Tuesday, February 20, 2018


It's my turn to take the midwatch tonight, and I woke up just as we were finishing a cargo discharge. I saw that we were socked in with heavy fog, a real pea-souper. It took most of an hour to wrap up the paperwork and retrieve our cargo hoses, at which point our tugboat inched over and made up to us, there to stand by, as VTS has the area we need to transit shut down from fog. That means we're stuck here alongside the ship for now, which is fine, as they can't leave either, and I'm hopeful that the next change in tide or the sun coming up will clear things out so we can get on with our next load.

      It's a pretty thick fog tonight. Viz under 1/4 mile. Maybe 500 feet for unlit items, a little more for things that are lit up.


         When I was a kid, between ages 8-13, foggy days were a mystery to me. My mom liked to walk around the perimeter of the peninsula I grew up in on foggy evenings, and I always went with her. The fog, the groans and whistles of the various buoys just offshore and the silence everywhere else were mysterious and different, and to a kid who grew up pre-internet where there were 6 TV channels, mysterious was thrilling.
                In the daytime, on the lobsterboat of the old man who taught me to fish commercially, at the same time period, fog was a nuisance for him and for me, too, as it slowed down the day considerably.
    The old man was a savvy business owner. He owned a gas station, and auto body shop and a couple of multi-family houses. His boat, while smallish, was trim, well built, and efficient for an elderly man who didn't need to go far offshore and didn't like electronics. Navigation with the old man happened with his wristwatch, the boat's compass, and the engine tachometer. The boat DID have a VHF radio and depth sounder with an ink stylus and paper readout, but in the 8 years I fished with him, those things got turned on maybe twice, not for work, but as a curiosity.

The old man had the compass bearings (and their reciprocals) between various points in the harbor and islands, as well as the channel markers, as our part of Boston harbor and Quincy bay had a shipping channel as well as smaller channels for private boats to Hingham harbor and  Back River. He kept those numbers in his head, as a 70-something year old man might after a lifetime on the water.
      Only once did I see the old man confounded and truly unsure in the fog. He missed his mark somewhere, and, with a few expletives, shut down the noisy Detroit engine and disappeared into the cabin, emerging a moment later with a tube of axle grease and a rusty 1-foot length of pipe dangling at the end of a coil of rope. It was a sounding lead. He daubed a handful of grease into the little depression at the bottom of the lead, and threw it over the side letting the line slip through his hands.      
     The old man wasn't worried about the little oil slick this created. Things were different back then.
     When the lead hit bottom, the old man counted off the length of rope to get the depth of the water, and looked at the grease. He showed me. "Look. 14 feet, with sand and broken clamshells. We're out of the channel and just west of Jacknife Ledge near the mooring field. You could swim to your mother's house in time for lunch."  He threw the rope and lead at his feet, said "Here, coil that for me and hold it," and started the engine. We steamed along at idle for a moment or two, before he took the lead from me and took another sounding. Deeper water. We were in the man shipping channel. He had me stow the line and go back to looking out while he turned the boat, looked at his watch and followed the compass at a slow cruise. In a few moments we spotted a buoy and he got his bearings, and we made our way to the next set of gear.
That's the old timer in the foreground, on board the ALGIN II, the boat I grew up on. 


 In later years, when I was in high school and working for one of the English teachers who also had a lobsterboat, he had LORAN, which gave two numbers in a grid pattern (not latitude and longitude, but a repeatable and mature system of x and y coordinates) that helped with navigation and made finding our lobster buoys a lot easier, too. He, too, had spent his life on these waters and knew them well. His boat, while smaller, was set up to fish much more intensively. From D, I learned how to fish in a much wider area, using modern wire lobster pots instead of the heavy and old-fashioned wooden ones the old man kept. the way a dedicated lobsterman did it, and in the fog we went slower, listened to the VHF for traffic, and made our way in a similar way, moving across distances using the TD's, (TIme Delays- the LORAN numbers. Along the way I learned how to be a real sternman. LORAN, was still a bit of a mystery to me.

 Midway through high school, D bought the ALGIN II, the old man's boat. Al was in his late 70's by then, and arthritis and an active life had caught up to him after he came down with shingles one winter, which damn near killed him. The last year we fished together was mostly him just coming to grips with it being his last year. We only worked 4 hours a day, and he spent more time teaching me than fishing. It was a gift, and cemented my path in life, although I didn't know that at the time.
 When he sold the ALGIN II to D, D rerigged it to fish more intensively, and made a lot of improvements. He turned it into a true commercial fishing boat, and along the way, installed a GPS chart plotter, which had among other things, a digital chart display. This was revolutionary.  He later added radar and an even better chart plotter. At this point, when we got fogbound, he turned on the chart plotting function and this made navigation simple.

That's D's boat (formerly the old man's). Note the name-an obvious choice for an English teacher.

        I matured in the age of the chart plotter. I'd like to say I'm a crusty old salt who could find a silver dollar in 30 fathoms of water using the TD's, but that's a stretch.  When I was running the RITA C, years later, our chart plotter died, and I was forced to use LORAN overlay- along with the chart plotter, the boat had an old GPS that converted GPS coordinates to LORAN  TD's, and since it was summer and I was spending every penny on bait, fuel and paying the sternman, I got a crash course in LORAN. Luckily, the Notorious B.O.B. had drilled into me years before the need for recordkeeping, and we had the LORAN numbers for every string of gear written down along with the charted position on the plotter. When the plotter died, the notebook became the centerpiece. I occasionally screwed up, like the time D called me and asked me why the hell my gear was set 90 degrees to everyone else's in one spot, ruining a few people's afternoons. I missed a turn in the shipping channel by about 500 feet, and made a shit show of it. I learned.


jcg004 said...

Thank you for sharing. Amazing how much we remember of acts of mentoring from our youth.

jcg004 said...

Thanks for sharing. Amazing what we remember from people who took the time to mentor us.