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Diver down

May 24, 2011
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Tuesday evening toward sunset on Cape Cod Bay

On Monday morning, I heard the news that Sean Strakele had failed to surface after diving for lobsters outside of Hatches Harbor in Provincetown. I didn’t know Sean well, but I remember him well. He was a year or two ahead of me in school, and his sister was in my class.

Knowing he might have met his maker at the bottom of the cold, dark sea, or might possibly have still been battling the elements, fighting back exhaustion and struggling against the effects of the chilling ocean water as he drifted on a current that took him farther and farther from land and rescue… the thought sent chills down my spine and I just couldn’t get it out of  my head. That state of concern and prayer and hope against all odds, mingled with a pragmatic understanding of the forces at hand was familiar to me.

As members of fishing families, we are steeped in great respect and awe for the power of nature and the unforgiving strength of the sea. We are constantly reminded of the inherent danger of toiling on her surface or venturing beneath. There are innumerable ways to lose a hand, or an arm, to be caught off guard and off-shore by threatening weather, or to misjudge a wave or the location of a constantly shifting bar and find your boat above you. There are ways of being tossed or pulled overboard without a dry suit, radio or flare and left trying to keep head above water as the boat drifts away. And there are medical emergencies that would otherwise not kill you, but aren’t easily fixed miles from shore.

We children of fishermen don’t fully understand the stakes. In my case, we were bursting with excitement upon our father’s return from a couple weeks fishing on Georges Bank. He was exhausted but happy as he dropped his clothes sack on the kitchen floor. I now understand that he was grateful to return alive. He didn’t tell a lot of stories right then – it was a good trip or a shake of the head. More serious talk was caught in little overheard snippets, long after we were supposed to be sleeping: the heart attack on Olaf’s boat, the chopper taking an injured deckhand off, the icing, the swells or the engine problems. A “square-head” captain’s visit might reveal a few more things, usually about great storms. We were always sternly shooed away without getting to hear the whole story.

As fishermen’s children get older, we see the strain – the physical battering the lifestyle delivers, not always all at once, but a cumulative destruction, blow by blow. We hear the stories of comrades killed, maimed or lost at sea – sometimes a whole boatload at a time. As we mature enough to understand the constant, unrelenting risk, even the triumphant tales take on a different hue. Great hauls, incredible catches, once-in-a-lifetime trawls are all set against this backdrop of potential disaster. We never know how our moms do it, or why our fathers still do it. It’s a lifestyle and a job – one that includes the real risk of finding yourself in a watery grave.

Our hearts are with Sean’s family now. When one goes under, we all feel it. We feel the weight of the sea, the silence down deep.

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