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On Assignment: A Day at the Dock

My assignment? Spend some time down at Schellegner’s Landing and watch the fishermen come in.

Now, let’s clarify. Not the sport fishermen – the real fishermen. The ones whose roots go back to the whalers and Moby Dick and all that. That would be the fishermen who risk their lives and earn their living at the most dangerous occupation in the world.

Schellegner’s Landing is where The Lobster House calls home so, before I can hang out, I clear it with the head man down there, Keith Laudeman – CEO of The Lobster House and all things remotely related to fish.

Keith says it’s ok and so I’m out the door and on the dock at 8 AM. Eight AM??? Why did I even go to bed? That’s like the crack of dawn. Who gets up that early?

Fishermen – that’s who. Even Keith gets to work at 7am. Geez doesn’t he know he’s a bigwig and could stroll in at say noonish?

No one’s really around as I walk on passed the Raw Bar. I see boats docked alongside an area which says Employees Only. Do Not Cross Beyond This Line. – or some such thing as that. So – you were thinking what? That I would turn around and go home? No way. I march right through there and as soon as I cross over into the other world, I get the same feeling that I used to get when I went near the coal mines where my father worked.

This is a world about which I know nothing and never will really. I can’t imagine being 70 miles or more out to sea. I can’t imagine sleeping, not when I want to sleep or when it is customary to sleep, but when it is convenient to sleep. I can’t imagine being surrounded with all that sea life. When I walk onto the docks, I sense all of these things and try to absorb as much as I can.

First – there’s the smell. It smells fishy. Shocked – you’re shocked. But here’s what is most shocking. It’s a fresh smell. Not a stale one. It’s a smell more of the ocean than anything else.

Then there’s the sounds that I hear. I hear very little meaningless chatter but rather the sound of equipment – machines running on the boats, fork lifts moving large containers of ice about the warehouse. The men are very quiet. At least on this Tuesday morning, they work quietly and efficiently as though they’ve done this hundreds, if not thousands of times before. For one thing, the machines are so loud, talking would be a waste. And there is no time to waste. The fish has to be unloaded, iced, weighed and sent on its way, very quickly.

I, on the other hand, am looking for someone to talk to. I look to my left and I see a large warehouse with a conveyor belt running. Before I go in to check it out, I want to see the fishermen unloading their catch. I’m lucky. The crew of the Excalibur out of Point Judith, Rhode Island is hoisting huge galvanized buckets filled with tons of wee fish onto a conveyor belt. Actually, the bucket tips the fish onto the conveyor. I just bet that’s the same fish I saw sliding down the beltway in the warehouse.

I feel like such a girl but I might as well go with it. After I take loads of pictures, I ask the man on the top deck what kind of fish it is.

“Squid. You know. Calamari.”

Wow. I’m afraid to ask anymore because they seem so busy but I do check out their boat which is very different from the boat in front of it – The Coppa-Setic. The Excalibur seems to have its own mini-conveyor system as opposed to the Coppa-Setic which I’m told is a scallop boat and has a giant net on the front of it.

I decide to pop into the warehouse. I watch as the conveyor belt moves squid along. It looks like Niagara Falls or in this case Squid Falls. Thousands of white fish flowing down to the bottom of the falls. Then, the squid are scooped into a large (VERY large) plastic container. When the container is full, it is covered with ice and sent on its way. The men attending this process politely let me take all the pictures I want. I ask one of the gentlemen in charge of scooping how much squid is in this catch but he apparently doesn’t speak English very well and points to a man across the room.

The man is Dave Wilburn. He is the dock foreman and he looks as though he’s just stepped out of a New England painting.

He is standing by a large scale and has a clipboard in his hand. He is tall, thin. His face chiseled and weathered. He has a skull cap on. It is damp and cold on this particular morning. He is wearing a canary yellow windbreaker and slicker pants to match. Waterproofed boots cover his feet. He knows what boats are coming in – two more after this. Four more tomorrow. Wednesday’s boats are part of The Lobster House fleet.

He knows just how much squid came in today – 50,000 pounds caught off the coast of Cape May, about 70 miles out, and how much will probably come in tomorrow – as it turns out another 55,000 pounds of squid plus sea bass from the crew of the Barbara Pauline and the Alexandra Michelle. The Coppa-Setic unloaded 400 pounds of scallops.

He knows that the squid will stop being fished at midnight Saturday. He knows what boats are coming in and when they’re coming in. I can’t really watch the boats come in he says, because these are day trippers and they come in at all hours during the night. If he isn’t standing by the scales, looking out at the dock, or checking the equipment, Dave is at his desk, hunched over paperwork in a dimly lit section of the warehouse.

Keith Laudeman told me just the day before that 225,000 pounds of squid and 4 million pounds of scallops came into the dock last week. That’s a lot of seafood to keep track of and I have a funny feeling Dave can account for every ounce of it.

The fork-lift man – Patrick McCullen asks me what I’m doing. He asks me if I’ve ever been to any other docks. I, of course, plead ignorance. He says, with a great deal of pride, that if I were at any other dock, I wouldn’t be able to walk around as easily without fear of falling or tripping. He tells me that The Lobster House docks are the safest and cleanest of any around.

As I’m leaving, I see a crew member from the Coppa-Setic. They’re getting reading to reposition the boat. Gary Arrington is tying the rope to the dock. He points to their sister boat, the New Lady. The Coppa-Setic, he tells me is just two months old. The New Lady, who obviously isn’t so new, is resting for now. I ask him how long he’s been doing this.

“Over 20 years,” he says. I can feel my eyes opening wide in surprise. “Really? You don’t look that old.” He laughs and tells me – “You got to take care of your body.” “Will you go back out today,” I ask. He nods yes.

Well, I have to go now because there is work to be done and I don’t want to get in their way but I’m kind of sad at thought of leaving because one or two mornings in the month of February can’t begin to tell me what life is really like here but then how mornings would I need? One thing I can do though is to pop into The Lobster House Fish Market and see if I can find today’s catch.

And there it is. How cool is that? Right near the front of the long case are four bins – Squid, Cleaned Squid, Squid Tentacles, and Scallops. Now, people will buy them – maybe even me. Yes, I think I will and when I make dinner tonight, I’ll think about how this food made it to our table.