“What do you think?” the captain asks me.
“Fifteen to twenty, out of the North, gusts to twenty-five.”
He thinks about it while he drives us to the dock.
“You want to go?” he asks me. I know how badly he wants to go. He hates to miss a day’s fishing.
“I’ll go if you say we’re going. Anybody else going?”
“Nah, probably not.” This is bad. In mild weather, it’s not too big a deal to be out on the water alone. But when it’s this cold and windy, you want another boat or two in hailing distance. Just in case.
“Ah, fuck it,” he decides. “Let’s go. We’ll be all right, we’ve got the new gear. Do a line out and a line in, a couple in between.”
We got the new gear just in time. Until two days ago, we were working without raincoats, and with boots that had holes in them. If we hadn’t got the gear, we wouldn’t have been able to fish for more than an hour or two today. With the new gear, we feel like men of steel, invulnerable to Poseidon’s wrath. This warm feeling lasts until two or three minutes after we clear the harbour wall and see with our own eyes what Poseidon’s mood is today.
Cold. Wind. Waves that look like special effects for a disaster movie. There isn’t going to be much joking on the boat today.
The cold is terrible. The lobsters have to be put in the wheelhouse as soon as they come out of the pots, or they will start dropping claws and freezing to death before we can even band them. In between trawls, I get down on my knees in the wheelhouse and band as many lobsters as I can. The boat is jumping like a wild horse. The waves are enormous. The floor keeps falling away underneath me and coming back up hard enough to nearly shatter my knees.
A pair of colliding waves throws me across the wheelhouse. I’m sprawling on my back, holding up a half-banded lobster in my right hand. It seems I am already developing the lobsterman’s instinct to protect the lobsters at any cost. The captain looks in, hearing my swearing, and we look at each other and laugh hysterically. We both realise that this is insane, that we must be the dumbest motherfuckers alive to be out here on a day like this. “Winter fishing!” he shouts his familiar battle cry. “You gotta love it!”
I stifle the urge to tell him exactly what I think of winter fishing. Picking myself up, I band the lobster, sling it into a bushel basket and haul it outside. The lobsters go straight into the holding tank, while the captain hammers and pulls at the frozen bait, trying to get it into manageable pieces that will fit into a bait bag.
Bait isn’t supposed to freeze. That’s why the stuff is salted. A lot of things that aren’t supposed to happen are happening today.
Neither of us feels like fucking around. We just want to get a decent catch and get back home. So we’ve done a line out, and now we’re doing a line in. None of the usual checking out a trawl here and a trawl there, moving lines, going back and forth and grappling for lost trawls. Even the standard minor repair work is forsaken in our rush to finish the day. We’re counting the trawls, fingers aching, toes numb, thinking of fire and wives and children and the paycheck at the end of the day.
Each line is roughly a hundred pots, set in trawls of eight or ten pots each. The line out is barely tolerable, going mostly with the wind. Of course, this means we’ve saved the worst for last, because the line in goes straight into the wind. There’s so much spray that every square inch of the boat is covered with ice that thickens by the minute. Ice is in our beards. Ice is hanging off the davit that we haul the pots up on. Ice and slush cover the deck everywhere except for the lane where the pots go off the back of the boat. The entire bow window is covered in an inch of ice, leaving the captain with only one small opening to see through. Naturally, the radar is fucked, so we are basically flying blind.
Through that little opening, the wind rushes straight into the captain’s face, hurling ice water like tiny steel needles. By the time we call it quits, he looks like a Yeti. His beard is thick with little icicles. Even his eyebrows are bushy and white with frost.
“Drive the boat!” he tells me. “Take care of my icicle!” One especially large icicle is growing straight down through the opening in the window. It looks like an elephant’s trunk, massive and twisted by the wind. As I drive the boat North, bobbing right and left in an effort to avoid the rhythmic bursts of spray through the window, my eyes go from the compass to the sea to the icicle and back again. The compass is dancing like a dervish. The sea is nothing but white froth and blinding spray. The icicle is bigger every time I look at it.
By the time we reach the harbour wall, the icicle has grown at least two inches. The davit is just one big chunk of ice swinging on a short ice chain, and my orange jacket is almost entirely covered in white. My hands have gone way beyond feeling cold, beyond numbness, beyond the burning sensation that follows numbness, to a feeling of low-level pain that the body just can’t identify. It’s better than the burning, anyway.
We pull into the dock, battering the icy lines into twisted formations that vaguely resemble knots, while the owner of the fleet stares at the ice on the boat, stares at us, and bursts into delighted laughter.
“You crazy fucking kids,” he smiles. For the first time ever, I see him actually help us out, holding the boat close to the dock while we hoist the totes of lobsters off the deck. He seems almost like a kid himself, his face transformed with excitement. I can see him remembering his own winter fishing adventures, and wishing for at least a few seconds that he was still young enough to go out on the water and bring back a boat full of lobsters and ice. We got five totes, which is a fair catch even on a regular day. And this was definitely not a regular day. In the entire state, only one lobster boat left its dock this morning.
He gives us our paychecks, and hands each of us an extra bill to go with it. “Little somethin’,” he mumbles, still smiling. “Take the weekend off, wouldja? The pots can fish. Nobody else is gonna go out for a couple of days at least.”
As it turns out, nobody goes out for another two weeks. The temperature refuses to rise, and the wind never drops below twenty knots. Nobody wants to go out in that. We would go, but not alone. Even we’re not stupid enough to taunt Poseidon twice in one season.