Thursday, December 15, 2005

Crab Quest Part II: High seas and a whale

I could not have picked a worse day than Dec. 1 to go crabbing. It was drizzling, cold, breezy and the seas were rough.

When I arrived in Trinidad, the beach was empty – a highly unusual occurrence for the beginning of the sport crabbing season. It was just me and the gulls. If I was smart, I would have aborted the mission, gone home and curled up with the latest edition of the Weekly World News. But I had some free time that afternoon and I was determined to catch some crabs.

I unloaded the kayak and dragged it toward the surf. On a calm day, the surf in the protected cove where you launch is only a few inches tall. But on this day, it ranged from 1 to 2 feet. That may not sound like much, but when you’re sitting in a kayak with the cockpit opening a mere six inches above the waterline, it doesn’t take much to get wet and turn a boat sideways.

That problem could have be alleviated with a spray skirt, but I had too many ropes coming in and out of the cockpit to properly secure the skirt, so I was exposed to the elements. As I paddled out and hit the surf, a wave broke over the bow, washed across the deck and flowed into the kayak. My ass was sitting in a puddle of 50 degree sea water.

Further out beyond the cove I experienced the swells – rising and falling, rising and falling. It was a potential vomitorium. Atop some of the swells were small white caps. They weren’t breaking, but they looked like they could.

Being all alone on the ocean with these big swells and choppy seas I felt uneasy, to say the least.

I paddled as far out as my nerves would allow. The recommended crabbing grounds are further out, but I decided to play it safe. If something went wrong, I wanted to be able swim to shore. I dropped my chicken-baited crab trap adjacent to a nearby ocean rock and then raced back to the safety of dry land.

Despite the conditions, it was spectacular. The ocean was churning and smashing against the rocks. A heavy mist hung in the air and seals were busily swimming back and forth in the harbor.

I roamed the beach, time slipped away and my thoughts wandered. What was it like when the Yurok’s had this beach to themselves? When this was a whaling station, what did the town smell like?

I was jolted back into reality upon the realization that it was time to head back out. I noticed something – I was either getting smaller, or the waves were getting bigger.

Conditions were going from bad to worse. It was time to get smart, get my crab trap, and cut my losses. Time was of the essence.

I jumped in the kayak and paddled as fast as I could out to my trap. The waves were noticeably larger and choppier. I remembered the old adage “never turn your back to the sea” and tried to keep the kayak facing due west as I raised the trap, but to no avail. The wind and the waves pushed me in the opposite direction as I brought the empty trap up and began the task of tieing it down on the front of the kayak. It was tedious and nerve-racking work. The waves threatened to flip the kayak as I teetered from side to side, my cold wet fingers struggling to tie the trap down.

When I was nearly done securing the trap, I looked up to see several seals staring in my direction. Seals are curious beings and it’s not uncommon for them to investigate when fools like me enter their territory. But they were exceptionally curious and wouldn’t stop gawking.

And that’s when it happened.

There was a sudden blast of air and water, with a simultaneous crying/moaning sound right behind me. I couldn’t quite make it out, but in my peripheral vision I witnessed a geyser of water shooting into the air and something dipping under the water about five feet behind my boat. A whale!

I grabbed the paddle and dug deep into the water as the kayak cut through the water like a knife. Small breakers lay ahead – small by ocean standards, but tall for a fellow sitting in a small, plastic bucket.

As I was about to make landfall, a breaker pushed the kayak sideways and I suddenly lost control. I was now turned over nearly 90 degrees with my torso facing the waves and water pouring in the boat. The crab trap fell overboard and was being dragged in the white foam while various empty water bottles and my binoculars spilled out of the boat.

Fortunately I was in only a couple feet of water. I was soaked below the neck, but my hat stayed dry. I wiggled out, staggered around and began to collect my gear, tossing it up on the beach beyond the wave slope.

I was cold and wet, but unscathed. My gear was intact and I learned a few things.

First, don’t go out when it’s this rough. It can be dangerous, although frankly I was careful and didn’t go out too far. My incident in the surf was chilly and potentially embarrassing, but I was never in any danger. I sought the advice of an expert afterward who told me that crabs lay low in rough seas and are difficult to catch. So, for all of these reasons, wait until the seas are calm before crabbing.

Second, I learned that chicken is not the bait of choice. Squid is a better bait, although it wouldn’t hurt to have both.

As I drove home with the car heater on full blast I began plotting my next excursion.

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