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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Lobster in Every Pot?

Old Lighthouse outside Portsmouth Harbor

To those who think that my husband and I are “living the life” every day on our sailboat, I’d like to disabuse you of that notion.  Last week we were on a mooring ball in the harbor between Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Kittery, Maine. We hung out there a little longer than our usual stops have been as we travel up the East Coast because we were meeting friends.  
Lobsters with friends in Kittery, Maine
Our Annapolis friends on S/V Narwhal, were also on a mooring ball in that harbor. It was a lovely stop.  Portsmouth is charming little historic city; Kittery follows the undulating waterfront with an 18th century fort and not one but three lighthouses.  And of course, time with friends is rejuvenating.

Shoreline of Cape Porpoise, Maine
But, we needed to keep moving.  Our larger plan is to spend the month of August exploring the coast of Maine. Maine has thousands of islands and and we have a lot to see.  So…when to leave.  Saturday would have been the perfect traveling day.  It was also however, the perfect day for touring historic Portsmouth with friends.  So we toured.  Sunday was to be rainy; and the following few days didn’t look too great either.  Should we go now or stay there even longer?  
Carl at helm

When our votes were cast, we determined to deal with the rain and just go.  In circumstances such as this, I rely on a standard that I have used as comparison since childhood, namely ’does it exceed the misery of looking for the “missing Cow and Calf in the rain?*  If not, I can do it.  (If you are interested in the “missing Cow and Calf” standard, you may read about that at the end of this post.)
How many lobster pot buoys can you see?

So, yes, I voted that we would leave in the rain from Portsmouth.  Minimal wind, right on the nose.  We put on our rain gear—Carl at the helm and me up on the bow looking out for lobster pots.  Lobster pots!  Oh my!  Did you know that Maine has somewhere around three million lobster pots in the water?  We have located the first few thousand already.  
Close calls, time and again

There are lobster pots in the harbors where we anchor, in the inlets to the harbors and even far out on the ocean.  In July and August, the lobsters move to deeper water, so even 3 miles offshore, even with water depth of 240 feet, we find lobster pots.  Sigh.  

Wire lobster traps
Lobster pots are identified by pairs of matching buoys and between them, resting on the bottom are the lines of traps, sometimes hundreds of feet long. Each lobsterman chooses different colors for his buoys, at least that is the idea.  And each has his ID number, the same as his boat.  Often there is a toggle, a separate float, near one of the buoys.  
"Turn to starboard"

Under sail, running over a buoy isn’t a big deal, but the risk of wrapping the trapline around the props under power is scary.  Of course, we were under power.  That could ruin an otherwise only moderately miserable day on the water.
A huge lobster

Lobsters have been caught off the coast of Maine since 1605. In those days, lobsters were so plentiful that a person could throw a net out or lean over the boat, club one and grab it.  The Native Americans used to wade along the shore and catch them with their bare hands.  Without human predators, there were even four-foot lobsters back then.  Nowadays every lobsterman carries a brass gauge called a “measure” to check the size for “keepers.”  They cannot be too large nor too small.  Females with eggs must be marked and tossed back in the water.
Two lobstermen
Lobster pots really aren’t pots anymore.  Once upon a time, they were wooden pots but when they went to using wire baskets as traps, the term “pots” hung around.  These lobstermen work hard!  I do not envy them going out in all kinds of weather just after dawn to check and set traps.  When they haul their catch back at the end of the day, they unload on what’s called a “lobster car”, a platform floating on the water which kind of reminds me of a tiny ice fishing house. 

Unloading at a lobster "car"
Alternatively they unload at a float owned by a co-op where the catch is weighed and they are given credit at the going rate.  The lobsters get sorted into floating compartments filled with seawater, and are then ready to be picked up by wholesalers or retail customers. 
Unloading at the co-op dock

While at the dock, lobster boats can pick up huge barrels filled with fish for bait.  The fish are packed in ordinary road salt and then allowed to rot for a while.  Apparently, the stinkier the bait, the more appealing to the lobsters.   Then the lobstermen pack some of the dead fish into little mesh bags that hang inside the wire trap in a section called the “kitchen.” The lobster figures out how to get into the trap through a net tunnel or other one way opening. When the lobster exits the kitchen into the other part of the trap, the “parlor” he can’t escape. Very effective lobster trap.
Salting bait fish

I am enjoying the opportunities to watch these lobstermen work.  (There are lobster women, too, but I have’t seen any yet).  Their boats are large and entirely functional for what they need.  They have radar and GPS to keep track of their traps. Many lobster boats are moored out here with us in the harbor where we currently are anchored at a place called Cape Porpoise, a “suburb” of Kennebunkport.  All the lobster boats are named, usually with two women’s names.  ie. “Anne Marie”, “Sarah Jane”, etc.  

"The Clam" skiff
Each working boat has a simple little wooden skiff for a tender.  This is their transportation out to the fishing boat.  Some of them do not have motors!  People row here, and they do it well! Our hypilon rubber dinghy looks out of place here—all fancied up with the engine and dinghy chaps— a retired person’s leisure tender.
A lone lobsterman

I chatted with a young guy on the dock today, asking questions about salting the fish bait.  He volunteered that the other guys had just made him bite the head off a dead fish!  He asked me if I wanted to help them.  I declined for fear that I would be required to go through that same initiation. That would definitely exceed my ‘Missing Cow and Calf’ standard.
Dock used by lobstermen, Cape Porpoise, ME

*The Missing Cow and Calf in the rain” standard goes as follows: — One of the cows comes up missing at milking time.  This means she has dropped her calf out in the pasture somewhere.  The next morning, two or more of us need to go out and find them. In my memory, it is always raining and cold when we go out to look; I can’t explain why. Our pastures were ringed by dense hardwood forest choked with blackberry bushes, thistles and bramble, which then marched on down the sides of the bluffs to the creeks in the narrow little valleys below. There were lots of good hiding places for a bashful cow and her calf.
A dreary, wet day on the water

So, in the morning, off we go, walking in different directions; whoever finds the hidden bovines whistles to alert the others.  We are soaked through of course, before the cow and calf are found.  I don’t complain because what would be the point of that? Once the cow is found, we have to return her and the calf back to the barn.  The calf can’t walk yet.  So, while I (or we) distract (piss off) the cow so that she leaves her calf alone for a minute, my father manhandles the gangly, uncoordinated calf onto the back of a little wooden trailer.  Then he hops onto the tractor and I sit on the back of the open trailer holding onto the calf while we go bumping along toward home. The distraught mother follows closely behind, lowing and swinging her huge head over her calf, alternately trying to rescue the calf from the trailer and/or bunt me with her head.  During that ride, the cold rain takes a back seat to the discomfort and fear of being slammed by that huge head. In my mind, however, I’m in a warm kitchen having hot chocolate.

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