Post Road Magazine #24

At Sea

Christie Rogers

Men in the Rogers family have always been lobstermen, as though there's a trait for the trade that dominates any other industry that tries to sneak into the bloodline. It's not an unusual trend in the town where I grew up. There are other fishing families we talk about over the dinner table, or that I see out on the water. I'm thinking about that this morning, as Dad parks the Toyota Tundra next to his three brothers' trucks down on Bailey Island, completing the row of Rogers. Dad and I make our way down to the float, jumping onto a skiff manned by one of the dockhands and already filled with several other men, including Kevin, Dad's helper. The skiff glides in between the moored lobster boats in Mackerel Cove, temporarily stopping to distribute its passengers. We coast by the Erin Chelsea, Little Holly, and Jo Leigh, boats named for lobstermen's daughters. I'm the only namesake hauling today. Dad's pleased to have me on the boat this summer, but I know he's secretly delighted whenever a conversation allows him to mention that both his daughters go to college in Boston now. No one else on the wharf can say that.

Three of us climb off the skiff at the Joyce Elaine, a 46' boat bearing the name of my mother on its bow. On board, I swap my sneakers for oversized rubber boots, tucking my jeans inside them. I don't wear the orange oilskin trousers that are long-established attire on lobster boats, providing wearers with a waterproof barrier from foul weather and the sea. There's an extra pair hanging off a hook in the cabin, but I don't like those. I settle into my station near Dad at the wheel, facing starboard where the traps will be brought aboard. From here I can reach both the bait tray and the designated area for lobsters deemed legal catch size. Keepers measure at least three and a quarter inches, but no longer than five. My job is to band all the lobsters we keep aboard. This is what I've been doing all summer. But it's only for the summer, and it's almost done.

As we head toward open water, Dad navigating the boat out of the cove, I turn my iPod on and find the playlist I've been listening to every day on the boat since July. It's soothing music, filled with crooners and alternative rock melodies. It could be study music when I get back to school, if I didn't mind the feeling of sitting at a wooden desk chair, my head still back here, hundreds of miles away on the ocean. It will be impossible to unmoor these songs from the boat after this summer.

We're hauling offshore today, which means there's ample time before we reach our first string of traps. Haskell's Island passes on our starboard, the ivory gazebo settled like a wedding cake topper on the rocky point, overlooking the sea. For several summers when I was little, we spent a week out on Haskell's Island with a group of family and friends, everyone chipping in to rent one of the few summer homes on the island. I have a framed photograph in which a friend and I are dashing barefoot down the steep grassy hill there. She's slightly behind me in the photo and I'm airborne, as though I'd leaped just half a second before the shutter closed. Whenever I look at the photo, it makes me want to recapture that point of view. Able to enjoy the freedom of flight, knowing I'll land on the ground. In the picture, I see a girl who wanders around the island during the day, straying to Shipwreck Cove or the footbridge in the marsh, but goes back to the rental house every night to be reunited with the family and friends. Someone who knows where she belongs.

I press Play and turn up the volume on my iPod.

Now's the time to find out why
I think you're the same as me
We see things they'll never see
You and I are gonna live forever
We're gonna live forever.

The music floods my eardrums, diminishing the din of the engine. Soon we'll be far enough away from shore that I'll be able to pinch the houses between my index finger and my thumb. Kevin's lounging at the stern, cigarette in hand. Dad hates cigarettes. Our front door has a tiny sign in the window with the phrase "No puffin' please" superimposed over a black and white bird, a smoking roll of tobacco tucked under one wing. Dad tolerates Kevin's cigarettes because there are worse things in a sternman. Nowadays, most of the guys applying to be sternmen have criminal records or are battling addictions. I've seen helpers come and go on Dad's boat. There was Cheese Face when I was little—a man whose nickname and face I remember, although not the origins of the nickname. And there were a handful of young men, high school and college students in need of summer employment. Eventually, the ones who could leave moved on to jobs with benefits and career advancement possibilities.

The morning sun is breaking through the cloud cover. The clouds will dissipate as the day goes on, but for now they hang overhead, allowing enough small spaces that I can see clear sky as it lies in wait. Separate beams of sunlight filter onto the water around us. The sea's rolling out here today. The deep waves become more noticeable as the boat slows and we circle a buoy painted in Dad's signature colors: copper, DayGlo red, and white.

"Let's hope we get a few buggies out of these," Dad shouts as he reaches out into the water with the gaff. First or last, all the strings will be treated the same. Lobstering is about repetition. Hook the buoy with the gaff, feed the rope into the electric hauler, lift the trap onto the side rail of the boat, open the trap's top, remove each lobster, measure for legal size, throw back "shorts," slide fresh bait off bait needle onto string in trap, tie bait string so fish won't fall off, dispose of any other debris or creature that's inhabiting the trap, close lid, throw trap onto ramp. I have the easy tasks. Baiting and banding don't require strength so much as quick hands.

I stick the pointed end of the bait needle through the eyes of the fish, only stopping when the needle is tightly packed with spiny red fish carcasses and slim, shiny herring. The trick is to avoid puncturing a plump red fish eye, to go through the eye socket without bursting the pouch of the eyeball. Otherwise, the eye explodes like a perforated can of Coke, squirting its contents everywhere. The red fish bones also need to be avoided. They can cause blood poisoning if they pierce your skin. That happened to my sister when a bone pricked her hand once. The infection caused her thumb to swell to the size of a digit in a cartoon thumbs-up. Several days without treatment and a red line started creeping up her arm, finally prompting my mother to drive her to the doctor's office. I wonder how my uncles and father learned what to avoid. Their knowledge far outweighs mine. Sometimes they forget how little other people know about the sea, forget that not everyone grew up with a wharf in the backyard.

The electric hauler emits a noisy whine as it labors to pull up the first string of traps. The ocean beneath us seems to bloat forcefully, pushing us upward, and then quickly empty, releasing us downward. Over and over again. The trap ascends from the swells with a clatter, water rushing off its metal mesh, skeletons of fleshless fish swinging within it. No lobsters. Kevin takes a bait needle from the tray in front of me and slides half its contents onto the bait string in the trap. When it's placed back in the tray, I quickly spear more fish onto the needle: two red fish, three herring. Fish scum stains my white cotton gloves. When I rub my thumb and fingers together, I can feel salt crystals and scales.

Dad lifts the next trap onto the wash rail, seemingly without effort. It's muscle memory that lets him move so naturally. It's not something that can be taught or studied, simply practiced. He's been performing these tasks for decades. Up at 4:15 AM to get bait as a boy. His grandfather's boat left the dock at 5:00 AM sharp. If he got down to the wharf at 5:01, Great.Grandpa Rogers would be gone.

My father knew all this.

"Bailey Island University," he joked over the table at Easter dinner one year.

"You ain't graduated yet," Uncle Glenn scoffed. "How many years you got left?"

"All of 'em," my dad replied.

"Till death do you part," Uncle Glenn said, alongside me.

The more strings we haul, the further the sun crawls across the sky. I know it's near noontime when the sun's at its highest. We've found a sweet spot and the lobsters are abundant. They're cool to the touch, coming off the bottom. That's how I always think of them. Not boiling hot or with blistered red shells. To me, lobsters are always the temperature of the ocean.

My playlist circles around and repeats, Oasis reappearing on the iPod's small screen.

I think you're the same as me
We see things they'll never see

The sun is fully out now, unhindered by clouds, warming my jeans and prompting me to take off my jacket. The rise and fall of the swells are constant, relentless in their mission to obstruct a steady horizon. The ocean's rhythm is different this far offshore, affecting me today from the inside out. I've never been seasick before, but I start to wonder if this time it's going to be different. I remember hearing that Uncle Glenn gets motion sickness and sometimes even wears a Sea.Band to prevent it, but I'm not convinced that's true. After all, he hauls almost every day in the summer and fall. Lobstering and seasickness can't coexist. Why would both traits be passed down?

"Not feeling well?" Dad asks, as though he can read my mind.

"No," I shake my head. The first time I vomited, at least that I remember, was during my very first sleepover, at Brook Vail's house. I woke in the middle of the night and threw up right on the sleeping bag. But all the times I've been on the water, I've never been seasick.

I shed my stained gloves and slip down into the hold of the boat. If I'm going to heave, it's not going to be in plain sight of Dad and Kevin. There are no buckets available and all I can find for a suitable alternative is a worn out plastic bag. Down below, the rocking of the boat is exaggerated. I feel my throat constrict and take a deep breath as I crouch down and puke. Only liquid comes out, the small amount collecting in the bag. I don't feel cured, exactly, but when it doesn't seem like I'll get sick again, I head up.

When I emerge, Dad doesn't seem to know what happened and I'm not going to announce it. Embarrassment races through me and I'm surprised they can't read it on my face. Even my iPod provides little comfort now. I sit in the plastic porch chair at my station with a slightly sour taste in my mouth, sweating from the sun and waiting to see the bottom of the last bait tray. I look down at my boots. They're far too large for my feet. I feel queasy but it's not seasickness now. It's the same way I felt sometimes at school when people were talking about Martha's Vineyard or their favorite restaurant on Newbury Street. The sensation of being physically present, but out of place. It makes me unhappy to feel that here.

I pick up a lobster from the small pile that needs banding. I grab it with my left hand, pincher and crusher claw secured together in front of the lobster. With my right hand, I squeeze the bander's handles to stretch the thick rubber band on the tool wide enough to fit around one of the front claws. It only takes several seconds to band both. I've had to show a few tourists how to do it, highlanders that Dad took for a ride as a favor to somebody. The hardest part for tourists is picking up the lobster. They're worried they'll get bitten, or are startled when the lobster flaps its tail in an effort to escape. A couple minutes always pass before they manage to band both claws. I tell them that Dad thinks it's a good day when my hand is sore from banding, which is true.

Today, we keep hauling until the bait is used up. When the final string of traps is perched on the stern of the boat, ready to be pushed back into the water, I go over and stand by Dad at the wheel.

"Long day, huh, kiddo?"

I nod in agreement, leaning against his shoulder. I turn to watch as the first trap of the string slips into the sea. The others follow suit, eight in total, one after another. There's a moment on initial impact when each trap almost seems to hesitate, floating near the surface of the water as though it's uncertain whether or not to go under. Then it slowly starts to sink, descending towards the bottom, settling like it knows what it's meant to do. •

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