A day on a crab boat
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
At 5 a.m., winter skies are dark and the roads empty, but the docks at Spud Point Marina are busy and cold. On board the Sandy B, a stove is going and the small cabin is cozy.
Captain Stan Carpenter is a third generation fisherman and an industry leader. If 10 percent of all commercial fishermen catch 80 percent of the fish, he is a 10 percenter.
On this day in January, Carpenter checks sea conditions on his satellite monitor as he prepares for a day of crabbing. His bridge console and bulkhead bristle with electronics. The digital age has been happily embraced by the fishermen. Carpenter’s newest gadget gives him sea and weather information and has camera links to his engine, hydraulics and back deck.
Being successful at sea demands a multitude of skills. He must be a mechanic and able to repair his engine at sea if something goes wrong. He must also be a meteorologist, a hydraulic engineer to manage his gear and marine biologist to understand and find his prey. Finding the fish is the captain’s job.
Carpenter is leaving the Bodega Bay marina to pull a number of “strings” or crab pots his crew set a few days earlier in Outer Bodega Bay and off the Sonoma County coast. Some strings are 50 to well over 100 pots long. He keeps his on the smaller side but has many of them, about 300 pots with 50 on shore for easy setting if an area gets hot.
Deckhands Alex O’Bannon and Mike Duer busily bait perforated plastic jars as the boat makes it way to the farthest and deepest set string. Fishing is the most dangerous occupation, more so than fire fighting or crop dusting. Bodega Bay has had no commercial crab or salmon casualties in the past year, but one year the port lost 11 men.
Carpenter has a sobering memory of rescue a few years ago.
“I was following The Warrior into port when it was dark,” he says. “Suddenly their lights went out, and I wondered how they had rounded the Head so fast.
“Then I saw the lights underwater. It had flipped over. Then buoys started popping up, and rope was everywhere. Then Pete Miller popped up.
“I couldn’t get near him because of all the debris in the water, so I grabbed a life ring and threw a Hail Mary as hard as I could.
“He had just raised his arm, and it landed right on it. We pulled him in, but the two other men were trapped under the pots and didn’t make it.”
When the Sandy B arrives at the first string, everyone springs into action. Carpenter slows the boat and comes right up next to his buoys. Each pot has two with distinctive colors to make it easily recognizable.
Duer snags the buoy rope with a hook. O’Bannon instantly loops it around a block and pulley. When the pot surfaces, it takes just seconds for the men to upturn it, emptying the crabs into a bin. As Duer unhooks the old bait jars, O’Bannon fastens the fresh ones and the pot is back overboard.
Gulls dive for the used bait as it is emptied, and the men quickly size and sort the crabs. They keep only males that are more than 6¼ inches long. (They revere the females.)
Their swift work has a rhythm that allows them to efficiently empty the string of pots unless something like kelp is tangled in the ropes. Kelp torn loose by waves can tangle with the buoys and drag the 80- to 100-pound pots out to depths where buoys are submerged.
They cut the kelp with a knife fastened to a long pole. At this location, kelp has stolen one pot of the string.
“One year I lost 38 pots to kelp,” Carpenter says.
At $200 each, that was a major loss. Huge starfish have moved into some pots and need to be removed. They suck the crabs dry. Duer hates stars.
“I’m sure God has some purpose for them,” says O’Bannon. “I just haven’t figured it out.”
A group of sea lions and pelicans has found a school of sardines and are in the midst of a feeding frenzy as the men work the strings. A whale shows its spout. Carpenter says a humpback whale once rose under his boat, lifting the bow out of the water and briefly submerging the stern. It messed up his gear, but he and the boat survived.
“My dad once rode up on two sperm whales who were so busy mating they didn’t get out of the way,” he says. “He burned out his transmission trying to reverse his way off them.”
As they make their way back to port, the men grab quick sandwiches. We pull in around 4 p.m. Although it is late in the season, they are bringing back about 2,600 pounds of the desirable crustaceans. A good day on a calm sea.
They are jubilant. It’s not always so easy.