Editor’s note: The following column by the late Bailey Island writer Jean Doughty first appeared 60 years ago, in the Jan. 11, 1962 edition of the Brunswick Record, a predecessor of The Times Record; and later in the Congressional Record, at the request of U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. In remarks to the Senate, Smith called Maine lobster “the finest food in the world.”
“But few of us realize what goes behind getting that lobster to the dining table — or to the cook,” Smith said. “It involves a great deal of work, discomfort, physical risks, hardships, and heartbreaks. It requires fortitude and patience, vigor and dedication, on the part of the world’s heartiest soul — the Maine lobsterman.”
In addition to her weekly “Dory Mates” column in the Record, Doughty contributed to National Fisherman and other publications. She had firsthand experience on the waterfront, lobstering and building boats alongside her husband. She died in 2014, at age 92.
“What it’s like to lobster for a living in winter” appears here with permission from The Times Record.
Have you ever thought that the lobster fisherman’s life is the life for you? Have you ever thought how nice it would be if you were independent, could work when you pleased, and could have the freedom of the ocean? Before you quit your job and buy a boat and traps, just for the fun of it, let’s pretend you are a lobsterman — a year-round lobsterman.
It is late winter and you have been chafing to get out to your traps for a week and a half. First there was a storm, and in its wake a sea that roared and pounded for three days. Then the wind veered to the nor’west and blew with 40-mile-per-hour gusts for a few days. After that, the temperature hovered around zero and the vapor rose from the water each day, making the ocean look like a gigantic pan of heating water. Today is a little warmer and, although the vapor is rising again, it looks as though you may be able to see your marks.
Money is scarce. Your last haul paid the milk bill and bought a stock of grub. Now the light bill and the oil bill are waiting payment and the stock of grub is gone. The wife builds a couple of sandwiches and a thermos of coffee while you throw a sweater on over your flannel shirt, struggle into your oil clothes, sou’wester and boots. You don’t wear mittens because you “couldn’t walk down the road wearing mittens without stepping on them.” (Your forefathers fished wearing enormous mittens, but you don’t see how they did it.) Grabbing your lunch bucket, you kiss your wife, pat the dog, jump in the old, cold pickup truck and off you go to the wharf.
Someone has used your punt but hasn’t cleaned it out, so you put on your cotton gloves, get in the punt, smash up the ice and clean it out. After reaching the boat, you put a pan of water on the gas stove to heat. You can hear the fellows whose engines have freshwater cooling systems getting their boats underway. After disconnecting the water pump, you start the engine, letting it warm up to create steam which will thaw the water jackets. When the water on the stove has heated, you run part of it over the intake hose. The rest you let trickle over the water pump to thaw it so that you won’t shear off a pin or chew up the rubber impeller. You may have to heat another pan of water before everything thaws. Then you connect the belt on the water pump, make sure the pump is operating so that you won’t overheat your engine, cast off, and steer for the wharf.
Always low tide
There are others ahead of you getting bait, and you wait your turn. At last, you grab your bushel tubs, worm your way up over the ice-coated ramp and pitch the frozen bait into your tubs. It seems to you that every time it is a chance to haul the tide is low. The ramp leading to the raft is on a precipitous slant as you lift your tub onto the slide which is to one side of the ramp. You hang onto the handle of the tub with your right hand, clutch the rail with your left hand and inch your way down the ramp. After four trips your bait is safely aboard and you wait your turn to get gasoline. Finally you join the boats leaving the cove. Your breath blows onto your face and freezes there when you peer out around the side of your house. You get tired of stretching your neck and, grabbing a bucket of water, you stand on the washboard and throw water on the windows of the house to clean off the snow and ice.
The vapor, looking like a far-reaching fog bank, has been pushed out to sea by the wind which has sprung up. After an hour’s running, you reach your first string of traps. You wonder if the wind will continue to air, forcing you to make the long trip back with no work accomplished and gas and bait to pay for. “Might as well start haulin’ while I’m waitin’ to see what this weather’s gonna do,” you think. You haul a string out of 40 fathoms of water, bait the traps as you come to them, then throw them on the trap-rack. You didn’t see a lobster so you turn on your sounding machine, run until you reach some likely looking bottom, make sure you are not going to set over someone else’s traps, and you set yours.
Must watch rope
You push the first trap over, let the rope run out until the second trap-lanyard is ready to go, push the second trap overboard and then let the resistance of those two pull the remaining eight traps over, one at a time. You keep watch of the direction you are headed but you turn around continually to make sure the rope hasn’t snarled as it runs out. Seeing a snarl start to make, you reach into the whipping rope, grab the right place and hang on until the rope clears itself. You take a chance every time you get close to the rope; you know that men have gotten snarled up and have been yanked out of their boats and pulled to the bottom of the sea, but you can’t let your traps go down in a heap. Then you head back for your other string, haul it, and bring it down near the string you hauled before so that you won’t lose track of their locality. Some fellows fish their strings separately, but they must have better memories than yours. You make a mental note of where you put the traps, and head for your next bunch happy to see that the wind has “flunked out” again.
These next traps are in 15 fathoms, shoal water for this time of year, and you worry about their safety. After grabbing the buoy, you haul by hand to get enough slack, put the rope through the snatchblock, take a few turns around the winchhead and start hauling. All at once the boat comes up on a chop and the rope, which is caught down, parts. Muttering and sputtering to yourself, you coil up the rope already hauled in and put it to one side, then run for the buoy on the opposite end of the string.
The traps come in fine until the seventh one, when you find you have a good, big catch-down. You let out some slack, throw the engine in gear and circle the caught rope, trying to clear it. You alternate between steaming and hauling, to no avail; you try hauling the rope taut and then releasing it so that it jumps back into the water. This sometimes releases the rope from whatever it is caught around, but this time it doesn’t work. You pull and haul for three-quarters of an hour, hoping the rope won’t part, but eventually it does. Hauling the parted rope in, you find that the seventh trap is there and the parted place is just beyond it. Three traps are still on bottom, caught on some unknown obstacle, and there’s no way of getting them. There’s no sense in sweeping, for the bottom is too catchy and you’d just lose your sweep.
Four lobsters out of the seven traps isn’t too tough but you’ve had enough of losing traps and ruining rope in shoal water so you decide to deepen what’s left. The end warps were only 25 fathoms with one floater so you add 25 fathoms more and two more bottles, stack the traps so that you can take on another string, then haul the companion string, managing to get them after working out several catch-downs. The end warps on the second string have to be lengthened and bottles added. After you have run for 20 minutes to the southwest, you set the strings, pushing most of the traps overboard. You can’t run these out by themselves because they have been stacked one on top of another.
There are no other lobster boats in sight now, you discover as you glance around while munching on a sandwich which you heated by letting it lay on the manifold for a half-hour. A tanker did come by when you first got down here and came so close that the pilot came out and waved, but now all that can be seen of it is a bit of smoke on the horizon. You are alone — you’re a tiny, insignificant bit of humanity in a little peanut shell of a 30-foot boat alone many miles from shore on the Atlantic Ocean.
You haul a few more strings, get skunked out of some but get as high as seven lobsters out of one string. You start hauling another end warp, wondering what the wife is doing on that faraway dot of land you call home. It seems to you that she said she was going to Brunswick to do some shopping. All at once there is a crash and you instinctively turn your head to avoid the flying glass as a bottle smashes to pieces against the snatchblock. “Guess I’d better start payin’ attention to what I’m doin’,” you think as your thoughts return to your work and you free a riding-turn from the winchhead.
The cold wind aired up an hour ago and the sea is choppy. Your face is stiff from the cold, your oil clothes are stiff and covered with a skim coat of ice, and ice is making everywhere on the boat. While swinging a trap to the after end of the rack, your foot slips on the ice-covered platform and slides up under the stern deck. You find yourself sitting on the platform with a corner of the 60-pound trap jabbing into your chest. After pushing the trap up off you and onto the stern deck, you get your feet back under you and place the trap on the rack.
“I guess it’s time I put the water to the platforms,” you think as you rub the knee you just banged. Now you have it all over the fellows whose engines have freshwater cooling. They may get going quicker in the winter and fresh water may be better for an engine, but you derive comfort and safety from saltwater cooling. You drop the outlet hose, allowing the water, which has been warmed by going through the engine, to run along the deck and melt the ice before running out through the scuppers, in the stern. The steam rising from the cockpit now resembles the troublesome vapor of the morning.
Cold, cold hands
The backs of your gloves are frozen and pounding your fingers no longer warms your hands. Even the warmth derived from patting the exhaust pipe is not enough. You hate to start warming your hands with the water from the engine because once you start in, you are uncomfortable unless you keep warming them, but your hands are so numb that they are slowing you down. Gratefully you feel the warmth of the water dissipate the chill which was working from your hands up into your arms.
You thought it was choppy before, but within the past half-hour it has become “choppy enough to smash your brains out.” The sun is low and it is getting hard to see your marks. You run for the Round Shoals and finally make out Halfway Rock ranging against the southwest end of Haskell’s Island and the East Cod Ledge Buoy against Cape Elizabeth. You hunt around and luckily find your traps. Just time to haul two more strings and it will be dark.
Turn toward home
With the last two strings out of the way, you turn your boat toward home. You can see the beacon in the top of the lighthouse at Halfway Rock beckoning you toward home and after the beating your body has taken this choppy day, you willingly steer toward it. You’re 9 miles out and you know that the folks are wondering where you are; you hope that they won’t risk possible disaster by going out in their boats to look for you, but you know how they feel; you have worried and fretted about other fellows when they were still out after dark.
You haven’t much to fear until after you pass Halfway Rock, for the water is bold from the Round Shoals to the Rock. After you pass there, you will have to steer clear of Drunken Ledge, the Eastern Tail, and Mark Island Breaker. Your engine sounds good and you hope it will continue that way, for it is only 12 above, your tank of bottled gas is nearly empty and you’d hate to take the chance of freezing to death overnight. You light a match and check your oil pressure and ammeter. They’re OK. You look in through the companionway and can see the manifold, flange, and exhaust pipe glowing cherry-red. The spray is flying from the bow as you run in, and some of it is landing on the windows, freezing as it hits. Now you are forced to peer out around the house to see ahead, ducking back by spells to warm your face.
Worse than fog
“It’s devilish comin’ in after dark,” you think, “but it’s better than runnin’ in a snowstorm like the other day. Of all times for my compass to go haywire. When I finally made land, it looked so different covered with snow plus lookin’ through the fallin’ snow that I didn’t know where I was for a few minutes. A snowstorm’s worse than a fog mull.”
After musing awhile, you stick your head out around the house again and there are the lights of home showing in the distance. The time drags on until you eventually head up the cove to the lobster car. After you bring your boat alongside the car, you throw your catch in a basket, then hold a flashlight for the buyer while he weighs the lobsters and figures your money. Fifty-five pounds at 80 cents makes $44, less $7 for bait leaves $37. Set aside $6 to pay for gasoline and you are left with $31 for bills and grub. You chat with the buyer a minute then leave the car and hunt for your mooring in the darkness.
With dragging feet
After you pump out the boat, you stop the engine and drain part of the water from the engine and hoses. You check to see that the heat from the elbow of the exhaust pipe hasn’t set the wood near it on fire, crawl into your punt and row to the raft. The climb to the truck seems long, your boots seem to weigh a ton and your feet drag. You’re cold, hungry and weary.
Once home, you open the door and, nine chances out of 10, as you ease your old, tired body through the doorway, you are greeted by your wife with information such as, “I just found out we’re having company tonight, dear,” or “We got a bill from the gas company today.” No, like you say, there’s nothing like the life of a fisherman.
A grant from the Broad Reach Fund supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reprinting of this column.