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Saturday, November 19, 2005

In Winters Past

(originally published in Offshore Magazine)

In winters past, I remember having to babysit my boat through several turns of the tide. I also had to clear the bilge and its pumps of ice on more than one occasion. Those were days and nights filled with a cold, wet, dread, and they made me curse Maine winters and long for southern climes.

But in winter, Penobscot Bay is as beautiful as it is bleak. I can recall a scallop diving trip to Mosquito Harbor a few years ago. It was early morning in December or January. The diver was swimming along the bottom stuffing dinner plate-size scallops into his bag, and I was standing on the deck of my 30' lobster boat shucking meats. I remember looking up and seeing--on a rocky ledge not far away--a bald eagle munching on a seal carcass. I stopped what I was doing and eased closer to the spot. The eagle looked up, then lifted what was left of the carcass and flew about fifty feet away. It was a fresh kill, and the carcass had to weigh a considerable amount . . . a very impressive display of strength. The eagle mostly dragged the carcass, but for a time he had it completely off the ground, bloody viscera and all. It was like I was in an episode of Wild Kingdom.

Another time, while walking my dog along the east shore of the St. George River, I came across a flock of Brant geese and a couple of goldeneyes hanging out in a quiet cove. Usually when my dog and I approach this part of the cove, we flush sea ducks, i.e. old squaws, scoters, buffleheads, whatever's there. Not this time. The geese and the two ducks had no intention of leaving. Maybe they were tired. Or maybe Brant geese (and these two goldeneyes) are stalwart creatures by habit. Either way it was interesting to see my dog and the birds--on a sparkling winter's day--occupying the same space without getting on each other's nerves.


A few winters ago, a 400 pound Hooded Seal decided to make its home in the middle of the Harts Neck Road in Tenants Harbor. People had to drive around the thing, which they did for quite awhile; biologists weren't sure how to deal with it, and they didn't want to move it for fear of disturbing some newfound tendency toward habitation. So they let it be for roughly three weeks, giving it free reign of the road, whencesoever it barked and growled at passers-by at will. Finally, it disappeared, thumping its way to the sea, and, presumably, embarking on a long swim back to Spitzbergen or some other arctic locale.

The Harts Neck seal was a good-natured thing when left unchallenged. But he or she (I can't remember its gender now) had a bad attitude and an ugly disposition when crossed--very much like a Penobscot Bay winter. OK, I'm stretching with the metaphor. But look at it this way: If a seal growls, and there's nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? Comparatively speaking, if the sea turns an ugly grey-white, and nobody's there to see it, is it really dangerous?

There are days, weeks actually, when the winds will die, the sea will be flat calm, and the temperatures will be in the thirties. Being on the water in winter when it's like this is actually nicer than being around in summer. Unfortunately, these kinds of days are few and far between. More often than not, the wind will blow hard every third day. If you're a fisherman--and most of the people you'll find on the water this time of year are--listening to NOAA weather radio becomes even more important than eating or sleeping.

Things start to change around the end of October or the beginning of November. The prevailing southwest wind gives way to a wind out of the east and northeast, signaling to people that it's time to get their boats in order. Owners of recreational vessels--who haven't already done so--head to dry dock fast. Fishermen gear up for their individual fisheries, e.g. scallop, urchin, shrimp, or ground fish. And live-aboards, and guys like me who wet-store their boats, start adding extra fenders and dock lines.

The beast is coming, and everyone wants to be ready for it.


As one of the captains of the pilot boat, I used to get out as many as a dozen times a month. However, I no longer tend scallop or urchin divers, and, consequently, my life is physically easier. There's no more rowing through the ice to get to my boat, no more spraying ether into the air intake, no more sea urchin spines in my fingers, and no more shucker's cramp--a condition that makes a scalloper's hand look more like a gardening tool than a human appendage.

Of course, I'm still thawing dock lines and shoveling snow and ice. I'm still watching the bilges and listening to NOAA Weather Radio. And I'm continually making sure that--when a storm is predicted to hit on the high tide--I'm in the right place at the right time.

A winter storm at the high tide is the most troublesome of all. One year, as the water rose higher and higher, a friend and I had to let the floats go and tie our boats off to pilings, trees, and even a chain link fence on shore. Another time, one of the floats got stuck at low tide, and I had to cut my boat free or risk having the cleats and bitts yanked out of it; if I'd been any later, she might have even been pulled under. Both times, I ended up waiting out a complete turn of the tide.

And so it is...during ice storms and/or heavy wet snows, during high winds and/or tides, I'm at the marina trying to keep the beast at bay. When it snows, I get down to the boat as soon as possible. It could be 3:00 AM, but there I'll be, shovel in hand, cleaning my boat. It has to be done, because fresh water is a veritable Petrie dish for wood eating bacteria, and having it melt during the day and freeze at night just drives the problem deeper and deeper into the vessel's seams and fibers. It's a formula for dry rot.

True, at times like these I'd like nothing more than to be sitting on the beach in the Caribbean with a pina colada to my lips. A person would have to be a masochist to want it any other way. Really, do you think it's fun to be hunched-over in the bilge with a propane torch in one hand and a mallet in the other? It's not. I hate it. But just when I've had it up to here, just when I think I'll chop my boat up in little pieces and feed it to the wood stove, the big bad winter turns beautiful. The wind dies. The seas calm. And the geese and goldeneyes come out to play with my dog.


Copyright © Bob G. Bernstein (seabgb) All Rights Reserved!

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