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The outer islands at dusk — photo by author

Mick rigged the Mr Chris for dragging scallops that winter. He got Father Power to weld a monstrous A-frame that he bolted to the stern. Father Power knew Mick, he used 6 inch steel pipe for the uprights set in half inch steel plates bolted through the stern deck. The top of the structure was even with radio mast mounted on the cabin top.

Lobsters were scarce those years. Winter lobsters even harder to come by. the bottom for groundfish had been dragged to hell and the big years for scallops were already gone. In the early 80s commercial fishing loans from the bank were over 20%. The only way to get by was to go out. We figured we’d haul our offshore gear once week for lobsters and drag for scallops the rest of the days.

“Ain’t I some sick of waiting for a weather to give us a day out,” said Mick. “This way, don’t matter, which way she wants to blow, we can find a lee somewhere.”

We were salting bait. I was up to my knees in herring, shoveling it into 55-gallon steel drums with a snow shovel while Mick layered salt to keep it from going soft. Two shovels then a half-gallon scoop of salt. We had filled three drums and had another 10 to go.

Old Morris looked out across the harbor. It was blowing north-east. Steel grey sky and sure to spit snow before long. Outside the lee of the harbor, a line of white caps swept across the bay. The forecast was for snow by evening with winds 30–45 knots and seas running 20–30 feet. Nobody was out today but habit had him checking the fleet. The Mr Chris rocked against the wharf. The weight of the new rig drove the stern down and raised the bow, she looked eager, poised to leap. “I guess it does bring her bow up a dite,” he said after a while. He took a long drag on his cigarette and spit out a fleck of tobacco. “But then I ‘magin you got her how you want her, don’t you Mick?”

She was. When the top of the drag hit the block at the peak of the A-frame the bottom of the drag was just above my head. No chance to have the drag knock me across the platform in a cross-chop and an easy reach to unfasten the ass end of the drag and let the trash dump into the sorting box mounted on the stern.

Millard Nice wandered over. He ran a finger along one of the bright new welds and shook his head. He perched on a post, spit over the side of the wharf. “Shit, Benjoy,” he said. “You get caught out in a blow, she’ll go right ass over tea-kettle.”

Mick pushed his cap back but didn’t turn around. “Chrissakes Mil,” he said. When’s the last time you went out in anything but down the hill in that old Chevy of yours?”

Days we dragged, Mick stayed in the wheel house and ran the boat. He only had to take half a step out of the wheel house to operate the winch when it was time to haul back and see what we’d scraped up. My place was in the stern waiting to catch the heavy, dripping five-foot chain bag, hold it steady in the pitching seas above the sorting table and tug on a rope to open the bottom and dump our catch.

We towed for 30 or 45 minutes depending on the bottom. Where it was sand or mud that didn’t fill the drag, we towed for longer, leaving a long plume of muddied water behind us to drift with the tide. Where it was rocky we made shorter tows. Each time the drag came up we hoped for a haul of flapping scallop shells, wondering if this time we strike them. More often we had a drag full of coral crusted rock, old bottles, metal trash, and old shell.

“I tell you about the time the old man towed here the first time. Scallops as big as dinner plates. Ten minute tow and the drag’d be full.” Mick watched me shovel another load of mud and rock and horse mussels shells off the stern with the battered snow shovel.

While we towed, I sorted, then shucked out the scallops, Mick smoked, kept an eye on the angle of the cable and the line of any other boats working the area. Constantly adjusting our speed to match the feel of the bottom. Too fast and the drag would skip along, bouncing off patches of rock and hard bottom, snagging nothing but kelp. Too slow and she’d dig in and haul us back like a hand had reached up from the murk and muckled onto the stern.

We towed the channels between the islands hoping we’d find a patch the bigger boats had skipped. When we got tired of a handful here and there we tried around the edge of ledges and the rocky ground, where the big boats didn’t want to risk getting their drags hung down or stove all to hell.

I’d sort and shuck and shovel the trash off the stern and do it all again. When it got dark too dark to see on the short afternoons, Mick put the spot light on the stern and around and around we’d go again.

At the end of the day, Morris shook our bucket of scallop meats to look them over. “Fellas who rigged up first a few years back, they got the stories,” Mick said. “Rest of us get to tow for rocks.”

Didn’t matter the weather, Mick made sure we were the last boat in and no matter when we coasted into the float at the end of the wharf, Old Morris was always there, faded blue eyes and red and black checked woolen coat. Salt stained blue cap just 10 degrees off of straight ahead.

He nodded at our catch.

“Helluva way to make a living ain’t it,” he said when the scallop meats didn’t come half-way up the bucket.

“I guess you fellas done alright today,” when it was closer to full.

The temptation in that meagre season was to stretch the rules. The word was there were all kinds of scallops where the electric cables stretched to the outer islands. These were no-tow zones but there were thousands of miles of island strewn coast to patrol and only two Coast Guard boats and a boat the Game Warden put in here and there to patrol. The guys figured the odds, kept a watch, bought the new radar detectors, and gave it a go.

Buddy strutted the wharf. He looked at our one bucket sloshing half full and smirked. He told Mick they’d rounded his boat, Risky Business, with scallops. “Took half the next day to shuck them all. weren’t my hands some stiff.”

“Fuckin scallops,” Mick muttered. “We’re only going out between lobstering. Just sumpthin’ to do, ain’t that right, Benjoy.”

“Something to do,” I echoed.

Old Morris was balancing the weights on the rusted scale. I seen him grin.

It was another iron grey day a week later. The waves that sloshed up over the rails froze to a thick slush on the deck. The wind was icy and fierce out of the nor’west. Between the islands the seas swept steep and sharp. We were the only boat out

We towed here. Hauled ass and towed there. Took off for another spot, dropped the drag and did a quick tow. All kinds of bone jarring pounding and all for about the same kind of nothing.

Mickey eyed the horizon took out a chart, scratched his head, settled his cap firmly, and took off on a new heading. We dropped the drag and towed in a long straight line. When we hauled back the drag was full. Right level full of scallops.

I dumped the drag, retied the bottom and held it out over the stern watching while Mick let the cable slip and the drag settled, sank and the cable hissed out through the block overhead.

About half an hour later the Mr Chris fetched up hard. Mick idled back, stepped out of the wheel house, scanned the horizon and set the winch to take back.

The drag came up with a long arc of thick cable slung off of it.

“Oh shit,” said Mick.

We hauled the cable off the drag and took off for the islands. Spray burst out from under the bows and the exhaust pipe glowed cherry red where it ran through the cabin. Mick didn’t slack off the throttle until we were a good 10 miles away safe in the lee of Little Gotts Island.

Mick tapped a fresh cigarette on the bulkhead and flicked his lighter on and off. On and off. “You think…?” he asked.

“Nah,” I said. “It was old and frayed right. If it was that cable it would have been insulated.”

“Yeah,” said Mick. “Insulated. Fer sure. It would have been insulated.”

We’d towed for an hour or two and had the drag up and me in the stern ready to let it go again when the Warden’s boat hailed us.

The two Wardens wore their service revolvers with the flaps undone. I could see the rifles clamped to the console.

They bumped alongside at the same time Mick let the drag down. My hands were on the rail when the drag dropped. A four foot steel bar about an inch thick with all the weight of a bag of chains behind it landed on one finger.

I strained to lift the drag and got my finger out. I couldn’t feel my finger and I was pretty sure I liked it that way. I let the glove freeze solid on my hand.

One of the came aboard. The other held us off with a boat hook. The one who came aboard had a time keeping his feet under him with the pitch and roll. It was calm here in the lee but the seas from the nor-easter came around the end of the point and made a queasy mess of things. He picked up our half bucket of scallop meats up and tipped it side to side as if he figured there was something hiding underneath. He held up the damp, mildewed life jackets and shook his head at their solid heft. He crawled through the hatch and looked around in the grimy cabin where the bilge water sloshed dark around the engine. He came out looking pale and even more unsteady.

He poked through my lunch pail and pulled out my peanut butter and marmalade and cheese sandwich. He made a face and dropped it pretty quick.

“You want a Coke?” Mickey asked. “The old man says nothing like a Coke for being seasick. I got some ice cold ones right here.”

The Warden aboard our boat glanced back at his buddy. He had set down the boat hook and had his hands dug into his underarms. I saw him glance across the bay. They both looked at where the seas were coming over the bar now with the tide . The bay was feather white already. It was going to be a messy ride in an open boat and they knew it.

“You fellas ought have some decent life-jackets. Next time we see you out here you’ll want to have that taken care of and have that bilge cleaned up. We won’t write you up this time but,” he didn’t finish.

The one with the boat hook reached out and pulled us close. The one aboard the Mr Chris grabbed hold of the rail and waited for the boats to come together to step over. He wasn’t watching close because he had his fingers over the side of the rail, a sea brought us together and pinched his fingers. He went over in a heap and came up clutching his hand. I knew just how he felt.

Mick and I watched them go. Their wake was long and straight until they hit the slop coming over the bar. We could see them rise up on a steep swell and then the spray shoot off as they came down again.

“That will be quite a run home across the bay in an open boat.” said Mick.”Glad it ain’t me. The 456 Lincoln we got may be some damn loud but don’t she throw off some heat.”

I rested my bad hand on the side of the cabin. It clunked against the wood.

“What the hell ails your hand?” Mick asked.

“The drag came down on it,” I told him. “It feels OK as long as it’s frozen.”

“Oh my fuckin word,” roared Mickey.

A few weeks later the Risky Business sank while towing in the cable zone. It blew like hell that night. They say Buddy loaded her deep with scallops. Too much of a load with a sea like that said the old timers. The Coast Guard divers who recovered the bodies reported her scupper pugs were jammed in so when water came over the sides she would have filled and swamped. Of course whatever scallops Buddy had on board had all swum away by then.

Mick and I left the scallops be after that day with the Wardens and turned to lobstering full time. Mick said it was too much like work to take the A-Frame out. That December we broke down off Mt. Desert Rock in a gale of wind. When the Coast Guard helicopter found us we were drifting 50 miles offshore encased in a mass of glittering ice.

When we got back Mick sold all the lobsters we had carred up to sell when the price was right and went on a month-long drunk.

I never went out with Mick again.

“That boy ain’t fit,” said Millard as we watched the wind shift the boats on their moorings in a spring blow.

“Fits like a glove,” chirped Lyle who always had a saying to add to the mix.

“Only boat out today,” observed Lyford.

“Yeah,” I said. I caught Old Morris watching me, watching the boats all restless on their moorings and wondering where Mick was and how the day was shaping.

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