Spot prawns live in the deepest parts of the ocean around Orcas Island and when shrimping season is open, it creates a minor traffic jam. From dawn until dusk each day, boats drop shrimp pots at a depth of 250-400 feet, wait an hour or so, and then pull them up. The traffic is often most concentrated during the slack tide, when currents are the calmest.
This is our second year catching spot prawns and we’ve become proficient. On our first day out this year, we caught our legal daily limit of 80 prawns per person. Over the winter we had our 15’ Boston Whaler, Short Story, serviced and all signs pointed to a summer of fun on the water. Our new Honda outboard had less than 200 hours on it. Bring it on!
Our normal process for catching prawns is to set the pots on the bottom, kill the motor, and just drift silently for about an hour. I love that hour of calm and quiet time on the water. We watch all boats we covet and wave at passers-by. All the while, knowing that prawns may be falling for our clever trap. The thing about all types of fishing, we’re learning, is that it’s akin to gambling and can produce the same rush. Thankfully, unlike Blackjack, most of the time you only stand to lose time, bait, and the occasional tackle. For most, this potential cost is acceptable for a day spent on the water.
Last Thursday, there were two slack tides. We chose to go in the afternoon and we were not alone. We always try to go a little early and stake our claim. It’s decidedly poor form to place pots too close to others. We use an app called Navionics that allows us to place virtual pins on a map that helps us navigate to locations of past success. The afternoon was windier than expected and we placed our pots upwind from the majority of shrimpers. As soon as our buoys hit the water, they seemed to take off like the barrels attached to the shark in Jaws. We hoped the heavy rebar we tied to the pots would keep them in place.
I looked around and didn’t see nearby boats, so I killed the motor to start the drifting phase of the trip. I underestimated the wind and soon found that we were drifting toward other boats. I suggested that we motor to a location where we could drift downwind without worry.
I put the boat in neutral, turned the key and knew immediately that something was amiss. There was no beep, no click, no turnover. It was like someone cut the power from the battery. I kept turning the ignition as if it might catch with the perfect turn. Nothing.
At first, we assumed it was something obvious. Maybe the boat wasn’t in neutral? Maybe the safety switch was off? We both tried everything we could think of. I must have turned that ignition switch thirty times. The battery was connected and looked brand new. No corrosion. No missing hardware. I tapped and wiggled the terminals just in case.
We were flummoxed and slowly drifting into a dense area of boats. Without a motor, we had no way to navigate. We have two paddles and could alter our course a bit, but not much. This situation was a bit more serious than any we had experienced, but wasn’t dire. We were not in danger and we could always call a tow service to get us home. That was the last resort.
We brainstormed who to call for advice and quickly decided our contractor, Drew, might be the best person. He helped us with our first oil change and is an amazing problem solver. At the time. he was driving his 50-foot boat, Refuge, back from the mainland and had a few ideas to try. Nothing helped. Strangely, other parts of the boat, like the bilge pump, had power, just not the motor. He asked about fuses and we shrugged. We’d never changed a fuse on this boat and didn’t know where to find them.
He mentioned that our plumber, Greg, was also shrimping and maybe he could help. I called Greg and found that he was at least an hour from getting on the water. He asked a key question from the start: “Are you in danger?” No, I said. Maybe in danger of embarrassment. He laughed.
Meanwhile, we’re still adrift in the wind. As we approached a boat twice our size, it seemed to slowly move out of the way. Part of me thinks they could tell we were having an issue. Maybe they could see it on our faces. My head being deep in the center console was a sure sign.
We switched to thinking about other friends with boat knowledge who could help. I called Will and Smiley, who live close by, and have a boat in our marina. Will is a talented mechanic and together, we hatched a plan for them to come and help us figure it out, or at least tow us the 15 minutes home. I mentioned the potential of fuses causing the problem, and he said he’d bring a bag of them.
As we drifted past the remaining boats in the shrimping area, Sachi studied the owner’s manual for the motor and found a section about fuses. The manual had a nice graphic of the inside of the fuse box and what fuses were connected to what circuits.
We removed the motor’s cover and found a box that looked like the diagram. Will suggested using the boat key to pry out the fuses and see if one is bad. I could feel the momentum building. The table in the manual said the second 10amp fuse controlled the ignition and power to the motor. I removed that fuse, held it up to the sunlight and Voila! The culprit was identified on the first try.
Referring back to the manual, I saw that the fuse box contained spare fuses. Wow, I thought. Honda is thinking ahead. I plugged in the spare 10amp fuse, turned on the power and the boat started right up. At that moment, Will was in his garage gathering supplies and called to ask a question. Before he could get it out, I interrupted and said, “We fixed it! It was a fuse and we have a spare!” I texted Drew and Greg for good measure.
More than any other experience so far, this was a lesson. We now know what happens when a fuse blows, where to find the fuses, and how to replace them. The next day, we bought a bunch of spare fuses and created a backup bag that will always be on the boat.
As amazing as it felt to fix the problem on the water, it was a stark reminder of how little we know. Fuses are boating 101 and a simple problem to fix. As we continue boating, we’ll surely have more problems to solve. It’s part of the challenge and a skill we both want to develop.
Here’s to learning through experience and helpful friends under non-dangerous circumstances.
Since moving to Orcas Island, I’ve become fascinated by the geography of the area, which is quite complicated. The island is part of an archipelago in an inland sea stretching across two countries and hundreds of islands. To describe the region doesn’t do it justice, so I created this animated GIF.
The Salish Sea extends across the U.S.-Canada border, and includes the combined waters of the Strait of Georgia, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. The name Salish Sea was proposed in 1989 to reflect the entire cross-border ecosystem. Both Washington State and British Columbia voted to officially recognize the name in late 2009. The name honors the Coast Salish people, who were the first to live in the region (Salish Sea: Naming, n.d.).
This time of year is known for warm weather, being outside, backyard fire pits, and for the last few years at our place, the smell of rotting flesh. Let me explain.
In the Salish Sea waters off Orcas Island there are Dungeness crabs and each summer crab season begins in July, offering a source of fun and delicious protein. We both enjoy the crabbing, but Sachi is the driving force behind it all.
It is said that the challenge of crabbing for some people isn’t the crabs, but the bait. The crustaceans will eat almost anything and most people use raw chicken, turkey, fish and sometimes cans of cat food that serves as an attractant. For us, it comes down to cost-effectiveness. Our local grocery store has a “crab bait” freezer this time of year, often filled with deeply discounted packs of expired meat. When that’s not available, we opt for drumsticks from Costco.
Recently, our contractor, Drew, said that he had a big pack of frozen crab bait on his boat in the form of herring, a bait fish. All we had to do was grab it from his freezer, thaw it, and use it as our crab bait. It’s rare to have fish as bait because of the expense, so this was a treat.
I was out of town for a couple of days, so Sachi left a gift bottle for Drew, grabbed the bait, and came home with a 35lb pack of frozen herring. As she discovered, thawing the herring created a problem. Where do you thaw a huge block of dead fish? If placed outside it would attract critters, so she opted for a spot just inside our front door, which is downstairs from our main living area. It was a solid plan, given the circumstances.
Sachi and the dogs went to bed that evening with dreams of crab dipped in butter. The next morning, Sachi was awakened by the dogs licking her in the face, which isn’t odd. But this time it was different. They had a wild look in their eyes, like it was Christmas morning for dogs. Then she realized that those licks were infused with the unmistakeable stench of dead fish. Within seconds, it all became clear.
Sometime in the early morning, the dogs had discovered the pack of herring by the front door and decided that it was breakfast, nicely laid out for them. Thankfully, it was still frozen, so the bulk of the bait was safe. But they got to lick it for as long as they wanted. And the smell, despite multiple washes, lingered on their muzzles for days. I suppose that smell is what the crabs like, too.
It seems logical that smelly bait would attract crab and this is a strategy we’ve taken to heart in the form of “ripening” the bait. This means leaving it out so that it can get a little funky. While we don’t have empirical proof that it works, we have taken notes from many old timers on the island.
A few days ago, Sachi filled a ziploc bag with 12 frozen drumsticks and placed them on a table in our main living area in a glass container. They were not yet ripe, but on their way. Before leaving home that day, we placed the container on the back corner of the table, surrounded by other containers, to prevent the dogs from getting it. The guest house is essentially one room, so there are few options for hiding anything.
When we arrive home it’s always the same. The dogs come to the door, bark and wag, and run up the stairs before us. When we returned this time, it was obvious that something was amiss and we both noticed. The dogs stayed at the bottom of the stairs as we ascended. We shot a knowing glance at one another. What would we find?
I was the first into the room and was relieved to find a ziploc bag torn to shreds. This happens sometimes. No big deal. Then Sachi arrived in the room and looked closer. What we thought were small pieces of wood from outside were actually shards of bone. Chicken bone. Sachi said, “oh my god” as she turned toward the table where we so carefully placed the chicken. The glass dish was on the floor and the chicken was nowhere to be found. The damn dogs had deftly removed the chicken from the table and devoured a dozen drumsticks between them. That’s why they were at the bottom of the stairs: consciousness of guilt.
After some scolding, I looked up the potential health issues. Raw chicken, I learned, is not often harmful to dogs and reflects what they evolved to eat. It’s the cooked version of chicken bones that can cause problems because the bones can splinter more easily. We were relieved and reminded ourselves not to feed them for the rest of the day. They were fine. We, however, were out of drumsticks.
Thankfully we still had 30lbs of herring, in a sealed box, ripening by our front door. It smells terrible, but it’s a small price to pay for pulling crab out of the Salish Sea. So far, we’ve brought home and shared over 30 of them.
Links from the Blog
I’ve continued to write consistently on the blog at leelefever.com. As you’ll see, I’m focused on the process of publishing Big Enough and all that goes with it.
📖 Pre-order the Big Enough eBook – The paperback and ebook versions of the book are now available for pre-orders. If you’re interested, pre-ordering the book is helpful.
Here are a few things I shared over the last week:
From the Blog
The Big Enough ebook (along with the paperback) is now available for pre-order on all the major book websites. The audiobook is also complete, but won’t be available until after the book is published on September 15th.
It would mean a lot to me if you’d consider pre-ordering Big Enough because pre-orders can help the book get attention when it comes out.
I shared the book project on Facebook for the first time yesterday and was heartened by the response. I need and want to feel more comfortable promoting it and it helped to see friends be excited with me.
The House Project
Sachi and I spent the weekend on sweat equity. One of the early design decisions was to use western red cedar for some of our ceiling and soffits under the eaves of the house. It’s a tree that’s abundant on the island and comes in boards that are knot-free, or “clear”, with beautiful color variations and straight grains. The construction team was excited about the quality of the wood. I am still learning how to judge such things.
Before the cedar can be installed, it needs to be stained so it’s protected from UV rays and weather. This became our job. We used a transparent, satin finish. The boards needed to be stained on both sides, sanded on the front side, and then stained once more on the front.
To make it easier, Casey, one of Drew’s guys, made these “paint trees” that are racks for staining and drying multiple boards at once. So much easier!
We probably got through about 40% of the boards that need staining, mainly because the rack can only hold so many. Once they get installed, we will go back and stain more.
Crabs and Boats
Crab season started on Thursday and we were ready to be back on the water with our little boat, Short Story. After a slow start, we’re finding our rhythm.
The longer I live on the island, the more fascinated I become with boats of all shapes and sizes. A side effect of COVID is an increase in boating because it’s a safe vacation for many. Those vacationers end up in places like Deer Harbor, where we keep our boat and I love keeping a mental inventory of the boats I see. Someday we want to have a boat we can sleep on but for now, we’re just dreaming.
Speaking of dreams, a superyacht appeared in Deer Harbor recently that was bigger than anyone had ever seen in the area. It was the Attessa IV, owned by Dennis Washington. 332 feet long, a crew of 22, and recently rebuilt. Amazing.
Like the cedar, I’m learning to notice and appreciate boat design and lately, loving the classics. There are a couple of classic wooden yachts in Deer Harbor that date back to the 50s and 60s and are immaculately kept. I believe they are both Chris Crafts. You can just imagine Frank Sinatra on the bow with a cocktail.
On the second day of crabbing, this boat (with 900 horsepower across three motors) came screaming up to us. It was the Washington Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, stopping to make sure we were in full compliance. We were and they were very nice.
As much as I love watching these boats, I am very satisfied with our little 15’ Short Story. She does the job!
Just outside the guest house where we live, Short Story, our little boat, sits all buttoned up for the winter. Pulling her out of the water was a momentous occasion because it marked a seasonal transition in our lives from the warm fun of summer to the chill and rain of fall.
The transition also means that we lose an amazing source of protein and a hobby that adds excitement to summer days. You see, Short Story, for us, is a working boat. Its hard fiberglass deck can take a beating and throughout the last two summers, it performed admirably as we became dedicated to catching as many Dungeness crabs as possible.
How this works is best told through a couple of summer days.
The process starts at Costco, where it’s possible to find chicken at the lowest price per pound. We load pounds and pounds of drumsticks into our cart to use as bait for the crab. Upon returning home, some of it goes in the freezer, some the fridge and some into a cooler without ice. This is where our dedication to crabbing is tested.
We’ve heard that crab may be more attracted to smelly meat, so Sachi started her own chicken spoiling project. The basic idea is to throw raw chicken into a cooler and let sit for a few days. Once it’s nice and ripe, it becomes the bait. This process is a reflection of Sachi’s personal dedication to crabbing. I am willing to take my chances on fresh chicken.
This year crab season started on July 12th in our area and we put traps out the first morning we could. That morning we got up and gathered all our boat things, like a dry bag, a bucket with crab tools and our four crab traps. It all barely fits in our car, which quickly becomes filled with the smell of rotting chicken. The crabs better love that stuff, I think to myself.
The marina is only a couple of minutes away and it’s a minor trial to get everything to the boat because the traps, which are metal cages shaped like big hockey pucks, are heavy and unwieldy.
The crab traps, or “crab pots”, are designed to sit on the bottom in 50-70 feet of water and we’ve weighted them with rebar to keep them in place. Leading up from the trap is a line attached to a buoy that has our name and address on it. As long as we’re in regulation, we can throw the traps into the sea almost anywhere we want. And that is the real challenge in crabbing: location.
Sitting inside the metal cage is a box that contains, in our case, radioactive chicken that acts as a beacon, inviting crab to enter the trap via little ramps which lead to trap doors. The traps are designed to catch not just crab, but the right crab. Small ones should be able to get in and out with ease. We want those little guys to grow big and strong and feeding them is a cost of doing business.
Once we have everything loaded onto the boat, we putter out of the marina and into Deer Harbor, which is well known for crabbing and only a few minutes away from the dock.
On the way, Sachi stands at the front of the boat with a stack of crab pots. Each one needs to be inspected and baited. Being downwind at the helm of the boat, I get assaulted by chicken smell, which you can almost see in the air. Sachi is undeterred. Using tongs, she loads the off-color flesh into the traps one-by-one and arranges the lines on the deck to reduce tangles.
Then the challenge begins. Where do we drop the pots? Dungeness crab live in eelgrass and usually, the best crabbing is in areas where it grows. The problem, as with a lot of fishing, is the well known places see a lot of competition. Over time, we’ve tried to forge our own way and have seen success off the beaten path. By the end of the season, I’m willing to try just about anywhere.
I read once that you should hold the line as the pot sinks so you can be sure it lands on the bottom correctly, which is right side up. Once it hits, you can feel the tension lax, and I give it two or three tugs to stir up the detritus on the bottom. This practice is another bit of tribal crab knowledge with unknown benefits. Why not? We are learning and always open to new tactics.
With the crab pots in the water and locations marked with GPS, we putter back to the marina and drive home. It usually takes about 45 minutes, door-to-door, and our anticipation can begin. We both hope the crabs are appreciating the effort we put into the chicken. It’s surely a delicacy.
On this day, we return to the boat in the afternoon once work is done. The pots have been in the water or “soaking” for about 8 hours and this trip is different. Our goal is to remove crab from the pots, refill the bait and put them right back into the water. This is a cycle we repeat every day, five days a week. Crabbing is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Usually, the buoys are easy to find and I’ve learned to approach them at just the right angle for Sachi to grab the line with a paddle handle. This is when I get to work. The line is 100 feet long and that works out to about 55 hand-over-hand pulls to get the trap to the surface. If you’re wondering, that’s 220 pulls, often twice a day. Over the summer, I become stronger in very specific ways.
As the crab pot approaches the surface, it feels a little like Christmas. What is the gift that nature bestowed on us today? I’ve become quite good, on the 53rd or 54th pull, at peering into the water and judging the catch. Some days, it’s possible to tell from weight alone.
I pull the trap into the boat and slide it across the metal rail to Sachi, who opens the trap from the top. Because I already have gloves on, I am usually the one who removes the crab, which can do damage to your fingers if they get ahold of one. So far my fingers remain intact.
Across the four traps on this day, we caught 10 Dungeness crabs and could keep four. That’s because females and small crabs must be returned to the water. We measure male crabs to be sure they meet regulations. The traps also catch many red rock crabs, which are smaller and less meaty, but still delicious. They can grow huge claws and we often keep them when they’re big enough.
Each pot is emptied, restocked with chicken and placed back into the water with intention and hope. We putter back to the marina and tie Short Story to the dock.
These days, I clean the crab on the pier beside our boat. The process is simple and quick. I hold the legs of the crab to the deck and use my other hand to rip off the shell. Then I split the crab down the middle with my hands or a cleat and shake out the innards. Most of the waste ends up back in the water, where it would end up anyway. This has been a huge improvement in our crab process.
When the crabbing is good, we have fresh crab for weeks at a time and it becomes a substantial and delicious source of protein. Once we get home, Sachi boils them in a big pot and places them in the fridge to cool.
Then, she sits at our dining room table and shells them in what I consider a state of zen. The product is a big bowl of delicious crabmeat that, in a restaurant, would cost at least $40 per serving, and a big bowl of shells to dump into the water on the next trip.
When the crabbing is fruitful, we share cooked crab with friends and neighbors. It feels like we’re living off the land, or water. It can be frozen, but there is no replacement for fresh crab.
This summer, we brought home 86 keepers and a few dozen red rocks. That beat last year’s total by about 20. I’m sure that next year, we’ll continue to hone our skills and strategies a bit further and shoot for 100.
It seemed like everywhere we went on Orcas Island, people who learned we were new residents asked the same question: Do you have a boat yet? For a while we just smiled and said that we hoped to someday. With so many plans for the house project, a boat seemed out of reach.
These questions mostly came from long time residents who saw, in us, an opportunity to share something they valued about living on Orcas. Not having a boat in the San Juans was akin to living at a ski resort and not having skis, they seemed to say. People come from all over to boat and sail the San Juans in the summer, why not us?
Like so many experiences we’ve had here, boating found us. Our neighbor, Grant, (of potluck fame) texted me during our first summer on the island with an idea. He had recently purchased two boats, an older, smaller one and a larger, newer one and didn’t want both. He said that if we were interested, he’d sell us the smaller one, a 25 year old Boston Whaler, for what he paid.
It seemed like an amazing offer, but at first, it didn’t seem possible. We had other priorities. But the more we talked about it, the more it seemed like a gift. We didn’t have to shop, or haggle. We could work with a person we trusted and it seemed the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come along very often. Our minds opened, just a bit more.
The idea of having a boat reminded me of a sign that used to hang at our family lake house in North Carolina. It said “A boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money.” The expense of having a boat doesn’t stop when you acquire it. It requires gas, moorage, maintenance and more. Did we really want to take on that expense?
Within a couple of days we met Grant and took our first look at the boat. The first thing we noticed was the name. Emblazoned on both sides of the boat, in a design we’d never choose, were the words “Short Story”, and we both couldn’t believe how apt it was. For over a decade, short stories, in the form of educational videos, have been how we supported ourselves. It was kismet.
Short Story was 15 feet long, with a center console, bench seat for two and enough room for two additional people. It had an older 55hp Suzuki outboard engine and a gas tank that held 12 gallons of gas. It wore it’s age with grace and seemed to be in working order, unless you needed a working gas gauge, horn, running lights, etc.
Grant, always a helpful soul, took it upon himself to install a new battery and do some other maintenance before handing it over. For us, it was perfect and easy to get up to coast guard standards. Within a couple of weeks, it was ours.
What made the idea work was our proximity to two marinas, only minutes away, in Deer Harbor. Most people moor boats in the summer and store them in the winter and that was our plan. By the end of July in our first summer, Short Story had a spot in a marina and we became slightly more seafaring people.
Having grown up around ski boats, I was comfortable on Short Story and ready for exploration. It was small and easy to drive. What I discovered is that Sachi and I were not on the same page when it came to where we could go and what we could do on the boat. Having grown up in Hawaii, a respect for the ocean was drilled into her from a young age. Her love of being on the water and exploring with Short Story was balanced with a consciousness of the very real risks.
Boating in the San Juans is notoriously dangerous. While it may sometimes look like a lake from the surface, danger lurks below in the form of reefs and sea mounts that come out of nowhere. Without proper equipment and/or tide charts, it’s easy to run aground. Further, the water is cold enough to cause hypothermia any time of year and the currents can be strong enough to overcome small engines. Boating in the San Juans is not to be taken lightly.
On one of our first trips out on the boat, we were with our friends, Darren and Julie. Prior to striking out, we didn’t discuss where we’d go. I figured we’d just explore and make it up as we went along; I was in lake mode.
After leaving the harbor, we entered the wide and rough channel to get a water view of the Yurt before crossing the channel to get a closer look at Waldron Island. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a formative experience for Sachi. From her perspective, I was being reckless. She saw risk in my careless attitude and looking back, I can see why. We didn’t have a plan. We didn’t know the area. The waves tossed Short Story around more than expected.
We made it back across the channel safely, but that trip set the tone for the rest of our boating and specifically, my perspective. For us to be a team, I needed to show more respect for the situation and surroundings. I needed to account for weather and tides and charts. I needed to listen more and work with Sachi to understand how our seafaring adventures could be more fun and less stressful.
The biggest risk is not knowing what’s happening below the surface. In the best scenario, boaters use radar/GPS in combination with a map of the seafloor to navigate around reefs, rocks, and obstacles. These systems can be very expensive and we figured there must be a more affordable way to solve the problem. Surely, I thought, there’s an app for that.
I eventually found a $15 app called Navionics that worked on a used iPad. For very little money, we had a way to navigate, via GPS, anywhere that 12 gallons of gas could take us and more than that, have confidence that we weren’t going to run aground. The iPad and app became essential parts of our boating experience.
By the end of the summer, I was feeling more comfortable and itching to explore. The San Juans have 128 named islands and a number of them are preserves or parks. There are countless bays and harbors to visit. Our little boat could only take us on a limited radius, but from my perspective, we were missing out by not exploring more. My FOMO was in full effect.
In talking through it one evening, I learned more about Sachi’s perspective. Short Story is not a boat that can handle bigger waves and Sachi kept referring to swells and the fear of waves swamping the boat.
This is obviously a legitimate fear, but the reality of the Salish Sea is that it’s an inland sea and unlike the open ocean surrounding Hawaii, there are no swells. The waves we encounter are mostly from large boats. They can be treacherous for boats like Short Story, but they come and go. The other factor is the weather, as wind can create dangerous conditions.
At the end of the conversation, we came to an agreement that set the stage for our seafaring future. We agreed to make fair weather a priority and always have a plan for our exploration. Further, we agreed that waves are a part of the experience.
Slowly but surely, we both became more confident and started to understand why people on the island feel so strongly about boating in the San Juans. It’s not simply a mode of transport, but means of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and exploration. It’s a chance to catch dinner, visit neighboring towns, hang out with harbor seals and see whales in the wild. As much as Orcas Island has to offer, there’s a whole other world just off shore.
The story of Short Story is still being written. We have a lot to learn and explore. But one thing is probably settled. Some day, we hope to have a bigger boat, with GPS and radar, that we can take out for weekends and cruise to more distant locations. That boat will need a name and naming it anything other than Long Story seems like a missed opportunity.
I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.