Losing Our Lunch, Finding Our Dinner: The Daniels' Day at Sea

It’s 4 AM at the Seawind Landing in Nova Scotia.  The alarm I purposely set out of reach is buzzing.  I groggily pull on two pairs of underwear,  two pairs of socks, two t-shirts, my skinny jeans with a stolen pair of fleece pants over them, my least-nice stage dress shirt, my hoodie and my rain jacket.  I have a feeling it won’t be enough.  

Daniel is already in the kitchen, bleary eyed and trying to pour coffee.  I can see Dave, our host, has slept on the couch and the guitars and glasses from last night haven’t moved in the full three hours since we put them down.  As we throw some pizza in a container, Dave stumbles in, having successfully found me two pairs of gardening gloves to wear.  Outwear for the underprepared…

Thusly provisioned and equipped, I back up the van in the darkness, while the ocean rushes behind the house and the half moon dimly lights the garden path down to the door where I can hear Dave telling Daniel “left over the bridge when you get into town, past the grocery shack, and its the first boat on the left in the harbour.  Should be the only humans there.”

In sleepy silence we alight down the moonlit road from Larry’s River to Charlos Cove to meet up with Damien and the crew of the “Get Kracken” who are heading out to fish for the 6th day of lobster season, as they will every morning at 4:45 sharp for the next 8 weeks.  On Dave’s urging (though he mysteriously opted out at the last minute, which has caused some misgivings) we are going along.

It’s hard to see much in the inky darkness, but we eventually see what looks like a road down to a “harbour” and at least some lights that appear to be rocking with the tide, and so we park and gingerly make our way towards them.  

“Lookin’ for Damien!”

“Ya,” is the single call back, unmistakable in one syllable, even in the darkness, as the lyrical maritime lilt of someone from the Guysbourough/Canso area, “But you’ll need to come ‘round the udder way!” he calls, amused, moments before I step off what I now realize is not the dock but, in fact, the shore.  Embarrassed, we make our way down the actual dock and carefully onto the boat where three men are patiently waiting, ready to cast off.  Still in the darkness, we are introduced to Brian and Dillon, and stow our gear below.

Damien expertly manoeuvres out of the harbour.   The boat begins a series of treks up waves taller than it is, and swift glides down to the valleys between.  Within ten minutes, as a hint of light now begins to glow on the horizon, I realize that we are in for some serious swell here.  On a boat this small, it is like nothing I, or my insides, have ever experienced.  I glance over at Daniel, who even in the muted pinkish of early dawn, looks a little green, and I begin to regret the second helping of haddock last night.

Several miles out, and guided by the “pins” on his GPS display marking where he has dropped his traps, Damien deftly swoops up the side of particularly large swell and stomach twistingly drops us neatly beside a bright orange buoy, his specific colour in literally a sea of similar markers.  Dillon, decked out in bright and warm looking similarly bright orange rain gear, “gaffs” the rope attached to it, runs it through a mechanical series of gears which, with a tug and a whir, haul the first lobster trap up onto the side the boat.  

Everyone bursts into a well-coordinated frenzy of activity.  Damien leaps from the helm to the trap and, in concert with Dillion, opens it.  Simultaneously, Damien removes the bag of old chopped up mackerel, the bait, and passes it to Brian who hands him a fresh one. Dillon removes the two midsize lobsters from the trap and slides them down a table set up on the deck. At the back of the cabin Brian has already emptied the old bait from this trap into a bucket, refilled it with fresh chopped fish, and is waiting with a set of banding callipers as he receives the lobster.  He expertly closes the angry crustaceans menacing pinchers and slides a small heavy duty elastic band around each.  Damien has replaced the bait in the trap, and also speared a red bait fish from a frozen bucket onto a pole inside, and is back at the helm, backing up to the original spot.  Dillon closes the trap, moves the rope into position so as not to tangle his feet in it, and waits while Damien, guided by the GPS, eventually says,  in the same way he announced his presence earlier and with his eyes eyes still on the bright display, “Ya”.  Dillon gives the trap a heave and I watch as it sinks back into the depths behind us as we speed on to the next marker. 1 down, 9 hours and 249 more traps to go.

The swells get worse with a cold atlantic wind, and as we crisscross the harbour several miles out from shore, my stomach begins to take on an alarming life of it’s own.  It is not a wonderful life.  It is sometime between the first and the 35th trap that I lose my proverbial lunch, and it’s at about the 60th trap that Daniel follows suit.  I can tell that Damien is trying not to laugh.  

The day begins to take on a pattern, with each trap’s checking and re-baiting occurring in more or less the same way. Occasionally there is the added excitement of a codfish, eel or a variety of other exotic sea life having found it’s way inside with what was sometimes many lobsters or no lobsters.  In between hauls and over the cacophony of pounding, swishing ocean, howling wind, the comforting monotony of the Sirius XM Roadhouse Country Channel and the hum of the motor, I manage some brief snippets of conversation with the crew.

Damien managed to buy the licence to fish this area roughly four years ago, at a price so high it staggers me.  In the 10 weeks a year he actually gets to fish, he has taken an incredible risk in hoping to pay it off.  His father had a licence, as did Brian (his stepfather) but both sold years ago when lobster was worth practically nothing.  The east coast abounds in tales of fisherman’s children trading lobster sandwiches for peanut butter at school, or of entire catches of lobster being plowed under for fertilizer.  Now, most active claims are fished by men in their 60’s, 70’s and in a couple of cases, 80’s.  So at a particularly spry 40 something, Damien is one of the youngest men at it.  Many of the claims are handed down through generations, with old “gentleman’s agreements” constituting each boundary.  Damien confesses to watching what some of the old timers do in terms of trap placement, and tells me some of the old guys still experiment with custom baiting methods, such as leaving bait out for days to begin to ferment, or adding molasses to the fish in order to lure the bigger lobsters in.  The lobster fishers sell directly to buyers who are waiting at the dock each afternoon with a forklift and delivery truck.  As the only link between the boat and the market, these buyers can drop prices at will; early days in the season paying 8 dollars a pound, only to drop to 6 the next day.  On a good day some of the old timers will bring in 1500 pounds of lobster, while Damien is happy to get 800 or 900.

As Daniel coalesces down below, curled up on a nest of coiled rope, I spend the last few hours on the back deck, helping Brian band lobster claws, and amusing ourselves by tossing the old stinky bait high into the air for the hundreds of seagulls trailing behind us, flying low and fighting greedily over the chunks of old mackerel.  I surprise myself with how quickly I begin to “roll” with the erratic pitching of the boat and notice only a slightly persistent nausea and almost ignorable thoughts of a hot bath the second we get back.

At one point Dillon hands Brian a lobster and nods that I should look.  Brian uncoils the tail and reveals a rich deposit of black eggs, like so many small dark bunches of grapes, attached.

“That’s the future right there!” Says Brian, who at 68 is still the first one there each morning; by the time the crew arrives at 4:30am he has cut bait fish into chunks and is waiting to greet everyone else.  “Well maybe not mine!” he laughs (after all, a lobster needs at least 7 years to get to selling size), “but these lads’ future, and maybe my grandsons.”  Though apparently his 8 year old grandson (Damien's boy) does a mean Elvis Presley and plays guitar, so maybe he’ll be writing songs about fisherman instead.

By about 2 PM we’ve checked the last trap and are headed back into harbour, the boat on autopilot.  The crew has rinsed the various sea life and guts off the back of the amazingly designed vessel.  We are sitting in the wheel house, still listening to Sirius XM Roadhouse Country Channel, and are headed through a thick fog back towards Larry’s River harbour when I remember the beverages I brought along.  I hand some out and there is a “psst” of tabs being lifted and a slight nod of the head all around; a subtle toast to the incredible feat the crew undertakes everyday.

We pull into harbour, and the buyer is waiting.  Within 10 minutes, the crates of lobster are lifted off the boat by the airing pallet jacks, weighed and loaded onto a truck that is pulling out by the time I am off the boat.  Damien tells us the final tally is just over 400 pounds.  It was the worst day the “Get Kracken” has seen this year in terms of weather (it actually snowed for part of the day) and yield, but the boys are laughing as they finish up, ribbing each other and talking about tomorrow.  We shake hands and Daniel and I head home, each with thoughts of a hot bath and a long nap.

That evening, Damien comes by for a drink and with a gift in hand.  Daniel and I each receive a black “Get Kracken” T-Shirt and we gab on a little bit about the day, as Dave brings out two steaming red lobsters from the days catch.  Damien shakes his head and says “I'll just have a bologna sandwich”.  10 pm roles around and he groans and takes his cordial leave.  He parts with a few Red Moon Road CDs and I love to think of our tunes playing out there somewhere in the harbour sometime in the coming days.  Damien speeds out of the driveway and back to town.  After all, he’s got to “Get Kracken” again in less than 6 hours.