Sights and Sounds

November 10, 2015 | By: Merritt Carey

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When most people think of Maine lobsters, they imagine the iconic lobster boat, the brightly-colored buoys that shimmer when the light hits them right, and of course, the irresistible red of a cooked lobster.

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For me, increasingly, lobstering is an experience of sounds as much as sights. Part of this is simply the nature of working: you keep your head down and your eyes on what you’re doing. But what I hear tells me almost as much about what’s happening on the boat as what I see. Since I’m mostly banding between strings—putting rubber bands on each lobster claw—and facing the stern, I can’t see what John is doing. So, intuitively, I listen.

First, I hear the diesel engine back off, then the sound of the gaff being picked up from the gunnel—this tells me we’re about to start hauling the next string. Then the hydraulic winch, which tells me the first trap is coming up, so I know to leave what I’m doing and be ready to start emptying traps. We’re three in a row when we’re emptying traps: John, me, Levi. John hoists the trap up on the gunnel, I open it, and while John and I start emptying it, Levi takes the old bait bag out and puts in a new one. All the while, there is the metallic clang of my measuring tool, which is fastened by a string to the cabin and within easy reach for me to grab, measure and release. Overhead, the gulls swarm relentlessly, screeching as they fight over the old bait as it’s tossed into the water.

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When we finish emptying the string of 10 traps, I haul the large, plastic crate full of lobsters around to the tray, where I start banding them. There, I hear the occasional flapping of a lobster tail—an indication it’s displeased with its lot in life. I hear the water that circulates through the tank gushing out onto the deck. The splash of the first trap going overboard is John setting the string we just hauled. Levi guides the remaining nine traps off the stern of the boat, taking care to make sure they go in upright, since an upside down trap won’t catch anything.

All this is set against the ongoing background sounds—the intermittent chatter on the VHS radio, tuned to channel 72, with all the lobstermen listening and chiming in on all subjects, from politics to weather. There’s Joe, calling from the bait supply company to each lobsterman to catch up, and see what bait they want:

Joe: “Frank, you there?”
Frank: “Yup.”

Joe: “I thought you were at the dentist.”
Frank: “No, I went yesterday.”
Joe: “How’d that go?”
Frank: “Well it was $1,900 just to sit down in the chair, and that was just the start.”

Joe: “Next time, I’ll just give you some copper wire, save you the money and pain.”
Frank: “Yup, that’d be good. I need a drum of herring and some red fish.”

And there’s the easy banter between John and Levi as they play “over-under,” a high stakes betting game where they each guess the number of lobsters in a trap or a string. The winner gets a Slim Jim for his trouble. It’s an ongoing game—at last tally, Levi was up 16 Slim Jims with pay day an uncertain thing.

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Finally, there’s the sound of the diesel engine above everything else, a sound I feel as much as I hear. It vibrates through the hull of the boat and through the soles of my rubber boots. At the end of the day, when I step off the boat and walk up the dock, the sudden lack of sound and sensation is momentarily disorienting. Looking back over the harbor, with the fading light hitting the buoys just so, I still hear the sounds that complete the picture.