Down on the oyster farm

There’s oystering, and then there’s oystering. For me, oystering involves wandering around in the shallows at low tide with a rake and a bucket, looking for specimens over three inches long. For my friend Florence, oystering is an entirely different proposition.

Florence has an oyster grant, a two-acre parcel in the flats of Barnstable Harbor earmarked as her oyster farm. It’s dry at low tide, underwater at high tide, and marked out by buoys. She grows oysters in part because she owns The Naked Oyster, arguably the best restaurant on this end of the Cape, and in part because she’ll do anything.

Florence is French, but not in an effete, Chanel-wearing kind of way. Florence is tough and intrepid, both of which qualities come in handy for oyster farming, especially this past week.

This was the week the oysters had to come out of the harbor. Because the water generally freezes over the course of the winter, and the ice floes can crush both the oysters and cages used to contain them, the whole shebang has to come out before winter hits in earnest.

For Florence’s operation, which only uses a small portion of her two-acre allotment, that’s about three days of cold, heavy work. Two of them had been done when she called Monday morning to see how Kevin was.

She was concerned about him because, in the course of helping her son Julien with the oysters the day before, he’d fallen in the water and come to the brink of hypothermia. I’d put him in a hot shower as soon as he’d come home, and put clothes in the dryer so they’d be warm when he got out. In an hour or so, he’d been fine, which is what I told her.

“Don’t you still have work to do out there?” I asked her.

She told me they did. And that, given the weather forecast, this was probably the last day to do it.

“Do you need help?”

She told me, essentially, that our household had already made the maximum allowable contribution to the oystering effort. I told her that was nonsense, and I’d be there, suited up, when she was ready to go out.

We set off at about 1:30 in the afternoon. It was me, Florence, and two young, strong, boat-savvy guys, Jeff and Drew, recruited for the purpose. We took her boat, a small Carolina Skiff, as well as a slightly larger one she’d borrowed from a friend, and went out on the meandering path to the grant.

Barnstable Harbor is shallow, and its many sandbars make it difficult to navigate at low tide, even in the flat-bottom skiffs used for oystering. We took a serpentine route around the shallowest spots, and we probably only drafted a little over a foot, but we still had to tilt the motor up several times to get through. We did get through, though, and arrived at the grant some time around 2:00.

Then we had to make a decision about where to put the boats. The central conundrum of this kind of oystering is that low tide is the best time for the work, but high tide is the best time for the boats. The oysters are on dry land at low tide, and you can walk around the grant, doing what you have to do. You want the oysters on dry land. Not so the boats.

When we got there, the oysters were high and dry, and we could get the boats within about thirty yards of them. But the tide was still going out, and the spot where we had them would be dry soon.

“We should keep the boats floating,” Florence warned.

I’d checked the tide, and dead low was at about 2:30. I thought that, if we left the boats where they were, we’d be significantly into the flood by the time we finished the work (which I thought would take about an hour and a half), and the boats would be afloat again, even with their heavy loads.

If we wanted to keep the boats afloat, we would have to put them about twice as far from the oysters, which had unpleasant implications for how far we’d have to carry each load. We left them where they were, and started loading.

There are several different techniques for farming oysters. Florence begins with the seed oysters in bags. When they’re big enough, she transfers them to flat wire trays, each about two feet by three feet and holding several hundred oysters. The bigger the oysters are, the more the trays weigh. Most of the oysters we needed to move were approaching legal (three-inch) size, and the trays probably weighed between twenty and forty pounds each.

The work didn’t take as long as I thought, though, mostly because I didn’t factor in just how much lifting and carrying two young, strong guys can do. Florence and I aren’t sissies, but we are middle-aged women There’s just no substitute for being male and twenty-three.

By 2:45 we had the oysters and cages stacked in the boats, ready to go. But something was wrong. The tide was still going out. How could that be? Tides have been well understood for centuries. Tide charts aren’t wrong.

“How could the tide still be going out?” I asked Florence, with some indignation. “The chart said low tide was 2:30.”

“It depends on exactly where you are, and the wind,” she told me, with a shrug. “It’s unpredictable out here.”

“We should have kept the boats floating,” I said ruefully.

There was nothing to do but wait.

If it hadn’t been getting darker and windier by the moment, waiting wouldn’t have been a problem.

We watched the water, we watched the sky. Finally, at some time well after three, the tide turned. Ten minutes later, water was lapping at our stranded boats. The level slowly crept up until we were able to get the smaller boat to float. But the big one sat stubbornly in the sand.

We pushed it, we rocked it, we redistributed the cargo. It moved, but it was stuck on some kind of lump of sand that just wouldn’t give up its hold. The sun was setting, the wind was blowing. My fingers were beginning to get cold. We pushed some more.

Finally, it came loose. “Let’s get going,” Florence said, and she yanked on the pull-start of the motor. Nothing.

A litany of everything that could go wrong was going through my mind, and it started with a failed motor. From there, it went on to swamping, stranding, hypothermia, and even drowning. We’ve got overloaded boats in an increasing chop. It’s too dark to see the sandbars. The temperature’s dropping fast. We’re all wearing waders – which are the last thing you want to wear if you fall in because they fill with water and drag you down.

I knew at the time that most of my fear was unreasonable. We had two boats, and there were several others out there, so help would be at hand in case of a mishap. The harbor wasn’t more than about six feet deep at the deepest spot we’d be going over. The wind was behind us. Although it was getting cold, we were properly dressed and dry. The likelihood that something could go catastrophically wrong was very, very slim. But fear and reason are strangers to each other.

Florence pulled the starter again, and again nothing.

“Do you want me to have a go?” I asked.

She didn’t want me to have a go. She wanted to start the bloody thing herself. She hated the idea that she was having trouble pulling it hard enough, accustomed as she was to being able to do everything that needed doing. But this was the third day she’d been doing this work, and she was depleted.

“Give it a try,” she said.

I pulled, hard, and the motor turned over. She and I got in, and Jeff and Drew followed us in the bigger boat. It was slow going. The boats were heavy, and the prop on the other boat was so worn down that its top speed was about three knots. The water came within inches of the gunwales, and Florence was navigating from memory, since the water was too dark to see the shallow spots.

Not only was Florence in complete control of the situation, and confident in a successful outcome, she even had the bandwidth to reassure me that all was well. It’s not like I told her I was scared. I wanted desperately to be brave and intrepid, and I was doing my best to be cheerful and positive. It was probably the white knuckles that gave me away.

I could see car headlights shining from the ramp at Scudder Lane, and it crossed my mind that Kevin might be there to meet us. I’d told him I was going out, and he would have known there’d be unloading to do.

He was there, and I was mighty glad to see him.

We pulled the boats in, loaded the oysters and gear into the three pick-up trucks we had, and brought them to the restaurant. There, Florence’s staff helped us get them into the refrigerated truck where they’d be dormant over the winter.

When the work was done, Florence made us drinks of whiskey, lemon, and hot water. “I’m sorry you had to go out on one of the hardest days,” she said.

“Hey, it was fine,” I told her. “We got all the oysters in, nobody was hurt, and I’m sitting here with a hot drink in my hands.” And then, after a pause. “Were you scared at all?”

She shook her head. “I don’t really get scared,” she said. “If I’m scared, we’re probably going down.”

Kevin’s that way, too. Are you born that way, or do you get that way? I want to be that way.

I can’t decide whether I want to stick with oystering along the beach with my bucket and rake, or get my own oyster grant in the hope that it will make me that way.

“Next time, we’ll go out in the summer,” Florence said. “We’ll bring a cooler full of ice, and some really good white wine, and we’ll sit out there on a warm, sunny day and drink wine and eat oysters.”

All in all, I don’t think I want an oyster grant. I just want a friend with an oyster grant.

7 people are having a conversation about “Down on the oyster farm

  1. I’m like you Tamar, and I desperately wish I was like Kevin and Florence too. I have to do things in spite of the fear all the time, and I’m envious of people who don’t panic. I don’t know if it’s nature or nurture either, but if there’s ever a cure for it I want it.

    It’s so great of you to help your friends in need. I hope Kevin is recovered from his hypothermia.

  2. beachnitpicker says:

    Fearlessness is definitely natural. You see the difference in tiny babies and it stays with them throughout life. Perhaps extreme trauma could make a change, but I’m not convinced even that would do it. It seems to be physiological.

  3. Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not absence of fear.  Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave. 
    ~Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar, 1894

    I think you did very well, and I think it’s okay to be scared when you should be scared. I also think it’s healthy to scare yourself on a regular basis. Thats how we grow.

  4. Alison — The oysters are spectacularly good, but I suspect I would have done it anyway.

    Jen, BNP, and Susan — I agree that fearlessness is physiological, and also that courage is different from fearlessness. Jen and I do our best to conquer our fear (whether warranted or not), but we will never be like Florence and Kevin. At best, we will be able to act like Florence and Kevin.

  5. Having entertained only gustatory thoughts about oysters, I read with great interest your rather harrowing tale. I am happy all worked out eventually, and that every last oyster was saved. One thought bothers me – how do the oysters remain hydrated while over-wintering in a truck?

  6. The oysters are packed in large tubs with drain holes, wrapped in wet burlap and covered with ice. We will replace the ice once a week.
    Thanks again to Tamar & Kevin for great help and support.

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