Getting Crab Out Of Noyo

by Crawdad Nelson, December 14, 2011

From the deck of an 18-footer fully loaded for a sport crab run, the sea looked pretty nice before noon. Crossing the Noyo bridge, we noted the flat surface of the cove, with only a light wrinkle and splash on the rocks of Todd's Point. Easy water for setting crab pots and diving. We knew the wind was going to come up later, but we wanted to try poking the boat into a cove behind some rocks where one of us could suit up and slip over the side for a limit of abalone. After a run up the coast, observing the familiar horizon lines, the bull pines and the landscape climbing into middle distances beyond, we set our pots, in the company of a handful of other sport boats, one a chartered commercial fishing vessel, mostly small sport boats, people we know.

Radio chatter, as we moved on the quiet water measuring line and baiting pots, was between the Coast Guard and a vessel with engine trouble north of us. The situation was being handled with professional assurance. Eventually they moved to another channel and we rode the easy swell, making quiet conversation, keeping an eye on the other boats and the hardware other fishermen had left to soak in the area.

We passed close to a whale which calmly spouted and lifted its huge tail in the air before tilting forward and slipping out of sight, like a sinking rock, crusted in barnacles. Dolphins made curving progress to our left, moving south along a greenish scum line on the surface. Plenty of gulls and shore birds monitored us and crowded near the other boats, sometimes plunging in short hunting dives of their own.

With all our gear finally in the water, we motored north to the diving area, and got in close just as the swell increased from moderate to heavy. Despite that, we wanted to see if we could find a gap to get inside the surf and rocks to a protected cove, so we could try for an abalone limit. The boat nosed along. We were aware of the dark looming shapes of rocks that were just awash, too shallow to pass safely over or even get close to. We joked about making a heroic run, surfing over obstacles, but the swell was already pushing at us dangerously. It's an eery thing to look down on wash rocks in the undulating swell, first stark and visibly dangerous, then unseen and even more dangerous.

We were inside a bird colony, and eventually worked around to the tail of the rock it covered, and got downwind. The odor was what you might expect if you had smeared the rock with half-digested fish every day since the beginning of time, left it out in the weather, and let wet birds roost in it. True power. As we came around and once again reared against the unbroken pulse, the elements began to work at my equilibrium.

I kept it together as we finally abandoned the diving plan altogether. From behind, the breakers appeared as long curved ridges of semi-transparent, but cold, material. The wind was now tearing fragments of foam from the peaks. At times, the outside rocks were enameled in sheets of running foam, then slick and solid above the waves again. Cormorants and brown pelicans gripped the rocks and flew casually nearby, murres ran southward just outside of us, at low elevation, like they had somewhere important to get to. Gulls kept near us and dove at floating items they spotted in the active water. Broken kelp drifted by.

Our pots were lined out at about 120 feet. The only hazard was the swell, regular and deep, with small caps appearing near us, and full, bearded beach rollers rising not far off our right hand as we paralleled the shoreline. We got the first pot aboard and the results were promising. Four, maybe five legal sized crab, two or three starfish, a furry sand dollar.

I had felt fine until we passed the shit-stinking rock. To make it worse, we lingered there at low throttle, picking a way between underwater hazards over a bottom only thirty feet below. I began to have cinematic visions of hapless boatmen in peril, and at the same time to feel personally unsteady. So I gave up my position in the rear of the boat and sat on the co-pilot's chair, inferior to the pilots'. The rodeo commenced with a plunge, brought up short and hard, then dreamlike lifting and leaning to starboard, trying to spot our next float. Everything in and around the boat lifted with, and fell with, all else, until even the slants and peaks of the familiar landscape beyond the surf seemed to be crawling away from us into some uncertain collision with the future.

I tried standing in the rear again, helping out by hoisting a pot lined with hungry sea creatures onto the deck. I was not able to lean back in to help cull, but leaned quickly overboard and ejected the morning coffee and fast food in a reverse gulp. I looked around, wiped a few inaccuracies from the rail, and pronounced myself fit. We stowed the pot and ground ahead, looking for that next float among the shifting peaks. Kelp, in small clots, floated through, sometimes wreathed in yellow scum.

For the next hour, we fought the swell and paused every few moments to hoist pots. My condition kept acting like it would improve, but actually got worse. We managed to bring in all the pots, rising and falling higher and lower, sometimes looking up at thrilling foam on swells close to breaking in on us. It required some neat boat handling to keep everything on board that belonged there. We began signing sea chanties, but I wasn't quite up to it. Even when we were done fishing and making the downhill run back to Noyo, things seemed to be getting worse. I felt like I'd swallowed a keg of beer through a rubber hose and urgently wanted to pump it back out of myself. I repeatedly leaned over the side in convulsive heaves that had ceased to produce anything.

After an hour or so on dry land I started to feel chipper again. It was time to eat a little crab.

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