Our house: Crab on holiday
Everyone sing with me now, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year…” It’s crab season in our house — Dungeness crab to be exact. In our house, this is the make or break time of year to replenish the checkbook after its yearlong battle with the bills and tuition, and if we are really lucky and the Crab Gods smile, maybe just maybe, we can buy Crabdaddy a new truck this year.
Crabdaddy, Crab Brother-in-Law and Architecture Boy — who has student loans to pay off — headed up to Bodega Bay around the first of November, which left the Glamorous Super Fish Wife (me — just work with the image here) home taking care of the ranch. Crab season started without any hitches this year, which has everyone looking over their shoulders. Crab season NEVER starts without any hitches. This year the buyers agreed to the price fishermen were asking — no negotiations, no meetings, nada. Unheard of. On opening day, Nov. 15, weather was great, another unheard-of. Ready, set, let’s get our crab game on.
I decided (OK, if truth be told, got a wild hair) to go see Crabdaddy and Arch Boy with the official excuse of, “I need some pictures for the Faces of California Fishing.” I called our Cow, Chicken and Avocado Sitter, and lined up the taking care of the ranch thing. So Crabdaddy was informed of my plan, and then the requests started coming: “Honey I need you to bring…” and “We are going to swap vehicles. I need you to get my truck down to Jim’s to take care of the steering.” “Uh OK.”
So late Friday night I rolled into Bodega Bay, and Crabdaddy was too tired to come up to the hotel room to sleep. I almost felt insulted, but common sense won here. Side note to noncommercial fishermen folks: Sleep is a precious and lifesaving commodity during the crab opener, and I really need my Crabdaddy to be safe — so sleep on, Dear. Saturday morning, Crabdaddy and Arch Boy showed up for breakfast, as in, “Where are you taking us? And we need to get groceries while we are at it.”
After our chores were out of the way, which took most of the day, we wound up back at the inn where immediately upon arrival the TV was turned to sports, my big bed was taken over and the shower was put to good use. We had a cozy family pizza dinner on the big bed, and then they left me with the empty box, took my car and went down to the boat to get a couple of hours of sleep before they took off around 2 a.m.
Sunday morning I went down to our buyer’s dock and hung out for a while to take some pictures and maybe, just maybe, help out. Our buyer, the Big R, said they were covered for help, so I started to take some pictures. Things were pretty quiet with the exception of the 49er football game on the dock office TV, guys watching said game and people coming out to buy crab. I told them I could handle the crab sales while they watched the game — I’d love you all to think this was a sacrificial move on my part, but truth be told, I hate football and love selling crab.
I love to see people excited about our product and the fact that they make buying it a family outing. So I sold crab and loved every second of it. Around 3 p.m. the boats started coming in. GAME ON! The Big R said he didn’t need help, but when his cell rang for the 59th time in an hour he handed me a pen to take weights. I might have ripped it out of his hand, I can’t be terribly sure about this little detail. First up, F/V Happy Jack with just a few thousand pounds. The little boats come in first. A few boats later F/V Sea Farmer in with much more than a few thousand pounds and a tired crew and captain. Soon another boat was under the other hoist, and things moved into full swing.
Part of the Sea Farmer’s crab were going to a live market, which meant they had to be transported in bonners (totes) full of salt water. This all took some special maneuvering and handling. The other boats’ crab were going to the processing plant. Pretty soon, bonners and forklifts were crisscrossing the dock with guys in rubber boots hustling this way and that. First the crab was off-loaded by hand from the crab tanks on the boats into the metal bucket or a bonner that has been hoisted down to the boat. Once filled, the buckets or bonners are brought up to the dock and moved by forklift over to the scale. This was where I got to play. Forklifts drained the excess water — for some reason buyers don’t want to pay for water, while on the other hand fishermen don’t want the crab drained too well. The scale needs to be tared for the proper container and the weights recorded. For a small fee I told the fishermen that I would be willing to step on the scale for some extra weight. I also could be bribed to not sweep the water off the scale. Not surprisingly, not a sole took me up on the offer. I do like to think that many of the guys were happy to see a fisherman’s wife taking weights. They know that I know that each pound is important and this is NOT an area where screw-ups should happen. Side note: The Big R is one of those rare people who mean it when he gives his word and rarely makes a mistake with weights. Somewhere in all this busy madness, Crabdaddy texted me to tell me how far out they were and wanted to know who was under the hoist.
By now a line of boats had formed at the side dock, all waiting to be unloaded. This is a line that nobody cuts even though they are all just as dead tired as the next guy. Chatter from boat to boat was along the lines of football, plans for Thanksgiving, introductions to new crew members, how the summer salmon season had gone, and how other side businesses have been. For some strange reason many commercial fishermen have farming hobbies. Hay, sheep, avocados, it’s just weird, but make no mistake these guys are the real deal commercial fishermen. I think it was somewhere around this point I got to show off my new Bog rubber boots with the pretty flowers. Crabdaddy’s comment, “How much did those cost me?” This was said with a very tired smile while other fishermen told him what their wives had purchased, pointing out that Crabdaddy was lucky. (I might have had to pay them to say these things.)
As soon as boats unloaded they either fueled up and went back to their slip for a few precious hours of sleep or turned around and headed straight back out. Monday morning the process was repeated. The Big R said he didn’t need any help, but handed me his pen when his cell rang. I considered this a high honor by the way. Button Bob was back at the hoist and on deck as needed with a constant smile or joke. (Button Bob in real life is a lifelong friend of the Big R and a cattleman. He comes to the dock every year to work not for money, but as a lifelong friendship thing. The world needs more people like Button Bob.) Again the small boats came in first, and then the floodgates opened and the larger boats arrived. Tommy called out from the forklift he was driving, the boat name whose crab was going on the scale, the tare was double checked, I called out the weight of that bonner of crab and Tommy double checked and the final weight was recorded. It was a finely tuned dance of bonners and boats and forklifts. But alas, my reality called and my fun time was over. I needed to drive the crippled crab truck home. There was some teasing when I finally had to leave. “Oh sure make sure your husband is unloaded then leave.” “Well yeah, it’s his money I’m going to be spending.”
There is something about the excitement of the crab opener, bright crab lights on boats lighting up dock and town, the faces of exhausted, unshaven fishermen, dock workers cramming whatever food that had been brought into the office into their mouths as a quick pick-me-up. This slice of our life is played out in every port in California, Oregon and Washington, as one by one the crab season opens in a particular area. There is nothing like it in the world, and it’s our world.
Lori French is the wife of a Dungeness crabber and director of the Morro Bay-based Faces of California Fishing.
Photo by Lorrin French