Winter Storm: Lobstermen Style

December 19, 2017 | By: Merritt Carey

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My main concern when the storm hit Maine in late October – leaving 90,000 without power – was that I might have to endure two Halloweens.  The storm blew through quickly in the early hours of Monday, October 30th and I got on the road shortly after we lost power around 7am, having made plans to check on our scallop aquaculture lease site which was a mile or so off shore. En route, I received a call from my 10-year-old daughter Madeleine “Mom, they’re canceling Halloween, since there’s no power, it’s going to be Friday instead of Tuesday, but we’re going to do it both days!” Hence my concern – double the candy meant double the drama. It was my least favorite holiday, to do it twice did not appeal.

When I arrived at the wharf, there was a frenzy of activity – all the undoing of the storm preparations.  The afternoon before, the guys had made the decision to pull everything – the skiffs on the float were hauled out onto the dock – hoisted one by one the way we typically hoist lobster crates up and bait trays down; the buy float was secured with everything tied down, the ramp attaching the dock to the float was hauled up, and a couple of guys had run their skiffs all the way up to the head of the harbor. Tenants Harbor lies completely open to the East – which is the direction most weather systems come from. Nor’easters are famous along the coast for wreaking havoc (these storms typically last 3 days: “one to show, one to blow and one to go,” my father always told me); Easterlies are just what they sound like, hard blows from the east.  Fair weather comes from the west.

As a practical matter, fishermen think about “the weather” differently.  For most of us, a storm means canceled school, possible power outages, and – in my case – the potential of two Halloweens. If your ability to make a livelihood sits on a mooring, in a harbor that faces East, you’re bound to have a different take on an impending storm. Not only do fishermen think about weather differently, they talk about it differently as well.  If you ask a fisherman what the weather is, you might get an answer that’s hard to decipher: “15-20 north –northwest at the Rock, dropping out and coming westerly in the afternoon.”  Translation: The wind is blowing from the north-northwest at 15-20 knots at Matinicus Rock, but will diminish in the afternoon and come from the west.”  Matinicus Rock is where the NOAA weather station is located that most of the fishermen from the mid coast region monitor.

stormy ocean in rockland

“The long-range forecasting has gotten much better,” one long-time fisherman told me. “When I know there’s weather coming, I usually check the updated NOAA marine forecast and watch the satellite imagery as well. In the end, I decide what to do based on that information, and by what it feels like at the shore.  You take the weather information along with what you can tell standing on the shore – the wind direction and just how it feels.”

I knew a little about this.  My father, not a fisherman but an avid waterman with a weather obsession, had drilled some of this into me as a young girl.  The first thing I always checked: which way the boats were pointing. If they were pointing out the harbor (to the East), bad weather (boats always point into the wind when they’re on their moorings); if they faced up the harbor, to the west, fair weather.  If I could see the Camden Hills from my deck, excellent visibility, no concern about fog rolling in.  This was the first thing I checked each morning as a girl.

How do fishermen prepare for storms? Depending on the severity, they might shift all their gear (lobster traps) to a protected area “I only worry about the gear in shoal water; anything in more than 15 fathoms is okay, in the shoal water with a sea running, it’s like a washing machine.”

When we headed out to check the lease site, the sun was shining but there was still a good south-easterly breeze and evidence of the storm was everywhere: a lobster boat had blown off its mooring and washed up on shore and debris could be seen all along the shore. We cut inside Harts Ledge along the back shore, the shoal depth created the washing machine effect (“I wonder if I should have shifted some of my gear”), and with the sun breaking through, the sea was green, and foaming.  We found the lease site and all seemed to be intact; a decided relief.  Coming back in, we had a following sea and smoother riding.  As we came around Southern Island, I noted the boats were all pointing up the harbor, the breeze had swung around to the west. “It will drop out now,” I heard someone say as we hit the dock, “haul day tomorrow.” The only remaining question for me was – one or two Halloweens this year?

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