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.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August Random II: Why I miss the Peapod

No, I was not out early on Monday hauling traps. I was out having smelled a not so good smell and seen a little erratic electrical activity on the volt meter. I was out listening to the engine not running and very glad the breeze was blowing away from the bluff as I waited for a tow back into the harbor.

I didn't know it yet, but I was going through alternators like Frank Sinatra and wives. All I knew was the engine quit and the key wouldn't even muster its formerly annoying but now very comforting squeal. The whole thing was unresponsive and in need of major defibrillation.

My ignorance of diesel motors-with their hulking cast iron, pipes, hoses, wires, rust, ooze and such going all ways incomprehensibly-is vast. I knew there was a breaker panel, but had not a glimmer of awareness that there was an engine circuit breaker ("port side aft of the cylinder head" "ok, what's a cylinder head?"). It didn't help that whoever spray painted the engine entirely obscured the breaker button and box.

What ensued was an unbroken sequence of paddling off the boat, driving home, calling the boat doctor, driving back down, paddling out, trying this or that diagnostic or remedial procedure. The result was ordering a new alternator.

The low point, or if you will, the boilover of my sympathetic nervous system and anxiety juices occurred this afternoon, when I tried to go the extra mile and disconnect the main power cable to make sure it wasn't fried and likely to fry another alternator. I'm no macho man, but I managed to break off a very unusual and specialized looking brass bolt from the starter. This was despair on par with Pooh getting stuck in the honey pot down in the heffalump trap, but far less endearing and full up with curses. Fortunately, the boat Doc thought I could just crank what was left together and be fine. Me, I was thinking an odd, specialized and expensive bolt must have a particular purpose. I liked his answer.

Bless the good boat docs at Art's Marine for taking all those frantic calls and getting me the new part just as I was surrendering and flying off for a couple of days of office work. Those plans got reversed in a hurry.

I had great focus and determination which withered rapidly when I got the new part mounted and could tell something was wrong. The fan was loose and flopping.

There were the tense moments of holding a tiny nut in an impossibly cramped position over a yawning and inaccessible bilge and trying to get it started with two fingers before the washer slips off, along with fervent appeals to patience and fortune. Then I had to take it off without losing it when it was clear something was amiss. And then put it back on after Clayton figured out that the washer they sent with the new unit was a few thousandths too thin and used the one off the old unit.

Many trips to Clayton's shop, requests for advise, tools. Many calls and drives to the airport. Many feelings of helplessness and of being the village idiot.

Now the crickets are chirping, kids are doing what they're supposed to which is run around outside as dusk turns to dark.

The peapod I could just row, bail out and put on a little trailer for the winter. The solar setup was simple and easy to fix. There was no engine circuit breaker anywhere aboard.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

August Random Stuff


This past week, without much forecasting hype, we had a hell of a blow. My sailing instructor acquaintance called me and said several or her boats came undone and that their float had been damaged. I began stewing and made some calls about my own vessel, but couldn't get any enlightenment. I got busy with office work and thought no more of it until I got aboard and saw my tool box tray had launched itself across the cabin. She must've been buckin' somethin' wikkid.

In August, the grass slows down. The lobsters pick up. On this Sunday morning, my muscles and I are grateful for the prohibition against hauling on Sundays from June 1 to August 31. There is time for a solitary walk around the southern shore. There is time to sit on June's porch with the brain trust and go over electronics, the physics of boat propulsion, and the convergence of law and old fashioned island lobbying efforts having succeeded on behalf of a good family in peril of losing their place.

There is time for just about my favorite and saddest downtime activity- getting rid of stuff. Fragments and broken bits of a different phase in life get carted off and recycled.

A plastic truck Ryan used to enjoy, but which is now bleached to a pale yellow on one side.

Kites that will not fly on account of aerodynamic inadequacies and missing spars.

 My dead vhf marine radio, probably all functional except that it makes no sound.

Outgrown books and beach toys.

Broken things I meant to fix, but now know I won't.

Shards of the gazing ball that came from the mainland and was not appreciated except by me, and then blew off its pedestal probably to my spouse's satisfaction in an 80 mph gale one February. I dutifully picked up each and every sliver the next morning, which freakishly turned out to be sunny and placid and 50 degrees. That morning there was also a channel marker-meaning a 16' iron bell buoy designed to handle the North Atlantic- that had hopscotched its way up into the harbor and nestled, wobbling around in the surf, against a couple of shop wharves. I helped reset a metal chimney segment that had come loose. It was a beautiful morning.

The pickup truck filled up very quickly.

Tomorrow morning I expect most every boat will be out of the harbor early. I'll be out just a little after that, but I won't be the last.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sweet Sunday at Home

Doubts and uncertainty and financial stress have been part of my landscape for years now. Can I justify paying for this house, staying in an unpredictable business that I'm inexperienced in, bringing my kids out here, beating on my joints and back, not pursuing the conventional job situation? On this chilly breezy late July Sunday afternoon with windswirl sounds coming through the screen as I wake up from a short nap on the couch, having had breakfast of Cait's egg's, Eva's bread, my crabmeat and Megan's alchemy with those ingredients, I have no doubts at all. It's home.

"Any idiot can fish the shore" one mentor told me. That idiot would be me. I started out in the peapod among the rocks and kelp. I've started learning my way outside a bit more on Close Enough, but I still like working around the shore. This is my fifth season running my own boat, which seems impossible-I just started. This year, though, I'm not sinking, snarling or losing track of as much gear. The workflow is steady and consistent and more orderly and rational. The steadiness gradually turns to better paychecks and fewer nightsweats. The boat is itself a home of sorts and helps us stitch together a life where we have transportation options for the kids and ourselves, and can keep the house up. That way it's not a house on the island, its home.

So today is not the Downeast Magazine kind of late July day, not like last week when we went in the water and stayed in, but it is a sweet Sunday at home.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rise of the Jellies- Cue the Theramin

At my office on the Damariscotta River, I get distracted and need to walk outside. This is because I have never quite adapted to indoor sitting work, or because I am lazy, or both. Several times over this early part of summer, on the bridge between Damariscotta and Newcastle, I've seen legions of moonjellies rushing up on the tide or back. It struck me as improbable if for no reason other than I'd think the current and rocks would shred them. There sure were a lot of them.

Then I recalled doomsdayish prophecies of acidifying ocean water making conditions hostile to many forms of sea life but friendly to jellyfish. My ocean biologist friend Pati at the Bigelow Lab said that moon jellies eat all the plankton in sight. Plankton as in base of the food chain and indirectly the base of the livelihood of many fishing families. Cue the theramin.

Last year, on one occasion late in the summer off Matinicus, I saw my first comb jellies- fantastic five sided whispy zeppelins with dazzling light shows up to one end and back. This year, they're already everywhere and it's only June. Hopefully if it's an invasion, we can figure out how to make them a delicacy.

The lobsters are numbed up as they say.

Time to enjoy the place for a few days, play some tunes on the dock and crack a few crab claws. Life is good, even with the impending jellyfish takeover. Cue the electric guitar.