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home : columnists : marine matters
December 11, 2018

4/21/2011 8:55:00 AM
Marine Matters: Just a Few Words of Wisdom
In this baffling modern world, how do you get your bearings? Some of us use our car's GPS units, whose faux human voices gently urge us to turn left or right. Some of us use the wisdom of Glenn Beck or the latest New York Times editorial to determine where we are in the world. A few simply use the balance in their savings account to decide that they are on a good course.

But a person who works on the water will take his or her bearings from a combination of things: a compass, dead reckoning and certain signs, such as a steeple on the horizon or the clang of a buoy in the fog. Getting your bearings tells you where you are and where you might end up; the divination of both is as much an art as a science.

Brian Robbins tends toward the art rather than the science. A writer for Commercial Fisheries News for the last 20 years, Robbins recently published Bearin's, a collection of 65 of his columns from the past two decades. Personally, I wish he had included that final "g" in his title, but such an omission doesn't detract from enjoying the book's contents.

Robbins comes from Stonington, from a fishing family that includes his older brother Stevie, formerly manager of the Stonington Fishermen's Coop, and his father, referred to as Pa throughout the book. Robbins began fishing with his brother in the 1970s, and many of his earlier columns capture the bravado and downright foolishness of a young man learning the ropes. But Robbins doesn't just dwell on his youthful and cocky self. He turns a generally kind eye on the people around him, the rough and crafty, the numb and cheerful, the panoply of characters that populate the working waterfront of recent decades.

Sometimes he makes up his characters in order to capture the exact flavor of known people. There's Ross, the lobsterman, and his longtime and long-suffering sternman, Eddie. The two find themselves in all sorts of predicaments, some the logical conclusion of taking a chance, and some, well, some are just plain funny. As many lobstermen well know, alewives make good bait when they run in the spring. Getting those alewives is something else again. According to Robbins, in times past Down East lobstermen lined up along the alewife runs to get a crate or two from the town-appointed alewife warden. Chapter 10 of Bearin's gives possibly the funniest take I've ever read on the desperate measures one lobsterman will take to get his prized alewife bait.

Then there's Robbins' views of the summertime Maine lobster boat races. A self-described reformed lobster boat race addict, Robbins gives these high-powered, over-the-top speed orgies the slightly manic twist that they deserve. In one column, a Delta 88 engine is transferred from a car, installed in a winning lobster boat, then returned to its original place before its deeply inebriated owner realizes what has happened. In another, Eddie and Ross decide to enter the races themselves. Needless to say, mayhem results.

Not all the pieces in this collection are of crazed lobstermen and debauched dragger cooks. Robbins shows a deft hand when portraying some of the older fishermen he has known or worked with. These are the fishermen of the 1960s, tough-minded, indefatigable, able to jury-rig anything with a hull or an engine. He gives these men a clear voice, peppered with a few choice phrases spit out among the cigarettes, and uses a minimum of sentiment to do so, for which the reader should be very grateful.

One of the pieces I most enjoyed was Robbins' hypothetical address to a graduating high school class. Given the approaching graduation season, I will quote liberally from his column, entitled "Offshore Advice to the Capped and Gowned":

"Greetings graduates, present, past and future. Today marks the end of one long journey and the beginning of another. One logbook is full and it's time to start a new journal of your voyage through life. You've used up all the herring and it's time to switch to redfish. You've rowed far enough out so you can now drop your motor down and give it to her. . . ."

He then proceeds to give the mythical students advice:

"Sometimes you need to change the pace of things depending on whether you feel life's skipping along too quickly or you find yourself bogged down and loading your heart, mind and soul up with crap.

"Experiment: Shorten up your wire or let a little more out . . .

"When faced with a large task, tackle the offshore portion first and work your way in . . .

"If something falls off the bulkhead once, don't put it back in the same place . . .

"If you are going to tie a knot, do it like you mean it. This applies to rowboats as well as matters of the heart. . . .

"If you allow the deck to get slippery when it's calm, you're bound to fall when it gets rough. . . ."

And he closes with the shout of a fisherman who took a tumble into a load of hake offloaded on deck: "Hey! Who put all these stupid fish here, anyway?"

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