Life on deck

By Jerry Fraser, WorkBoat publisher

 

My office in Portland, Maine, faces away from the harbor, but yesterday I had a water view, on the roof across the street. Real-time buoy reports from the Gulf of Maine indicated south to southeast winds at 30 knots or more. The good news with a southeasterly breeze is that besides being warmer than a northeaster, the wind typically lets go after nine or 10 hours.

Don’t hold me to it. And in any case, the wind is liable to back into the northwest and shriek, and it can blow for days out of the northwest.

If there’s wind enough, it’s a pain no matter which way it’s blowing. For example, Portland Harbor is quite protected, but a southeast wind will come right up the channel. A big easterly will pile the water up against the coastline and a tide that might have been 10 feet on a calm day will be half again as high in a storm. During the winter of 1972 I was fishing on the Vandal, an old two-masted side trawler built in 1929. We were tied to the Custom House Wharf in a southeast blow and the tide was high and the water was choppy. The Vandal rolled down on a piling and popped a plank and sank right there at the dock.

The owner of another vessel, who had spent the night in the fish house office, said he walked the pier at 5:30 a.m. and the Vandal was “riding high.” He made another pass an hour later and just the masts were showing.

A few months earlier we were caught offshore in a southeaster. We had been catching bag after bag of hake and couldn’t get the deck cleared between sets. Disgusted, the captain decided to call it a trip. We dressed fish all the way back to the wharf and tied up with a night’s work still ahead of us.

I decided that night that I’d rather work the deck in snow than rain anytime. No matter how I hunched my shoulders, no matter if I faced into the wind or away, the rain found its way to the back of my neck. I haven’t worn a sou’wester since.

We were tied up opposite two harbor tugs and the Portland pilot boat. They came and went a couple of times during the night and as the crewmen disappeared into their warm, dry deckhouses I’d curse myself for having gone fishing.

I had several friends at Maine Maritime Academy preparing for careers in the merchants. On nice nights fishing I’d think of them trapped in their dorms. I’d envision them trying to memorize constellations as they studied celestial navigation. Well, I had a sky full of stars. Give me life on deck here and now!

And there I was.

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