Nautical know-how: a game of learning by doing

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"Fish on, starboard bow,” Capt. Rusty Benn announces over the loud hailer. I set down my fillet knife, hustle across the stern and dash up the rail, determined to be standing on-scene, gaff in hand, before the fearless leader can issue a second broadcast.

Zach Harvey

When you’re a greenhorn, the safest plan of attack is to carry out your duties with a measure of the all-important snap that is the hallmark of a useful deckhand. When I reach the announced position, I can’t for the life of me identify grounds for excitement — no bouncing rod, no hooting and hollering among our anglers.

I hear a familiar voice from overhead: “Hey Sparky, you probably want to check the other starboard bow — the one on the right side of the boat up near the pointy end.” I look up to see Benn’s silhouette leaning out the wheelhouse window. I mumble something that seems suitably self-effacing while I dash around the bow.

It’s a documented truth that humans are best equipped to learn new languages during childhood. Likewise, I have a handful of friends who grew up on and around boats and started running their own skiffs a decade before they could legally drive. I envy their near-instinctive connection to boats, boat handling and the intricate, obtuse vocabulary of the nautical world. What has always been second nature to them I have fought to assimilate from my late teens past age 30. They feel port and starboard as I experience left and right. I translated for five years before I internalized their meaning.

I was in college when I first pulled on a pair of oilskins and walked my first professional turns on a pitching deck. And I was about as useful as a kickstand on a freight train. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only reason the arrangement stuck was the near-loony-bin enthusiasm I brought to work. The thing I’d done right without realizing it was choosing the right boat — more specifically, the right charter captain — to learn the trade of fishing.

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Surveying the intervening 20 or so years, that’s one aspect of the trade I’ve continually done right. I’ve also, in that same span of time, been responsible for literal football fields’ worth of gray hair on the heads of at least three respected skippers.

To balance the karmic scales I’ve also helped to break in a number of new mates and know all too well that it’s the sum of our mistakes that tells the real story of our seafaring education. This is both the good and the bad news — good in that we all go through it, bad in that as long as we fish we should plan to take our lumps.

The longer I’ve fished, the more clearly I’ve seen the reality of the racket: The only real way to learn the foreign language that is nautical sense is through some form of apprenticeship. Much of the subject matter is obscure and often counterintuitive, so the only way to absorb much of it is through rote learning — doing a thing as many times as it takes for your hands to get a purchase on the procedure, then practicing until there’s blood trickling out your ears. Left to do this wholly on your own — attempting to follow sequential photos illustrating, say, a back splice — you’ll spend six months learning to tie the thing almost right. Nautical skills as a foreign language built from an alphabet you can’t read. You need a teacher, a good one.

Much as I cringe at all the doomsday headlines about the future of our fisheries, I worry less about the survival of fish and the attendant industry than I do about the very real possibility that the fleet 20 years hence may function in total disconnect from the history and traditions of fishing culture as I know it. Friends who entered the fishery when I did talk about “old school” captains as guys who witnessed a great many things that we, by virtue of our own bad timing, never did — and in so many cases never will.

We can barely fathom tending lobster traps — whole trawls of them — by hand. Coming up in the age of Loran and, soon after, GPS, the notion of finding rock piles south of Block Island, R.I., by running a compass course against a wristwatch is utterly foreign. We understand it conceptually, know the variables — tide, wind, sea state — that underscore the achievement. But we weren’t there.

The emergency situations we’ve all faced, compliments of the law of averages, are mill-pond-on-a-Sunday-afternoon benign compared with the horror stories echoing down across generations of seafarers. What has distinguished the best of our teachers is that they haven’t passed on these tales to impress but, rather, to give us a sense that we have good reason to confront the grim situations we’ll inevitably face with some perspective and some composure.

A new problem has set in during these last five to 10 years. Between fish stocks that have dwindled or collapsed, the increasing uncertainty of the fleet’s economic viability down the line, skyrocketing overhead and the endless regulatory backlash, not to mention the meteoric rise of video games and the Kardashians, few if any of the deckhands in my “generation” — we’re old by deckhand standards and getting older by the second — have any ambition to buy into the future of our beloved occupation. We are, as an industry, running a course toward death by attrition.

It takes some time aboard a good fishing boat to really learn the ropes.

A second, more immediate threat to our fishing traditions might best be summed up with a term borrowed from fish stock dynamics: recruitment failure. All of the factors that have discouraged a whole crop of seasoned mates from continuing the age-old migratory cycle from deck to wheelhouse have eroded the base of clientele that for 50 years kept boats away from their slips and earning.

Constricting revenue and a generalized spike in fleet-wide leisure time mean dramatically fewer boats capable of providing a meaningful apprenticeship. You just can’t gather enough raw experience — enough consecutive days — to learn all aspects of the trade if you’re only fishing weekends. The few boats (captains) that do remain busy enough to provide a thorough education represent sites that the seasoned guys wouldn’t leave at gunpoint.

Then again, to borrow a page from the unspoken logs of my two foremost mentors in the fishery, the longer I look at the fish, the fleet, the advancing fronts and the southward horizon, the more I’m humbled by the enormity of the undertaking and the staggering number of things I do not, cannot or will not ever know.

March 2013 issue