The first boat I worked on was a fishing vessel out of Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod called the Jimmy Boy. It was named after the son of the skipper who died tragically as a child, getting run over by a truck. Landing a job on her was a wild stroke of luck for me as kid who was looking to get experience on boats. It was considered the best boat with the best captain, and the training I got for the short time I was on her was invaluable to me as a seaman.

Luck of course is fickle and mine didn’t hold. The skipper had a gall stone attack, maybe from the biscuits and gravy I served in the morning, and we had to get to port quick. He ended up okay, but we were going to be ashore for awhile. I would have been glad to go on working on her but it was looking like that wasn’t going to happen. So I set out to find another berth. As it turned out, my sea education was about to take an interesting turn. The only boat I knew that was looking for a hand was the Sara Lynn, skippered by a guy named Andy.

He was the opposite of the skipper on the Jimmy Boy, about as gnarly looking as you could get. A renegade. Word was he had been a solo trapper in Alaska before he started fishing. He was the kind of guy that seemed like he’d just as soon spit at you as talk to you. The Sara Lynn had the reputation of being a scary vessel. She was owned by the hardscrabble brothers who owned the fish plant. A rough pair if I had ever seen one.

I went to find Andy in the bar frequented by fishermen, bikers and end-of-the-line drifters. I approached him cautiously.

“Excuse me, captain, my name’s Joe, I heard you might be looking for a deckhand.”

“Let me see your hands”

I turned my hands palms up and he took them and felt for calluses. Luckily I had been roofing before I got out there, and the hands apparently passed the test.

“You the one worked for Jimmy Boy.”


“Show up tomorrow at eight, you’re gonna have to cook.”

“Fine by me, can I buy you guys a beer?”

“No, you can get out of here. And show up on time”

“Fine, see you tomorrow, thanks a lot.”

I lasted a few trips on the Sara Lynn until it became apparent that the captain and I were somewhat at odds. I could see that he had disdain for me. It reminded me of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. I was the young idealist, enamored of the romance of the sea. He was the hard ass who was prone to outbursts. I was educated and physically well found and had no problem with the rigors of the work, but I could see he thought I was posing. Reading Moby Dick while we were steaming back and forth to the grounds didn’t help my cause. By contrast, the other guy working on the boat was a metal head — listening to Black Sabbath and other hard rock bands at full volume when he hung out in the galley. This made for an interesting culinary situation. As we steamed to the grounds we had to keep the door to the engine room open so it could get air. On one side I had the screaming diesel engine blaring, and from the other came the hard rock from the other deck hand.

The captain’s disdain and leadership style became clear one morning. One night when he turned the wheel over to the other deckhand, he told me to wake him at 5 a.m. The clock struck five bells and I stuck my head into the fo’c’sle and said, “Hey Cap, it’s 5 a.m.”

“Give me ten,” came the grunt from his bunk.

I waited ten minutes and had the coffee ready and tried again,

“Hey Cap, it’s quarter after.”

“Gimme, ten more.” Another grunt.

Finally after a half hour of trying to figure out what was worse, me following the initial order, or waiting till he stirred of his own volition, I decided to give it one more try,

“Hey Cap, It’s five thirty, you want some coffee?”

“What are you gonna do pour it down my ear,” came the terse reply.

“Well, I thought . . .” I barely got my mouth open when he sprang from his bunk and out into the galley and attempted to throttle my neck, grabbing onto my collar instead. I held my ground and awaited his next move.

“You talking back to me you punk! How’d you like me to cut you up and throw you overboard!”

“Hey, you told me to get you up!”

“Don’t talk back, punk, I could make paste outta you if you don’t smarten up!”

I held my ground. At five ten, 165 pounds, I was heavier than him and a bit shorter, but I was used to rough treatment by my older brothers and there wasn’t much else to do but watch and wait.

He relaxed his grip when he figured I was ready for him to go ballistic. Not backing down probably saved me great aggravation, but the die was cast and I could tell this job wasn’t going to last long. To be fair, he had another side which was almost endearing.

Occasionally we would get the three-horn blast warning to get up on deck, only to discover a pod of whales lolling about the boat, or a fantastic sunset on the horizon. He was a mix of things but tormented by something that I knew I would never understand. When we got to shore I told him I was moving on.

So I left Provincetown and headed back to Northampton. Back to kitchens and bakeries, from a world of giant cod called steakers, evil-looking eels dredged from the sea floor, a captain who kept a gallon of wine in the wheelhouse, and a captain of a boat named after his dead son, who never slept.

Joe Keenan is a musician, writer, baker and shingler living in West Tisbury.