Lest you think oyster farming is all glamour, let me tell you about my first day working our grant.
Before I do that, though, let me try and describe the grant. It’s about an acre, in West Bay, in Osterville. It’s tucked into a cove lined with multi-million-dollar houses, the shoreline of which is separated from us by a ten-foot-deep channel that allows big boats access to the houses’ docks. The grant itself is covered with anywhere from one to six feet of water at low tide, depending on the tide and the part of the grant.
It’s a beautiful stretch of the bay, with clear water and a sandy bottom. We hope our oysters are going to be very happy here.
On this, our first day, no oysters were involved. All we were doing was marking the four corners of our one-acre plot with buoys. But this simple exercise enlightened me on the range of skills required for aquaculture.
Who knew you’d have to be good at using stencils on a curved surface? It’s not so easy, using a paint pen to mark buoys with three-inch high letters that spell out “AQUACULTURE GRANT.” The straight-line letters weren’t so bad, and my Ls and Ts look okay. My Qs and Gs leave much to be desired.
More substantively, you have to learn something about anchors. You know how, when your computer dies, you call it a “boat anchor?” Well, I’ve got news for you. You’re not allowed to use it. Not as a boat anchor, a mooring anchor, or a buoy anchor. There are very specific guidelines for what can be used as an anchor, and old computers do not appear on the list. In fact, the only thing that does appear on it is actual, genuine anchors – things sold for the purpose of holding something stationary in water.
Given that any old heavy thing would do, this strikes me as somewhat persnickety, but what are you going to do?
Because we’re putting down marks that need to stay where they are, Kevin decided on helix anchors. A helix anchor is a length of steel with a pointy end and what looks like – and acts like – one thread of a screw. You put the pointy end in the sand, and screw it in.
We took our helix anchors and our buoys, and went out this morning. There, we met some of the town Natural Resources staff, with their backpack GPS. They helped us find the corners, and we anchored the boat on the grant and waded out to mark them.
Setting a helix anchor is slightly more complicated than you might think. For starters, the anchor isn’t easy to screw in, and you have to put some kind of bar through the loop on the upper end to get the torque to turn it. Then there’s the fact that the buoy is already attached to the anchor (otherwise you have to dive to attach it after the fact, and we didn’t have masks). You have to walk around and around the anchor, pulling the buoy along with you.
This might be straightforward if there were no water involved. But there are several feet of it, and it’s cold.
Because I don’t have a wetsuit (yet), I was excused from anchor-screwing duty. Kevin did it, with help from Dave Ryan of Wianno Oyster, whose grant shares a border with ours.
While they went around in circles, I grabbed a clam rake and dug up dinner.
The last guy who had our grant put clams on it, farmed them for a while, and then seemed to lose interest. So there are clams galore out there, which we’ll have to dig up systematically, by marking small areas at a time and going over them with a bull rake. (A heavy-duty clam rake with a harness, so you can use it oxen-style.) Meantime, I just got enough for the two of us.
Which brought me to a very critical skill. You have to be able to get back in the boat. This is much harder than it sounds. If the boat is anchored (not with a computer) in four feet of water, which ours was, the gunwale is above your head, and it’s virtually impossible to jump high enough to get purchase. Especially in waders. You’ll try it once or twice, convinced that it can’t be that much harder than it sounds, and then you’ll go around to the stern and climb up the engine, which has a platform above the prop which is supposed to make the boat run more efficiently but is really there as a step.
Then you’ll make a note to head to West Marine to buy a ladder because you’re not satisfied with your husband’s solution of attaching our swim float ladder to the side of the boat using one of the bumper lines. The swim float ladder is A) heavy, making it a royal pain to get in and out of the boat, and B) wood, making it float on the surface when what you really need is a step near the sea floor. I’ll admit, though, that it was probably better than the engine.
We both managed to get back in the boat (somehow, Kevin didn’t have much trouble), and our work was done.
Kevin did a lot of oystering over the spring and summer, working closely with our friend Les of Barnstable Seafarms, and I logged some hours as well. But this was the first day we worked on our own grant.
It was also the first day in my 47 years that I did manual labor professionally. I’m telling you, white collars are overrated.