Monday, February 27, 2012

Memorial Bridge update

Portsmouth, N.H. 
Earlier this month I recounted a night years ago when I'd been steaming absentmindedly up the Piscataqua River between Maine and New Hampshire when I realized we were in danger of being swept into the Memorial Bridge by the rising tide. Fortunately, the drawbridge lifted in time; the tide did not pin us against its deck, and we did not roll over in the virtual sluice-way that is the Piscataqua.

Last week, for the first time of which I'm aware, a vessel was actually pinned against the bridge. The towboat Miss Stacy was maneuvering a barge just above the bridge when the current overcame her. As so often happens nowadays, somebody was on hand with a video camera.

The video is 11 minutes long but you'll get the picture quickly enough and can fast forward. I recommending resuming play at about nine minutes, as the trusting soul on the back deck of the tug Eugenia Moran, wearing what appear to be street clothes despite his precarious perch amid the waters of one of the world's swiftest rivers, tosses a line to the towboat.

Although the center (lifting) span was removed from the Memorial Bridge earlier this month, the Miss Stacy was caught to one side. There is another critical difference between the Miss Stacy incident and the night 26 years or so ago I'd plowed so blithely along in the Princess: the Miss Stacy was traveling downriver and the tide was falling when she was pinned against the bridge. In theory, she would have been in lessening danger as the tide fell. Perhaps she'd have rescued herself at slack water (assuming the river did not flood her spaces below deck). In my case, we were coming upriver with the Princess and would have gotten no such relief from the flooding tide, and our mast would have represented that much more leverage.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and other blessings.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Faith in fishing

Perkins Cove — Carl McIntire, Sr., told me everything I or anyone else ever needed to know about fishing for a living.

"There'll be times when you think you're going to starve to death," he said, "but you won't. There'll be times when you think you're going to get rich, but you won't do that either."

That's what it comes down to.

We can assess stocks and set biomass targets. We can build population models using sophisticated mathematics. We can throw the models out and build new ones. We can fret about choke species, age-to-weight ratios, and the prospect that we're "fishing down the food web."

It's what known as talking fishing.

You can always find company if you want to talk fishing. But be careful. The U.S. government talks fishing all the time and eliminates fishermen with every breath.

In Carl's time, the free market oversaw the fishing fleet. Some fishermen survived, some did not. Those who failed for the most part eliminated themselves, mostly by dint of a lack of commitment. The "times you think you're going to starve to death" are not for the fainthearted.

Fish came and went. When they came, the fleet went after them. When they went, the fleet went somewhere else. Extinction as a result of fishing pressure was not a real liability. You can't catch them if they aren't there, but you can go broke trying.

Instead, when cod tailed off you went for haddock, then grey sole, then yellowtails, and so on. Swordfish and tuna were not out of the question, and generations of Mainers fell back on lobsters. Different regions had different cycles, but the rhythm was the same from ocean to ocean. You caught what you could, you moved on, and things evened out in your wake. Nowadays, regulations lock you into fisheries. You don't just catch fish anymore; you pound them into submission.

That is just one aspect of fishery management. Other facets — scheduled openings, limited entry, quotas, the catch history imperative — all threaten fishermen while doing little for fish.

To say nothing of the dubious notion of building fish populations by controlling fishing effort. The harvest of fish is a factor in fish abundance, but so, too, are predator-prey relationships, water temperature and other environmental conditions, and forage populations. Depending on what's going on in the ocean, stocks can skyrocket or crash with a given level of fishing pressure. Abundance does not always correlate with the prospects for a given population of fish.

Truth is, once the government got involved in fishing the die was cast. The Capital Construction Fund was a grand gesture intended to capitalize the fleet with the advent of the 200-mile limit in the 1970s, but it was without question a subsidy. No longer did a vessel have to pay its way to the extent it once did.

Governments (other than the Chinese, who believe it's too soon to divine the meaning of the French Revolution) tend to take the short view. The truth is that a fishing season or two — or 10, or even 20 — is the twinkling of an eye in the Earth's life. It's one thing to react to changes in the environment; it's a conceit to suppose fishery management plans represent historic achievement.

Yet down this road we go. I believe it's because as Americans we have lost touch with nature. Many of our grandparents reckoned with nature in their daily existence. Likely they didn't have air conditioners or oil furnaces; they needed deer, clams, or fish to get through the winter; they counted on the iceman and the farmer; they were their own woodcutters. They saw years of plenty and years of less, but the natural world was woven into the fabric of living, as was the wise use of resources to better their lives.

Today we are connected with nature by our obsession with being "green." There is room for neither competing priorities nor economic considerations. The mandate is conserve everything.

We live in a world of smart phones, high-speed Internet connections and cars that converse with us. In the minds of some of our most highly educated people our wild planet has become a concept so abstract they needed a term — "real time" — to describe something taking place in the world around them.

As though otherwise, no one would know it was there.

There is no question that modern technology is wondrous. But old Carl could watch a gannet diving on a school of herring 15 fathoms below the surface of the ocean and see the wonder in that. Which is why he was such a good fisherman, and why the ocean never ran out of fish.


Carl's grandchildren are fishermen, and one of them, Billy McIntire, will be chasing bluefin tuna in a new (to him) boat this summer. The first time I went fishing with him he was so small his father made him wear a life jacket. Corky Decker, a former crew member of mine who went on to considerable success as a trawler captain in the North Pacific, has returned home and, like Billy, will be chasing tuna this summer in his own boat.

Faith in fishing is trait common among Mainers. It is sadly lacking among federal fishery managers, and I don't know that we'll ever change that.

The bluefin are out there, that much we know. How Billy and Corky will do is less certain. That's the nature of fishing. But like the tuna, they'll be out there come summer. "You have to go every day you can," Carl never stopped telling us. "If you miss a day you can never make up for it, not if you go every day for the rest of your life."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Untroubled Waters

Memorial Bridge. JayDuck Photo

It would be neat to have been on hand Wednesday night when they lowered the center span of the Memorial Bridge between Kittery and Portsmouth onto a barge and floated it off. That old bridge has seen a lot of comings and goings during the last 90 years. It was the bridge of choice for many of us until they opened the Piscataqua River Bridge in 1972; the Interstate Bridge (since renamed for the bridge authority's Sarah Mildred Long) cost a dime to cross.

Six lanes wide, 4,500 feet long and 135 feet off the water, the new bridge solved the problem of getting traffic on I-95 traffic around Portsmouth without impeding mariners. Indeed, it's high enough that the crew that originally painted it should have allowed for the effects of wind at altitude. But they did not, much to the amusement of locals who were not parked to leeward. Imagine the outrage that would have provoked in today's green times.

In another demonstration of the effects of wind at altitude, a friend once abandoned his vehicle at top dead center on the bridge when he broke down during a gale. In truth, it was not so much the nor'wester that was at fault as his ride, a once-comely Oldsmobile the rear half of which someone looking to get his own page on a redneck calendar had replaced with a plywood box eight feet long and every bit as high.

I has a close call under the gaze of the Memorial Bridge on a winter night in the mid-1980s. I had the old eastern rig dragger Princess and we tied up in Newington. This was far enough upriver that we would time our return to port to catch the incoming tide. Fair tide, we could get from the mouth of the river to the dock (about even with the last entrance to the Fox Run Mall) in about 30 minutes. If we were bucking the tide it was nearly an hour's steam.

On the night I'm thinking of the tide was with us and the moon was full as we made our way upriver by the shipyard. If I could find the river's sweet spot the Princess would be making 14 knots in the narrows just above the high span; we could not otherwise coax nine out of the old girl. It's great fun to watch the speed over ground ticking up on the Loran when the tide is sweeping you along — until you have a sudden need to stop.

Abeam the shipyard I radioed the crew on the Memorial Bridge to lift 65 feet, as I always did; they told me to stand by. This was normal; in an airplane it would be like being cleared for the approach as opposed to being cleared to land. They needed a few minutes to lower the gates and stop traffic.

I knew that in short order the gates would come down and I'd see the flashing red lights and hear the siren wail. They'd radio us, "Come along sir," and the center span would labor its way upward.

So I steamed along for a minute or two before the headlights that continued to dance across the bridge got my attention. I'd always figured there was a point of no return at which a 180-degree turn downriver, should the bridge jam or otherwise fail to lift, would no longer be an option. I was pretty sure I'd passed it. I grabbed the mic: "Memorial Bridge, Princess."

"Go ahead."

"We're fair tide here; we need a lift right away."

"Well, I've got a man... I've got a man indisposed here."

Going into reverse would be an empty gesture. Worse, we'd get sideways to the current and lose all control. If we tried to turn under full power and claw our way into the tide, we'd most likely be side-to the bridge when we got swept into it. This was the least desirable outcome. The tide would push the hull under the bridge but the mast would prevent it from going through. The Princess would lever itself onto its side and me and my crew would be swimming.

But not for long, not in this river.

I was about to go below to get the guys on deck when I thought I saw a man climbing down from the bridge operators' cab, and then I saw flashing lights and heard the siren. In a few moments the center span began to lift. The Princess swept ahead, the engine at idle. As we slid toward the maw of the bridge I wasn't sure we would clear. What kind of a mess would it be if the top of the mast hung up?

It did not, but the antenna scraped across the underside of the bridge like the sword of Zorro. 

I hoped the guy had enjoyed his bowel movement. I'd almost had one of my own.

For me, the Interstate Bridge has been much more the source of local legend. One night a lobsterman from Ogunquit pulled up to the tollbooth, which was on the Portsmouth side, with a half-empty bottle of cheap whiskey between his legs and no money in his pockets. He offered the sentry his watch in lieu of a dime. Or so he told me, at which time he was also drunk. As he spoke, he took his watch from his wrist and extended it in my direction, nodding gravely. But the sentry declined the timepiece, so my friend sped away in his red Chevy truck. "Jerry," he said, "that goddamn toll-taker reached up over his head and threw a switch and every goddamn traffic light in Portsmouth turned red. They had me."

A horseplayer friend use to take the bridge daily on his way a construction job in Massachusetts. We'll call him John. One day John didn't have any change and handed the sentry a $100 bill. The sentry handed it back and waved him through. The next day John pulled up to the tollbooth and whipped out the C-note, and once again the sentry waved him through. Inspiration took root. On the third day, John never came to a stop.

On day four the sentry held up his hand cop-style when he saw John coming. He snatched the hundred dollar bill and reached down in the tollbooth and with two hands hoisted a heavy cloth sack. It was full of pennies and it was all he could to to pass it over to John. "Set 'er on the seat," he told him, "You got another one comin'." Before hoisting the second bag he unlaced the top and counted out 10 cents.

"You're all set," he said. "Have a nice day."

The footbridge at Perkins Cove kindles more pastoral memories. Back in the early 1960s it was raised by a hand crank inserted into a winch. Most of the time Harold Hilton, Sr., was around to raise the bridge, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. If Harold was absent, a cove rat or two eagerly took on the job whenever a sailor blew his little brass foghorn.

Raising the wooden walkway was a bit of a job for nine and 10-year-olds, but we came running. The span was heavy enough — it must have strained old Harold a little bit — and the crank lost its mechanical advantage as cable built up on the winch. Fortunately, the cove wasn’t very deep, so most sailboats shallow enough to get in could be accommodated by raising a single span. Occasionally one arrived with a tall mast and spreaders and both sides of the bridge would have to be raised.

Raising the bridge wasn't dangerous, but it was not without risk. You dogged the winch to hold the bridge up; when lowering the bridge you used a hand brake to prevent its crashing down and if you didn’t take the crank out, it could whiz through your arm or anything else you put in its arc. Fortunately, our freedom to hang around the cove was predicated on our parents’ expectations that we were of a sort bright enough (albeit just barely) not to stick their feet in a lawn mower, and we lowered the bridge cautiously (for the most part) and stayed out of the way of the crank.

When the tide was high, teenage guys who worked at Barnacle Billy's would dive from the bridge on their breaks to cool off.

By the time we cove rats were teenagers, the town had removed the hand winch and replaced it with an electric motor. Soon enough, we outgrew the thrill of pushing the up button and left it to tourists, who to this day never seem to tire of it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Portland —

Here's what my wife says when people ask her whether gays should be able to marry: "Good luck to 'em!"

Indeed. The divorce rate among straight couples in this country in their first marriage is around 40 percent. In second marriages the likelihood of divorce increases to about 60 percent. Think the third time's a charm? Only if you're a divorce lawyer. The rate for failed third marriages exceeds 70 percent.

Couples don't split because they believe they're happier than they have a right to be. When a friend of mine was served with divorce papers, the first thing his lawyer asked him was whether he was having an affair. When he said he was not, the lawyer asked him who his wife was seeing. "No one," my friend said. "Well," said the lawyer, "I'll be damned!"

In recent times the question of whether the state ought to recognize same-sex marriage seems to come and go with the tide. The tide has also washed a ton of money from out-of-staters opposed to gay marriage.

It's no surprise that money from away is weighing in on the issue, because I don't think there's much money in Maine worried about who marries whom. Truth is, if you can pay the cable bill with enough left over for a half gallon of Popov or a jug of Allen's Coffee Brandy I don't know how much better it can get.

Although in our time we have seen Maine evolve (some would say regress) from red state to blue, it strikes me that Mainers have always had a libertarian streak. As far back as 1986, a ballot question to make it illegal to sell pornography in Maine went down to defeat by a 3:1 margin despite an aggressive campaign by the Maine Christian Civic League. I remember it well because I was running in a state house primary in Wells, which was solidly Republican, and was worried that opposing the question would cost me support. (It did not. No one cared where I stood on the pornography question. In fact, no one seemed too concerned where I stood on anything. But that's another story.)

According to the most recent Census, 13 out of every 1,000 men in this state is divorced. That's verging on half again the national average of 9.2 divorces per 1,000 men and represents the second highest divorce rate in the United States, behind Arkansas. (Wait until Bob Marley finds that out.) Perhaps if the civic league had it to do over again it would have gotten behind a one man, one marriage act.

The appropriate question isn't whether gays should marry, but rather, what can they do to belittle the institution that straight folks haven't already done?