On home waters with Fred the lobsterman
No matter how far we travel, it is sometimes the waters we know best and longest that hold the most meaning. It’s like meeting an old friend, I suppose.
I anchor in a little cove on the north side of the lighthouse in about 6 feet of water. The bottom is sandy and light-colored. Shoreward, meadows of eel grass wave in the tide, just as they did 40 years ago. The water is clear as a pane of glass. The kids dive off the bow and hoot at the cool temperature — the water may or may not hit 70 degrees this summer.
I follow with mask and snorkel, diving back into a lovely world that occupied so many of my days when I was part of a small group of gangly, feral adolescent boys who terrified both fish and one another with our hand-sharpened spears, all the while burning off heavy stores of pubescent energy. For several summers, we lived in those waters.
I don’t have to look back too hard or too far to see Fred the lobsterman dousing the wooden boat ramp with buckets of seawater as he prepares to launch his skiff. The planks descend from the top of the seawall that runs along the inside of the cove until they finally disappear under the water. (You learned just how ‘slick’ slick could be the first time you set barefoot to one those algae-black planks at the base of the ramp at low tide.) Stationed at the top of the ways like a weathered old herring gull is Fred’s wooden outboard skiff, low-sided, well-worn and full of wooden baskets, totes, bait, fuel tanks, a fishing rod, and other tools of the inshore lobsterman’s trade.
The boat was launched using Norwegian steam — muscle power. When Fred summoned us from the water and our summer-long daydream, we would quickly assemble around the bow, eager and dripping wet more often than not. And on his command, we’d put all the lean, springy muscles of our backs and shoulders and legs into the task of making that skiff slide seaward.
“Come on boys,” Fred would growl. “On three now.” And once inertia was overcome, “Keep her moving. Keep her moving. Watch yourself.”
We all knew, of course, who really made the boat move. Fred had the powerful ropey forearms and defined biceps of someone used to wrestling with traps day after day, season after season, for years. But we loved being part of it all: the boats, fish, lobsters, our expanding salty vernacular and, perhaps most powerful, the sense that this was where we belonged, that we were locals and most everyone else an outsider.
Although we were not related by blood, he was always, to me, “Uncle Fred,” a title that spoke of a long, lasting friendship between families. I continued to refer to him that way as I grew into an adult. His wife, Loretta, was my godmother, and she, too, was addressed with affection as “aunt.”
I see him standing at the stern, holding the long, extended outboard tiller in one hand, dressed in worn khakis and a T-shirt, knee-high fishing boots, a pipe in his mouth. He opens the throttle, the boat begins to plane, and he carves a smooth turn out of the cove, headed for the reefs and his traps. What kid wouldn’t be impressed?
Looking back, it is fair to say those years shaped forever my perception of boats, of the men who made their living on the water, and of the waters themselves. They left me with a lifelong appreciation for the beauty, utility and, in the right hands, the seaworthiness of small craft, especially those derived from workboats. It was early exposure to form following function.
The time, of course, couldn’t last. Girls were still rare fish who existed on the other side of the tempered glass of our face masks, though not for too much longer. And soon enough work would eat up more and more summer hours.
Fred is gone now, his ashes spread over the waters he called home. And our little gang has gone its separate ways, as well. Last I heard, Peter was living in Oregon. I haven’t seen Louie in several years.
I still visit the cove and fish the rip that makes up along the reef several times each year. It is late September now and we’re on the moon. The wind is out of the southeast and very light, and the flood is so young it’s yet to gather itself. Like an old draggerman napping in the shade at the fish dock, the lighted red buoy guarding the passage through the reefs nods its head as the moon rises, and a clapper weakly strikes the bell. I drift past with the engine off, gazing at the lighthouse as I wait for the reef to wake with fish.
The plaintiff tones, one distinctive clang at a time on these calm nights, remind me of all who have come and gone through this passage over the years. The sailors, the fishermen, the merchantmen; their boats and their dreams; the work, the changing weather; and always moving water. The back-and-forth of leaving home or returning to loved ones.
My old fishing partner, Bruce, used to say, “This is my church.” We’d chuckle at that, but the truth is neither of us was kidding. We just didn’t have words to finish the thought. I still don’t.
This is not the column I started out to write, nor the path I thought I was headed down. But then a roundabout journey is sometimes the only way home.
“We had a fair catch — ten barrels of flounders, four barrels of haddock, two barrels of whiting, two barrels of trash fish for Alvin Scott, the Watch Hill lobsterman, a half-dozen good sized lobsters (three pounds each), two quarts of salty rye whisky, and a chipped thundermug obviously out of some ship of long ago.”
— Ellery Thompson