From the Field

Rogue wave

Posted: Dec 6, 2012 5:48 AM ET Last Updated: Dec 6, 2012 5:48 AM ET
Ashton Spinney stands on a boat launch beside an old wooden dory. It could be the time of year, but you might mistake him for a clean shaven Santa. His smile is quick and jolly, his hair the colour of snow. Pale blue eyes peer through a weathered squint forged over decades of tough sledding far beneath a sparkling Christmas sky.

Spinney took to the sea in 1957, a few years after he stopped listening for the clatter of hoofs on the rooftop. He's 69 now with no plans to sit by the fire.

On this morning he pulls his cap low on his forehead as fifty kilometer gusts from the south seem to bring life to the grounded dory. He checks out the red and white coast guard boat bobbing against its mooring beyond the launch and the small cluster of lobster boats huddled in the lee of the wharf.

He laughs and declares it a good day to be standing on land talking about fishing. The laugh fades as he recalls making that same comment to his wife on a stormy night a decade or so ago. 

Maybe it's the wind or the way the boats pull at the lines, maybe it's a memory that is never far from his mind. On that night a wet heavy snow raced in off the water, pushed by a south east gale. He guided his pickup into the driveway blinded by headlights kicking back off a wall of white. He didn't need to look behind him to know what the ocean was doing. He'd fought the mountains of water that rolled toward land behind a southerly gale often enough to know. No one should be out on a night like that.

Spinney wasn't in his safe, warm home long before the phone rang. Someone was out on that angry sea. Three fishermen from a nearby port were in trouble. His boat was needed to help in the search. Not helping was not an option. He learned about the brotherhood of the sea at his father's side in that tiny boat in 1957. If a boat is in trouble you help, because when your boat is in trouble you'll need help.

As he pointed the bow into the rolling waves to join the search he knew it wasn't going to end well. It didn't take long for nature to prove him right. Ashton Spinney and his crew pulled three bodies from the water in the hours after that storm. It was a quiet trip back to safety inside the Argyle breakwater.

He stuffs the memory away again and changes the topic. He's worried about a different crew today, one facing the fiercest storm ever to hit the winter lobster fishery.  He can see it rolling in on the horizon like a rogue wave, big enough to sink the entire fleet.  It's the law of supply and demand and the boats are on the wrong side of it. A lagging global economy has forced lobster off the menu for many. The dip in demand comes as good conservation practices pay off with record landings.

Spinney sold his first catches for 37 cents a pound. He sold it for ten dollars a pound when lobster peaked. He says that price makes today's wave seem even higher.  Many captains retired in the lee of that golden season and a new generation took to the sea expecting it to last. They paid top dollar for licenses and bought boats that cost more than most homes in this part of the province. Now they risk drowning in debt as the cost of running a boat climbs above the value of the lobster it lands.

Spinney has his bow in the wave again trying to save foundering souls. He's among an experienced crew trying to convince captains to reduce the number of traps they set and enforce a mandatory day off  each week of the winter season. So far it's a life ring no one is grabbing. 


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About the Author

Phonse Jessome has been chasing stories down the main streets and back roads of Nova Scotia since the spring of 1981. So far he is showing no signs of giving up the chase.

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