For most of his working life, ROBERT POWELL pursued a dual career as a Professor of Psychology at a state university in Florida, and moonlighted as a commercial fisherman. He targeted stone crab and grouper. Upon retiring from the university in 1996, he pursued grouper full-time for the next 12 years. He began writing poetry at approximately age 70, initially to memorialize some of his late fishing buddies. Bob has had three (3) pieces published in the National Fisherman. In recent years, he has become an avid horticulturist, specializing in bromeliads. His writing can be found at: thecompletepoet.yolasite.com, blogspotcom-poetpourri.blogspot.com and Twitter@Rhymeister.
Robert Powell performs "Cool Under Fire" Video courtesy of Brad Wartman, 2013.
Cool Under Fire
My father was a man
you had to admire.
The heat of the moment
never made him perspire,
for above all else,
he was cool under fire.
We fished together often,
when I was growing up,
and I remember two occasions,
when things looked pretty tough.
The first was on the Chesapeake
down Crisfield way.
Things started looking dicey
when we motored out of the creek,
into the open bay.
It didn’t seem too bad
when we were running in the trough,
but when we turned into the wind
to set the anchor,
the outboard motor went aloft.
The propeller spun free of the waves,
and the shear-pin separated,
to say we were in a pickle
was just slightly understated.
For there we sat in a skiff
that was too small,
in the midst of seas
that were getting too tall.
It was Sunday
so there were no workboats around.
We were stranded in the middle
of Pocomoke Sound.
My father never even said
but just started looking
in the bottom of the skiff.
First he found
a bent ten-penny nail,
and then an old rusty hammer
that was stuck under the rail.
He went to work
fashioning that nail,
to replace the shear-pin
that had failed.
He had to re-work it
but finally shaped that nail
so that it fit just fine.
We eased in the anchor,
and when the skiff laid in the trough,
he yanked on the outboard,
and it took right off.
I felt mighty relieve
when we got back to shore,
and my father was an nonchalant
about our day,
as if we’d gone to the corner store.
Our second close call
happened in Barnegat Bay.
We were in a small boat by the inlet,
on a cold spring day.
The inlet was crowded
with many small boats,
when to our dismay
we spotted an 80 ft. yacht
heading our way.
The yacht got out of the channel
and ran aground.
The boat lost steerage
and headed right for us,
he was bearing down.
“Jump overboard,” the captain
shouted from the bridge.
Now this struck me as poor advice
for we were bundled up,
the tide was running strong,
and the water was as cold as ice.
My father sprang to the bow,
where we had out a lot of scope,
then slowly and firmly,
he retrieved the anchor rope.
He gained about 30 ft.
without the anchor breaking free,
the big yacht passed just off our stern,
there’d be no swimming in the sea.
About my father
there was much to admire,
but first and foremost,
he was cool under fire.
The shellpiles tell a story,
of the many
who have experienced the glory,
of harvesting the bounty
of the Bay.
But the glory is diminished
some even think its finished.
Can the decline be reversed,
or will it continue to get worse?
Can man and nature somehow combine
to save the day?
Chesapeake watermen say they are born
to their calling.
They have been prisoners
of a heritage,
that many found to be enthralling.
But the boundless freedom
that once existed,
has now, largely, desisted.
Today’s waterman must be
a master of versatility,
for his main adversary
is not the weather,
but rather the bureaucracy.
You may not know until today
what tomorrow’s fishery will be.
One of the notable attributes
of the waterman
that has often been observed
is the terseness of his statements,
he’s not one for wasting words.
Call him laconic, pithy,
or simply concise,
you’d better listen carefully,
for he’ll rarely tell you
the same thing twice.
Like many others,
the waterman liked his coffee
to start the day.
And historically he learned
to drink it,
not from the vessel
from the tray.
While this may seem
less than genteel,
the principle involved
is totally real.
In the past,
when it was cold, windy,
and the clouds were spitting,
the waterman would proclaim
that “t’aint fitting”
to venture out into the bay.
Instead it’s the best time
to catch rockfish
along the bank,
baiting your hooks with peelers
that are rank.
When fishing for the table
the waterman aimed
to catch a “mess”
if he was able.
So to have a mess, how many
he would need,
depended on the number
there would be
What really makes the waterman’s day,
is when all the blow-boaters
come out to play.
They skim helter-skelter
all over the bay,
but a curious thing
is how little canvas they unfurl,
as they are making way.
Watermen have always been
masters of resourcefulness and ingenuity,
who fabricated and maintained
most of their own gear.
Things that were “store-boughten”
were usually greeted with disdain,
and sometimes an outright snear.
is the bane of the waterman,
but also is his delight.
For without the chicken-necker
where would he come up
with all of those tales,
that he so dearly loves to recite.
According to the waterman,
the contest between
crab and chicken-necker
is an eminently fair fight,
for when it comes to native intelligence
it’s a toss-up
as to which one
is most bright.
In the fall there comes a time
when conditions are sublime,
the doubler’s are swimming on the Bay.
Mr. Jimmy and his mate
stir a little wake,
as they swim along the surface
on their way.
When its slick calm
you can spot em,
pole your skiff close
and you’ve got them.
There is no better way
to spend a calm and sunny day,
cruising along dipping doubler’s
from the Bay.
Now that is pretty work!
Travails of the Modern Fisherman
Fishing is not a job,
To most pliers of our trade,
We are caught up in sirens’ songs,
That we do not seek to evade.
Circe and Calypso
Are sirens marvelous to behold,
And though they greet us every day,
There’s no hint of growing old.
Circe is the newborn sun,
That hails us every day,
While Calypso is the oceanic arena
Upon which we play.
Calypso is such a beautiful mistress,
Though she is sometimes exceedingly cruel,
But most of the time is quite benign,
So we live by this inconstant rule.
What is it that defines a fisherman?
Is there a rule that sets us apart?
The answer’s straightforward and simple,
For us fishing’s an affair of the heart.
There are no awards for fishermen,
That amount to a hill of beans,
But like those who receive the accolades
We, too, have our field of dreams.
We abhor shirts with ties,
And can hardly imagine suits,
The staple of our attire,
Is a pair of rubber boots.
We’re labeled as drunks and winos,
By those who know us little, if at all,
But when called on to face adversity,
We are known to stand very tall.
We may compete quite fiercely,
When catching fish from the sea,
But when the boats are tied up, and we’re kicking back,
There is true camaraderie.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)
Has become the fisherman’s worst nightmare,
It isn’t just how little they know about fishing,
But also how little they care.
The fish managers (fishcrats) often confound us,
They’re preserving the resource so they claim,
But its we who are faced with extinction,
Could that be their ultimate aim?
The fishcrats say the stocks are depleted,
How they determine this we do not know,
But when we go to sell our catch,
Why are the prices so low?
Instead of too few, there are too many,
The markets are glutted again,
Fish prices have hit rock bottom,
We’d be happy to share this pain.
We must truly be magicians,
For we’re catching fish that they claim are not there
But there really is no trick to it,
We just snatch them right our of the air.
The fishcrats hold meetings to receive our input,
That’s what they are legally required to do,
But they’d prefer that we stuff a sock in it,
And just go somewhere and have a brew.
When we speak our piece at the meetings,
Everything seems to be quite in order,
But don’t you sometimes wonder,
If there is any tape in the recorder?
The fishcrats prefer to ignore us,
They claim we’re a self-serving lot,
But when it comes to understanding the resource,
They know little more than a jot.
Size limits, closed seasons, and quotas
Are the “fishcrats” stock-in-trade,
If they had to live by the rules they make,
They would very seldom be paid.
But fishermen are a resilient lot,
We’ve been battered often over the years,
Since optimism is the byword of our trade,
Hope will always replace the fears.
Published in National Fisherman, Feb. 2005
Scoby Bill was a highliner
of considerable note,
but most noteworthy of all
was the name of his boat.
She was a sleek, fast-looking craft
that would never be mistaken for a trawler,
painted bright yellow from stem to stern,
she was named "THE MARIJUANA HAULER".
This has about 30 years ago, and Bill
must have been feeling pretty feisty.
If he was trying to get the Coast Guard's attention,
he succeeded precisely.
The expression "Drill Baby, Drill",
did not originate with the oil companies,
It started, instead, with the Coast Guard,
when they boarded Bill far at sea.
It wasn't long before "THE MARIJUANA HAULER"
started looking like Swiss cheese.
They drilled out so much wood
that she gained 2 knots of speed.
Eventually Bill got tired of
being boarded day after day,
but instead of changing the name,
he painted her battleship gray.
Many years later Captain Bill
was running the Scoby 2,
the Marine Patrol had boarded and said,
the fishbox needed going through.
The officer asked Bill if he had a shovel?
Bill said "right here", and promptly heaved it far out to sea.
The officer said "you can't do that".
Bill replied "why not? The damn thing belongs to me".
Bill thought he had won that round,
but the Law denied him victory.
They wrote him a citation
for discharging plastic into the sea.
Bill had to delay his next trip
while he searched everywhere that he could,
but he finally found just what he was looking for,
a shovel carved out of wood.