James Beard Award-winning chef, Karen Akunowicz, heads to Spruce Head Harbor, Maine to join …
Prêt à Porter: Fisherman Style
The text read: “Friday looks like a day if you’re available. 5:30 at the dock.”
Weather windows had been particularly few and far between this winter with strong and ceaseless winds and since the Grundens I’d been wearing were summer weight and full of holes my first stop was Hamilton Marine. There are few things I enjoy less than shopping. The sales clerk at Hamilton must have seen my pained look when I walked through the door because he immediately came over to help. When I told him what I was looking for his face brightened, “We have the women’s Grundens, the Sednas, they’re very popular.” I had heard that Grundens had designed a line for women. Partially because I was interested to see if they were any different, and partially because I wanted to be finished with the shopping, I grabbed a pair. Before I left, I made what I knew would be the most important purchase: gloves. It went without saying my hands would freeze (I’ve been cursed with perpetually cold hands and feet) but I wanted to be as prepared as I could so I got 3 different pairs – one without liners, one cotton pair with rubber grip and one lined pair.
The early March day broke gray with the wind right out of the East. Easterlies are raw in the warmer months, in March they are bone chilling. Before we headed out, we all geared up and began a fashion discussion. I told Josh and Austin about my woman’s Grundens as I adjusted the straps. “I can’t tell the difference,” I said.
“The bibs are higher, I like that,” Josh observed. “I might get a pair”. It was true, they fell just beneath my collar bone. “And the legs look slimmer at the bottom, like skinny jeans but for fishing.”
A follow up conversation with Grunden product specialists revealed Josh’s observations were spot on: the women’s Grundens had been cut higher across the chest “to accommodate the bust”, had a shorter inseam and the legs were slightly narrower. They were also “roomier” through the hips. “We got all this feedback from women fishermen, they were incredibly clear about what they wanted,” the product designers said. This did not surprise me. To me, they felt like the same old comfortable Grundens and they seemed much warmer than my summer weight Grundens, which was all I cared about on that March morning.
As we steamed out of the harbor and I began baiting up bags, I started thinking about gear – in part as a way to take my mind off my fingers which were already frozen. Josh and Austin both had jackets over their oilers – I had a hauling jacket tucked inside mine and a tendency to call the whole get up “wet weather gear,” much to the chagrin of the fishermen. “Merritt, they’re oilers, not wet weather gear- and these are fishing boats – not sailing yachts”.
I knew their way — jackets over oilers — made more sense. My method gave no protection against the spray going straight into my bibs, but I found it restrictive to have the hauling jacket on top. Just as I hated having to pull up the hood. But by the time we were out of the harbor, I pulled up the hood and didn’t take it off until we were back on shore and I was in my car with the heater running.
When we started hauling, I couldn’t feel my fingers, but that was winter fishing: layers of gear, fingers with no dexterity, reverberations from the diesel engine making conversation an impossibility – everything twice as hard. I thought about the round the world race I sailed in 20+ years ago – rougher seas, hands so cold you couldn’t do anything and so much gear on you couldn’t move or hear – in the roaring 40s and the screaming 50s the only thing you heard clearly was the wind.
But there were two big differences with winter fishing: I knew no matter how cold I was I’d get a warm shower and dry bed at the end of the day – and aboard the f/v Dorcas Anne, we had a hot tank. Hot tanks are just what they sound like – big tanks with a metal coil, heated from the engine and filled with water. They are used to help keep growth off buoys and lines – but I’d seen them used to warm up lunch (can of soup in a bait bag), and certainly they worked well to warm up hands. Between every string (sometimes more) I’d dunk my hands in the hot tank, feel my fingers revive and get back to work. Austin, I noticed, never needed to warm his hand. “I don’t know, I guess they’re just numb or used to it or something,” he replied when I asked how he kept his hands warm. After Josh had virtually tripped over me as I made my hundredth trip up to the hot tank, he joked that I needed my own personal hot tank back by the bait.
I knew every fisherman had his own theories on what to wear. Josh’s father, Peter, along with his 3 brothers, wore cut off flannel shirts in summer. “You’d wear a shirt to school, and then wear it hauling, and once it went hauling, it was never a school shirt again. And I always want a collar, the straps from my oilers are usually off to one side, with a collar they don’t chafe.” Historically wool had been the primary way to stay warm – and some fishermen still swear by it. With wool mittens even with wet hands your hands stayed warm. If I could have figured out a way to get the bait in bags and in the traps while wearing wool mittens I would have done it in a heartbeat. Despite the multiple pairs of gloves I had purchased – my hands were never warm; and the lined ones I had saved for the trip back in were impossible to get on with wet hands.
As we made our cold return to the dock I remembered the last time I had hauled with Josh and Austin – a blistering flat calm July day. Half way through the day we stopped (uncharacteristically) for a lunch break. All three of us sat on the stern, chatting and eating lunch. We were picnicking, fisherman style, and appropriately dressed for the occasion, short sleeves, sunblock and summer weight Grundens.