LOBSTERMAN DOCUMENTARY & VACATION PHOTOGRAPHY. SMALL POINT HARBOR PHIPPSBURG MAINE
“If I was a lobsterman that would be the color of my buoys.”
We would sit on the trunk cabin of Papa’s boat, rocking with the waves, and point out our favorite colored buoys as he navigated through the dark sea of bobbing colors. Every few minutes we’d find our new favorite color combo.
Persephone (Per-seph-o-nee) was her name, and for Papa, she was more than a boat. That 34' Wilbur signified summer, friends, and family for Papa. I can still pull up the memory of his white scruffy face, a small but grand smile growing behind his beard, stretching wide as he captained multiple generations along the coast, showing us the beauty of Maine from the ocean's point of view. Later on, as Papa aged and Persephone was sold, my Uncle renewed my ocean obsession by building his own boat, Brilliant, and steering us through the same waters Persephone traveled.
It was all those summers of climbing aboard Persephone and Brilliant that grew my love for all things nautical: knots, charts, buoys, and boats. That, paired with my love for Maine and our annual summer lobster feast, and I grew hungry to experience life as a lobsterman.
And so, it just so happened that...
Last summer, a Google search found me a photographer AND a friend in Jamie Mercurio. Her love, Lawrence? A 4th generation lobsterman.
Please let me meet him and ask him questions and see the boat and can I go sometime I promise I'll stay out of the way also has he ever been pinched and did it hurt him?
For a full year, I talked about it. Summer rolled around again and I was still talking about it, much like everything else on my bucket list. So when Jamie and Lawrence offered up THE opportunity? Yes, yes, YES!
4:00 am on the morning of, I woke to the most beautiful sunrise over the ocean and left the sleeping cottage with my giant jug of water, coffee to go, and a sack of PB&J's. (Rumor had it that Lawrence was notorious for an 11-minute lunch break.)
You'll see for yourself in a second just how stunning a harbor at dawn is. Still, silent, and so serene. As we waited for Lawrence and his deckhand Joe to ready to boat, the harbor quietly awakened with more lobstermen starting their workday.
Having zero clues about how this gig really worked and afraid of being a nuisance, I asked for my rules and regulations before boarding the boat. All Lawrence advised was "just watch out for the line, or you'll go overboard."
Mmmmmkay, is this line, like, painted neon green? Do warning lights flash if I step on it? Sirens? Automatic dial to the U.S. Coastguard?
They said "don't worry, you'll see it."
Haha. Ha. Heh.
I hope so.
My day was a fascinating blur as soon as I stepped into my orange oil pants (and steered clear of every rope on board). Few words were said over the roar of the diesel engine as we set off toward our first string of traps marked with Lawrence's red and yellow striped buoy.
Wondering how those red lobsters end up next to your cheesy biscuits?
So glad you asked, because I'm far from finishing this novel. You should probably go grab a snack.
(You should also experience the true taste of lobster, outside of the chain restaurant!)
Under each bright, bobbing buoy lies a string of traps - sometimes 8 or 10 or more - with a string of bait in each trap. The bait? Red fish and dead fish, that's all I remember. Oh, and the crunch of the eyeball as Joe threaded them onto his bait needle.
The sickest sound I've ever heard, y'all. GAG.
Lawrence navigated The Three Rascals from buoy to buoy, hauling the traps with the help of the pot hauler and Joe. I was exhausted just watching them heave the 40 pound traps, one by one, over and over. Joe whipped up a fresh string of bait before I could even blink while Lawrence worked the right side where the lobsters literally get trapped. They're either 'keepahs' or 'tossahs' depending on their size. My favorite part? The flying lobsters! Those thrown overboard can't be kept because they're either too short or too long. You'll see the guys occasionally use the lobster gauge when their trained eyes couldn't clarify. (The gauge is also my favorite piece of jewelry I own, thanks to Watts in Maine!) You'll also see Joe spend some serious time inspecting under the tail of a few female lobsters. If there's even one single egg on her, it's illegal to keep. At one point, a big ol' girl was hauled up. BIG. Even my rookie eyes could tell she wasn't a keeper. Not only was this gal way too big to keep, she was covered in eggs - a spawning female. Lawrence let me throw her back in, but cautioned me to toss her so she landed on her back to protect her eggs underneath. No pressure - just LIFE and a lot of future money for lobstermen, that's all.
Are y'all yawning yet orrrrrr booking the first flight out to Maine?
What was fascinating to me was no doubt monotonous to them, as sometimes 7 days a week, this was their office. At each buoy, they hauled, handed us the keepers, tossed the others, and re-baited the trap. Lawrence moved on as Joe prepped the trawl of traps by stacking them on the stern of the boat. After a push of the first one, like dominos, the rest were pulled off the back of the boat, and THE rope whipped and unwound as the traps sunk swiftly to the bottom of the ocean.
For 10 hours, they worked like machines. Haul. Lift. Measure. Toss. Keep. Bait. Clean. Repeat. If I wasn't helping Jamie band the lobsters, I was taking pictures from the bulkhead or staring in awe at the hardest work I've ever witnessed. Reaching into a cage of mad lobsters with only gloves to protect me was unnerving at first, until the guys offered up some helpful handling tips. A few lobsters in, and I started to think I was born to band. Really, I'm not even sure how Lawrence is running his boat and business without me. *pats back proudly*
Except, as good as I really was, I did scream once and startled not only everyone on the boat, but also the lobster. Which I dropped. (He flipped his ferocious tail at me!) In my defense, Lawrence ended up double banding him because that sucker's crusher claw was too strong for one band. The meaner they are, the better they taste!
Kidding! I just made that up.
Around 4:00pm and a full bladder later (guys, I couldn't do the pee in a bucket thing. COULD.NOT), "we" hauled our last string - 32 in total - and Lawrence called it a day. The guys remained at work on our way in, cleaning the deck and scrubbing the boat where nearly 300 traps hit as they were hauled. My exhaustion emerged as I rested against the stern, my face towards the sun, as we rode back in to the harbor. Banding claws was nonstop, and to think it's usually a task for the guys to tackle along with everything else made me appreciate their profession even more.
Back at the pier, Joe sorted the days haul by dividing the hard shells from the soft. The wharf weighed the days work and my time as a lobsterman came to a close. For Lawrence and Joe, it was just another day of work on the water. However, I left looking like a true rookie - weary and worn out, yet completely in awe of the entire experience.
By 8:00 that night, my eyes finished their fight and I made my way upstairs and collapsed into bed. It rocked like I was still on the water, and before I drifted almost dizzily to sleep, Papa's bearded smile and the memories made on Persephone flooded my thoughts. Who knew such a great adventure lay just beneath all of those colorful buoys?