Cutting It Close

“Pressure dropped this morning,” said Dickie as we left the harbor. A northwest gale and temperatures well below zero had kept the Deborah-Jayne on the mooring and Dickie either pacing down cellar by his workbench or prowling the shore road in his truck. It was our first time out in two and a half weeks and morning, as far as even early risers were concerned, wouldn’t start for another three hours. “This good weather can’t last. Probably get out there and have to turn right back and head for home.”

It was warm for February. The northwest gale had dropped out in the night and nothing had taken its place. Dickie poked the spotlight into the channel as we idled out waiting for the engine to warm but all that was moving was the tide flooding across Bass Harbor Bar bringing a long, heavy swell in from the south. We turned into it under the lighthouse and ran offshore. In a little while there was just the glimmer from the streetlights along the Manset Road and after they dropped below the horizon there was just our riding lights and the stars.

By the time we cleared Duck Island the stars to the west were gone into some dark greater than night. We hauled the first strings by spotlight waiting for dawn. There was a promise of sun in the east but by the time the sun ventured over the horizon the curtain of cloud had drawn down until just a narrow slot remained.

“Smell that?” asked Dickie.

I smelled bait and salt and diesel. I smelled Dickie’s coffee and the cinnamon doughnut Gwennie packed for him. A wind slant darkened the surface and then I smelled it too; an odd tang of metal in the air and the pull as of an emptiness or the margin of some invisible precipice.

By nine o’clock the wind had stiffened.

Dickie traded his baseball cap for a sou’wester and tied the strings under his chin. “Might as well haul the next string and see what happens, so long as we’re out here,” he said.

By noon the wind tore off the tops of the seas when they broke and left long streaks of white in the troughs.

By the time we worked our way through the last string of ninety-fathom warps to the east of The Rock, Dickie kept a hand on the tail traps and I held the head traps down on the rail and the deck was a slopping mess of rope and water. The air was twilight heavy.

Dickie swung round to set the last pair back in line with the rest of the string when a stray cross chop rose up and broke over the starboard side. The tail trap went over with the backwash but the head trap of the pair was dumped on the deck and swirled with six hundred feet of slimed rope. I took a step toward it to set it back on the rail but Dickie got a fistful of my overalls and lifted me back into the shelter.

“Let it go,” he shouted, and it went. The line between the tail trap and the head trap went from slack to taut in a heartbeat. The whole mass of rope and trap surged toward the stern, hung there for an instant and then went over in a rush. The buoy and float floated for a second and then vanished.

“Maybe you want us to stay out here but I guess we’re about done for the day,” Dickie said.

He wrung out his gloves and put the cover on the bait box. Some conspiracy between sky and sea moved closer around us.

We ran with the seas when they let us. Sometimes laboring to climb. Sometimes Dickie doing all he could to hold her back from running headlong down their rushing slopes. Other times skating just ahead of the tumble of white where they broke and fell.

Dickie didn’t say anything, just shifted his stance so his legs were a little wider and his weight was up on the balls of his feet. Hat back and head up. One hand on the wheel, the other on the throttle handle. Not a word, but his lips tightened and he lifted onto his toes as he spun the wheel and gunned her around and then all the way back on the throttle with a touch of reverse like a boxer half stepping back, rolling with the punch. The sea broke over the cabin and drove her bows down for a heartbeat then she broke through, exhaust steaming, sheets of green water fringed with white running down the decks.

“I wish you’d let me turn back earlier,” Dickie said.

It was well into night when we turned in under the lighthouse and headed into The Harbor with the tide and the wind running behind us

The rain came caught up with us as we pulled into the float. Morris handed Dickie the rope to tie up. “You fellas cut it close,” he said.

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