James Beard Award-winning chef, Karen Akunowicz, heads to Spruce Head Harbor, Maine to join …
Hand-Caught Lobster, Hand-Painted Buoys
“I’m a terrible painter,” I said to Josh Miller when he invited me to spend a day helping him paint buoys at his shop.
“Don’t worry,” he said, “you’ll be scraping. I have a good scraper and some steel wool all ready for you.”
I knew him well enough to know he might be kidding, but when I arrived at his shop mid-morning, I scanned the space anyway. To my relief, there was neither scraper nor steel wool in sight. The owner of the shop, Josh’s best friend, Jason Witham, was on the ground floor working on traps; Josh, up on the second level, was painting buoys and when I climbed up to meet him he handed me a paint brush, gloves and a job. He had already painted the green butts of the buoys. I was to cut the pink in around the edge, flip the buoy, paint the top, hang it to dry, and then move on to the next one. The buoys were a light shade of pink and green: hues right out of a Martha Stewart home design spread.
I had long wondered how lobstermen chose the colors of their buoys, which glimmer all summer long in the evening light. I’d imagined that Josh’s wife Jasmine, who had an astute sense of style, had something to do with the fashionable pink and green.
“When I was a kid just starting, I just had orange buoys,” Josh recalled. “Then when I started setting further out in the harbor I discovered that Willy Carlson had orange buoys as well, so I put a green bottom on. A few years later on, Dicky Carver came by with a can of pink paint and asked my Dad if I could use the paint, so I started painting them pink.”
Hardly the romantic story I had imagined, but practical nonetheless. “That’s the way most guys do it,” Josh concluded. “Jason’s are white with a blue stripe – his Dad’s are white with a yellow stripe, so when he got buoys from his Dad he just had to paint the stripe.”
800 traps, untold feet of line, hundreds of buoys – all in salt water for months at a time. It’s no wonder that fishermen spend so much time in their shops in the off season. “We used to all build our own traps,” Peter Miller, Josh’s father told me. “And a handful of guys sewed their own bait bags. Now most guys buy everything pre-made.”
This I confirmed with a call to Brooks Trap Mill – they make some fifty-thousand traps each year for fishermen all up and down the coast. But there are some who still make their own traps – Ivan Bly who I’d gone hauling with a few weeks earlier is one of them. He told me he figured he saves about $30 a trap by making them himself, though he didn’t figure in his time.
We were interrupted just before noon by a call from one of Josh’s uncles, who wanted Josh to come down to the wharf and help pull out the floats (the platforms at the end of the pier that rise and fall with the tide where skiffs are kept and fishing boats get fuel). There were three uncles there by the time we arrived and as the floats came out of the water, it was obvious that they were in need of cleaning and repair to ready them for the upcoming season.
The March air was warm, almost balmy, the harbor was flat calm and there was a mood of anticipation. With spring fast approaching, the season would soon be in full swing. Josh and I worked the crane slings under each of the three floats as they were hoisted out of the water, flipped and set down. The underside of each float was covered in mussels, and soon folks were coming down to pick the mussels off. Josh and I filled a crate ourselves and I called my husband to tell him to what we’d be having for supper.
With the floats out, we headed back to the shop to resume our painting. Jason carried in individual traps and scraped the barnacles off each one, while a kid he had hired helped mend broken traps. Josh and I worked our way through his buoys, the blare of country music interrupted only by the sound of the air gun, the scraping of barnacles, and the easy banter between Jason and Josh.
Midafternoon, Jason’s cousin Troy stopped in with a cooler of beer. Troy extolled the benefits of using a roller instead of a brush for painting buoys. “I didn’t believe it at first,” Troy said “but I tried it, and I have to say it’s much easier.”
Josh had to fetch his girls from school and I had to head home so we cleaned up the painting supplies. As we came down the stairs we passed a huge pile of line: “Next week, Merritt, we splice line.”