tagRomanceSafe Harbor

Safe Harbor


David was bone tired by the time he rounded the point and entered the harbor channel. It was 3:30 pm, but he had already put in an 11 hour day. He still needed to clean up the boat and bring his catch to the market before he could go home for a much needed nap. He looked at Sampson, snoozing on the fore-deck, with a little bit of envy. The old mastiff had the life. Then again, Sampson probably didn't have many good years left. He already was having difficulty getting in and out of the boat. He was going to miss the old guy when he couldn't bring him along anymore.

David was reminded again of the fact that he kept trying to ignore; that he couldn't keep this up on his own. He kept trying to block out the ugly mess that had resulted in the departure of his long-time deckhand, Dennis.

Dennis had been a good worker for a long time. After 12 years, he knew the lobster business as well as David. They didn't need to speak to each other to get the job done, as each knew what the other was going to do in nearly all circumstances. At least that was the case until a year ago, when Dennis began to change. He seemed to lose focus, forget to do things that used to be routine and lack basic judgment. His motor skills diminished as well.

It took a while for David to confirm the truth. Ultimately it took a discussion with Dennis's sister to verify that Dennis had a drug problem. A combination of a knee injury and a disastrous ending to his marriage had led to his abuse of pain killers. When David confronted him, Dennis confessed to the issue and agreed to get help.

Rehab seemed to help for a while, but it was easy to tell two months later that Dennis had fallen off the wagon. David knew he should have put his foot down earlier. He was not confrontational by nature and kept hoping against hope that somehow Dennis would find his way. Dennis almost paid for it with his life. He stepped into a loop of line after a pot had been released overboard, something he would have been careful to avoid in the past. He was yanked over the stern, but thankfully surfaced a second later, coughing and sputtering, minus one boot.

David remembered the discussion when they got back to the dock that day.

"You know you can't come back," he had told Dennis quietly.

"I'll go back to rehab. Give me a week and I can straighten myself out."

"No, Dennis, I gave you a second chance and you failed. I can't risk it. You nearly died out there today. If you ever need me, I will be there for you. You are like a brother to me, but I can't let you put yourself or me at risk out there anymore."

David eased the 'Alice Marie' into the dock, bringing her to a standstill with just inches between the fenders suspended from her cleats and the weathered planks of the dock. He had purchased the 34' wooden hull lobster boat from another local who could no longer fish due to his advanced age. The 60 year old boat came with the name and he never saw a reason to change it. While most fishermen would have went with a modern 'glass boat, something about the traditional carvel planked hull appealed to him. It almost seemed like a living thing, the way it reacted to its environment. David often thought to himself that 'Alice' was the only female he ever understood.

As he loaded the lobsters from the live well into baskets, it occurred to him that all of his relationships turned to shit, unless you counted the ones with Sampson and his predecessor, a shepherd mix with the rather unimaginative name of Rex. Besides Dennis, there was his ex-wife, who had left him for a tennis instructor fifteen years ago, and his estranged daughter who stopped talking to him when he tried to steer her away from her derelict boyfriend.

Ironically, the fact that said boyfriend was now in prison was probably what was keeping David from being able to reconcile with her. If Renee were actually living with the scumbag all this time, David was sure she would have come to her senses, but with him gone, she could maintain her romanticized image of him as the misunderstood artist.

David had made some attempts at finding a new deckhand. He had put out feelers to the other fishermen, the employees at the fish market and the lunch counter regulars at Walter's General Store. He knew even as he did so that these were probably all the wrong people to ask. Walter himself had tried to send him one of his great nephews, but the kid practically got seasick just standing on the dock.

David had known what he needed to do, but he was loathe to do it. He imagined what kind of people might respond to a help-wanted ad in the local paper. As it turned out, he got very few responses at all. The first week, he got two phone calls. Neither of the guys who responded seemed enthused with the description of the work, which David did not soft soap, and said they would "think about it" and get back to him. He knew he would not hear from them again.

Sampson struggled to his feet and gave a half-hearted, "woof." David looked up to see a figure at the head of the dock, walking toward him. He was mildly surprised, as this was a private boatyard of which he was the only active user. Earl, the property owner and resident was 95 years old and seldom left the house. He was the former owner of the 'Alice Marie.'

When David bought the boat, he made a deal with Earl to rent the boatyard as well. It worked out well for both of them. Earl charged very little and in return David maintained the boatyard in good condition and checked in on Earl periodically, making sure the old salt was still breathing. David knew that Earl came down to visit the 'Alice Marie,' when he wasn't around. He would occasionally make a comment that she needed a little paint or repair here or there, things he certainly couldn't see from his living room window.

The figure coming down the dock was definitely not Earl. He had the quick, purposeful gait of a younger man; although there was something different about the way this man walked that David couldn't quite put his finger on. The man did not look like a tourist either. Occasionally, tourists would find their way to the boatyard looking to get a better deal on lobsters than they could get at the fish market. At this point in mid-October, tourist season was over. At any rate, the man was dressed for outdoor manual labor, not for holiday. He was wearing a flannel shirt, Carhartt work jacket, loose-fit, worn jeans, work boots and a baseball cap.

As the figure got within conversational distance, David realized the 'man' was actually a young woman, hardly more than a girl, in fact.

"Hi," she said, "I'm Danielle Rogers, most people call me Danni. I understand you are looking for hired help. I am looking for a job." She held out her hand.

David gave her a firm handshake. He was a bit taken aback. "A girl?" he thought. He hadn't expected that.

"Hi, I'm David...David Cortland. Yes, I am in need of a deckhand. You know anything about the lobster business?"


"Are you familiar with boats?"

"Not really. I've never been on one."

"This girl is wasting my time," He thought to myself. Time to go in for the kill. "Are you comfortable getting up at 4 am and putting in 10 or more hours of hard physical labor in a dirty, stinky job?"

"Yes, that's right up my alley. I was born and raised on a dairy farm in Iowa. That pretty much describes every day of my life from about age 9 until I left at 18."

David had to give her some grudging respect with that answer.

"Which was how long ago? You still look like you're a child."

She looked a bit put out by the comment.

"I'm 22."

David didn't know what to do. He couldn't think of an immediate reason why she couldn't do the job, although it would be heavy labor even for a farm girl. He never thought of himself as sexist, but he just didn't feel comfortable with the idea that his new deckhand could be a young lady. He needed to think this over.

"Give me a phone number I can reach you at. I will think it over and give you a call back."

"What's to think about? You've been looking for help for a month now, right? It doesn't seem like you have other candidates lining up to apply. I'm willing to do the work and you need help. Why not just give me a shot?"

She had a point.

"Fair enough, be here at 5:30 am tomorrow. At the end of the day, if I'm happy with your work, you've got the job."


"I gotta warn you, I don't talk much."

"Neither did the cows and we got along alright."

At this point Sampson had finally managed to lumber onto the dock. He apparently didn't share David's reservations. He approached Danni wagging his tail furiously and leaned into her, looking to be scratched. She obliged and he immediately decided she would do just fine as the new deckhand.

"Damn traitor," David thought to himself.

He had an idea. No time like the present to put Danni to the test. "Before you go, would you grab one of those baskets and bring it to my truck?" He pointed to the fullest of the lobster filled baskets. The basket was heavy, he wasn't sure if she was going to be able to handle it.

"Sure," she said.

She picked up the basket. By the time she was half-way to the truck, the wire handles were digging into her hands and the strain on her back was starting to take its toll. She gritted her teeth. She was being tested and she knew it. She was not about to give in. She slipped into her mental zone, where she had learned to disassociate her conscious mind with pain in her body. She made it to the truck bed without putting the basket down.

David could see she had struggled, but she persevered without complaint. It was a good sign.

The next morning, Dave arrived at the dock at 5:15 and Danni pulled in 10 minutes later. Another good sign; she was prompt.

David showed Danni the bait cooler and set her to work filling bait buckets. Meanwhile, he helped Sampson aboard and fueled up the boat. A short while later, they were underway.

It was a perfect fall morning; crisp, calm and clear. Mist rose off the glass smooth water of the harbor, as the air temperature during the night had dropped well below the water temperature. The thermal mass of the harbor was still retaining much of the temperature rise that had built over the summer.

As they rounded the point, the sun just peeked over the horizon, setting the ocean surface ablaze with sparkling reflections. The 'Alice Marie' rose and fell gently over the incoming swells as they turned toward the fishing grounds.

Over the next half hour as they transited, David ran down what he expected of Danni. Her job consisted of: fill the bait bags, bait the pots, shove the rebaited pots overboard, tend the lines as they payed out, sort the lobsters, band the claws of the keepers, toss them in the live well, clean any debris off the deck and repeat 100 times. Occasionally, she would need to swap out a damaged pot for a spare one they carried on board, requiring some heavy lifting. Not much different, David supposed, to manhandling bales of hay on a farm, except the ground didn't usually move under your feet in Iowa. Looking at Danni standing on-board next to him, it struck him that she really was a tiny little thing. He hoped she would hold up.

As they approached the first string of pots of the day, they plowed toward a standing line of choppy waves. Danni was intrigued at first, but as they got closer he could see fear in her eyes.

"I don't get it, why is the water flat over here and all...um, wavy...over there where we are headed?"

"We are on the outgoing tide and it runs hard through this area. Where you see that transition is where there is a major depth change. It's like rapids on a river."

Danni braced herself as they reached the choppy water. She looked at David and he seemed completely relaxed. No matter how the boat pitched and rolled, his body compensated. If she looked at his head, it barely seemed to move at all.

David watched her out of the corner of his eye. Every movement of the boat, she reacted to after the fact. The result was that every correction she tried to make only threw her off balance more as the next pitch or roll came. "She'll get it eventually," he thought.

They came to the first pot. The tide was still running strong and the fluorescent orange buoy was a foot below the surface, making it difficult to find. David hooked the line below the buoy with his gaff and pulled it in. He hauled in enough line to get past the watch buoy and loop the line over the davit pulley. Using the davit pulley for leverage, he pulled until he could wedge the line into the pulley on the hydraulic hauler. From there, David eased open the control lever and hydraulics took over.

The boat rolled a little as the pot resisted moving at first, but then it broke free from the bottom and the line began to come in quickly. David thought about the old times, when the lobstermen used to pull the pots entirely by hand. He couldn't imagine how exhausting that would have been. There is certainly no way he would have been able to pull 100 a day.

As the pot broke the surface, David eased off on the control lever, slowing the speed smoothly until it stopped with the pot swinging about 8 inches below the davit pulley. David knew from experience that if you let the pot reach the davit pulley at full speed, the line would pop and $200 worth of gear would fall back into the ocean and sink to the bottom. David reached out and swung the free end of the pot over the gunwale, while reversing the hydraulics to drop the other end until the pot rested on the gunwale. David slid it aft onto the hinged, fold out platform that extended inboard from the gunwale.

He opened the door of the pot and quickly pulled out the lobsters and tossed them behind him onto the lobster table. He tossed the obviously undersized ones overboard, as well as the miscellaneous other sea critters trapped inside.

From there Danni took over, swapping out the empty bait bag with a fresh one and closing the pot. She gathered the coils of line on the deck aft of the pot, ensuring there were no tangles. She shoved the pot overboard, then gathered up the coils of line and tossed them overboard as well, and finally tossed the end with the buoys back into the sea.

Tending these lines was the trickiest part of the operation and was the easiest way to risk your life, as Dennis had found out. First and foremost, you needed to avoid getting any part of you tangled in a loop of line as the pot pulled it down. When you gathered up the coils to throw them overboard, you needed to keep a few coils of slack between you and the sinking pot. It was tempting to stack the coils and the buoys onto the pot and just shove the whole mess off the boat at once, but it was amazing how the line would find a way to tangle on the pot as it descended and everything would sink to the bottom, never to be seen again. David could not afford to have this happen on a regular basis.

David noted with satisfaction that Danni had handled the pot and lines flawlessly.

Once the pot was gone, Danni turned her attention to the lobsters. She approached them cautiously, as they were clearly armed and dangerous. She managed to find her way around all of the snapping claws without mishap. She stretched a rubber band around each claw, holding it shut. A lobster has a vice-like grip when closing its claws, but has very little strength to open them, so a stiff rubber band on each claw is all it takes to disarm the crustacean. The lobsters that appeared on the small side, Danni checked with a size gage, hooking one end into the eye socket. If the other end of the gage reached beyond the edge of the carapace, the lobster was undersized and she released it overboard. The rest went into the live well, which was simply a 55 gallon drum with water circulating through it.

As Danni cleaned up the seaweed and other detritus on the deck, she felt confident she had done everything right. Catching David's eye, he nodded slightly in approval. "One down, 99 to go," she thought. Her satisfaction was tempered by the fact that her stomach was starting to feel queasy.

On the second pot, Danni lost concentration for a second when reaching for a lobster. Another one next to it reached out and grabbed her thumb with its crusher claw. She cried out in pain as it felt like a vice was tightened on her knuckle. She reached with her other hand to try to pry open the claw, but the lobster latched onto the pinky on that hand with its cutter claw. Blood spurted through her glove as the sharp serrations punctured her finger. Damn that hurt.

David chuckled a little as he pried open the claws to free Danni from her trap, carefully banding the first one before prying open the second. Danni was a little pissed that David found her painful predicament amusing, but she held her tongue. She was trying her best not to show weakness in front of him.

"Don't worry, it happens to all of us. You'll want to put some antibacterial ointment on the cuts when you get home or they will surely get infected."

By the tenth pot, David saw that Danni was looking very green. He knew she was trying to keep her breakfast down. He also knew that was the wrong thing to do.

Danni couldn't ignore it anymore, she was seasick. She got angry at her body for betraying her. She knew she could work hard, hell, she liked physical labor. She had thought there was no way she would fail at this job if she just paid attention and forced herself to work hard, but she hadn't factored in this sneak attack from within. She desperately tried to keep from retching as the waves of nausea overwhelmed her. "I can't puke in front of him or he will surely decide I can't handle the job," she thought.

As if he read her mind, David said gently, "I won't think any less of you if you puke. You will find that you feel much better if you do. Just as long as you get it all overboard and go back to work, you get no demerits from me."

"Thank you," Danni thought silently as she raced for the gunwale. The word, "puke" spoken aloud put her over the edge. There was no way she could keep it down any longer. From the bow, Sampson whimpered, seemingly in sympathy for his new friend. David was right, she immediately felt much better. She launched into her work with renewed vigor. Unfortunately, the relief didn't last long and soon she was retching over the side again.

Mercifully, the water gradually calmed. Suddenly Danni realized they were surrounded by bobbing buoys of assorted colors and patterns. Up until now, it seemed to be a mystery how David found each succeeding pot, but now Danni could see their string of fluorescent orange buoys stretching out into the distance among all the other buoys.

"Where'd they all come from?" Danni asked, mystified.

"They've been here all along; they were just underwater, pulled down by the current. The tide has gone slack now." The water was glass calm. "Watch in the next half hour or so, the buoys will all turn around and face the other way, then eventually they will start submerging again."

Her previous misery temporarily forgotten, Danni was struck by the beauty of her surroundings; the glassy calm water reflecting the blue sky and wispy white cirrus clouds, the bobbing multicolored buoys, the cries of the gulls, even the salty air. David cleared his throat, snapping Danni out of her revelry. He was waiting for her to bait the next pot.

Danni got into the rhythm of the job. As their pot count got into the 80's the tide had turned and was running hard in the other direction. They got into some rougher water once again and Danni's misery returned. She lost count of the number of times she had to lean over the rail, although by the end there was nothing left in her.

When they finally headed for the harbor, Danni was exhausted. Her entire abdomen hurt from all the retching. Her fingers hurt from being pinched. Her legs were tired just from trying to stay balanced on the moving deck. Her upper body was tired from moving heavy pots.

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