It’s not hard to tell when December casts its wintry pall across the bay. Daylight hours are cut in half and skim ice forms on the marsh and tidal inlets. Where have the days of 5 o’clock dawn and eight o’clock twilight gone? I guess to the other side of the globe. The girls in bikinis are gone too, replaced by rough looking oystermen sporting beards and extra layers of clothes. Working on the skiffs and floats (offices we are grateful for in the summer) is colder and a bit more difficult. The decision to “wait ‘til things warm up” is often followed by an extra cup of coffee or an hour sitting idle until Mother Nature decides she is ready to work.
When the workday begins gear, ropes and boat decks are frozen. The ordinary task of transferring oneself from dinghy to skiff can be fraught with danger. One careless slip sends you into 45 degree water. The outboard engine is slow to turn over and has just as much trouble warming up as the rest of us. If the dredge has been thoughtlessly left out overnight, the netting and cordage will be frozen into a mass that must be thawed with salt water and chipped off the deck. Working in extra layers of clothes is a necessity and a challenge. You must train yourself not to sweat, working steadily rather than in hurried spurts. Breaking a hard sweat means damp clothes that freeze quickly, leading to a long, cold day. I often find myself shedding my hat and my wind jacket as I heat up. If I start to feel a chill I put gear back on. This can be a constant process; heating up, shedding a layer, cooling down, putting a layer back on.
In the winter months oystermen really pay attention to the weather. Demand for oysters is high, promises have been made to restaurant kitchens across the country, and the oyster farmer is expected to deliver. A hard gale or temperatures below 28 degrees keeps us off the water, unable to harvest. Oysters don’t react well to sub freezing weather, abductor muscles snap and the shellfish dies. There are days when we might get a two hour window, the sun high enough in the sky to warm things, to drag the necessary product from the bay floor and get back to the cover of the oyster float. Our best friends become space heaters and boot driers.
The day ends abruptly. Lights on shore begin to twinkle at just after 4 o’clock, houses lit by Christmas decorations. As I ferry into the anchorage I smell wood smoke that wafts from the stovepipe of the harbormaster’s shack. I dodge winter sticks attached to sunken moorings, a reminder of the hundreds of boats that float here in the summer. I tie up close to land, bunched with the other ten or so boats that comprise the oyster fleet, and carefully lower myself back to the dinghy. As I begin the short row back to land I dream of a sauna or a steam room.
★ Peter Ciccarelli ★