One of Vinalhaven's most interesting locals is Ivan Olson, an 80+ year old lobsterman. He's featured in this article from Points East [May 2009], written by his long time summer neighbor.
Ivan Olson [rear at the helm] instructs the author
Ivan and The Summer Jerk
By John Richards, Points East
As I walked into the workshop, the permanent aroma of buoy paint, wood shavings and sawdust filled the air. The crude furnace made a ticking sound of unknown origin that somehow added to the comfort. Country music with a static background came from the vintage radio covered with paint. The same radio that doubles as a pencil sharpener. In the interest of space conservation, the old crank sharpener has been permanently screwed to the plastic top. Then came my greeting: "There he is…where the f*** you been?"
This is the standard welcome that has spanned our 30-year friendship. Ivan Olson's 82-year-old crust was hardly enough to cover his not-very-well-known sensitive side. He talks immediately about being worried about not seeing me for the last six months, and the lack of our periodic phone calls was cause for concern…made him wonder "if you was mad at me or I had done something wrong."
It was at this moment, I confirmed what I have felt for many years. There is an unexplainable bond between the Vinalhaven's senior lobsterman – the salt of the earth, the grand pooh-bah, and probably the island's most respected and controversial all rolled into one – and me, the so-called "summer jerk" or "masshole." This exchange has made me think about our relationship from then till now and caused me to reflect upon one story after another about this islander and the summer person.
As a regular summer visitor to this island, I cannot exactly remember our first meeting although I wished I could. I do remember walking to the cove with my two boys John and Aaron in tow after they'd first spotted the island's only black-hulled lobsterboat, the Nancy O, coming in at the end of his day. This sleek, wooden, John Deere-powered lobsterboat would slowly and quietly ease up to its float as we stood on the wharf and watched in silent awe. Effortlessly, it would come to a quiet stop, which made me wonder if the boat had brakes.
One day he looked up at us and almost smiled. I recognized this as somewhat of milestone between an islander and someone from "away." We stood and watched as he tied up and then started his end-of-day chore, filling bait bags for the next day's haul. Conversation was started by the inquisitive minds of my two adventurous young boys: "Why are you putting dead fish in those bags?" My nerves bristled thinking they shouldn't be asking him questions, but it was too late and deep down I was glad they did.
Why was he filling those bags? Somewhat to my surprise, a pleasant detailed explanation was offered. We had now made personal contact with a real Maine lobsterman. As our vacation continued, we would now go to the cove daily when we saw the Nancy O coming in, and soon he was allowing us to stand on the wharf and watch him.
The next summer, our mission continued. It was now at the point the boys would be on-watch with binoculars most of the day, awaiting the first sighting of the black boat, which was our signal to start the two-minute walk to the cove. Conversations were more frequent and at ease. We now were allowed to stand on his boat and watch more closely as he filled the bags with vintage fish. Then came the day he asked if we wanted to try.
We quickly dove in with both (actually six) hands, filling the bags carefully as not to damage the dead fish. I felt it was an absolute honor to be aboard a working lobsterboat, filling these bags. Our new friend/boss leaned back against the bulkhead, next to a well-worn wheel still shining with fish oil left over from the day's haul, and started to talk, filling us with information about his boat, lobstering, investment strategies, World War II, his vegetable garden, and the Red Sox (who really pissed him off).
I was fascinated by his wide array of knowledge and experiences and hung on his every word. At the end of our baiting process – determined by no more bags or no more fish, whichever came first – he would go home and we would dash back to the cottage to share our newly learned information with my wife. She was only half listening as she stripped the boys out of their pungent bait-ripened clothes. I wondered out loud. "If this guy is so smart, why is he letting us fill his baitbags?"
As the summers continued so did our "privilege" of filling his bags. We had now graduated to the point that when he came in, we would go to the cove, sit and visit, and after he went home, the boys and I would board his boat and fill the bags at our leisure and schedule, not his. It was at this time that I was just about savvy enough to realize he was coming in with plenty of bait and plenty of bags. We never seemed to run out much before we were about to wear out. It finally dawned on me that the amount of bait bags packed exceeded the number of traps he would haul in a single day, and he never came in with any.
I built up the courage to confront him about this, only to find out he had more than he needed, so he was sharing his bounty with his two (probably smiling and disbelieving) lobstering sons. My initial concern became, if we were filling bait bags faster than he could use them – so many that he had to give some away – were we making him feel bad? Once again I pondered: If this guy is so smart . . .?
As time went on, we even got to go out to haul. We would stand back and watch with intensity and pure fascination as each trap came aboard. Stories would commence early in our venture and go on till the end of the day. Endless stories of fellow lobstermen (some good; some not so good), of how many lobster he got out of a trap in the same location eight years ago, and today nothing but "whores' eggs, sculpin and a sh**load of kelp." He would tell of the areas we would be setting: Black Ledges, the Red Sea, or Crockett's, or we'd be hauling some in the bay, over by Dogfish, and if the tide comes right, we'll go into Medric Rock. He spoke like I was supposed to know where we were and where we were going. Not to be stumped, at the end of each day, I opened a chart to figure out where we had been. By this time, I was totally captivated by lobstering, the sea, the island, and most of all, this guy.
My summer passion continued to progress, and one day he said, "I could use some help, want to go to haul?" I was so excited, I was at the cove and on the boat at 5:30 a.m., some 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Bait bags were filled; I made sure John and Aaron had filled them to my specifications the day before. By this time, I had just enough experience to be dangerous.
I developed several theories, none of which I have shared in the industry because they are yet to be proven. But I am working on it, and with some reluctance I will share one of them now. As you fill the bag, the tail of one fish sticking out of the top of the bag works equally as well as some of those magic lures "as seen on TV." While not yet proven, proving this remains on my bucket list – as is the development of a bait-scented cologne "for the rugged man." Good bait has so many distinct odors, it is difficult to narrow it down, but I am convinced the right one will give Polo a run for its money.
As we ventured out of the cove, life seemed surreal. The sunrise rose to the east'erd, heavy morning dew dripped off everything, gulls circled around the Starlight, a purse seiner that supplies bait to the island, as she unloaded the night's catch, yelling like they were placing orders for breakfast. Then I realized what was surreal: I was on a real lobsterboat, not on the shore. For this day, I was the sternman, not the summer jerk. Although I had no idea where we were going, I felt like I had already arrived. Before I could get too caught up in the moment, we were on the first string, and the orders started coming, buoys and seaweed were flying, first trap then the trailer. We had the end buoy – these were doubles, so there were four more pairs in the string – so we'd bring all these on board, clean them out, bait'em, and stack them on the stern. Then we'd set these by the Bell or inside Hurricane (I knew where he was talking about).
Finally, we had all five pairs on, each with a 15-fathom warp, all baited and ready to go. For some reason I could not help but feel guilty, like it was my fault, that the first string had no keepers. Some undersized, some "eggers," and some with manmade notches in their tales. "Can't keep ‘em and can't sell em," said Ivan. This is not a law, it's the Maine loberstermen's own conservation plan. Two pots were totally empty, and I was told, "We'll just change the water in these."
Soon, we reached the new spot to set. The command to put each pair overboard was a simple "yup," which is spoken directly into the windshield and completely out of earshot of the one person who needs to hear it. The traps started overboard, one trap pulling another, splashing into the deep, followed by a humming noise of the wet warp spraying water and muck as it slipped over the gunnel. Because of the lack of guidance by the rookie sternman, the first pair hit a second pair and knocked them overboard prematurely. Chaos ensued, and time stopped with the feeling of the flying warp tightening around my legs.
I was caught between the pots. At this moment in my short career I was thinking how cool it was when all I did was watch. Rope was flying directly followed by the two 60-plus-pound traps that already had hit the water and were accelerating to the bottom. My legs went out from under me, my head hit the bait box that was so dutifully filled by my own sons, and I started my slide across the deck on my back to the back of the boat. As I slid across the deck, I distinctly remember how blue the sky was, and I recalled thinking that I'd be overboard momentarily.
There was a thud, which was me hitting the stern. I felt the pressure on my legs, and then I heard the engine revving up in reverse. And slowly the pressure let up, and I realized I was not going overboard. As I was helped to my feet, I was told I was "s'posed to be working, not dancing" on the back of the boat.
Ivan immediately got on the VHF radio to tell his fellow lobsterman of the near tragedy, followed by an over-the-air debate over whether or not it's a tragedy if you lose a summer jerk? The final crackle over the radio was: "Isn't that the fella who fills your bait bags? Don't wanna lose him!"
As we finished our day and came steaming down the Reach, through the channel, and into the cove, I saw two young boys on the shore with binoculars, watching for that special boat with that special guy – and I was now a part of this scene. I have been summer sternman ever since. We now own a house on this island near the cove where the black boat is still moored. For each visit here, the quality of my trip is determined by how many times I am out sterning.
Last trip here, I was asked what ferry I was leaving on. When I said the 2:45, I heard, "Good, we can haul before you leave." For me, this was a perfect way to end our trip. For all these years. I have been compensated in lobsters. I have never had to buy one. I have been paid at the rate of one-half to one-pound of lobster per hour. Yet, again, it is reason to ponder: How smart is this guy, really?
In my real Massachusetts life, I own a company that sells promotional products for corporate recognition. We plan and implement ways for companies to recognize their long-term employees. By my own recollection, I have just completed my 25th year as a summer sternman – a milestone in any industry and worthy of recognition. However, in this case, it is the "employee" recognizing his boss for the quarter of a century of indentured servitude. Ivan, thank you for the experience and, most important, thank you for the everlasting friendship.
The Richards family lives in Southampton, Mass., and has been going to Vinalhaven for 38 years. When John is not lobstering, they plan to spend to island-hop and fish in PenobscotBay on their Aqua Sport 222 Center Console Bait Box.
"The Land Rover is not a vehicle, it's a way of life."