Catching the Rhythm of the Lobster Season

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THE 7 a.m. sky was pearl gray with a fresh breeze moving over the harbor. Wind had buffeted our cottage, and surf pounded the rocky coast all night. I had come to see Dan's boat and help pull traps. He started the engine and warm diesel exhaust mixed with the clear sea air. Then he said, "The swells will be rough outside."

I asked about the loss of his boat.

"Mooring line broke in the storm."

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"Anything salvaged?"

"My brother hoisted the engine out and towed it to the beach. Three days in the sand and salt water did a job on it. I got the gear box as a spare and a few chewed-up things. Propeller shaft still in the water all bent." He pointed to splintered wreckage among the rocks.

It had been the peak of lobster season, which runs from January to June on the island. He had 400 traps out and had to buy a new boat.

In March, he lost his balance while mooring the new boat. He was alone. Fortunately in the harbor.

"The water was about as cold as it ever gets then."

I recalled paintings and chilling photographs of the harbor in midwinter.

"My wallet was dry. I got out that fast. In the water, I remembered to climb in over the back of the skiff, though I nearly swamped her. Then I would've never got back into the boat." The cold was so fierce, he called his wife for help, then sealed up the cabin and took his clothes off in the warm engine room.

"It was like peeling off layers of ice." When his rescuers came they wrapped him in blankets and rowed back.

As we left the harbor, another boat heading out drew alongside. Dan waved and advanced the throttle. It was a race. I was accustomed to seeing lobster boats moving slowly in tranquil settings, moored in a quiet harbor, or motoring back in the evening sunset. To be hurtling through the water as adversaries, bows lifted, engulfed in foam and spray, feeling the powerful engine's vibration through the deck - was fantastic.

Two miles out, the island appeared on the horizon as a shadow wreathed in mist. Finding buoys in the deep swells was difficult. We circled fruitlessly. Dan fumed and muttered, wiping the spray from the windscreen. Finally we found the first of a string of his pink and white buoys. Dan circled and cut the throttle, caught the buoys line with a gaff. I untied the buoy from the line and he threaded it through the boom to the power hoist. There were two traps to each buoy. When they came up Dan took out the lobsters, usually two to three per trap.

I continued untying lines and removed the bait from the traps. Dan had outfitted me with a waterproof apron and a pair of cotton gloves. The bait was slippery and full of sharp bones, so I was grateful for the gloves. Soon air and water around us fluttered with a confetti of gulls. When I threw the bait overboard they nearly took it out of my hand or plunged into the water in a mad scramble to get it. While I stacked the empty traps on the deck, Dan coiled the lines and stowed them in an orderly pile alo ng with the buoys.

He had placed the lobsters in a shallow box partitioned to immobilize them. My enthusiasm didn't extend to offer to help handle the lobsters as he sized them and placed bands over their claws to prevent them biting one another. It was painful to see him throw back half the catch - either too small or females with eggs. Time passed unnoticed as we followed the line of buoys in the rhythm of work. The seas had calmed, sun had burned away the sullen sky. I had acquired sea legs after sprawling about on the wet deck for a time and enjoyed the moments we motored between buoys. During one of these idle times a gull seemed to stand still on the air, within reach, above me. I was tempted to reach up and grasp its legs.

The tide was in when we tied up at the dock. It made heaving the traps up easier. Dan parked his pickup just above the boat and stacked as many traps as he could get on. We'd taken out 48.

I was puzzled when he came back on board and sped out of the harbor. He set the rudder to turn the boat in a tight circle at a good clip, with spray dancing around, then gave all his attention to hosing and scrubbing down the deck. For the first time I felt nervous. To my eye, one point in our rapid rotation brought his craft dangerously close to the rocky shore. As Dan was absorbed in his cleaning I tried not to think of what he'd call me if we really did fetch his new boat on the rocks, while I did not hing but watch. I resented his fastidiousness. Finally he returned to the cabin and we reentered the harbor and deposited his catch into his lobster car (a floating pen). He then moored the boat and we rowed back in the skiff.

Day-trippers were waiting on the dock for their boat to return to the mainland. As we sat in the cab of the truck with the traps piled high, a man leaned in on my side and asked, "Why are you taking the traps out of the water?" He'd asked the only question I could answer.

"End of the season," I clipped as confidently as a seasoned mariner. Dan let out the clutch and we ground up the hill. I was feeling cocky but turned to him for confirmation. He winked and smiled. "If he'd asked me, I'd have told him to ask the Captain."

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