Stevie’s perched on the edge of his bunk. The image of Pauly’s schooner floating before his eyes. The others, restless after the long gam, mill around the cramped focs’le.
Seventeen. Out of school a year. Full-time on the trap boat all summer. Not home or in school.
One thing to go out for the day and tend fish traps. We’ll be out for a week. George’s Bank. Fish day and night ’til the Captain thinks we’ve made the trip….
Never been out of sight of land before. Never had to work so hard for so long.
I’m the only boy.
This afternoon, their preparations to leave completed, the Captain called out to him, “Stevie. Cle’ah the lines.”
He makes a mental check-list: Start with the springs. The slack one first. Runs for the forward spring. Wind from aft…. High tide. Deck almost level with the dock.
Gaspar hands him a breast-line. Captain wants to pivot the boat. Hold it to the dock amidships.
Gaspar reaches across the gap. A coil of two-inch braided manila draped over his outstretched arm, Carries it like it’s nothing! Stumbling, Stevie accepts its weight in both hands. Rough cordage pressed against his cheek.
Dropping its great eye over the nearest piling, he runs forward to release the bow-line, tossing it across to Fields. The cook smiles at him, Oh! Just ignore me!
The Captain turns the wheel hard over. Gooses the engine in reverse, throwing prop-wash cascading under the wharf. Foam hisses under Stevie’s feet. The reduction gear rumbles, rattling the dropped windows across the front of the wheelhouse. Black soot rises in serried rings from the crook-ed exhaust-pipe into the sky. The hawser groans. Stretches against the strain. Its twists tighten, Alive. A giant snake…. The piling sways. The corner of the wharf shifts, creaking as the bow pivots towards open water.
Stevie pulls the stern-line’s eye off its piling, reaching high on tiptoe, hugging weathered wood close. Splinters scratching his face. The sharp smell of creosote….
Gaspar teases him. Tugs on the line before he’s ready. The hawser knocks Stevie in the face. He holds it with both hands to keep his balance. The Captain leans out of his doorway. Chuckles at Stevie’s miss-step, calling out, “Breast-line! Let’s go!”
Stevie’s eyes water from the hit. Wiping his sleeve across his face, Cap’n thinks I’m crying. Old-timers; line-up on a spindly bench in front of the harbormaster’s office; snigger at him with gap-toothed grins. Pointing, elbowing each other’s pot-bellies, Laughing.
The line! Stevie reaches for the breast-line, Tight. The Captain puts the helm hard over. Gooses the engine. Intent on clearing a dragger tied up ahead, Damn. Gaspar slowly lets out slack from his end, “Y’a comin’? C’mon’ lee’ttle one! Let’s go!” A wide grin on his face.
Stevie tugs at the loop, Still too tight! He pleads with Gaspar with his eyes, Give me a chance!
A gap of dark green water opens between the boat and the dock, I can’t jump ’til the line’s free. I’m not gonna make it!
Pauly’s on the foc’sle roof. Sees the trouble. Signals the Captain. Nods towards Stevie. Gaspar slowly easing the line out through the fairlead, Not giving him enough slack, “Bastardo!”
Slamming the gear lever into reverse. The Captain pushes the throttle ahead as he spins the helm hand over hand, shoulders pumping. The sideways thrust off four two-foot bronze propeller blades pulls the stern towards the dock, Prop-walk. Stevie manages to grab some slack. Gaspar sways against the bulwark. Stevie frees the loop. Jumps down onto the rail. Gaspar elbows him in the ribs. This lighthearted jab from the burly fisherman sends him reeling. Gaspar grabs his arm, pulling him aboard with a chuckle.
Captain thinks I’m clumsy! Almost fell overboard. Stevie stands on the rail-cap as the boat pulls ahead. The Captain mutters, “Careful!” Puts the engine in gear. Swings the wheel hard to starboard. Their bow is still aiming at the stern of the dragger ahead. Fields and Pauly scramble to lay an old tire fender over the stem. It deforms as their bow pushes into the stern of the Richard & Allen. Dock-lines creak as the dragger shifts, nuzzling the next boat ahead. They bounce off with a lurch and head out.
I’m a failure! The dock recedes. A gaggle of men, mending nets in the waist of the Richard & Allen, jeer.
Stevie shifts to the port side, hiding behind the wheelhouse, Out of sight.
The engine sounds change. Stevie feels the boat curving around, slapping into a light chop riding over a deeper swell as she slows to a halt, We’ve reached the grounds. They’ll be setting the drags. Still dark. Fields is up, lighting the lantern with a big phosphorus match, Scratch, Phoof!
A yellow glow, harsh and glare-y. Fields shakes the coal grates, building up the fire while Stevie sits upright in his bunk rubbing his eyes. Pauly jumps from his berth to the deck. Pulls his suspender straps over his shoulders one at a time, leaning against an upper bunk front, swaying smoothly to the boat’s motion.
The scuttle scrapes open. Gaspar leans down into the foc’sle. “Whare my caffee? Ees morning! You lazy bones wake up yet?”
In front of the stove, Fields gives him a shove with his free hand, “Holt y’ah ho’hses! Wat’ahs gott’ah boil yet!”
Smoke puffs around the stove lids, rising to the deck-head. The tang of wood and coal smoke. The taste of iron sharp on Stevie’s tongue. His cheek flushed by the stove’s radiance. Fields pulls a skillet from underit to send it clattering across the top.
Gaspar whines, “What a night! O’ meu deus!” Rolling his big brown eyes, taking up too much room in this too small space. “I wanna my coffee! Hungry! You un’erstand? You sleep. I work!” He pokes Fields again. Winks at Pauly as he pushes past him to his spot at the triangular table.
Gaspar addresses the boy, “And how are you thee’se mornin’h lee’ttle one?”
Stevie’s arms are up over his head, putting on his sweater. Gaspar blind-sides him a chuck on the chin, whacking his head against the bulkhead. He untangles his arms. Works at appearing unflustered. Gaspar laughs. Shifts to stand over Field’s shoulder. Intent on pestering the cook.
The crew gather on deck in a ragged arc, facing the wheelhouse. A bright, bare bulb pours light into the night from an enameled reflector angling down. A wash of harsh yellow light splashes across the deck. The black night impenetrable, surrounds them. Shadows and glare spark off the water. The foam in their wake glows out to the edge of the void.
The crew prepares the port drag. Cap’n Pete steps out of the wheelhouse. Takes Stevie aside, “You watch. You ha’ff plenty of e’shcallops to shuck soon!”
Pauly stands at his post abreast of the wheelhouse, behind a horizontally mounted brass winch. Thick manila cables run from each dredge over blocks on their twin booms to reach these winch heads. Their tails neatly coiled on deck. Pauly throws a lever. Wraps a few turns of cable, letting it slip on the slow-turning polished brass. The crew warily take positions around the starboard dredge, Like a crowd circling a fight.
The dredge is a crude assembly of round and flat steel-stock welded into a rectangular box. A steel-chain purse hangs from one end. Held together by a round metal rod threaded through its three inch mesh, top and bottom. Its cable, spliced to a fist-sized shackle, runs up into the rigging. The whole dredge, about five feet square, two feet high, weighs hundreds of pounds, A lot more when it’s full of shell and rocks.
Timing its rise with the roll of the vessel, Pauly takes the strain on the winch, gently lifting it free of the deck. It slides to starboard, mesh rattling, metal scraping against wooden chafe-strips. The outboard roll holds it against the inside of the bulwark. Wedged under the rail cap. As the boat begins to roll away to port, Pauly tightens the winch’s grip on the line. The dredge rises above the height of the rail. On the next roll everyone pushes, Giving it the bum’s rush. The dredge swings clear. Pauly lets the line slip. The sea swallows the dredge whole with a muffled splash. Disengaging the chain-drive, Pauly controls its descent, playing turns around the drum.
Cap’n Pete sets a course off the wind, barely maintaining steerage way. When the dredge hits bottom, Pauly hauls its cable inboard off the end of its boom. Signaling his readiness to the Captain with a nod and a dramatic flourish like a rodeo rider roping a calf; he ties it to the after quarter bitt with a slip-hitch.
The boat slows, feeling the resistance of the dredge against the bottom. Wallows in a trough. Cap’n Pete gently adds throttle to achieve an even strain. Stands at the wheelhouse door to judge the angle of the cable.
Stevie’s intent on watching him. Doesn’t notice that the hands have disappeared into the Foc’sle. Pauly adjusts coils of cable. Passes a weather eye over the gear for the port dredge. The captain settles into the wheelhouse, feeling the thrum of the engine through his boot-soles. His hands clasp the spokes. Attuned to the friction in the steering gear, to the play of its chains, he compensates for the dredge’s effect on their course. Stevie sees him smile once everything is settled.
Rolling in a trough, the boat speeds up. The engine’s sound eases as the face of a wave rushes the stern. Her natural buoyancy fights the weight of the dredge and loses. Water rises in the scuppers. Spills over the taffrail onto the deck. The sea runs forward. Crests rush past at gunnel height on either side. The engine’s sound deepens after the wave passes her balance point to rise like a wedge under her bow. Translucent green water cleaves from the stem to either side. Breaks into white froth. A sizzling hiss signals the its departure, running ahead into the murky pre-dawn dusk. Shoved downhill to climb again and repeat, again and again.
Stevie’s never felt a vessel move this way. The dredge wrestles the forces of the open sea. He sits on the break of the foc’sle looking aft. Swinging and swiveling his spine at his hips to maintain his balance. Listening to the rhythmic changes in the engine’s tone. The variety of sounds the waves make. Watching foamed crests glide by. Shadow loses its grip. Morning grows brighter as dawn approaches.
Cap’n Pete calls him aft. Walking to the wheelhouse is a new kinetic adventure. The boat moves forward. He walks aft. Waves rush forward. The sum of these motions, syncopated. At times he feels a rush of momentum. A surge as the boat rushes forward a wave lifting the stern. He feels himself moving ahead/aft effortlessly when a wave crest passes him and the boat slows ,trying to climb its back. He has to work constantly to maintain his sea legs against the slow roll, the heave, the surge.
Arriving at the wheelhouse, he feels as though he’s about to jump onto a carousel. He grabs its cylindrical handrail and swings up to the door, “What is it Cap’n?” Warm, stuffy air hits him in the face.
“You bett’ah get somethin’h to eat! Young fella! We gonna haul the drudge soon. You get no rest all day!” Cap’n Pete’s eyes sparkle. He chuckles to himself, Gear on the bottom! In his element.
“A’w’right Cap’n!” The sun breaks the eastern horizon, piercing the thick, salt-stained glass of the wheelhouse. Bright orange. Warm on their faces. Sunlight glints off the varnish on the tips of the wheel spokes. The verdigris compass mount glows a rich blue-green.
Reaching the foc’sle hatch, Stevie runs into Gaspar and Pauly coming up the ladder. Pauly carries a steaming mug in one hand. Gaspar picks his teeth with his sheath knife. Deep in the middle of one of his stories. “So, the’ah we was and I tell-ed h’ah….”
Seeing the boy, “Leetle one! You m’eess breakfast! You not hungry?” Grinning ear to ear, blocking the hatchway. Challenging Stevie to answer him, laughing at his own wit.
Stevie tries to squeeze past making himself small.
“You no say nothing? You ha’ff no man’ors? Hey! I ask you something!” Gaspar sticks out his belly. Lowers his knife with slow deliberation before slipping it into a sheath at his belt.
Pauly reaches for his elbow, “C’mon, leave ’im go below.”
Gaspar lets out a deep belly laugh, “Ha, Ha, Ha!” Sends Stevie on his way with a pat/shove on the back, propelling him down the ladder. Fields is cleaning up, gathering dirty dishes, his back turned. Stevie knocks into him. Fields drops plates with a clatter. Blurts out, “Damn it!” Recognizing the boy, he chuckles, “Wonderin’ if y’ah was gon’na show up? Ain’t y’ah hungr’ay?”
With a sigh of relief Stevie says, “Yes Sir,”
“Y’ah kin drop that ‘Sir’ wi’ me! Fields is fine…. Fields is always fine, I say! So long as they’s grub an’ a decent share at the end o’ the trip!”
Stevie grins, responding to the cook’s natural kindness. “Thanks Fields, I would like somethin’… sort’a f’agot ‘bout eatin’….”
Fields adds, “Y’ea, fi’hst day an all…” Looking aft, “Don’t let Gaspar get t’ya. He’s aw’right, jest kind’a a loud mouth.” With a grimace he mouths, “Blah, Blah, Blah” waving his arms, sticking out his belly. The boy’s face lights up. Fields laughs at his own joke.
“I saved y’ah some chow. Had t’a hide the bacon…” Looking aft again, reprising an abbreviated repetition of his mimicry.
Stevie sits down to his breakfast with a mug of sweet, light coffee. Finishing up, chatting comfortably with Fields, they hear the chain drive engage. The engine changes pitch. Pauly calls out, “We’ah haulin’ back! Git on up he’ah!”
Gaspar repeats the last part in a loud falsetto, “Git on up he’ah! Le’ss go!”
Fields gives the boy a reassuring look, “No rush. It ain’t t’a the rail yet.”
Stevie swallows a last gulp of coffee. They grab their foulies. The boat coasts ahead slowly. Settles into a trough of sea. Her roll lopsided from the weight of the dredge rising alongside, pressing downward from the end of its extended boom. It breaks the surface in an up-welling of foam and bright turquoise water. Gaspar lunges for it with his boat hook. Grabbing its bridle, he swings to align it against the hull. Pauly chooses his moment. Hoists it above the rail on an outward swing.
Gaspar shifts his hook. Pulls inboard with the help of the roll. As it hangs there, Gaspar removes the rod holding the bag shut. The catch drops to the deck in a rush. Gaspar swings the boom as Pauly neatly lowers the dredge to the deck. Stopping its fall just shy, letting the stretch of its line bring it to rest.
The Captain turns the boat into the wind and seas while the crew readies the port dredge. Once it’s over they head back the way they came. Fields tosses a small kedge anchor over the side attached to a coil of half inch manila. A little spar buoy painted bright red and yellow marks their turning point.
They’ll make a series of even passes parallel and to the eastward of this first set. This will go on all day like a farmer plowing his field.
They turn their attention to a mound of shells glistening in the fresh morning light. Gaspar attacks it with a coal shovel, swinging a broad, shapely blade. Dark orange, rusty except for a gleaming, dangerously sharp edge. He spreads the load onto a culling-board just aft of the shrouds. Pauly, Fields, and Stevie line up. Ready to pick through the pile. Empty shells, rocks, and clumps of mangled sea life are shoved off the end. Returned to the sea.
Gulls wheel overhead. They’ve followed the boat since first light. Awaiting rewards to come. They dive as the first refuse hits the water. Call out in a cacophony of cries. Their movement, the noise, soon gathers more gulls. A plume of glittering white, soft-gray wings billows overhead. Trim white bodies bob, trailing in their wake.
Stevie stands next to Fields at the culling-board. A comforting presence, “Spread ’em out son!” He shoves shells in his direction. Stevie watches the others. He’s soon running his sharp knife inside each shell, dumping glistening, cylindrical adductor muscles into a galvanized pail at his feet. Admiring the empty shells, The size of dinner plates! Corrugated orange and ivory on the outside. They shine a pale ivory inside.
A rhythm develops. They haul, set, shuck. Stevie stands at the culling-board. His brand-new white-cotton work-gloves soak through. Fray to nothing at his fingertips. Working the knife soon becomes second nature. Though sometimes he catches himself dumping meats onto the culling-board, tossing shells into the pail. He blushes. Looks to see if anyone notices. Bends over to pick shell from his bucket.