Going to Pot
It’s a damp, drizzly day and I’m sharing the ferry ride to Sausalito with an oversized loaf of bread and a handful of European tourists. I’m heading across the Bay to meet the charming Mister John C. Muir, an acquaintance from the Maritime Park who I’ve somehow roped into taking me crabbing, despite the rather obvious setbacks: rain, rain and more rain. I’ve been crossing my fingers all week, but the forecast is ominous and of course this is the only day where both the tides and our schedules are aligned (he’s a Wednesday through Saturday, I’m a Monday through Thursday – if we were married there’d be post-it notes everywhere).
I know him very little and the fact that he’s agreed to do this makes me wonder if I’ve met my match in hare-brained scheming. Rain and all, he hasn’t called it off and even suggested we go in his boat. I alight at the dock, get my bearings and walk down to where I’ve been instructed to find both John and the Sea Bird. It appears that not only am I going crabbing, I’m going in style – locally-built 1957 wooden sailboat style.
Despite working on a pier in an office that used to be a tugboat surrounded by all manner of sailing vessels and apparatus, I’m no avid sailor myself. In fact, I’ve probably only sailed a handful of times in my life and each time had the interesting experience of being on a boat either newly repaired, recently acquired, or, through no fault of those captaining, just simply having “issues” – lines snapping, engines cutting out, and large, moderately important cleats and things breaking away into the sea. Just enough excitement to make me ask John how many times he’s taken the Sea Bird out since he tackled some pretty major restoration.
“Just once.” He breaks into a grin. “You don’t mean I’m the first person you’ve…”
The grin widens. The drizzle turns to rain. I am just beginning to understand what I’ve gotten us into. It also appears I have indeed met my match.
When I first got excited about catching crabs (a sentence I never thought I’d write) I assumed it would be one of those folding-chairs-and-cooler-on-a-pier sort of affairs. The goal, naturally, being to wrangle as many tasty crustaceans as possible, throw them in a pot and feast accordingly. Judging by the over-abundance and ridiculously low price of Dungeness in the fish markets ($2.99 a pound at our beloved Sun Fat Seafood Company and even fancy-pants places like the ferry building’s San Francisco Fish Company coming in at half their usual price), that seemed like no big deal. That is, of course, until the Dungeness disappeared.
While gathering up catfish heads the night before (that’s right – no chicken bones or small bits, I’ve been instructed to bring stinky, bloody fish heads) the nice counterman shakes his head and tells me the crabs are all gone. “Only the little ones down there,” he says sadly. I feel myself sinking into moroseness, fish heads and all, but he smiles brightly. “No, no, you’ll catch plenty! Good luck!” With the rain coming down and nary a crab in sight, I can’t help but think I’m going to need it.
Given fish heads and edibles as my responsibility, I’ve left the rest up to John. The boat, the traps (purchased at Coast Marine & Industrial Supply on Jefferson Street, one of one of the last old marine supply stores in the city), tidal information (a necessity when sailing) and the general game plan are all in his capable hands. He’s steering us out of the harbor, heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge with the idea that we’ll drop one trap just inside near Cavallo Point and then set the other further out the gate past Kirby Cove. Though it’s illegal to catch Dungeness inside the Bay, the ocean is fair game.
“We’ll see how bad the swell is out there,” Muir says. I flash back to my last open water sailing trip, a 3-day affair from Monterey to SF where I spent the first 24 hours trying to keep myself and my Thanksgiving peas from going overboard. “That is unless you’re getting seasick?” There’s that grin again. I just shrug and figure the fear will keep my mind off any queasiness.
I give Mister Muir the unenviable task of jamming our fish heads into the traps and tossing them over the side. Rather than the huge cages I’m used to seeing around the wharf, these are medium sized hoop-and-net contraptions with a spot at the bottom to secure the bait – a necessity I’m told, unless your goal is giving seals a free lunch. Locations are noted and we move slowly out to sea, still hugging the coast and chatting away until I feel the sea lurch, remember that I’m on a boat and look out at the water.
It’s a liquid landscape of rolling hills and we’re right in the thick of it. Oddly enough, there’s no sickness or panic. Sea Bird’s sailing admirably and each stomach-dropping roll is accompanied by a short adrenaline spike that reminds me of riding the rickety old Cyclone at Coney Island.
Maybe it’s the company, or the slug of bourbon I put away after loosing the second trap, or the fact that its stopped raining and I can see the faintest wisp of blue sky – but I feel glorious. We tuck into a small cove out of the rollers, and with the anchor set to hold us quickly pass an hour (and a bottle of wine) devouring our lunch and ogling the fattest seal pups I’ve ever seen. They’re completely lacking in grace as they flop along their rocky perches and, now halfway through the wine bottle, they’re cracking me up.
Two minutes later I get my comeuppance as I realize that I have to pee – a feat which in this case involves going below deck and wrestling out of my pea coat, bibbed foul-weather pants, normal person pants and underwear, not to mention relieving myself over a bucket and handing it off to my delightfully attractive new friend. One glimpse in the mirror, however, tells me I look like a bedraggled pre-pubescent newsboy and there’s no point in trying to save face now.
It’s time to head back to the traps and the day’s been so fantastic I could give a damn whether we pull up any crabs or not. Surely, we gave it a try and if they’re just not there, they’re just not there. Whose fault is that?
We pass the first buoy and I start hauling in the line until I can see the trap and suddenly my mouth is an explosion of excited obscenities. There must be ten of the bloody things climbing the net and I am beside myself with joy. It actually worked. I’ve got a big beamy grin to match John Muir’s as we haul up the second trap and, sure enough, it’s teeming with the buggers as well.
They’re brown and red rock crabs and we look them over carefully, measuring their size and tossing over the little ones and the ladies. There are so many we get to be picky with what we’re keeping, selecting the finest eight of the bunch to be boiled and cracked and dipped in butter.
Back at the dock we clink mugs of whiskey, slightly unbelieving that it was that easy. Eyes start misting over at the thought of living off the sea, catching dinner in a net and cooking over a fire on a beach somewhere. Clams. Fish. Oysters. More crabs. Good old fashioned sport and self-sufficiency in the salty sea air. Now if I could just learn to bottle bath tub gin, we’d be set.
Want to catch your own dinner? If you can’t land a friendly gent with a boat, you can always try your hand from one of the piers along San Francisco Bay. Fort Point under the Golden Gate Bridge is often teeming with fishermen and crabbers as it’s nice and deep near the rocky shelves. Make sure you throw back any Dungeness (recognizable by their white-tipped claws if you can find them) and have a gauge on hand to measure the length of your catch – 4 inches across and non-Dungeness are yours. You’ll also need a fishing license, which is easily purchased online through the California Department of Fish and Game (a yearly license is only $41.50 for California residents).
Photography by Mariah Gardner