Oyster farming: a thrill a minute

Yesterday our 80,000 oysters went back in the water.

Just so you have something to look forward to, I promise, over the course of the season, to explain what we’ll be doing with the oysters and why, and you’ll be able to pick up all sorts of arcane trivia about the life and times of bivalves. You’re on the edge of your seat, I know. Today, though, I’m going to stick to what happened yesterday.

It was a windy day. I’d say it was blowing twenty or twenty-five knots, out of the east, with gusts a little higher. There was a case to be made that it was too windy, but the harbor is well-protected and the chop doesn’t usually get too bad.

Dead low tide was at about 5:30 in the afternoon, but we wanted to get out early. If we go out at low tide, we have to anchor the boat some distance from where we set up the trays, but if we get out there when everything’s still covered with water, we can pull the boat right up to the trays and unload the oysters. Since the bags weigh in the 800-1000 pound range, you don’t want to tote them the extra hundred feet if you don’t have to.

We left the house about noon, to give us plenty of time to load the oysters on the boat and get out to the farm. We drove into Hyannis, to Wianno Oyster’s refrigerated shipping container, which our friend Dave Ryan generously let us use space in. He and his crew had taken care of the oysters all winter, and we were delighted to see that they looked exactly the way they did when we put them in last December – closed tight and a little damp. There didn’t seem to be a single dead one in the bunch. Dave Ryan knows oysters.

We loaded them into the boat, a bag at a time, drove to the ramp at Millway and put in. With all the weight, we were a little low in the water, but not so low that we thought we needed to make two trips. We set off.

As soon as we got out of the little inlet where the ramp is, and into the harbor proper, we hit some serious rollers – maybe two feet. Had we been planning to go east, into the teeth of them, we would have had to turn around and go home. But we were going in the same direction, so we started surfing them west.

Are you thinking what I was thinking?

What I was thinking was how the hell we were going to get home. Sure, it’s all well and good to be going out with a following sea, but this is a round-trip venture.

Don’t worry, Kevin assured me. Coming back, we won’t have all this weight, and the tide will be lower so the waves will be smaller.

OK then.

There’s only one section of our path that’s deep enough for real waves, and we got through it without mishap. Once we got far enough west to be in the intertidal flats, it was significantly smoother. Which is not to say smooth. Just smoother.

At low tide, the oyster flats are a 100-acre section of sandbar studded with equipment and nets, and it’s easy to find your spot. At high tide, they’re just water, and it all looks the same. Fortunately, Dave Ryan, our neighbor to the east, had marked the end of his rows of trays with a rebar stake that was tall enough to show over the surface at about mid-tide, so we knew where we were.

And we knew we were too early. We hadn’t wanted to be late, and we overshot the mark. There were still about four feet of water on the grant, and we couldn’t start putting the oysters into their trays until the level went down about two feet.

So we anchored, and we waited.

It was windy, and it was cold, but we were dressed for it and were comfortable. We sat on the scallop table and watched the water level on the rebar stake.

Watching the tide go out is a lot like watching the kettle boil. The closer you watch, the longer it takes.

While we were watching and waiting, I couldn’t help but notice that a significant amount of water was coming into the boat. It was coming through the two little holes in the transom (that’s the back wall), apparently put there for the purpose. They’re about an inch in diameter, and they’re right at deck level, one on either side. My nautical vocabulary is such that I know they’re called scuppers.

I’ve never quite understood scuppers. I’ve always had this naïve idea that boats are supposed to be watertight. I read all the books in Patrick O’Brien’s series about the Napoleonic wars, and in every single one of them, whenever a hole was punched in a boat by an accident, or a cannonball, or a whale, the whole crew moved heaven and earth to patch it up. So what’s with the scuppers?

You can’t take a boat out without getting some water aboard, and the purpose of scuppers is to let that water out. In order for them to perform that function, though, they have to be above the waterline. Once a scupper is below the waterline, it’s just a hole, and it lets the water in.

I have to say, that if the upside of scuppers is draining a little spray and the downside is sinking to the bottom, I vote no. There’s a reason “scuppered” means drowned, swamped, sunk, kaput.

We were fully loaded, and we were sitting still. The scuppers were below the waterline. The water wasn’t coming in at an alarming rate, and Kevin assured me the buoyancy of the boat would prevent its sinking, but I figured there was nothing to be lost by bailing. At the very least, it was a way to stay warm.

At this point, I was definitely outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t crazy about being on the water in that wind in the first place, and worrying about the boat filling with water wasn’t making me any happier. I willed the tide to go out; you can probably imagine how effective that was.

To lighten the boat, Kevin started tossing the onion bags full of oysters over the side. We were very close to our trays, and we’d only have to walk them a little way once the water was low enough that we could start working.

Finally, the water was low enough. We moved the boat to deeper water so we wouldn’t be stranded when the grant went dry, and we started toting the bags of oysters to the rows of trays we’d spent most of the week setting out.

I couldn’t help but notice that we were the only people out there.

After we’d gotten about half the bags into trays, we saw Dave Ryan and his crew drive up. This made me feel a lot more comfortable. If Dave thought it was a reasonable day to be out, then it probably was. Besides, it meant there was someone there in case we ran into any trouble trying to get out through the chop.

I relaxed, and went back to schlepping oyster bags. We were almost done when we saw Dave’s crew get back in their boat and drive away.

“They’re probably making another trip to get more gear,” Kevin said.

Wianno Oyster uses 29-foot boats. They’re huge, and powerful, and they hold an amazing amount of gear. The boat hadn’t been loaded when they came out, so I didn’t really think they were coming back. Still, I watched for them.

They didn’t come, and nobody else did either. All the grants were empty.

The wind was picking up.

The next step for our oysters is to get them out of the onion bags and into the stiff mesh bags that let lots of water flow around them so they can grow. We’d brought the first 25 mesh bags, which would hold about eight onion bags’ worth.

The tide was still going out as we filled the first few mesh bags. It was a big tide, and the low was going to be very low – maybe too low to get back. As I zip-tied bags to trays, I kept thinking about having to wait for the water to come back in, all the while worrying about the wind getting worse.

I decided I couldn’t do it.

“Kevin,” I said, apology in my voice, “I’m sorry, but I have to go back. I’m profoundly uncomfortable being out here alone, worried about the weather, and having to wait for the tide.”

He didn’t miss a beat. “Let’s go,” he said. He’s never tried to convince me to stay out on the water when I don’t want to be there.

We made sure everything was secure in the trays, and we got in the boat. I pulled the anchor, and he started the engine.

When the water is low, the navigable channels in the flats are very narrow. It doesn’t take much for a strong wind to push a flat-bottomed boat into the sand on one side or the other. As we were turning the boat around to head home, that’s exactly what happened. We were blown into the sand on the other side of the channel, and the engine sputtered and died.

This is a regular occurrence, and didn’t cause particular alarm. You push your way off the sand (quickly – the water level’s still dropping), and you try again. That’s what we did.

When Kevin restarted the engine, it wouldn’t run. It made a run-COUGH-run-COUGH kind of noise, and went nowhere. He started it again. Run-COUGH-run-COUGH.

Then Kevin uttered the words that struck fear in my heart. “We’re in big trouble,” he said.

Kevin sets the bar for even ordinary, run-of-the-mill trouble very high. There have been lots of times where I’ve thought we were in trouble but Kevin thought things were just getting interesting. If Kevin thinks we’re in trouble, we’re in big, fucking trouble.

When he said it, he’d known (and I hadn’t) that this was the first time – the very first time – he had forgotten his cell phone in the truck. There was nobody in the harbor, we had no means to communicate, we had no power, and a big storm was blowing in.

I remember, many years ago, driving to the airport from my apartment in San Francisco. I left plenty of time to get there, but I hadn’t known it was the day of the Gay Pride Parade. I got stuck in horrific traffic, and I watched as the time ticked by and the chance of my catching my flight dwindled. I hate being late, it was important to get on the plane, and I was increasingly anxious. But there came a moment when I realized I simply wasn’t going to catch the plane. It was over, it was done, and I was going to have to move on to Plan B. The anxiety subsided completely as my mind shifted gears from worrying about catching the flight to coming up with a viable alternative.

The same thing happened on the oyster flats yesterday. As soon as Kevin told me he didn’t have his phone, I reconciled myself to the worst-case scenario and started thinking about what our plan should be. It wasn’t going to get cold enough that our lives would be threatened if we were forced to stay out on the boat all night. It would be damned uncomfortable, but we had warm, waterproof clothes and we’d make it through. Once I convinced myself that we would most certainly survive, I was fine.

At low tide, it’s possible to walk out to Sandy Neck, the seven-mile stretch of dunes that is the northern border of Barnstable Harbor, and we had the option of anchoring the boat and heading for land. Once there, we could either hike out or seek shelter (there are several summer houses there).

As I was wrapping my mind around the various alternatives. Kevin was trying to get the engine started. He suspected that enough sand had gotten into it to choke it, but if we flushed it out, we could get our power back. About the fourth time he turned it on, we had some forward motion. Not much, but some.

“I think we can limp in,” he said.

Let’s go.

We started east, slowly, into the wind. I was in the bow, trying to prevent the mesh bags we hadn’t used from flying out of the boat, and Kevin was in the stern manning the tiller. We didn’t make much progress, but we were definitely moving in the right direction.

And then I heard the full-on rev and felt the motor bite. The engine came back from the dead, and we had power. We sped up slowly, fighting the wind, but we finally hit cruising speed and planed off.

It was a choppy ride home. I sat on the floor of the boat, my back against the scallop table and my legs on the mesh bags, and I got thrown around like a rag doll. But the boat was light enough to hit the tops of the waves, and very little water came over the bow.

We were at the dock in less than ten minutes, and I was very glad to have land under my feet.

I’m looking forward to telling you about our oysters, and what we’re doing to try and get them to grow. I hope it’ll be interesting, and maybe even instructive. But I don’t, ever again, want it to be exciting.

17 people are having a conversation about “Oyster farming: a thrill a minute

  1. Wow..and you sounded so calm when I talked to you yesterday afternoon …
    I’m with you..not a fan of being in cold windy conditions…I applaud your husband for immediately granting your wish to come back…maybe he was hoping/waiting for it? (grin)

    Glad you’re safe!

    • omg. you said it was a long day, but that is genuinely terrifying. glad all people and bivalves made it back to their respective beds safely. that said, you’re two of the smartest, level head-iest, ingenuitive people I know-you’d have figured it out.

  2. Margaret Fisher says:

    Eternal Father, strong to save,
    Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
    Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
    Its own appointed limits keep:
    O hear us when we cry to thee
    For those in peril on the Sea

    Mariner’s Hymn

  3. Yikes! I’m thinking of the hellacious storm that blew through PA yesterday and last night. Massachusetts isn’t so far off, and you were out in *that*? I’m glad you’re both safe. I’m also glad I’m not farming oysters.

  4. Wow! What an adventure. Can’t wait to hear more about the oysters (but without the weather trauma!!), we live near a big oyster farming area here in Aus. It sounds like its going to be great.

  5. Ooh boy! You gave me some flashbacks…..my (former) partner and I actually over-loaded our boat with horseshoe crabs, at night on the Indian River (near Titusville) and the waves cames up, swamped the boat…couldn’t bail because the friggin’ boat was plumb full of crabs. As I was clambering trying to keep escapees in the boat with the rake, we sunk in 3 feet of water. What crabs didn’t swim away, we had to get out of the boat. Then, we had the fun job of getting the boat floating again and walking it to the boat ramp. Tired, Cold, Hungry, Scared and Mad because our bait was gone. Oh, I forgot to mention that there were plenty of stingrays in this area. At that time, a cell phone was as big as a 6-pack, so that wasn’t even in the picture.
    Have you heard of SPOT? As a pilot, boater, hiker, desert rat, etc. I carry my SPOT for that moment when everything turns to *&%$ and there is no way out. (Our 911 service in this county cannot track a cell signal)
    I also carried WD-40 in my boat and had to use it to keep the engine running (short distance) to get me back to the ramp on one occasion.
    Glad you are both okay…..the story will be better when you’re slurpin’ away on oysters over a cold beer later this season.

  6. Wow- that SPOT device seems the thing to have. God bless Kevin for not giving you a bad time about being concerned and hopping to about leaving. That attribute of his alone makes him priceless. And then he has everything else going for him.

    I think I could learn to do everything you can do- you know I want to fish; I think I could learn to hunt and butcher my dinner.

    But there is no way in hell you could get me in an ocean going boat. I was still worried during your story, even though I knew everything must have turn out okay because you lived to write about it! It was still scary though. I’m glad it was you and not me. Kevin would not have gotten anything done had I been there.

  7. That sounds scary!!!! Those oysters had better be very tasty, very profitable, or both.

    Kept reminding me of that scene in Jaws where the guy says “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

    Even though we have relatively small canoes, when freshwater fishing we rarely worry about catching so many fish that the water gets close to the gunnels–or, as you nautical types call them, gunwhales.

    I’ll be curious to check back and learn more about how this oyster farming business works. Looks like one of the rare types of farming where you don’t have to feed your livestock, only fence them in. The water just brings them whatever it is that oysters eat??? Seems like quite a nice arrangement.

  8. I’ll tell you what, Tamar. You can tell one hell of a story. You had me laughing out loud and looking for the good news in the next paragraph. You’re a joy to read. Pure joy. xoxox, your friend in FNJ, Brooke

  9. You two seem to be the cats with nine lives, but I can’t help but say (again) get a VHF radio!!!
    It’s not smart, level headed, salty, or brave to be out there in any kind of weather with out a VHF radio, it’s just plain ass stupid stupid stupid.
    Anyone who knows what they are doing knows to respect the ocean and the weather and learns from their mistakes. Get the damn VHF radio!
    You two take advice from all sorts of professionals about all sorts of things- we are the professional here, so what about “get a radio” don’t you get?
    All the friends, family and loyal Starving followers reading this blog should stop posting comments until they get a VHF radio. Seriously.
    Many good people die in attempts to save others who have needlessly put themselves at increased risk.
    Two years ago, I could honestly say you just didn’t know better. That’s not the case now!!!!
    And for the record you could have easily died of hypothermia in the night…….
    Glad you are safe and sound, but I am mad at both of you!!!!!

  10. So I’m facing a comments boycott, eh?

    I absolutely agree that going out sans communication is, as Linda so eloquently puts it, stupid stupid stupid. The question here is VHF radio vs. cell phone.

    The VHF has limited options (Coast Guard, SeaTow, anyone in the nearby area who is on a radio), whereas the cell phone allows us to call someone who isn’t out there, but could be. The oyster guys we know mostly go out with a cell phone and not a VHF.

    Best option: both. And, since we actually do have a VHF radio (it was on the other boat), I think that’s the way we’re going to go.

    Now, will you guys stop ganging up on me?

  11. Both is a very smart choice!
    When you say the other oyster guys go out there with mostly just a cell phone, those same guys didn’t venture out in unfavorable conditions that day.
    All I am is saying is that when it comes to safety, stack the deck in your favor!
    Yes, we will stop ganging up on you!
    PS Glad to see you had safety glasses on in your most recent post!!!!

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