Call me naïve, but I really didn’t expect the fish smell to last that long. But with this morning’s shower, I have finally managed to remove the last olfactory remnants of chum and seaweed and fish guts lingering in my hair and on my skin from Saturday’s crabbing trip in Santa Barbara. The story I was working on for EdibleLA won’t come out until the fall, but I was starting to worry that the salty, slightly fermented perfume might last that long too.
Saturday’s trip was far from a pleasure cruise, not that I expected or wanted it to be. The Sea Fever, my subject John Wilson’s boat, is meant for one thing—catching crab and lobster. There is no bathroom, just a bucket in the small cabin down below, no running water to wash your face if you’re stomach is pitching with the sea, and no comfy chairs to sit and watch Roxy the Golden Retriever bark at the dolphins and seals playing around the boat as John and his deckhand Paul haul in another trap clammering with crab.
Neal came with me, grimacing across the bed through the last of the moonlight being cast through our bedroom window when the alarm went off at 4 a.m. Fueled by a pot of coffee, we flew up the coast to the Santa Barbara Harbor, stepping onto John’s 45-foot boat just after 6, the pale grey dawn pushing through the mists settled over the calm ocean. As we pulled out of the harbor, I asked if there was anything I could do to help. My offer was met by silence. As the boat rocked across the waves to the first crab trap I had to bury my urge to give into the building seasickness. I was on assignment. I couldn’t spend the day looking over the side. I braced myself, snapping pictures of our two-man crew preparing for the day’s work.
Unfortunately, Neal wasn’t so fortunate. He spent the entire morning running between the makeshift bed in the cabin where he splayed out, noise canceling headphones on his head, trying to keep the world steady, and the side of the boat, Roxy licking his hand sweetly. Around noon, up near the Gaviota pier, John offered to drop Neal off. All he had to do was jump about two and a half feet from the boat to a rope, avoid a couple of baby seals, and climb to land. He did it willingly, smiling for the first time all day as he waved goodbye from the steadiness of the old pier.
In the meantime, John and Paul hooked buoys along an invisible line, looping them around an industrial-sized reel that assisted in pulling 150 to 200 pounds of vinyl-coated steel and crab to the surface. The duo moved swiftly and efficiently, John sorting through the crab, tossing pregnant females and specimens whose shells were too soft (crab are molting this time of year) with a pitcher’s arm back into the drink. As the last crabs landed in a bucket, Paul placed a container stuffed with chopped mackerel and a halibut carcass back into the trap. When John found the spot he wanted to drop it back, they heaved it over the side, the orange buoys skimming the rolling waves as the rest drifted slowly back to the ocean floor—150, 160, 180 feet below the surface.
Between traps we talked. We talked about crabbing and lobster catching, fishing and the bureaucratic b.s. that makes a life at sea at combination of hard physical work, loneliness and politics. But to get all that you’ll have to read the EdibleLA piece this fall. Until then, here are a couple of photos of the day to whet your palate.
Note: You can pick up gorgeous Red Rock crab like these, as well as Santa Barbara Yellow Rock crab, line-caught halibut and red snapper from John Wilson at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market on Sundays. John will also have Spiny Lobsters this fall.