be learned from an oak runner that won't let go for anything, but which will punish my laziness if I don't do the work.

Runners are one part of the gear work. I have many vintage traps. They need bungee cords, acres of patch wire, netting restitched, vents replaced and hoops restrung. The decisions are much the same. Can this thing make it a year? Will I be sad with myself when it disintegrates two weeks from the start of the season?

After a winter on the keyboard or the fretboard, my fingers are not used to the jamming, pounding, scraping, cutting, puncturing and general abuse of trap work. Yet they and I are happy. It's been chilly, windy and showery at times, but the sun is strong, birds are at the feeder and the peepers sing all night.

Saturday, March 21, 2015



Weather and banking regulations have me feeling dragged northeast by the wind and southwest by the tide. Pushed in one direction and pulled in another. Or several.


I’d very much like to be cleaning rope and painting buoys and trying to make fishable pots out of the crumbling misshapen mismatched collection of gear in my yard. I would like to be doing that as the grass gets green under my feet and the air softens up on my brow. If, however, I were to show up there this afternoon, much shoveling of snow crust would be required to even get a glimpse of my rope pile. The snow banks look slightly shorter, but I have this uneasy sense that they’ve only compacted and become more obstinate.

George sent me a picture of my house a few weeks back- at least the visible portions. I’m afraid that the snowbank halfway up my window may be trying to sneak inside through the sash.

As a result, I am pulled to get back home, but pushed back into place on the mainland for another little while waiting for a thaw. When it comes, it will happen quickly. Right?

Financial Institutions

Without rehashing my well worn descriptions of financial and personal struggle, I can say I have worked hard the last couple of years to be a good doobie and build up the real estate law work so that when I can’t be on the island, I can still meet my basic responsibilities.  

This usually goes along well enough in terms of actually doing the work- examining titles, fixing problems, running down all the numbers and details and providing reassurance to buyers and sellers that the sale will go through. For the last almost 3 years, the work has grown and gotten more enjoyable through a lot of sweat, tap-dancing and steep learning curves.

Less enjoyably, real estate practice is not what it was when I started assisting other attorneys while still in school. The secondary mortgage market wags the title insurance dog that dominates the practice.

Enter a new, bigger, clumsier and far less friendly dog: new banking regulations. Because of the excesses of coked out sleazy mortgage brokers, financial professionals as creative as they were sociopathic and greedy, cyber criminals and complacent parties elsewhere throughout the real estate business, the rest of us who did not create the problems- lenders, attorneys, insurance underwriters- all have to cope with dizzying new requirements for security and fairness in lending. This is noble but stupid; an ass-up-the-tree foolish idea that more small print forms will assure that borrowers are better informed and personal information better protected by creating more layers of process.

Keeping up with escalating bureaucracy and regulation has become an additional part time job and a far less satisfying one.

For an independent firm trying to stay up on this stuff, two things come through loud and clear. First is that small producers like me are hanging on by our nails and are at risk of being choked out of the business because the requirements favor larger firms. Second is that the regulations address risks posed by those selfsame big firms, big banks and the right hand/left hand syndrome that happens in those environs.

Pardon me, but a large city law firm may get infiltrated or have information get misdirected in one way or another, but nobody, nohow is getting by Cyndy and Christine, who between them know everyone who ever lived in our county for several generations.

Small banks are much more responsive, nimble and able to deal with risk, and much less likely to engage in the kind of drunken gambling that brought the market crashing down in 2008. Small law firms are much more likely to be aware of fraud risks and much less likely to have cyber vulnerability.

Those things being said, I’m feeling very much the endangered species. I’m feeling pulled toward success by learning the business and keeping up with changes, but at the same time pushed away by a system that values conformity and bureaucracy over responsiveness and dedication. Pushed toward Matinicus again. The big thaw can’t come soon enough.

Saturday, January 24, 2015


The day is a few minutes longer on each end and what a difference. Aside from accidentally working a little longer, it is a great thing.

It is still January, but a couple of days ago, I was swept by the vision of being home, with gear work happening in my yard. I heard the boats of those more diligent and quicker into the water than myself,  the crows, pheasants, gulls, fourwheelers and songbirds, felt the wind and smelled the woodsmoke, salt air, and smoldery trash fires. It is only a couple of months off.

I live in the real estate law world during the off-island season. My time is occupied with deeds and mortgages, easements, surveys, puzzles and problem solving, getting the deal done, but hopefully not in a way that will bring regrets and litigation later. 

I still run into deeds with descriptions telling me to look for an old spruce stump with barbed wire in it. As I look at the predecessor deeds, the title records often suggest that the spruce stump has sat unchanged since the Taft administration.

Land conveyances have changed and remain the same. As much as we have precision in land surveys with distances down to the hundredth of a foot, and courses expressed in magnetic year specific directions in degrees, minutes and seconds, achieving clarity and permanence on the face of the earth- an earth inhabited by humans- is still a challenge.

It is endlessly fascinating until such time as there is some light at the treeline after 4:45 p.m. when thoughts drift to spring.

As well as things have gone since the boat came out of the water, and as trying as it was having the boat in the water but not moving much on account of many previously documented malfunctions, I just can’t wait to get back at it. I’m choosing of course to ignore the first couple of days of flat tires, dead batteries, mouse droppings, reluctant oil burners and trying to remember where that thing might be that I need in order to deal with those other things. One neighbor described it as looking for shit you need to fix shit to fix the other shit.


I was coming across to North Haven on the ferry for office work and realizing again with some amusement that I find myself during winter in places which are very inviting and lively with people in the summer. It’s a a left-handed, square peg Offseason thing. I wintered over on North Haven one very eventful year, but have only tagged up briefly any time when the weather was hot and there were leaves in the trees.

I spent a number of winters on Matinicus, and never pined for Applebees or pavement. I never struggled to find something to do. It was the opposite problem- a sense of panic that I would run out of winter way before I felt caught up on tasks I couldn’t do in the summer.  The queue would form in my mind shortly after January 1.

Spring is always a miracle in our latitude, but is particularly moving on Matinicus. I’ve been on the mainland the last few winters and missed out.

It’s not the same to show up with the grass already green. I like watching the straw-sepia tone of the land melt into green, yellow and blossom shades, and the slate gray water with the crinkled horizon inhale all that soft blue out of the sky and back to the sea.

The magic starts in March, although it is not the Glinda pink sequined kind of magic. It is the sort of magic that makes people say something like ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with everyone else, I’m just fine.’ March is well suited to irritability, paranoia, Netflix-athons, misinterpreting-or choosing to ignore- that look from or tone of voice of your family members, very early “happy hour,” and would be the perfect time for Salem-style hallucinatory justice proceedings.

The wind only leaves any gravel on the road because the road is frozen down tight;  until it isn’t at which time ground clearance is important. It’s Fargo-by-the-sea.

Then there are cracks in the windbeaten fa├žade. Some time in mid to late March, a day arrives when the wind lets go and the sun takes hold. A few such days will follow before the panic sets in over the coming season of early mornings and short rest, grass that grows an inch an hour, visiting friends and relatives, lobstering, outside fixup projects and trips off island for events that just couldn’t be scheduled in February such as weddings and graduation ceremonies or court appearances.

Those few days are a sweet spot between one crush and another.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Balance, K-1, Easter Island

Mild protests from my lower back aside, today was a success. I have a new appreciation for the amazing power of balance.

Megan, the kids and I watched some things about Easter Island or Rapa Nui over the last couple of weekends. As I was wrestling a relatively small, but to me extremely heavy barrel of kerosene, I thought of one of the theories on how the Rapa Nuians moved stone statues weighing many tons. The theory goes that they stood the big browed purse lipped sentinels up on end, and carved them in such a way that they leaned forward. Using ropes on both sides, a slight forward tipping combined with a side-to-side motion made it possible to move a big stone dude with no oxen, mastodon, hydraulic lift or alien spaceship. Such is the power of balance.

Back to my shop and the barrel dance, I had been worrying for several days about replenishing my dry oil tank. It's December, so I either need fuel or to empty pipes and say goodbye to the spirits of Aunt Belle's place for the winter.

These mundane matters can be much more complicated than one would anticipate. I've learned to think things through. OK, I need to remember to take out a 5/16" wrench to bleed the burners. I need to pump up the tire before I can go get K-1 from Tom. I need to plug in the tire machine before I can blow up the tire. I hope the battery isn't flat.

I anticipated and thought almost all the permutative variables through effectively. Everthing, that is, except for the shrieking.

My return to Matinicus was going very well. Larry gave me a ride up the island after I walked off the ferry. I got a fire going. The fuel tank didn't seem to be leaking. I got the truck down to Tom's and pumped 50 gallons out of one barrel in Tom's shop and into a barrel in Megan's truck. Ducks were in a row so far. I threaded the truck around a stack of traps on one side and buoys, ropes and crates on the other to the pump-off truck stop just outside where my fuel tank is situated. I got everything set to go, feeling cheerful and surprised at the smoothness of it all. Then I hit the pump switch and jumped a foot in the air as the pump let out a fearsome shrieking. The shrieking felt personal to me since I was the only one around. The smell came a few moments later- an unhappy electric smell. I thought I found the problem when I saw that the cap over the fan housing was askew such that it would make the fan blades screech against that cap. Smug I was as I reset the housing cap. I pressed the switch and heard only a hum.

Before these moments, I congratulated myself that I had not gotten stressed by all the wonky Rubik cube details of coming back to the island. After those moments, I cursed the pump, myself and the lack of a hardware store.

Plan B involved a skinny dweeb somehow getting the 400 and change pound barrel of oil off the back of the truck without breaking the tailgate, a leg or the integrity of the barrel. Not so much to ask-it only needed to move about 2 feet vertically. First, I thought: Oh, I should pump the contents of that barrel into another barrel that's not on the truck bed. Then I remembered: Oh, yeah, this process is because the pump does not work. I settled on a makeshift plywood ramp supported by a stack of two traps tapering to one trap. What could go wrong? Actually, nothing. Gravity worked just fine. One of the pieces of plywood broke, but otherwise and after a gut busting push to set the barrel upright again before the cap started seeping, all seemed ok.

I then discovered the Owen family hand truck in the soap lab entryway.

Balance is an astonishing force and yet has no external power source. This obstinate and brutally heavy 55 gallon barrel of oil, when balanced on a hand truck, moved with the ease of carrying a quart of motor oil. What could exert such power? Balance, and a good sturdy metal frame with stout wheels.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Time Change - Weather Change

There is nothing like a foot of heavy wet snow, large snapping tree limbs and high wind on November 2 to thoroughly re-wire my outlook. There is nothing like it in my recollection either. I remember my grandparents giving up on either Thanksgiving or Easter once because of big snow, but nothing like what we got on the coast last Sunday and so early in the season. This was full-on February northeaster material. Jet plane wind sounds, 180 degree bends in birch trees, candles for more than atmosphere, the uneasy sense of not knowing how far it's going to wind up before it eases back. Sudden appreciation for light switches and water pumps.

48 hours later, I'm working on the open water, feeling like I need to take off a layer or two. The water in movement and color is of summer. Across Penobscot Bay, the mountains are caked with snow. The flight from Rockland to Matinicus took the usual 12 minutes or so, but either backed me up an entire season or moved me several jurisdictions down the eastern seaboard. There are traces of snow, but much more green grass and sunshine when I touch down on Matinicus and limp the truck back to Aunt Belle's from the airstrip on its very slack right front tire. The air and sights here have no connection to what I just left.

I've had a challenging couple of weeks. Columbus Day weekend was beautiful and productive. Since then, I've stewed about fishing gear remaining out when I couldn't get to it because I have been entangled in mainland things. There were fundamental questions about where I can work and whether I'll get paid. Legal matters came to loggerheads and were uneasily resolved. I've had the terrible feeling that the boat won't start because I've ignored her too long. She did anyway and I managed to round up a good bit of fishing gear today.

I pulled this chair very close because the stove appeared to be going, but without much radiant heat coming my way. Now my clothes have that ironing board smell so I need to back up.

Closer or farther, on island or on mainland, early winter or sweet autumn. I think too much. Really, I'm just glad to be away from the snow. 'Twas too soon. That much I know.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Missing Sweet Pea, Part IV

So many weeks passed where the only sustained time I spent on the boat was grinding my knees into the no-skid deck coating while trying to turn a wrench that I forgot what working on Close Enough even felt like.

Now that we've been a few hauling cycles without being towed in and without alarms going off, it feels like maybe I over reacted and over dramatized the ordeal. The circuit of gear- out front, up the bay, the west side- is becoming familiar again. The pleasant soreness of wrists, back and legs from a good day's work has taken the place of sore knees, skinned knuckles and overdriven adrenal glands of endless attempts to identify, understand and act on mechanical malfunctions.

There was, however, one final, smarting chapter in the seeming eternity of problems. Even with the rebuilt water pump, late day dismantling and inspection of every portion of the raw water system and the all consuming analysis, when I went out to haul the boat still would not cool off normally. I tried thinking positively. I tried bending the temperature needle back to the left with my positive thoughts. I asked my brain trust what would be the problem. It was not a matter of catastrophic overheating, but just not cooling off the way I was used to.

Sweet Pea had no temperature gauge. Or raw water cooling.

There were also at that time staggering multitudes of what I thought were jellyfish eggs, but turned out to be called "salps" everywhere around the island. Harmless enough sounding, "salps." After a long day of hauling at idle and watching the temperature gauge every few seconds, we opened the strainer and found that virtually every single hole in this colander-like contrivance had one of those salps wedged in it. I have never been so excited to see a strainer full of salps in my life. The excitement came from the thought that after missing the peak month of the season and having spent large on new parts, after blowing so many hours taking apart and putting back to together again and again, maybe, finally I had found the last link in the chain of problems.

In my excited state, I ran to the rail to rinse the salps back where they belonged and dropped the strainer basket. This item's primary design flaw is that it does not float. I watched it, reached for it and missed. The tantrum that ensued crystallized and telescoped a month of despair and frustration into one sinking, shining stainless steel moment. I cursed myself hoarse in seconds, kicked whatever was handy and sort of managed to dislocate my jaw.

Since we were on "super moon" number two for the summer, I figured Megan and I could go out at dead low tide and reach through a foot or so of low tide harbor water and fetch back the item and be on our way for the day. The eel grass and kelp proved formidable and divers unavailable. Despite many sweeps of the area where I dropped the basket, it was nowhere to be seen, although many false positives were caused by silver beverage cans on the harbor floor.

Fortunately, Hamilton Marine had a basket in stock. Unfortunately, they did not deliver to the air service. Fortunately, Megan's brother was passing through Rockland and took the basket to the flying service. They had no flights until the afternoon, so I had an opportunity to put out legal fires and save myself aggravation for the following week. Extra-super fortunately, we went out on a lovely afternoon and filled the holding tank in a couple of hours.

We've since hauled through the cycle a few times and all is well. It was a long time coming.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

I Miss my Peapod, III: The Matinicus X-Files

Last year, Scully and I witnessed the incredible pageant of comb jellies- iridescent zeppelins in the water with moving multi-colored light strings down the five longitudinal lines; these are straight out of James Cameron's The Abyss.

Today, at what I hoped was the end of 3 weeks of break-downs and cat-and-mouse games trying to figure out why the boat was marginally overheating, having been towed in 3 times and having to steam in at a dead idle a few other times, at the end of all that, the boat still wouldn't cool normally. This was very much in spite- in vindictive, deliberate, spiteful, gratuitous spite- of the fact that I just spent lots of money having the water pump rebuilt and many, many hours taking the entire cooling system apart piece by piece to try and isolate the problem.

But also today, as I scooped up a bucket of water to wash the rancid bait grease off my hands, the bucket was full of serpentine ladders of gel with a little black dot on the end of each rung. The bait was many weeks past its prime, so I needed to rinse my hands after bagging for the next string of traps.

Since my attention was riveted primarily to the temperature gauge and the radar since it was foggy, it was only because of the very large number of these creatures in the water around Two Bush Ledge that I noticed them at all. I've seen plenty of moon jellies, the big red ones and the aforementioned comb jellies, but nothing like these. They made even moon jellies look sophisticated. These critters were what I'd picture drifting in the primordial seas of early life on earth.

Back to the sorry history of recent mechanical difficulties and human aggravation and discouragement. Pretty much the day the lobsters hit for the season, I had an alternator fail. Close Enough was reassembled and the engine enclosure bolted back on confidently. I noticed the motor seemed a few degrees on the warm side steaming to Spruce Head, a little over labored after passing through some flotillas of rockweed and debris, and sort of noticed but dismissed a little dripping noise at the end of that run.

Coming back a couple of days later in marginal conditions, the temperature alarm started whining and the red light was fully ablaze just past Big Green Island. I slowed down, hoping that would allow me to limp the rest of the way. Then I shut the motor down. Lapping waves and whistling sea breeze lose all their appeal while broken down, being smacked on the head by the side-to rolling while trying to peer into dark recesses to figure out what's wrong and drifting toward unfriendly ledges.

I quickly exhausted my diagnostic expertise and decided to flag down a couple of boats working nearby in hopes of a tow a little ways toward Matinicus where one of my brothers could hopefully drag my sorry ass the rest of the way.

Since these boats were close by, I was a little surprised they hadn't responded to a dead stopped boat from out of town and a bug-eyed guy jumping up and down and waving two safety orange PFDs. I set off a smoke flare which finally brought another vessel along side. Let's just say that the introduction and greetings didn't go all that well...

Bless his obscenely high powered diesel soul, Robert came and got me back to the harbor. It was a slow and humiliating ride, punctuated only by a spectacular parting of the tow line and said line's choice to become wrapped around various underparts of my vessel. Once on the mooring, it was obvious that a coolant hose had let go. I had an inkling that the coolant hose failure was a symptom rather than the underlying illness. My sister and mother and nephew were headed out for a visit and picked me up some hose and coolant. I was able to share important lessons with my nephew, such as never, ever get a boat.

The following Monday, after having been out of commission for the better part of a couple of weeks, it was great to get out for a day and work. That winning streak was a short one.

The engine would not cool normally. It wasn't overheating to the point of damage, but it wasn't cooling off normally either. Megan and I tried the next day and came in after an aborted attempt to haul the few deep water pots I put out this year to the northward.

I recalled Capt. Griff having seaweed get stuck in an intake which put an undue strain on the rubber gear inside the water pump known as the impeller. This seemed logical in light of my recent passage through the debris field. I took off the water line and could see one of the fins on my impeller had come off entirely and gotten lodged in the outflow part of the pump.

Again there was confidence as I grabbed the relatively modest priced impeller from the marine store. Confident feelings continued right up until I test fired the motor with the new impeller and found the outflow to be bone dry. Many, many experiments followed over the following days. Priming, tearing apart the cooling system and blowing into this or that hose or fitting only to discover no resistance or apparent obstruction. The were numerous calls for a replacement gasket and consultation from Art's Marine Service.

I would occasionally remember the peapod during these times. Sweet Pea had no impeller save my arms, no hoses, pumps, rust, filters, or other technology. If I pushed on the oars, it moved.

I finally settled on having the pump rebuilt. There were another 5 days or so of delays and office work to push that chapter into the future. Today, I walked to the harbor without much confidence, but found the newly rebuilt pump was actually moving water through the system and decided to head out and haul a few to use up the wretched old bait and start paying for all my new parts.

After a period of normal operation, the motor once again would not cool down to 160 or 170 degrees where it normally sits. I decided not to ever be a pirate or cowboy or fisherman ever again. Again.

I got the boat beached just as the tide was headed out. The only remaining variable I could come up with was maybe there was something stuck in the intake vent. After taking all those pieces apart and jamming knives and a screwdriver up the works to disinvite whatever was up there, Megan shined a flashlight down from above and it was immediately clear that the water intake was unobstructed.

Now what? I have been through 2 straight weeks of everything I and all the experts could come up with for possible causes and solutions.

On a whim, I decided to check the strainer which in all previous experiments had been virtually empty. This time, though- cue the X-Files theme- it was half full of jelly blobs with little malevolent black nuclei. Hmmm.

I want to believe (that I can haul tomorrow). The truth is in there (meaning the innards of the Cummins 210B) along with some shredded jellies.