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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

My Dad

Me and My Dad in South Thomaston, My Old Boat in the Background, Eben Island and the Muscle Ridge Islands in the Distance

It was my Dad who got me into boats, starting with a few fishing trips to Lake Arrowhead in Southern California. It was there, on the shores of a peaceful mountain lake in the middle of San Bernadino National Forest, he dropped an anchor on my foot. I was only five or six years old. My pinky toe still cranes off at an angle from that experience.

Later, a little older, my dad took my brother and me fishing on the reservoirs and rivers in upstate New York. We fished with salmon eggs and all sorts of other baits now banned from the sport. He was patient and caring, reaching for the little jar of brine, taking out a salmon egg as if it were a magic bean, placing it carefully on a tiny gold colored hook at the end of my line. If I think about it hard enough, I can smell his tackle box. I can hear the quiet rumble of the old 5-1/2 hp Evinrude he had, smell its sweet blue-white exhaust.

He taught me how to cast, how to troll, how to tie a knot. In my tackle box, I carry the last of his old bass lures and even some of his spinners. I never really use them. But they're with me. Sometimes, when I go fishing on a lake, which isn't too often these days, I take one of the old lures and fasten it to the end of my line. While my fishing buddy, John, motors us from one spot to another, I stare at the old lure and think about my Dad, how he used to sit in the stern, one hand on the tiller of the Evinrude, the other holding his fishing rod. I remember how he used to stare at the rod tip and hold a bight of the line with his forefinger, ever so gentle.

Thinking back on it now, with his soft touch, I believe he could feel a fish wink.

The picture was taken back in 1983. I had left a high paying job in professional fundraising to become a dive charter operator on the coast of Maine. I'm not sure my Dad ever really understood what I was doing. Although he respected and admired me, and was incredibly proud of me, and loved me, he never said what he really felt . . . that he wanted me to be someone else, for my sake.

Few kids really get that, the feeling their father or mother truly respects them or admires them. I had that. It's a rare thing. My Dad, I believe, felt the same way about my brother, now a surgical radiologist. How lucky were we to have a Dad who admired us for doing things he felt he could not do himself?

And yet, I always knew he wanted me to be someone else. He never really accepted my leaving the city and that job.

My dad died in 1997. I wish I had told him how much I admired him, how much I respected him. How proud of him I was. I never found the time, or made the effort. Although, I believe he knew how much I loved him.

During the last two hours of his life, I vigorously massaged his entire body. He was unable to speak at the time, dying of cancer, on morphine, but he touched my forearms and gazed into my eyes while I rubbed him down. I kept going like that as long as I could, praying my effort would drain him of life, ease his pain. I massaged him so he could die.

The end came about a half hour after I collapsed on the bed next to his. The hospice nurse woke me, said it was time, that he was taking his last few breaths. I got my brother and my mother; we gathered by his bedside.

The actual dying part was a mechanical thing. My Dad, the part we loved, was gone before his body took its last breath.

There were no epiphanies. No revelations. Those would come later, in dribs and drabs. A conversation. A note from a friend of the family. An old photograph. An old letter.

It would be trite and an insult to his memory to say I hope he's fishing some quiet pond somewhere in the afterlife, pursuing the ever elusive quarry of his dreams. It's an insult because he was much bigger than that. He was bigger than the things he loved to do. . . . His was a selfless life . . . spent more for the benefit of others.

He never got the boat he always wanted, a 28' Betram. He never got the cabin on the lake he always wanted, in New England. He never got to see his oldest son achieve the greatness he envisioned for him.

But on his last night, during the final two hours of his life, I believe he realized everything would be just fine, if not exactly the way he had wanted it. He left this Earth as he lived his life, thinking of others. In fact, I believe the only thing he ever did just for himself was allow himself to die.


Holiday Spirit

The wharves around here get quiet around Christmas time. People go on vacation or take time off with their families. Urchin harvesters, lobstermen, yard workers, marine mechanics, they all pretty much stop what they're doing for a few days. It's like that everywhere, I guess.

I went up to Augusta to do my Christmas shopping, took my mother with me. We stopped at Morse's Kraut House off Route 220 for some German delicacies. I bought chocolate rum balls, barbecue sauce, and some canned salmon. My mother met a retired trucker who gave her a hug and a kiss. I wanted to buy more but after checking the gleam in the guy's eyes I hustled my mother into the car and continued on up to Augusta. Sheesh, and I thought my mother was outgoing.

My mother's at the stage in her Alzheimer's where she has to stop and talk to everyone she meets. This can be time consuming, at time downright exasperating. I'm like most men. We don't like to shop. We particularly don't like to shop with our mothers. If and/or when we do go shopping, we do so with the efficiency and planning of a space shot. We don't hob nob. We don't waste motion. It's get in and get out. Like a well planned military strike.

My mother doesn't know from military strikes. Nor does she follow acceptable shopping guidelines for men.

I bought almost nothing. She, on the other hand, bought $176.00 worth of beauty aids, which, incidentally, I paid for.

On the bright side, she promptly forgot what she picked out, so I wrapped them the following day and gave them to her for Christmas/Hanukkah. (Yeah, that's right, we celebrate both. Wanna make something of it?)

Meanwhile, Sandra and I had signed an agreement whereby we would not spend more than $50.00 on each other. I broke the deal by buying a nightgown and robe made in India. The combo cost me $155.00 even though it was probably sewn out of 20 cents worth of material by a fourteen year old kid earning $1.20 a month.

***Warning! Non sequitur Coming!***

Speaking of India, and products made overseas, etc., etc. You hear a lot of rubbish that we're selling off the U.S. to foreign interests and losing economic security and countless jobs in the process. Well, to all the economic fatalists out there, let me point out the following:

Turns out the revenue earned from foreign owned U.S. companies is roughly the same as the revenue earned from U.S. owned foreign companies. In addition, what anti-globalists and anti-foreign policy wonks use as an argument -- that the value or equity of the U.S. owned foreign companies is much less than the value or equity of foreign owned U.S. companies, i.e. foreigners own much more of the U.S. than the U.S. owns of businesses in foreign lands. -- is a misdirection of the truth.

What would you rather have? Would you want to make a million dollars a year from a company that cost you 3 million dollars to purchase? Or would you want to make a million dollars a year from a company that only cost $100,000? Kind of a no brainer.

Speaking for myself, as a small time passenger boat owner/operator, I can say with absolute authority that a more expensive boat costs more to own, operate and insure . . . and yet it does not necessarily provide greater equity. Moreover, you can make as much money from a smaller, less expensive boat as you can make from a larger, more expensive one. It all depends on the market and how good you are at making money.

Remember the adage, Buy Low - Sell High.

Good advice for the country. Good advice for fishermen. Good advice for the holidays.


Atmospheric Conditions and Your Radio

When I was the pilot boat captain for the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association there were many occasions when I had to get underway during the pre-dawn hours in order to meet a ship. Invariably, during those early morning runs, a very strange thing would happen. Right around sunrise, VHF radio communications between the ship and pilot boat would become difficult if not impossible to complete. Turns out something happens in the atmosphere at or before sunrise that interferes with a radio transmission. (For more on this subject click here.)

Not too long ago, while in the process of moving my boat from up river to Rockland Harbor, I came across a friend's son who was out to haul his gear. We stopped to talk, then drifted apart and took our conversation to the VHF. Even though he was only a couple of hundred yards away, I could barely hear him. I suggested he get his radio checked, and then another fisherman, probably more than six miles away, interrupted our conversation to say he could hear us both just fine. I couldn't figure that one out until I got home, then it hit me.

My friend's son's radio antenna must have been blocked by his dry exhaust stack. There's no other explanation.

It's certainly something to consider when you're out there and you have to get a call out.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Everybody Gets Caught

This picture is the one commonly used to illustrate Force 11 winds as described by the Beaufort Scale.

No matter how big the ship is, getting caught in seas of Force 10 or greater (the scale goes up to Force 12) sucks. Nobody in their right mind wants to be in seas like this.

But it happens.

In fact, for commercial operators, and even many recreational boaters, the likelihood is quite high that one day wind, weather and circumstance will conspire to bring risk and misfortune into the picture.

On October 10th of this year, a Long Island, New York man found himself in a near death situation when the motor on his 8' skiff flunked out. The guy, who figured on doing a little striper fishing before dinner, left Southold in a small inflatable. The motor died, his paddle broke, and the wind carried him out to sea. Fortunately, when he failed to return home at the appointed hour, his wife called the Coast Guard. They found him six miles from shore, heading fast into the big bad ocean on the cusp of a major storm.

He was lucky. His little boat would have never survived.

I've been caught on numerous occasions. Once in a 30' boat in Long Island Sound in thunderstorms and 70 knot winds. I was by myself. Water at the helm came up to my ankles. The two radio antennae blew off. Anchor in the foredeck bucked out of its chocks and flew over the wheelhouse roof. Lucky for me it landed in the stern deck. Otherwise it might have fouled the propeller. I would have been in a hell of a mess then.

This is what happened to the Tug Harkness many years ago. It was middle of winter, around midnight, and they were transiting the Gulf of Maine. They got hit with an intense northwest storm with better than seventy knot winds. Tug was having problems but then the hawser washed overboard from the fantail and fouled the propeller. Tug broached. Frigid seawater crashed through the wheelhouse windows. I remember listening to the mayday and subsequent transmissions over the radio at my house in Port Clyde. 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind chills well below zero. Maybe 30 or 40 below. I can remember the captain of the tug just as calm as can be telling the Coast Guard it was time to leave the wheelhouse because a sea had just crashed through the windows.

The story of the Harkness is an amazing story of cool coolheaded perseverance, bravery and heroism on the part of the tug's crew, the Matinicus Island fishermen who rescued them, and the crew of the Coast Guard lifeboat that also braved the night to take part in the harrowing adventure.

I remember getting hit another time on the way back from a 45 mile dive trip. Fifty knot winds from the southwest. You know it's rough when every other wave flings seaweed into the windshield and a Gannett crash lands on the bow. Also, when you turn around to check your passengers, they're climbing into their dry suits.

Last example: 60 to 70 knots northwest. On the way back from an eco-tour. I knew it was coming, thought I'd be back in time, but an encounter with a baby humpback in 30' of water delayed my return just long enough.

For the record, you might want to note that every boat handles every sea a little differently, and every sea has its own personality. I've talked to friends who've fished for years in Alaska. They'll tell you they'd rather ride out hurricane force winds in the Bering Sea than punch through a winter northwest gale off the Maine Coast.

It's all about the sea, and the boat.

I should add that getting caught is not necessarily the mark of a bad mariner. Getting caught unprepared is. My anchor and line that day in Long Island Sound, and the tug's hawser that night in the Gulf of Maine, should have been properly secured.

Also, in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not just talking about boats and weather.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

25 Gallons of Anti-Freeze and a Lost Sewing Box

Yesterday I had it in my mind to winterize the forward bilge in Finback and install some 115 volt lights in the main bilge. Unfortunately, when I stopped at my mother's house in the early afternoon, I got waylaid by hysterics and a lost sewing kit.

The day started out productive enough. I got some writing done, delivered my outgoing mail to the post office, took care of some important email correspondence. I even brought the guys in the mechanics shop down at the marina their Christmas gift and managed to fill the forward bilge with non-toxic anti-freeze.

But then I stopped by my mother's to bring her some lasagna for lunch. That was when the excrement hit the whirling blades. She was in a state of hysterics because she couldn't find her sewing kit. This happens often these days, whenever she can't find something. Invariably, she believes the missing item has been stolen. Forget the fact that nobody has been in the house, or that she lives alone, or the reason she can't find something is because she hid it to keep it from the imaginary thieves.

She has Alzheimer's. It's not her fault.

Doesn't make it any easier.

I spent the next three hours cleaning out her room and closet until I found where she had squirreled away the sewing kit. At one point, I had to grab her by the shoulders and look straight in her eyes and yell at her to stop crying. I tried to reason with her about how great her life is compared to other people in the world. We were screaming at each other. She was blaming me for everything. I was trying to use logic to get her to stop crying and screaming. She was winning.

Afterwards I tried to console her and tell her she needed to see another doctor, maybe a shrink. She just got irate and mean and called me all kinds of names. She gets that way now.

When I found her sewing kit, she said thank you, and then it was like nothing had ever happened. Meanwhile, I needed a shot of something strong. It was only 4:00 but I went to the liquor cabinet and took two shots of The Glenlivett right out of the bottle. By this point it was getting dark and I had no interest in finishing the job on the boat. I was pretty well spent. What the hell, it was suppose to get warmer for the weekend. (Mild weather inbound from the west coast.)

Come to think of it, this whole thing with my Mom happened at about the exact time of Winter Solstice, September 21, 1335 hours.


Monday, December 19, 2005

Hunting the Elusive Uni

(Two Boats in the Rockland Urching Fleet in the Early Eighties.)

It's not really elusive, nor is it much of a hunt.

I used to harvest sea urchins for their roe back when the price was a mere $.30 to $.40 per pound. We'd bring back a ton or more of urchins in order to make a day's pay. These were all diver harvested urchins, culled by hand on deck.

Except for the cold - urchin season is typically in winter -- the fishery has its good points. It's clean: It deals in live product, and there's no bait. Translation, no rotten smell. In fact, when the urchins come up, the smell is actually quite pleasing, a freshly aerated ocean smell, like when a perfect wave breaks into foam on a white sand beach.

The process works as follows: Captain or tender uses a skiff to follow his diver or divers, who carry one or more mesh bags, each one tied to a rope and buoy. When a bag is full, the diver signals the tender with a tug on the rope. Tender sees the buoy twitch and drives to the diver. Tender then drops another bag down where the diver is and hauls the full bag to the surface, where it gets pulled into the skiff and dumped into a fish tray. Tender's job is to take out the sub-legal size urchins and cull out shell hatch, sand, seaweed, and other bottom debris.

If you want to read a fictional story of urchin harvesting. a.k.a whore's egging, originally published in Offshore Magazine, click on the link here: Mother Lode.

Whore's eggin' wasn't a bad way to make a living from the sea. You'd get a few spines in your hands and fingers but they'd come out eventually. Day's were long, but you were home every night. Still had to load and unload 2000 to 3000 pounds of product by hand every fish day. Kind of a chore if you didn't have hydraulics, and many of us didn't. (On a day the boom winch at the wharf was broken, I tore a muscle in my shoulder lifting a tray of urchins over my head to the quay. It still bothers me.)

Back in the old days, buyers screwed with you a bit. They figured a typical Maine fishermen didn't know enough about the product to know what was good. In some instances, particularly early on, they were right. I remember another time, we got back in to learn the Emperor of Japan had died. Suddenly our product was worth zip. All of us drove our catches back out to our own secret spots (or what we thought was secret) and dumped the catch back into the sea, hoping we could return after the market stabilized and re-harvest everything. That year, the market never really came back.

Soon after I got out of the urchin business, the market swelled and the price rose to over $1.00 per pound. You do the math. Not a bad day's pay in winter if you're bringing home over a ton of product. Unfortunately, like every other unregulated fishery, as this one was for awhile, it didn't take long to decimate urchin populations. Within the span of three or four years, whore's eggin' in Maine came to a virtual halt. Urchins, for the most part, were gone.

It's starting to rebound. The spiny critters are showing up in some numbers, as are the boats and the characters who run them.

I think I'll stay on the sidelines this time around.


Sunday, December 18, 2005

Me and Jimmy Carter

Yeah, OK, give me a minute and I'll relate this to the sea. Honest.

That's me in the background, in a previous life. (Note to self: Blog is getting a little too self-absorbed.)

I'm not a fan of Jimmy. Supposedly, in the Navy, he was a nuclear engineer, or studied to be such. As President, he left a lot to be desired.

Debacle in Iran.

Failed energy policy. (We can thank Jimmy for the windfall tax on U.S. energy companies, and, as a result, a greater dependence on foreign oil.)

Trying to buddy up to to terrorists, in particular, Yasser Arafat. The man made a hero of Yasser Arafat.

But, there I am. And there's Jimmy.

Thing is, I can tell you with all honesty that when this picture was taken, I would have rather been fishing. In fact, at the time, I was living in a motel on Singer Island in Florida, advertised as the home of the fourth largest charter fishing fleet in the world. (Montauk is first. Somewhere in Australia is second, Somewhere in Hawaii is third. Singer Island, Florida is fourth -- or so it was at the time. That time being when Jimmy was President.)

The boats on Singer Island were just absolutely gorgeous, 42' to 60' Palm Beach built Rybo's, Buddy Davis' and more.

I went to the Rybovich yard when I was down there, got a tour of a brand new 60 footer. Took my shoes off and walked through the boat in my socks.

All the appliances in the galley were on pneumatic lifts; out of sight when not in use, or push a button to pop them up when needed. Gold leaf trim. Heli-pad on the flybridge hardtop. 2000 gallons of aviation fuel. Wow!

But getting back to Jimmy. He seemed like a really nice man. Nice smile. Friendly. Unpretentious. I escorted him to the bathroom and back again, shook his hand too, before he went. That's a secret service button on my lapel, gives me access to the president so I can watch him pee if I want.

Truth be told, I would have Jimmy as a boat mate. He seemed like a really easy going guy.

But Jeeze-Louise . . . President???? What were we thinking?


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Right Turns Only

I think the temperature peaked at 13 degrees on Wednesday. In preparation for what I knew would be a very cold day, I did some shopping at the local chandlery. I bought several pairs of blue clam gloves and these orange gloves that have silicone non stick on the outside. In combination they seem to work pretty well. I also bought a pair of 80 degree-below rubber boots. (Word to the wise: When buying winter boots for deck work, try them on first. I brought home a pair of elevens but took them back for a pair of thirteens.)

Gloves and boots notwithstanding, I've noticed I've been fattening up. My dog is getting hairier by the day, and I'm eating enough to feed three small water buffalos. This does not bode well for the coming winter.

When it comes to being warm in frigid temperatures, making a fashion statement is less important than adding inches between you and the air. Wednesday I had on a pair of jeans over a pair of old sweatpants, t-shirt, two sweatshirts, a heavy wool coat someone brought me from Columbia or Ecuador, and an old leather jacket. I was stylin', man.

First we went to Spruce Head to get Danny's boat started. He popped the impeller out of the washdown pump and cranked the engine. That John Deere of his started on the fourth or fifth turn. (On Thursday, my old Cummins needed twenty turns and boost from another battery. Then again, my engine can eat Danny's engine for breakfast.)

We left Danny's boat running, came back to the co-op, and loaded his skiff into my truck. We drove to Tenants Harbor where I rowed out to my outboard on the mooring. I was asking a lot of the 20 year old Yamaha. And yet . . . it started. Five minutes later, she was on the trailer and ready to go.

However, the skiff turned out to be a slight problem. It was ten plus feet long. With the tailgate up in the truck, and the skiff in there, it touched the bow of the pointer. No way I could drive that way.

Danny suggested leaving the skiff on the side of the road and picking it up later but I insisted we make it work. After a few moments of contemplation, we cocked the skiff to one side and tied it off. The bows weren't touching anymore, but to get home we could only make right hand turns. No problem.

If you think about it long and hard enough, you really can drive yourself from one place to another by making just right turns.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Shark Bait!

I wrote a story a while back for Offshore magazine about my experiences taking people out to swim with sharks. Well, not actually swimming with them. These were all cage dives, as you can see in the photo, with a cage that had no door -- instead, it had a hatch in the top -- to keep the braver individuals from being tempted to go nose to nose with the toothy critters.

(You non-marine oriented people take note: On a boat or ship, a door is a means of egress through a bulkhead. A hatch is a means of egress through a deck. Bulkhead = wall. Deck = floor. A boat can be carried on a ship. A ship cannot be carried on a boat. Unless it's a submarine. All subs are called boats.)

I got into this shark cage thing when renowned wildlife photographer, Bill Curtsinger, contracted me to take him around the Gulf for three weeks. Among our other explorations were three days filming sharks 30 to 50 miles off the coast. Back then there were a lot more blue sharks. If you go to Bill's site you'll see some of the blue shark photos he took while chartering my boat.

Having taken wreck and wall divers in years previous, the idea of cage diving had its appeal. Any captain will tell you there's always a bit of anxiety when divers are in the water. They kind of get spread out.

Divers not only get separated from one another, they don't always follow the anchor line back to the boat. If it's a drift dive, and there is no anchor line, the situation can be even more exasperating.

See the movie, Open Water. I'm not trying to scare anyone, just illustrate what can happen if you get overly adventurous. There are a multitude of stupid ways to die. Being left behind on a wreck dive because you wanted to swim to the edge of a perceived debris field is chief among them.

This is why cage diving has such an appeal to the captain who for years has taken divers to wrecks and walls. Divers in cage. Cage tethered to boat. In many ways, this type of trip, the shark trip with a cage, is the safest type of dive trip.



A little note about watching out for the competition: Ten or more years ago, after I got out of the business, I put my cage up for a sale, A local captain who wanted to get into the biz called me up about it. I gave him a price and we made arrangements for him to come and look at the cage.

He came. He looked. He took measurements. Then he went home and built his own cage from my design. He stole my design and started his own business. The honorable thing to do would have been to call me up and hire me to do one hour's worth of consulting. For $50 to $75 he could have bought a lot of good will and more. Instead, he gets failing grades from me, and not one referral, ever. The guy is a retired cop, too.

I ended up selling the cage on eBay to a captain from Nantucket. The transaction could not have been more enjoyable. The buyer came up in a 3/4 ton Ford with his son and a friend. They made a day of it, cut the cage in half, and went home with the pieces tied into the bed of the truck. My cage was one solid piece, but they left it in panels so it could be transported easily and assembled on site.

Goes to show you the difference in people.

Monday, December 12, 2005

You're Not Suppose to Get Close

The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits vessels and their captains from getting within a certain distance of whales. But there is no law that prohibits whales from getting close to vessels, which, if you're lucky, is something they're known to do. Nobody knows why. Perhaps it's curiosity. Perhaps it's companionship. Perhaps it's something else.

This large humpback got within a few feet of our small boat when he decided to roll and flop around as if he were trying to work out a kink in his back or expel some gas. Don't laugh, In the past I've been alongside whales that have provided my passengers with a whiff of some very aromatic flatulence. Just when you think the air couldn't smell any worse, there's an unmistakable assault on the sinuses.

These are pretty smart animals. Maybe they do it on purpose.

A Little Too Much for the Little Boat

A Small Craft Advisory was in effect. Seas 4 to 7 feet dropping to 2 to 4 by afternoon. I figured it was probably OK for me to tow the little boat back to Rockland. All depended on how fast the wind dropped off.

Ice was gone out of the cove so it was easy to row out to the outboard. Damn motor took forever to start. Must have stalled twenty times. I have no confidence in that thing anymore.

Finback was in no better mood. She clearly wanted to hibernate where she lay. Took six shots of ether and a jump from the outboard to get her going. (Bitch!) I dropped my good sweatshirt in the bilge. Forward pump was frozen, blew three fuses before I got it unstuck. Batteries were almost dead. My feet were already soaking wet from pushing the dinghy through the eel grass. I'd left my gloves outside in the truck all night and they were ice cold. All I had with me was a turkey sandwich on a hamburger bun from the Gig Store. Looked like mostly mayo. But -- it was now or never. Tide left me no choice. Couldn't get back to shore now.

I plugged in the laptop, rigged a tow line, and got underway. Logged my departure at 0950.

Seas in the river were just like you'd expect with 20 knots of wind and opposing tide.

Got through Port Clyde and around Marshall Point and headed toward Mosquito Island. That's when I took the shot above. At Mosquito, seas were all of six feet and breaking. Little skiff didn't like that at all. Wanted a picture at Mosquito but couldn't leave the helm. I'm pretty sure if I'd walked back to get a shot of the outboard, Finback would have yawed side to and the skiff would have swamped. I decided to alter course for Tenants Harbor, put the skiff on a mooring, and continue to Rockland without the worry of the tow.

Best laid plans and all that.

Fetched Rockland at 1400. At least my exhaust repair held.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

I Really Must Do Something With These Boats


Dang, caught with my pants down again. I guess tonight I'll have to move the boats before the little one gets iced in and I can no longer get to the big one.


Dark already. Sucks. Have to chop through the ice to get to the pointer. When I get there I find the boat out of gas so I row back through the ice and get the jerry can. Fill the pointer and start for Finback. Yamaha knocking from down low. Sounds like a connecting rod. Better take the dinghy along -- just in case.

On Finback . . . one of those pasty, sticky snows that covers everything. You'd think with the wind that blew, it wouldn't have been this bad. I hate this type of snow on the boat. Only thing worse is glaze ice. I'm sure that's coming.

Too much water in the bilge. Have to deal with that tomorrow when I get underway. For now, shovel her off as fast as I can and get back. Dinner with friends tonight. Already running late.

Get back to the mooring in the cove. Tying up the pointer. Kestrel flies over my head. I think I hear an owl in the woods. Must be a small one.


Friday, December 09, 2005

A Friend Heads for Brazil with a New Perspective

I'm at my Mom's cleaning up yesterday when I find this old clay piggy bank. It's nothing special but it has a single coin in it. I open the bottom and pull out what looks like a nickel. On closer inspection it turns out to be 5 Shillings from the Republic of Somalia. On the back is stamped: XXI CENTURY 2000 FOOD SECURITY FAO.

I place the coin in my pocket and go into town to run some errands. On my way back I stop for coffee and drop the contents of my pocket --including the 5 shillings -- into the tip jar.

Just then a friend I haven't seen in months walks in. The guy has a tour boat and restaurant business that failed last year. As a result he's hard pressed for cash. He tells me he's heading for Brazil to run a 125' supply vessel for the Tidewater Company. He chose that over the Gulf of Mexico and the Persian Gulf.

I say to myself: "Brazil, Gulf of Mexico, Persian Gulf -- Somalia! My coin!"

I go back to the counter and ask the guy if I can rifle through his tip jar. He shoots me a look but I ignore it. I dump the contents of the tip jar into my hand and search for my coin. My friend is mortified until I show him what I was after.

Holding it in his hand, he says: "It's like plastic."

"I know," I say. "I think it's aluminum."

He looks at the coin up close and reads where it says Food Security, then he bounces the coin in his hand a few times.

"Just when you think you have nothing," he says, "you're reminded of people who have less than nothing."

"That's why I wanted it," I add.

After we say goodbye I come home and do some research:

FAO is the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.

The coin is a commemorative minted in Slovakia. It has virtually no monetary value.

There are 1789.78 Somali Shillings in one U.S. Dollar. (An Iraqi Dinar is worth more. Curiously, an Iranian Rial is worth almost five times less than a Somali Shilling. How is that possible? Says something about the situation in Iran.)

The average life expectancy for a male in Somalia is 46.36 years.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Moose Island

Actually, it's really called Monroe Island, privately owned, about 2-3/4 miles from Rockland. It isn't really known to have moose on it, but many years ago, it had one that came out every morning for about two weeks to sniff the air coming over the mainland. Clearly, the old boy had swum out to the island on the spur of the moment, then decided he didn't want to stay. Problem was, he'd bitten off more than he'd wanted to chew. Cold water. Long swim home. Lots of obstacles.

Moose in the picture above is not the one of the story. Moose above is one that charged me on a trail on Bigelow Mountain. He charged full steam, then went into a trot, then a walk, and crossed the trail behind me, which is when I snapped his mug shot.

Moose of the story is one I would see every morning on one of my daily trips to the outer islands of Penobscot Bay. Until the day he didn't show up.

I like to think he finally got up the nerve and swam back to the mainland.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Look! A Sea Shell!

That's my father holding up the sea shell. Me, standing behind Henry Ford. Yeah, that Henry Ford. This is after our chopper crashed in the desert. Dead chopper in the background. Probably nobody will ever read this and therefore nobody will ever ask me for an explanation. All the better.

Point is, this blog is dedicated to the sea. We're in the middle of the Sinai Desert, and my Dad is holding up a sea shell. Don't believe me. Check in Henry Ford's book, Henry.


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

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Picture of Me on Index Rock, Mt. Katahdin, Me.

This isn't exactly a picture that relates to the sea, but if you give me a minute, I'll find a connection. (For the most part, I just like the picture, as it reminds me of my more carefree and fearless days.)

Index Rock is on the Dudley Trail, a steep, boulder strewn climb up the north slope of Pamola Peak. The boulders are huge, and most of the climb is a hand over hand crawl. Very strenuous. At one section, the boulders are so large they form caves.

I used to go to Katahdin every year for three days to a week. When I first started going, at the age of thirteen, you could hike or climb all day and not see another soul. Those days are long gone. Katahdin, and the park it resides in (Baxter State Park), see many thousands of tourists and campers every year. August is probably the busiest month.

If you asked the park rangers what the increase in traffic has meant to them I'm sure they'll remark about the physical stress, i.e. erosion, litter, waste, etc. They'll also mention that many tourists are ill-prepared for a visit or hike in the park.

Indeed, this is the connection I was looking for.


One of the worst things that can happen to a climber, and one of the most frequent of all mishaps on Katahdin, is getting stuck on the mountain after dark -- without a flashlight. You might as well sit down and wait until morning, because to go farther in the dark, especially down, is a recipe for disaster.

You would be amazed at how many people start climbing Katahdin without the basics, good shoes, enough water, a flashlight.

By the same token, you'd be amazed at how many people head out to sea without the same basics.

When I was running daily tours to the outer islands, it got to the point where I'd tell people to dress for winter. They would be stunned to hear this, or they'd just laugh. "What, you mean," they'd ask. "Like gloves and a ski cap?"


"But it's July."

"Trust me."

And we would get out there and the smart ones would have listened and they'd be in hats and coats and gloves, all nice and toasty.

I used to carry blankets on the boat but they tended to walk off by themselves. So then I started bringing my ratty old winter coats. Moldy, smelly, grease stained things that never, ever got washed. The kind of coat I'd lean on in the bilge to keep my knees from getting dirty or bruised.

People would come to me half way through the trip and say. "Do you have a blanket or something I can have to keep warm?"

I'd tell them no, but that they could wear this . . . and I'd hand them one of my coats. Nothing I liked more than to see that special guy or gal who disregarded my advice bundled up in one of my disgusting rags -- and lovin' every minute of it.

Hey, if you don't heed the advice of the professionals, smelling like a day old herring belly is a small price to pay.


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

Risk Assessment

(illustration by Sollars)

Finback is pretty protected up the river, but in a westerly gale the wind can kick up a nice little chop. There were probably three-footers rolling in when I checked the boat yesterday.

I took the Pointer, a 23' center console skiff with a 150 hp Yamaha. The little boat took spray over the bow and pounded the whole way out.

Tying up was a little tricky, getting underway afterwards trickier. The latter required a leap of faith, wind and seas tearing at the boat and painter.

While the little boat was tied abreast to the big one, it thrashed and bucked at its lines like an animal trying to break free of its chains. Even with substantial fendering, the two boats slammed into each other on several occassions.

To get Finback started I had to jump it off the battery in the Pointer, which meant running a 20' jumper cable across the rail and into the pitching and rolling skiff.

It all worked out. I got the big boat started, ran it for an hour. I would have liked to get underway, but. . . . Being by myself, tide ebbing, working against the clock and such, it just seemed like I was pushing the envelope.

I'm glad I didn't have to get underway. I'm glad my income, my very survival, no longer depends on getting underway in rough weather. So many others who work on the sea aren't as fortunate.

Not My Time

Several years ago I was hired to due a story on a highline tuna fisherman from Cape Cod. I won't use his real name, though I suspect many readers will know about whom I'm speaking.

We went out early in the morning in his 31' BHM, aided by a spotter plane. The waters were rich with activity. Whales, dolphins, sharks, and huge schools of giant bluefin. We eventually stuck (harpooned) one at the end of the day. Fish dressed out at 850 pounds.

But that's not the point. Point is, for a good while, this fisherman and I were in the tower together, high over the boat and the water, probably 25' to 30' up. I remember feeling the tower buck, twitch actually, with every wave. It was an odd movement. I'd been in many other tuna towers and never had I felt that pecular type of motion. I mentioned this to the captain and he said he didn't notice it. He also said he'd had the tower extended recently.

After we unloaded the fish, after we put the boat to bed, this fisherman and I said goodby to each other and I travelled back home to Maine. I wrote the story, which ended up as the cover story that month. The fisherman was quite pleased with the way it came out, even though he never wanted his name used.

Two or three weeks later, the guy was fighting for his life in a hospital. What happened was, on another routine tuna trip, the tower collapsed. The guy and his mate were slammed against the rail, then dumped into the sea. The boat, of course, with no one at the helm, kept going.

Fortunately, their lives were saved by the quick thinking of other tuna fishemen in the area, who spotted the boat motoring around with its tower broken in half, and the good survival instincts of the captain, who, despite serious internal injuries, kept his mate afloat until help arrived. They two were eventually airlifted to a hospital.

As Luck Would Have It

When I was a little kid, about 12 years old, I went with my mother and brother to this house in the suburbs. While the others were inside, I went out to watch this guy with a spinning rod cast a small lure into the swimming pool. I watched for awhile, and then something really strange happened. I felt this tugging at my eye. No shit, this guy cast the lure across the pool and hooked me in the eye.

My mother -- who is now suffering from Alzheimer's and can't cook an egg or boil water without help -- took me up to the bathroom and removed the hook from my eye. The barb had gone through the eyelid, in and out, but somehow, miraculously, did not penetrate the eye itself.

I think about luck all the time. I think I was lucky it wasn't me thrown into the sea on that tuna boat. I think I'm lucky I have both my eyes. I can think of dozens of other times I was lucky. And I wonder if I'm running out of luck.

A friend of mine, ship captain and pilot, a guy I worked with as captain of the pilot boat, was interviewed for a story in a local newspaper. The reporter asked him what skills or qualities were needed by a pilot. He said: "After the obvious ones, seamanship, navigation, etc., the most important quality is luck."


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

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Boat Dog

(another article by Bob Bernstein originally published in Offshore magazine in one form or another)

Ever see a pooch on the foredeck of a skiff, nose pointed forward, ears flapping back against his head, his owner at the helm steering for some distant locale? Ever watch a dog trying to communicate with a mackerel flopping around inside a five-gallon bucket? Yep. There's no doubting it: Dogs love the boating life.

Mine does, anyway. Put her on a boat, any boat, and she'll make Sir Francis Chichester look like the King of the Dirt Farmers. Go ahead. Pooh-pooh a dog's brain for being mostly tuned to the business of sniffing, i.e. figuring out the subtle differences between a squashed jackrabbit on I-95 and a half-cooked herring belly lying on the lazarette hatch in the noonday sun. Scoff all you want. There's more to those aromatically challenged doggie synapses than you think. Deep within their fist-sized masses of gray matter lies enough cognitive ability to understand what 90% of pleasure boating is all about. That's right, I'm talking about a dog's two favorite things in the whole world: Eating and Sleeping.

My dog, Bullitt, named for the movie of the same name starring Steve McQueen -- if you saw me chasing after Bullitt when she was a puppy you'd understand why -- is a virtual sleeping and eating machine. I used to run bird and whale watch trips, and during the eight hour steam out and back, she was in canine heaven. She'd sleep from 7:00 am to around 11:00 am, then arise like a Phoenix out of the ashes when the distinctive wrinkling of a sandwich wrapper would roust her from her reverie. (It's a miracle of nature and a proven fact, tested I believe on the Bonneville Salt Flats, that a dog can hear a person opening a can of Vienna Sausages from five miles away.)

Listening to people eat is one thing, joining in is another. Everyone knows, a daily diet of human food is no good for a dog, and I honestly tried to keep the Bullie dog on the straight and narrow. But no matter how much I insisted over the PA for my passengers not to feed the dog (Attention on deck! Please come to the wheelhouse and pick up doggie biscuits if you want to feed Bullitt.), people just couldn't resist. There was this one time I came out the port side door of the cabin, turned aft, and found her standing over a 12 inch Italian Hoagie. Didn't that get my goat. Not only was she eating the wrong kind of food, she was eating better than I was.

However, life aboard the boat wasn't all subways and siestas for good old Woolly Bullie. A few years ago, I had a group of whale watchers southeast of Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. We were busy eyeing a pod of four finback whales when a fifth whale showed up. This fifth animal was a sei whale, and it was much more active and curious about the boat and the people on it than were any of the more standoffish finbacks. The sei would charge, then, five feet from the hull, dive straight down. Ten seconds later it would surface on the other side. It continued this form of play for 30 minutes or more. And every time it surfaced, it would let out a massive breath of fishy-smelling spray.

We were all running around the deck, following the whale. We'd watch it charge the boat, then see it dive headfirst into the depths. Visibility was more than 50 feet, and we could see nearly the whole length of the whale as it turned gracefully downward and disappeared with one or two massive swipes of its tail fin. Quite the spectacle, except for one thing. . . .

The dog found the whale -- how should I say it? -- irritating. Every time the whale surfaced and blew, Bullitt would run willy-nilly around the deck whining and howling like a Scotch banshee. All I could think of was to pick her up in my arms and show her what the commotion was all about. In retrospect, my effort compared similarly to putting out a small grass fire with a pail full of gasoline. Instead of howling and running around on deck, the dog dug her claws into my shoulders and howled INTO MY EAR! Now this is something I'm more than a little used to given that I spend a good deal of time doing the exact same thing during thunderstorms, fireworks celebrations, and those unfortunate times when duck hunters venture too close to my house on Watts Cove. But I think the whole affair probably looked to my passengers like some form of sadomasochistic torture.

There was one other whale encounter Bullitt took exception to and it happened during a beautiful, flat calm day in July. We were cruising southeast through Maine's Penobscot Bay. I had a group of editorial and production staff from a national magazine aboard. when we spotted what looked like the inner tube from one of the space shuttle's wheels floating on the surface. We closed the distance, and the situation became clear and somewhat desperate. It was a minke whale, and it had gotten itself tangled in lobster gear, so much so that it was anchored to the bottom by twenty to thirty pairs of traps. The tide was flooding, and the animal was already tired from struggling to stay afloat. It also had a helluva sunburn.

To make a long story short, I maneuvered close. Then, with a sharp knife in my hand and the whale's tail hauled nearly to the boat's rail, the men aboard hung me over the side by my feet, and I cut the animal loose. I'd like to say it winked or nodded in appreciation but all it did was swim off and dive, then give us a nice big blow about 30 minutes later. Minke whales don't ordinarily have a visible spout, so maybe this was its way of saying, Thanks. Anyway, during the whole incident, Bullitt never veered more than three inches away from my right foot, except when I was being hung over the side, at which time she ran around deck and howled and whined like a Scotch banshee.

Just so you understand, Bullitt doesn't act this way with all whales. Of the dozens upon dozens of whale encounters we've had aboard the boat over the years, these were the only two that elicited such a response. Maybe she was scared. Or maybe, as I like to think, she was just trying to relay some form of whale communication to us less empathetic humans.

Pets are like that. They can communicate with other members of the animal kingdom in ways us humans will never understand. For example, we had a transient chocolate lab at that marina that liked to run up and down the docks barking at the seagulls, not the ones on the dock, mind you, but the ones flying overhead. Was he challenging them? Warning them? Or was he trying to tell us something? Your guess is as good as mine.

Another lab I knew, a yellow one named, Nell, liked to commune with the fishes at the most inopportune times. Billy Soltz, my best friend from high school, and his family, had a 17' Boston Whaler Montauk that we'd run back and forth between Bayport and Fire Island on Great South Bay. Once, when we were cruising along at about 30 knots, the Soltz's dog, Nell, just up and jumped overboard. We turned around and found her happy as a clam swimming in circles in the middle of the bay. After that we knew well enough to keep a watchful eye on her as well as a tight grip on her collar. But at speeds over 15 knots, her beady little eyes were always peeled to the wake, and her whole body shook with the urge to plunge into the sea.

Chasing birds, diving into the ocean, receiving psychic messages from whales, and dreaming of deck loads of hoagies, add up to tons of boating excitement for dogs. And even if they don't get the chance to do something wonderful like take a quick slurp out of the bloody chum bucket when you're not looking, there's no doubt they'd rather be by your side on the boat than anywhere else on the planet.

A Note About Pet Safety Aboard the Boat

First thing you want to do is get a good pfd for the pet. This is especially true for people with flush deck boats, and, particularly, for people with sailboats. Also, if you have a boat like this, it's not a bad idea to consider safety netting. My boat, Finback, has a 40" bulwark, so there's virtually no chance for my dog to jump overboard. However, as Billy Soltz and Nell can attest [see story], sometimes the urge to make a splash can be overwhelming. For example, when I get close to the dock, I always assign someone the job of holding onto the dog, because I don't want her vaulting for the dock prematurely.

In addition, at night and in rough weather, it's a good idea to clip a safety light to the dog's pfd. Keep it turned on during the passage and it will insure that if the dog has an unfortunate accident and falls overboard, you'll have the best chance of finding it.

Also make sure your pet has plenty of water. Dogs get dehydrated just like people, and they get seasick, too, which further dehydrates them. There's not much you can do for a seasick dog, except give it someplace comfortable to sleep where it won't slide around or get hurt by things flying off of shelves and out of cabinets. Usually a dog will seek out it's own place. If it does, make it comfortable and safe there. Eventually, seasickness will pass, and many dogs that get seasick in the beginning, adjust accordingly and stop getting seasick altogether.

Dr. Glenn Yovino, at the Harbor Road Veterinary Hospital in South Thomaston, Maine, has a few more suggestions:

1. Make sure the animal's pfds are appropriately sized. This is key.

2. Acclimating the animal to the boat before embarking on a long trip. Let them get familiar with the boat, the dock, the skiff, and short trips.

3. If you're going out of the country, do your homework. First, you need to make sure it's allowed. Second, if it is allowed, you have to get the paperwork in order.

4. Seasickness can be an issue. Some people think the dog should be sedated, but Dr. Yovino says dogs do best with their wits about them. Again, acclimate the dog to short trips first. And, if you're expecting heavy seas, Yovino suggests skipping a meal.

5. Don't forget to always have plenty of fresh water available.

6. Most dogs can go twelve hours without urinating, but Yovino suggests trying to get the dog to urinate every four hours. Remember that a house-trained dog needs to be retrained to go on a boat. They need to be praised for doing what they think is the wrong thing. If you're not going to stop every four hours and walk them on land, try and get them to go on deck. And, if you suspect they're holding it in, put the leash on and give them a walk around deck just like you would do on land. Put some paper down and see if that'll work. When they finally go, make sure you praise them. And don't worry, they'll know the difference between the deck and your living room.

7. Last but not least, Yovino cautions boaters to be very careful with young animals. Don't subject puppies and/or kittens to long trips or rough weather.


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

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Ships Under the Sea

Embarrassment at Castine

by Bob Bernstein

(originally published in Offshore magazine)

As a diver and amateur treasure hunter, I've always been fascinated by Maine's maritime history, particularly as it relates to things that have filled with water and sunk. But in 1982, my interest took a more pro-active turn when I decided to open a dive boat business. Suddenly I needed wreck sites for my customers. Working from the deck of a 30' lobsterboat, my friend, Carl, and I started hunting the mid-coast area from Islesboro to Damariscove Island off Boothbay Harbor. Lo and behold, we located eight sunken ships dating from the turn of the century to the mid-fifties.

It sounds like we accomplished quite a bit, but actually it wasn't that difficult a task. Maine's coastline is peppered with thousands of islands and countless numbers of underwater hazards. Truth is before NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard started marking things, this was not the safest place in the world to explore. Captains lost their boats left and right to Maine's ledges and shoals, and some say there are over 3,000 shipwrecks here.

Maine's Most Infamous Wrecks

It was not one of our Country's proudest moments. In fact, it cost two Americans their commissions and honor and sent twenty-nine ships and 500 men to their graves. Paul Revere -- considered by so many to be a hero of the revolution -- was court-martialed as a result.

I'm talking, of course, about the battle of Castine, where, in 1779, a fleet of American warships, 39 in all, disgraced the flag and their compatriots while trying to take Fort George from the British. Here's what happened:

Six American navy ships, 13 privateers, and 20 troop transports -- with over 1200 men -- set sail from Boston in July of 1779. They arrived in Castine to find the fort guarded by three British warships and about 500 troops. For some unexplained reason, the Commander of the American fleet, Captain Dudley Saltonstall, chose not to attack with his ships. Instead, he put his troops ashore and laid siege to the castle from land. The battle lasted 21 days, after which the Americans were repulsed and forced to retreat back to their boats.

Not soon after the American troops boarded their vessels, a British officer. Sir George Collier, arrived with six of His Majesty's warships. The British vessels entered the bay from the south and apparently their appearance placed Saltonstall and his officers in such a state that the American commanders ordered their warships to break ranks and flee to the north. When Collier saw the transports abandoned and left drifting, he began to open fire on them with his cannons.

But the disgrace of Saltonstall's opening action was just the beginning. As some of the transports came to rest along the banks, troop commander General Peleg Wadsworth gave orders to set up a line of defense along the river's edge, presumably to provide cover for the fleeing American warships. His artillery officer was none other than the renowned arms maker, silversmith and metalworker, Paul Revere. Ironically, Wadsworth's grandson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, would later immortalize Revere in a poem. But on this day, in July of 1779, Revere proved himself unworthy of such accolades. In violation of Wadsworth's instructions, he scuttled his artillery and munitions into the sea and began a forced march with his men back to Boston.

Meanwhile, Saltonstall and his other captains tried to sail their vessels out of reach of the British Navy. The majority went up river. One, the Defence, tried to make its way to sea. None succeeded in eluding their pursuers, and all were scuttled and burned by order of their commanding officers.

Pickled by Nature, Preserved by Man

Ten years ago, a friend and I dove on two vessels that had been under Penobscot Bay for 100 years. One of the vessels, a 212' three-masted schooner, stood square on its keel as if she had filled with water while on her mooring. Her masts had fallen down, her deck house was gone, and the bowsprit had broken in half, but everything else was in remarkably good condition.

My dive buddy went inside first. With visibility down to a foot or less, he swam carefully through the deck opening and down a set of steps. Inching his way forward, he made his way to the galley. First there was an iron cook stove, then, next to the stove, a crockery jug. Finally, right next to the jug, standing upright as if someone had just put it there . . . a half-full bottle of cooking sherry. All this in a ship that had sunk at the turn of the century.

Scientists believe that a combination of certain sediments, low salt content, still waters, and an absence of wood-eating marine organisms, help keep shipwrecks intact. The wreck my friend and I visited certainly bears this out, but so does another more important find, the wreck of the Defence, discovered by archeologists in the early seventies in a cove in Stockton Springs.

The Defence -- the ship that tried to escape to seaward but eventually got torched by her captain, John Edmonds -- was partially salvaged by a team of scientists working for the State. While some of her artifacts were preserved and placed on permanent display at the museum, the bulk of her lies on the bottom. In fact, because saving sunken treasure for all eternity is such a time-consuming and expensive process, the State decided to leave most of what they found right where it was. They brought stuff to the surface, photographed it, cataloged it, put it in a big net, then gave it back to the sea. Why? Because the Upper Penobscot Bay is the perfect pickle jar.

Paul Revere's Silver Collection

I've toyed with the idea of searching for Paul Revere's treasure ever since that day my friend and I found that half-full bottle of cooking sherry. My interest is further peaked whenever I visit the Defence exhibit in Augusta. But there are three reasons my salvager's sea bag remains empty: (1) Silver doesn't have the staying power of gold, a remarkably everlasting metal; whereas the Penobscot River and Upper Bay are the perfect pickle jar, silver is not the perfect pickle; it doesn't take much to destroy any or all of its filigree, and it has a very low resistance to surface corrosion. (2) The State has laws that prohibit private citizens from removing historical artifacts from State waters, and (3) Revere's collection supposedly went down on the Spring Bird -- scuttled and burned somewhere north of Hampden.

Hampden's just south of Bangor, but way, way, way upriver. This means the person who succeeds in finding Revere's sunken treasure will have to dig through over 200 years of accumulated sediment. The ship might be under 50' of mud and silt. Or maybe the captain and crew of the Spring Bird removed the treasure, carried it inland, and buried it somewhere between here and Boston. Perhaps they stole it from Revere and divided it between themselves. Or maybe Revere came back to Maine and dug it up himself. Nobody knows for sure.

There are at least two certainties though: History remembers Revere for his ride through the Commonwealth and not for his cowardice or insubordination at the battle of Castine. For all intents and purposes, people seem to prefer it that way.


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

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Maine Treasures Lost, Gained, and Restored

(from a column by Bob Bernstein previously published in Offshore magazine. Photo courtesy of Steven W. Kress)

It happened about 20 or so years ago. I was firmly ensconced in a New York City 9 to 5 grind when a friend telephoned me and spoke the words that would forever change my life: "Bob, I found some shipwrecks in Penobscot Bay. Come up and help me salvage them." Two months later, I had everything from my apartment loaded onto the deck of a 30' Sisu bound for the coast of Maine.

Having gained a few gray hairs and lost a few thousand dollars in the process, I think I can say with absolute certainty that treasure hunting is more about sinking money into the ocean than it is about finding what has been sunk. In fact, if indeed a boat is a hole in the water in which one throws money, treasure hunting is a bottomless pit.

But I was not then and am not now discouraged, because the waters of Maine are chock full of interesting finds. Whether they be buried under the silt of the state's rivers, or out in the open for all to behold, this coast holds some of the world's great treasures.

Treasures Found

One of the state's most curious finds was discovered off the shores of Castine in 1971. Two large jars brought to the surface by divers and sent to the University of Maine were later identified as amphorae by Dr. Barry Fell, a Harvard University Professor.

Dr. Fell, and the Director of the Early Sites Research Center, James Whittall, claimed the jars had originated from the Southern Iberian Peninsula. They further postulated that Phoenician traders or Iberian-Celtic merchants -- while bartering with the Indians of the region -- freighted supplies and goods to the area many hundreds of years before Columbus discovered America. Moreover, a substantiating piece of evidence to this theory was found on Monhegan Island, where ancient Celtic writing, carved into the rock and translated by Dr. Fell, reads: "Cargo Platforms for Ships from Phoenicia."

Surely it must have been a trick to navigate the waters of Maine in a ship built circa 7th century BC. I can picture trying to maneuver around the nearby ledge, Roaring Bull, with wind and tide in opposition, and nothing for backup but a galley full of fur-clothed men on oars. The very idea of it makes me wonder: What did the Phoenicians or Iberian-Celts come here for? Were they here as explorers and adventurers? Did they get blown off course during one of their circumnavigations of Africa, or were they here for something special?

Treasures Lost

We might not ever know what brought the Indo-Europeans to Maine, but we can be sure that while they were here, they enjoyed the seafood. Ever hear of a shell midden? Maine has quite a few of them. They're ancient garbage heaps of clam, oyster and other types of seafood shells. Although no one really knows how many middens there are along the coast (hundreds, maybe even thousands) one thing's for certain: Native Mainers knew how to throw a clam bake.

Scientists have determined that the remains of these shore-dinners are between one thousand and five thousand years old, which predates them to a time when lobsters crawled around the intertidal zone like green grabs do today. In fact, not far from where I live, clams and oysters were once so plentiful they inspired the locals to name a tributary of the St. George River after them: Beginning as a trickle out of the Rockland Bog, the Oyster River empties into the St. George in Thomaston, less than a mile north of the Thomaston bridge on Route 1.

Clearly, native tribes took full advantage of Maine's inshore treasures. For example, we know that the Etchimins (translation: The Men) and the Passamaquoddy (from Pestumokadyik, meaning, "People Who Spear Pollock") paddled their canoes up and down the coast in search of food. But where else did they go? How far out to sea did they travel? Did they venture to the outer Islands of Maine and Canada?

Sure. Why not? In 1992, I captained a motor escort for a modern day explorer who, while traveling by ocean kayak, traced the migration route of the now extinct Great Auk, a flightless bird whose bone fragments can be found from Funk Island, Newfoundland to Narragansett, RI. The explorer, Richard Wheeler, a schoolteacher from Massachusetts, proved that the distant islands of Maine and Canada were not beyond the reach of adventurous souls in kayaks and canoes. Undoubtedly, native tribes hunted The Great Auk and other sea birds for meat and eggs, as did the people who later colonized Northern New England and the Maritimes.

Alas, the Great Auk is gone, as are many of the shell and fin fish. But much remains, and much is being restored.

Treasures Restored

At one time, 100 to 200 years ago, Atlantic puffins and other arctic sea birds nested on Maine's outer islands in great numbers. They came in the spring and stayed just long enough to mate and raise their young, then it was back out to sea for the remainder of the year. But heavy harvesting for meat, eggs and feathers virtually wiped these birds off the Maine map. By 1901, only one pair could be found in the United States. That pair was on Matinicus Rock at the outer reaches of Penobscot Bay.

The effort to restore these birds to their rightful nesting grounds began with a Matinicus Rock lighthouse keeper.

William G. Grant was hired to keep the hunters at bay and as a result became one of America's first wildlife wardens. Despite the heroic efforts, protecting the birds on the local level was not enough, so in 1918, Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty act, making it illegal to kill most kinds of wild birds.

The puffins thrived on Matinicus Rock under the protection of the U.S. Government and concerned wildlife groups like National Audubon, but it wasn't until Stephen W. Kress got into the act that things began to change dramatically.

Dr. Kress dreamed that one day Maine's outer islands would be covered in nesting sea birds. In 1973, he embarked on a wildlife project that has since become a model for restoration efforts around the world. Over a span of eight years, Kress and his colleagues brought 954 puffin chicks from Great Island, Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, Maine. The chicks were given hand dug burrows to live in and vitamin-fortified fish to eat. Decoys were set up on the rocks to make them feel more welcome. Finally, in 1977, the first of the Great Island emigrants appeared over Eastern Egg Rock. Why? Because puffins of breeding age return to their place of birth year after year after year.

Today, puffins can be found on Eastern Egg Rock, Matinicus Rock, Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Petit Manan Island National Wildlife Refuge. These are the only places in the United States where you can see these birds. Tour boat operators (including myself) run people to the islands on regularly scheduled trips, but anyone with a stout boat and solid navigational skills can find their own way; just remember, no landings; these are protected nesting sites.

OK, so what if all I have to show for my treasure hunting efforts are a half dozen portholes and an equal number of old anchors and bottles? Who cares? With or without the pieces of eight and silver specie, I'm walking where the Phoenicians walked, eating where the Etchimins ate . . . and sunbathing beyond the shadow of the puffin's wing.


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

Sunday, November 27, 2005

To Fish or Not to Fish

(Originally published in Offshore magazine under the title "Liar's Logbook." Artwork by David Stickney.)

This story really happened. I deliberately changed the names and pretended it was all a hoax for the simple reason I never thought anyone would believe me. You probably still won't believe it, but I swear it's true.


It was one of those screamin' August days. Wind whipping up a fierce sea. Tail of a hurricane. Long Island Sound looking like the inside of a Maytag on power wash. No day for man, fish, or fisherman. (And yes, I'm deliberately differentiating between man and fisherman.)

I had a charter. They drove all the way from somewhere inland of the Tappan Zee Bridge to meet me at Ray's Marina on City Island. This is 30 plus years ago, long before cell phones, which is why I couldn't get in touch with them to cancel. You'd think with storm warnings posted and the ban on tractor-trailer and van traffic on the bridge they would've figured it out themselves. Apparently, that was too much to expect.

Mike and Pete came for bluefish. They had in their arsenal 30 pound rods and reels and a dozen or more absurd-looking plugs and spinners. I had similar gear (less the Dayglow lures) as I anticipated blues and stripers and nothing else, i.e. flounder, blackfish, etc. The rest of my stuff I had left at home.

I was hoping they'd make the trip home with my apologies and their deposit but it didn't work out that way. They wanted to stay and fish from the dock. Mike had been waiting three weeks for this and needed to dip a hook in the worst way, even it was only from the end of the float. Unfortunately, with their heavy gear, and mine, fishing from the dock with our rods and reels was going to be like taking a shotgun to a spitball contest.

Enter Sal . . . fisherman extraordinaire, long time City Islander, geezer with the golden gift. Sal had a brand new $290 light tackle custom rod and reel he had just purchased. This was no ordinary stick. It was a piece of art.

As both our boats, Sal's and mine, shared a common float, it wasn't long before all of us were sharing tall tales of rowdy bars, sex starved women and even sexier fish. In no time at all, Mike and Sal had hit it off.

Now I'm not saying Mike had an ulterior motive, but it didn't take him long to talk Sal into loaning out that $290 rod and reel.

"Come on," Mike said. "I'll be careful. What could happen inside the harbor? There's nothing here but small flounder and green crabs."

"You never know," said Sal.

"I'll take the can of flatworms and cut tiny chunks, just the tiniest pieces of bait, less than the size of my pinky nail. What the hell's gonna grab it but a crab or a tiny flounder? And I'll take care of the rod, I promise."

Sal looked at his new rig and then at Mike. "Well, all right," he said, "but don't dip the tip in the water and don;t walk away from it. Hold it in your hands at all times. It wouldn't be the first time a rod was pulled in the water by a fish."

Mike accepted the rod from Sal, grabbed the number 10 can full of flatworms, and walked to the end of the dock. He sat down and began cutting bait. Within minutes he was happily fishing. There were nibbles, a modest strike, then a small flounder. He brought up a couple of crabs, then another small flounder. An hour had passed. Now he had to use the head.

He cut a small piece of bait, the size of his pinky nail, as he promised, baited the hook, and cast it about fifteen feet from the dock. He then laid the stick on the tackle box and gently wedged the butt end of the rod into one of the dock cleats. This will only take a minute, he thought.

Mike walked back to the dock house, but just as he passed Sal's boat and mine, Sal stopped him. "How's it going," he asked.

"Two small flounder," said Mike. "I'm going to the head. Be right back."

"Where's my rod and reel?"

"I left it there. I'll only be a minute."

Sal was peeved. "What??!! You left it there. I thought we had a deal. Someone could step on it, knock it into the water. Forget it. I changed my mind. You can't use it. I'm taking it back."

"OK, OK, hold your horses, Sal. I'm sorry." Mike backpedaled. "I'll go back and get it and bring it to you."

"HEY BUDDY," hollered someone from the end of the dock, "YOU GOTTA FISH ON!"

Mike looked at Sal. Sal glowered at Mike. Then Mike, Sal, Pete and I ran for the end of the dock. We got there just in time to see the rod wiggle free from the cleat and go sailing tip first into the harbor. But it didn't sink. The force with which it was being towed kept it on the surface for at about ten seconds. In that time, it looked like a torpedo speeding through the water. Sal's $150 reel threw a beautiful rooster tail about a foot high. Then the whole thing went under tip first and disappeared. It was quite a show.

Needless to say, Sal was not happy. He laid into Mike with a vengeance.

It was up to me to make peace.

"Sal, we can get it back," I said.

"Forget it," Sal said. "It's gone." He lowered his head and stared at nothing. He was defeated.

"I have a grapnel," I said. "We'll take the skiff and the grapnel and tow it around out there, you know, in the area we saw the rod go down. Really, Sal, how far can that fish tow that rod?

"I'm sure the line will break first, but what the hell? Let's go."

Sal and I boarded the skiff and rowed out to where the rod sank. We towing the bottom for about five minutes. Then Sal said he had something.

"Pull it up," I said.

Sal yanked at it, straining. "It's too heavy. Give me a hand."

We both hauled on the grapnel line knowing full well whatever we were pulling in was not what we were looking for. "I better not lose my grapnel," I said.

Sal shot me a look, saying with his eyes that he thought my grapnel was not on a par with his $290 stick that my charterer foolishly sent into the drink.

"Here it comes," said Sal. "It's almost here. I got it. I got it. Damn! What the hell is it?"

"It's an underwater cable, you idiot. Get my grapnel off of it and let it go. You wanna get electrocuted or something?"

"No, wait," said Sal. "Look. It's mono. One end goes that way. The other end goes over there." Sal carefully unwound some of the line from the submarine cable like a surgeon removing stitches.

"Oh crap," Sal said with the line in his hand. "There's a fish on here."

Sal played the line with the expertise of a master fisherman. After 10 minutes of gentle persuasion, the head of a very tired 25" striper broke the surface.

While Sal lifted the fish into the skiff, I pulled at the other end of the line. A minute later the tip of a fishing rod covered in jet black mud poked into view. I cut the line and handed Sal the rod. "Here you go," I said, proudly. "I told you we'd find it."

Sal smiled and took the rod. He cleaned off the reel with his hand and was staring at it when he spoke: "Guess what?" he said.


"This ain't my rod."


(by Bob Bernstein, originally published in Offshore Magazine. Illustrated by Chet Jones.)

It happened on a lake in Central Maine in the summer of 1969. I was 16 and had been hired as the new water skiing instructor for Camp Webago. Never mind that I didn't know how to water ski. The Director assured me I would know enough by the time the kids arrived. He was right, but that's another story.

I was in charge of two boats, a 17' MFG with a 65 hp Johnson, and a 16' Glastron with a 55 hp, four-stroke Bearcat. They don't make the Bearcat anymore, and for good reason. The old Bearcat was way ahead of its time -- a good idea backed by something less than perfect engineering. It was a high-concept outboard with a few problems, among them a tendency to overheat.

The director took me to the waterfront and left me with the two boats, both beached and full of rainwater. I decided to tend to the Glastron first. I climbed aboard, dropped the lower unit into the water, and turned the key. The engine spurted to life -- and I do mean 'spurt'; a little rubber nozzle under the bonnet was the key to proper engine performance. As long as water flowed unimpeded through the nozzle, the engine ran fine. However, as soon as dirt or air clogged the nozzle, the motor would overheat, sputter, cough, rattle, and die. Fortunately, it didn't take me long to figure out that the problem could be corrected by oral siphoning of the nozzle. After several breathless minutes of alternately blowing and sucking on the nozzle, I had the beast running smoothly.

Before heading out on the lake to drain the boat I did two things. First, I boarded the MFG and started the Johnson. I let it run a few minutes, then shut it off and pocketed the key. Second, I went into the dining room to shanghai a couple volunteers to help push the Glastron off the beach; the boat had a double hull and full of water it was heavy as a tank.

I found half a dozen counselors drinking coffee at one of the tables, but only one expressed an interest in coming along. Ken, a thick-set, blond-haired, die-hard Yankee fan from Westport, L. I., said he would help if I agreed to take him over to the girl's side of camp. I nodded heartily and together we walked back to the beach.

"I don't get down here to often," Ken said as we strolled to the Glastron. "It's not really my thing."

"Well," I said. "All you have to do is help me push it off the beach, maybe steer a little while I pull the plug."

"I probably should warn you," Ken said placing his hand on the rail. "I don't know much about boats."

"That's all right," I assured him. "I do."

Ken peaked in the Glastron with a dubious expression. "It's full of water," he said. "Shouldn't we drain it first?"

"Nah. We'll do it out there. We'll bail her through the drain plug."

"The drain plug?"

"A little hole in the back."

"There's a hole in the boat?"

"Yeah. It's supposed to be there. We get her up to cruising speed, pull the plug, and the water will be sucked out the hole."

Ken was unconvinced. "Wait a minute. Correct me if I'm wrong, but there's more water in the lake than in the boat. What's to stop the water from coming back in?"

"It's physics, Ken. Trust me. I know what I'm doing. Now start pushing."

Reluctantly, Ken rolled up his pants, heaved the boat off the beach, and climbed in. As the green and white hull of the Glastron floated a bit low in the water -- not dangerously so -- I started the motor, turned the wheel, and headed for the middle of the lake. It was flat calm. A minute or so later, with water up to our shins. I brought the vessel up to speed. The Bearcat labored. Skis, life jackets, cushions, fuel tanks, and other miscellaneous boat stuff piled aft. The bow pointed toward the skies.



"Take the wheel and hold her steady. I'll go pull the plug."

Ken maneuvered himself to the helm, cautiously, so as not to splash his pants. I went aft, dropped to my hands and knees, and reached back through the water and mess of floating junk for the drain plug. I released the dog and pulled. Nothing. I pulled harder. Still nothing. Finally, I took a deep breath, held it, and used all my strength. The plug pulled free. Water began to drain rapidly and I felt pleased with myself.

And then the old Bearcat just up and died.

"I already told you I don't know too much about boats," Ken said. "But isn't the water coming in kind of fast."

"Now don't panic, Ken," I said. "I'll just put the plug back in and get the motor started."

I lifted my hand to look at the plug and came to a startling realization. Soaking all winter and spring on the east end of St. George lake had swollen the rubber to three times its normal size. Nothing short of a miracle would get it back into the hole from which it came.

"Well," Ken said. "What are you waiting for? Put the plug back."

"It's swollen, Ken. It won't go back."

"You mean we're sinking."

"Well, in a matter of speaking."

"How deep is it here?"

"About ninety feet."

"Can I panic now?"

"No. I know what's wrong. It's no big deal. I can fix it. The motor's overheated because the cooling circuit's jammed. It's air or something. Just wait a sec."

"If you don't mind, I'd like to scream for help."

"I'd rather you didn't."

Ken watched me as I positioned myself over the Bearcat. "Well, as long as you know what you're doing," he said."

"I do. Don't worry."

"You going to tighten some screws or bolts or something?"

"No," I said, leaning over the stern of the boat. "I'm gonna wrap my lips around this little rubber thing and suck as hard as I... YEOW! SON OF A BITCH'S HOT."

"HEEELP... SOMEBODY... HEEELP!" Ken screamed.

"What the hell are you doing?" I asked, leaning over the rail and dabbing cold water on my lips.

"Sorry. But if it's all the same to you, I'd rather yell for help. I don't think you're going to fix anything like that. No offense." Ken faced the beach and waved his hands over his head.

"Heeelp... Somebody... Heeelp!" he hollered.

Just then my new boss, the Camp Director, walked down to the beach. We could see him looking at us, then cupping his hands to his mouth. The words came across the lake clearly and distinctly. "Are... you... in... trouble... ?"

"Ken... " I was begging now. "Don't go starting a panic. As soon as this thing cools I can start it. Just be calm and don't say anything to worry him. It's really not as serious as you think."

Ken looked at me questioningly, then at the beach. "No problem," he said. "I know just what to say." He cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled: "We... are... sinking... !"

"Great," I said. "Now all he has to do is ask me where the key to the other boat is?"

"Where's... the... key... to... the... other... boat... ?" the Director yelled.

"Where is it?" Ken asked.

I was laughing. I couldn't help myself.

Ken scowled. "I don't really see the humor here, Bob. I mean, the boat's broken. Water's pouring in through the back. My pants are wet. It looks like a long swim to shore. Why don't you just tell him where the damn key is?"

I reached into my pocket and produced the tiny key. "It's right here." I gave it to Ken. "You tell him where it is." Ken shook his head.

"Where's... the... key... to... the... other... boat... ?" the Director yelled again.

I had no choice. I cupped my hands to my mouth and answered. "It's... in... my... pocket."

The director's head dropped to face the ground. He turned and walked away from the beach. He wasn't in any hurry, as if maybe he didn't really need two ski boats, or a new skiing instructor. In fact, he was controlling his heart rate with tabs of glycerin and headed for the nearest telephone.

Ken resigned himself to his fate. He walked forward into the open bow and made himself comfortable, lifting his legs over the gunwales to keep his pants as dry as possible.

Me, well I knew what I was doing all along -- sort of. After the motor cooled I cleared the obstruction in the nozzle, started the Bearcat, got the Glastron drained, and learned two valuable lessons. I don't take anything apart that I know I can't put back together. And I have a lot of spare keys.

by Bob Bernstein

(Originally published in Offshore Magazine)

Here's how I met the ghost of the two hundred year old Maine mariner: It was late on a cold February night and I'd just arrived home after dealing with a Penobscot Bay tantrum of memorable proportions. There had been forty knot northwest winds and frozen spray and very confused seas brought on by astronomical tides; some of the messiest water I'd ever seen in a small boat. We broke the bottom of the antenna, a window, the cabin door, and spilled everything out of the lockers and cabinets. When I got home, I was sore from head to foot and in need of sustenance and refreshment. Late as it was, I fixed myself some crackers with cheddar cheese and anchovies, ate some bread-and-butter pickles, and drank half a bottle of Pinot Grigio. An hour later I was staring at a grizzly old man at the foot of my bed. He had a wispy gray beard and a soggy corn cob pipe and wore stiff oil skins, heavy leather boots, and a southwester hat.
"So you think you're a tough guy, eh?" he said. "You think you survived the wrath of King Neptune himself."
"Hey," I said. "How did you get in here?"
"Don't change the subject, Paddy Wester," he said. "Just answer my question."
"Paddy Wester? What's that?" I asked. "I've heard of a Paddy Chayefsky."
"A Paddy Wester's a worthless sailor," the old man said.
"Worthless?" I sat up in bed and confronted him. "So happens it was rough as hell out there. I got pretty beat up."
The old man placed a forefinger on top of his head and spun around under it like a kid in a schoolyard, taunting and mocking me with a whiny, singsong voice. "It was rough. You got beat up. It was rough. You got beat up."
"Oh my God," I said. "I'm being haunted by Little Orphan Annie." I rolled sideways, pulled the covers over my head, and mumbled for him to leave me alone. "Please, if you don't mind, I'd like to get some sleep."
But the old man had no intention of letting me off the hook. He grabbed the edge of the bed and shook it until I bolted upright, my back against the headboard.
"Jeeze-Louise," I yelled. "Give a fellow mariner a break. Can't you see I'm suffering here?"
"Suffering?" He laughed hard, big guffaws with his mouth open. He had a nice tooth, I thought.
"Heck, boy. You don't know what suffering is," he said. "When I was a kid we didn't have no fancy shmancy contraptions that told us where we were or how fast we were going or where we needed to steer. We didn't have no satellite navigation neither. No radar. No weather FAX. No cellulose phones-- "
"That's cellular," I corrected.
"Don't sass me boy. I'm talkin' here."
I turned the light on and off and then on again to see if he'd disappear. I rubbed my eyes. No luck. He was still there at the foot of my bed, pacing, badgering me.
"No sir," he continued. "Most of time we didn't even have a compass or a chart. We just sailed around by the seat of our pants and bumped into things and ended up in places we didn't expect to be. But you know what? We LIKED it! We didn't complain or whine about how rough it was. Hell no. We had adventures and got to learn how to fix things in a hurry, like the bottoms of our boats. We learned how to swim. We learned how to survive on rainwater and tiny fish. And if we got lucky and actually made landfall someplace, we learned how to defend ourselves
against angry natives who didn't want nothin' to do with us."
I glanced outside my shorefront home. Moonlight shimmered off the cakes of broken ice that had funneled into the cove. Gusts of wind rattled my shutters and windows. But the waves stood still like mountains of sand. And when I looked at the clock on the dresser, I noticed the second hand was frozen at twelve ‘clock high. Dead battery, I figured.
"You listening to me, kid?" The old man was suddenly right next to me, staring into my face.
"I'm no kid," I said. "I'm forty eight years old."
"Knee high to a grasshopper," he snapped, and shook his head. "You kids today. Always in a rush. Gotta get here, get there. Gotta have yer 2,000 horsepower. No time fer smellin' the roses. Heck, in the old days, we didn't have no motors. If the wind flunked out, we'd put the lifeboats or dories over and muscle our way through the water with heavy wooden oars. We sat on wooden seats and pulled like there was no tomorrow, which oftentimes there wasn't. And our forearms would swell and we'd get cramps in our hands and splinters in our nether regions. And you know what? We LIKED it. Dagnabbit, if we had a trip and all of us made it back to land without having to eat one of the weaker members of the crew, we considered ourselves lucky."
He walked back to the foot of my bed and glared at me.
"I look at you whippersnappers today," he said, "and I see nothin' but a bunch a spoiled crybabies. You got yer foam drink warmers and yer icemakers, yer cold beer and yer DirectTV. Back in my day, the captain would give us a sip of grog once a month out of a barrel that smelled like burnt hay and rat droppings. Fer entertainment we listened to Festus the one-legged shantyman play Yankee Doodle Dandy on a broken Concertina. The old coot was more odoriferous than a rotting right whale. Why just bein' near ‘im would make your eyes bleed. Festus'd
play that damnable song over and over again until someone on deck would sneak up behind him and crack his noodle with the knobby part of a belaying pin. But you know what? Festus didn't care. He LIKED it."
My stomach grumbled.
"We don't have DirectTV on the pilot boat," I said meekly. "You sure you have the right house?" I burped something fishy tasting.
"O'course I do, you dang fool. You're the one thinks he went through hell and creation, ain't ya?"
"Did I say that?" I was beginning to regret every sea story I ever told.
The old man stared at me again, a quizzical expression on his face. He tapped his pipe on my oak dresser and filled it, then struck a match and puffed. My room filled with acrid smoke.
"What's a matter with you?" he said. "You look like a King's Hard Bargain on his first ocean crossing. My pipe botherin' your sensitive nose?"
"I think I had a bad anchovy," I said.
"Hah!" the old man bellowed. "Bad anchovy my arse. A real man don't whine about no anchovy."
He wheezed and coughed like a one cylinder donkey engine and then told me about the time he'd shipped out on a Dutch bark carrying a load of cod for the old world. In England, he said, he took a berth on a German square rigger and headed for the Peruvian coast. They were three weeks rounding Cape Horn, after which they lay at one of the bird islands until the hold was full of guano.
"You think ‘this’ smells bad," he proclaimed, holding up his smoldering pipe. "Well my wimpy young friend, you ain't smelled nothin ‘til you parked yourself on the equator in a becalmed ship loaded to the gunnels with bird poop. And that's nothing compared to this other ship I was on. Bad anchovy. Let me tell you about some bad anchovy. One time we was on this vessel in South America, taken on a load of bone meal. And mister, we got ourselves quite a bonus when we loaded the cargo. Go on now. Ask me what it was."
That was probably the last thing in the whole world I wanted to do.
"Cockroaches!" he yelled before I could stop him, spitting fermented tobacco juice and what might have been his one remaining tooth onto my quilt. "You ever been trapped at sea with millions and millions of disgusting bugs?"
"I once had fruit flies on my boat," I offered.
"Hah!" he bellowed. "T’ain't nothin. Imagine steppin' into the galley for chow and seein' the cook take his arm and sweep thousands of roaches off the mess table. The whole bunch of us'd have to eat fast, ‘cause if we didn't, we'd be chomping down on a mouthful of those cursed critters. That's how fast they was. And they'd crawl on the ceilings and cabin soles and drop on us day in a day out. Fer months on end we lived and ate like that. But you know what? We didn't mind. We didn't whine about it. In fact, we LIKED it."
"You liked eating bugs?" I asked. The image had a kind of percolating affect on my belly.
"That's right," the old man said. "And let me tell you why. You ever hear the story of Captain Pollard? His ship was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale. In fact, there was a deserter, a writer, I forget his name . . . made quite a story out of it. Anyways, Captain Pollard survived the sinking, and many years later, he retired and rooted his self to shore. Well, ‘twas after a few years of the sedentary life that a gentleman from the paper came to visit. Turned out this gentleman had a distant relative who'd once shipped out on the Essex. So, natural as the driven snow, this feller, this reporter, stopped his interview mid channel and asked the captain if the kin in question was knowed to him. And
you know what the captain said? ‘Knowed him? Hell, son, I ate him!'"
That did it. Before you could say ‘Hannibal the Cannibal Lector' I was on my feet and running for the toilet. I wretched for a full five minutes, then staggered back to my bedroom. I fully expected to see the old codger mocking and taunting me with his Little Orphan Annie routine, but I heard nothing, not a peep. I looked around, turned the lights on and off, and realized all of a sudden the old mariner had gone. Everything was back to normal, including the waves in the cove and the clock on my dresser.
I sort of missed the old codger, but I knew that if I really wanted to, I
could see him again.
Truth be told, he was only an anchovy or two away.

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