Salt In Our Veins: A Story

A Day on F/V Aggravation with Gary Hawkes, Jim Doughty, and Kaileb Hawkes
December 17, 2017
Dialogue with Gary Hawkes
By Kelli Park

The morning is dark and cold and starry, but the harbor hums with a quiet energy as fishermen get ready for the day. Barrels of bait are lowered onto boats and preparations are made as the smell of exhaust mixes with the salt air. Engines come to life and voices of men working in the dark morning echo off the water, filling the harbor with a sense of urgency to start the day.

Once the decision has been made to head out, we are underway with sudden speed and the harbor quickly disappears into the darkness. The lights from the wharf fade into the distance and the engine roars to life as we leave behind an intimidating wake. The winter wind takes my breath away as we accelerate into the endless dark horizon with all the energy of a new day.

Comfortably inside the cabin with only the glow of the navigational screens, we steam offshore. We lose sight of land and eventually see the first colors of the sunrise over the horizon. What a beautiful thing, I think to myself, to see the sunrise like this everyday and know that each day is different in its own way.

“You can’t beat it – being out on the water. This is our office. I feel blessed. You look at the world and see people struggling and looking for jobs, and this was just sort of handed to me. I just knew from a young age that I wanted to be on the water. I love being on the water, doing anything. When we were kids, we went clamming, oystering, anything to do with water. In school, we could go out and make money that adults made…I’ve tried slime-eeling, shrimping, I’ve gone ground fishing…pretty much tried a little bit of everything. This [lobstering] is my favorite. I just decided this is what I’m gonna do. At a very young age, I knew.”

Gary is one of those rare individuals who is an instant friend with a genuinely contagious smile and the relaxed sense of humor to go with it. He’s easy to talk to and explains things like the nature of lobstering and migration patterns and the cost of bait and fuel in a nonchalant way that encourages me to ask more questions. He does have five children, so that makes sense.

“Essentially we are hunters. We are hunting these lobsters down and we all have our own spots we like to fish, and these lobsters have different migration routes. We all have our favorite path. And every year is different – you think you’ve got it figured out. One year, you can’t go wrong, and some years, you’re just that far behind them. You can’t quite get out in front of them. That’s what keeps it exciting. Every year you try to top yourself, you try to maintain that. Your way of life depends on it….The bottom terrain of the ocean is very interesting. You go over pieces that are like mountains. They have their own ecosystem. And you try to figure out what part of that the lobsters are living on. During certain times of year and certain phases of the moon, they’re in different spots. They’re not always in the same places….The chase is the exciting part. Learning new areas, learning something new every year, like ‘Jeez, if I had thought of that ten years ago, I’d be a billionaire.’ That’s the beauty of it: you’re always learning something new, you’re always seeing something new.”

Gary has a way with words that strikes a chord with my inclination toward imagery. He describes life as a lobsterman in an almost poetic, rough and tumble, salt of the earth kind of way that fits perfectly within our surroundings: beautiful but rugged.

“It’s hard to explain, it really is. It’s something else. I think the salt is in your veins. When you grow up in it and around it all your life, it gets into your blood. If you do it [fishing], you can’t get it out of your blood.”  

The morning sun spills over the horizon and the day takes on new life. The boat rocks back and forth in any and every direction as I absorb the view of the endless expanse that surrounds us. We are four people on one boat in the ocean, not another soul in sight, eighteen miles offshore and far beyond any visible coastline.

“Some of these days in the winter time, we don’t see another boat at all. You’ve got the world to yourself. You don’t see anybody around. This is a pretty big world, there are millions and millions of people in this world, so it’s cool that you still have a place you can go and be alone. That feeling, it’s a good feeling.”

The rhythm of the day is defined by elements of movement as time takes on a different meaning. This world is built around the rocking motion of the boat on open water, the shifting winter sun and the wind (and when it lets go), the mysterious migration of lobsters in a dark abyss, the fluidity of individual and collective processes that become second nature. The natural flow that follows their movements is stunning in its own way: hauling traps, measuring lobsters, tossing lobsters, keeping lobsters, baiting traps, stacking traps, setting traps, and repeat. It blows my mind to witness the ease with which they perform these physically demanding tasks in the winter air of the offshore seas. Their movements are both gritty and graceful in a way that suggests years of practice and something close to pleasure on this cold day.   

“Some of the rough days we’re out on – it’s beautiful. It really is. I mean, the ass-kicking aside, it’s beautiful.”

The nature of the work is almost as intricate as the nuances of lobster migration patterns. There’s much more to lobstering than trying to predict where they’ll be and when: the increasing costs of fishing, changing regulations, conservation, safety, weather, crew, property values and diminishing access to the waterfront.

“It’s not like a normal job, where you get up and go sit at a desk and come home. Like right now, with me, even as I talk to you, my wheels are turning, thinking about what I got to do for the day, thinking, what if there’s no lobsters where I go? I gotta have a Plan B. Even when I get home, my wife’s like, you’re always talking about fishing…’s in you, it’s part of us.”

“What a lot of people don’t realize is half of our job is just standing up all day when it’s rough and the waves are beating you. It takes a lot just to keep yourself upright, and we’re trying to work on top of that….Being a fisherman, you’ve got a whole other set of bills. You’ve got your rent, your car, your house, your kids, you got all those bills, and on top of that, you’ve got your boat, your bait, your help, your maintenance – everything’s doubled. It costs a lot to do it. Mother Nature’s gonna give you what she’s gonna give you. She don’t want to give you anything, you’re not getting it.”

“As a captain, you’re responsible for every life on the boat. The decisions you make are crucial. You gotta live with those decisions. If you make the wrong one, and for some reason, you don’t come back or someone gets injured…There’s a lot going on. It’s not just trying to find the lobsters – it’s keeping everyone safe. There’s so much that goes with it. Like Jim was saying, you have to shut off everything that’s going on at home. You gotta be on your toes. You gotta expect the unexpected. In these waters, if someone gets caught in the rope, if they’re not paying attention and make a wrong move and go overboard, these waters are cold. It doesn’t take long.”

The sun moves across the sky and the morning sea has calmed as the day moves on. Classic rock fills the cabin, as does the afternoon sun; a good song comes on and I look at the ocean surrounding me on all sides and think that this is a beautiful way to live a life. It’s a rare thing to make a living in a way that is entirely connected to nature.

They spend the day hauling and setting 400 traps with that steady, fluid system of movement interspersed with the comfortable laughter that comes with easy company. The crew is good-natured and I’m delighted that they slow down long enough to show me giant lobsters and fish and odd-looking creatures from the depths that are hauled up in traps. They show me the difference between male and female lobsters and point out the occasional seal and explain the lobsters’ preferences for different types of bait and tell me stories here and there.

“My son went with me once, a couple years ago, it was like hurricane winds. We weren’t very far offshore but it was blowing 70 and it just did it for 20 minutes. It was literally taking the water up and throwing it. Some guys said they saw water spouts, like a tornado on the water. It sounds like a freight train coming at you, howling.”

“We were offshore coming in. We could see all the dark clouds. As soon as we got into it, it was blowing 70 and the water was green – the wind was taking all the life rafts down. The clouds were wicked dark,” says Kaileb, Gary’s son.

The day winds to a close; pizza cooks in the toaster oven down below and fills the cabin with the cozy aroma of comfort food. The smell of pizza cooking when we’re 18 miles offshore surprises me at first, and then I quickly realize that this is their home away from home. We start steaming back toward the harbor as the twilight sky changes color; suddenly we see other boats in close range for the first time all day. We wave to them as we pass, picking up speed and embracing a sense of camaraderie in this gorgeous wild world.

“This [the ocean] is about as close as you get to God.”

The color on the horizon changes to a clear violet and the ocean reflects its depth with a dark nameless hue. We come back within sight of land and rocky islands appear where before there was only endless horizon. Back out on deck in the last of the daylight, I want everything to sink in and stay somewhere in my mind forever: the way it feels to be surrounded only by the eternal expanse of the sea, the way the light changes throughout the day and moves on the surface of the water, the way it feels to have salt in your veins.


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