Rick Boyer: Billingsgate Shoal

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    Billingsgate Shoal
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Then it began. I knew it would. Through the powerful magnification of the long lens, which compressed thousands of yards of space into what seemed less than 100 yards, the ground began to tremble. The sand flats began-ever so slightly-to shimmer and wave. Monstrous ghost puddles appeared on the nearby dry sand. Water where there was none. Then the figures, and the boat itself, began to wave and dance. Soon the men would be mere blobs of color; grotesque wriggling reflections in fun-house mirrors. Heat. The early morning heat was doing that.

As faint as it must have been in the early morning, the heat from the warm sand was sending up thermal currents-like the air over a hot wood stove-that jiggled and danced. That was it. I had been granted this brief chance to spy on these men and their boat, but no more.

"You coming? C'mon honey, I want to be back early. Remember Jack's coming."

To hell with it. Help was there if they needed it. We got into the car and headed up route 6 to Wellfleet, the next town north of Eastham. Our boat, Ella Hatton, was moored in a slip in the harbor there.


We parked in the big lot and walked over to the Hatton's slip. She rode motionless on/the quiet water, as broad as a sunflower seed. She is a sloop-rigged catboat, twenty-two feet long and over twelve feet wide. Her hull is like a tapered pie-pan. Our slip was nestled amongst those reserved for the smaller pleasure boats. The other side of the harbor, which was once the center of America's clam and scallop trade, is reserved for big commercial vessels, mostly draggers. These big, blocky boats have high steep bows to fend off the chops and troughs that develop in the North Atlantic. The freeboard is low aft: the gunwales taper smoothly down to the stem; This low freeboard (or low height of the hull above the waterline) is to facilitate the easy dumping of the iron dredges that are dragged all over the bottom of Cape Cod Bay, slurping up those bay scallops and clams. These boats are heavy-timbered and beamy, with big diesel engines to push them through the steep swells while hauling heavy trawls. The average coastal or bay trawler is between forty and sixty feet long. They are mostly deck, with a small wheelhouse usually located forward. Behind this, standing toward the middle of the wide-open afterdeck where the crew works, is the diesel engine and its stack. The short mast is here too, with the radar on top and gafflike arms and A-frames attached to it. These are the tackle that lift and lower the drags, and get their power also from the diesel.


We saw one fisherman preparing to go out. He wore a flannel shirt, bill-fisherman's canvas hat with big visor, and the huge rubber overalls that are the primary stamp of the New

England fisherman; A sticker stuck to his wheelhouse bulkhead read: BUSINESS IS SO GOOD I COULD PUKE

I shot a picture of him and the sticker. He looked up in confusion that bordered on suspicion. People don't like having their pictures taken by strangers. I shouted I was an amateur feature-story photographer for the Globe. He brightened and waved. His diesel was grinding away. A big cable-wound drum near the stack was turning slowly. He nodded at us, smiling, and cast off. His boat eased away from the pier and whined softly through the harbor.

And as he left, trailing a wispy, almost invisible plume of oily smoke, we could see another trawler heading around the breakwater. She was green, and the right size too.

We watched the boat circle the point and come chuffing and grinding into the inner harbor where we were preparing to depart. There was an aura of desperation about her as she rolled in the faint current.

She was riding low. She paused on the far side of the harbor and dropped her hawser. Quick as a wink a dory came scooting around from her side with a man hunched over in the stern, steering the little outboard. The dory zinged along, whining through the outer raft of moored sailboats, and snaked its way up to the harbormaster's dock. The man steering had scarcely finished throwing a hitch around a piling before he left the small boat and was sprinting up the ramp to the office.

The green boat, which was without doubt the same one stranded on my doorstep an hour earlier, swayed lazily around her anchor cable. But I noticed her crew had dropped another hook off her stern, so that she kept her bow toward us. A boat of almost any size is impenetrable head-on. Her engines were still working, and fast. The whine was audible even from where we stood; and the plume of smoke shot straight up from her stack. I nudged Mary.

"See why the engine's working overtime?"

I pointed to the thick stream of water gushing from the boat's bilge pipe. It came squirting out in thick, ropy geysers. Had it been red it would have resembled a severed artery.

"What's that, the cooler?" she asked.

"No." I pointed to another stream of water, this one a straight hard jet of clean spray. That was the outlet for the sea water that had just run around her engines, cooling them. No, this rust-colored water coming in torrents was bilge water. And there was a lot of it. Almost before my eyes the boat seemed to rise higher in the water.

"They're pumping her out. Did you see how low she rode as she came in? I'd say she was close to sinking. No wonder he was in a hurry."

"Who? The man in the little boat?"

"Yep. Well they've made it in all right. I bet the motion of the boat through the water was what intensified the leak. Now that she's in still water they can keep her up until she's repaired properly."

Allan Hart was ambling up the dock, clad in his scuba suit. A big strapping kid we'd known since he was six. It was Allan Hart who finally gave Jack (then called Jackie) the courage to put his head underwater and do the dead man's float. The two had been inseparable ever since: the Mutt and Jeff of our summers on Cape Cod.

"Hey Allan!" shouted Mary, waving her arm up high.

He was wearing a wetsuit top and carrying a big stainless steel tank under his arm. Across his wide shoulders were strung a yellow weight belt and a huge pair of swim fins. He grinned at us and hurried along. Allan was a native Cape Codder who lived with his mother, a widow, in Eastham. He was strong; those tanks, regulators, and weight belts weigh considerable. I know because I've tried to heft them. And yet Allan was moseying along the dock with all his gear tucked away, under his arm and on his shoulder as if he didn't even notice it. In his right hand he carried a long shiny object. Spear gun. I saw the reddish-tan pieces of surgical latex tubing bounce and flip around with each step he took. Those were the elastic ropes that drove the barbed spear through fish.

"How ya doing'?" he asked as he set his gear on the gray boards above us; He looked down approvingly at the catboat. I snapped two pictures of him.

"See you're goin' out. Is Jack back yet? Tell him to stop by-"

"Why don't you stop by? He's due up here around four or five. C'mon over to the cottage then and-"

"Thanks, Mrs. Adams, but I've got a date for dinner in Chatham."

"Well stop by anyway on your way down for a beer. Jack would be glad to see you, I'm sure."

"Good. OK I'll do that. And if I get lucky today I'll bring some fish for you."

He sat on the pier, his legs dangling over the side. He strapped on the tank and regulator and slipped the weight belt around his waist. I saw the yellow-painted steel rectangular weights spaced evenly around the nylon webbing of the belt. There were a lot of them. There was a biggish knife-with a cork handle in a red plastic sheath strapped to his right calf. Staring out at the green trawler, he put on a rubber hood that was bright gold, and had USN on it in big letters.

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