Serial Sunday: “Tough Island” by Crash Barry, Episode 17

categories: Cocktail Hour

1 comment

Last summer, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour began serializing Crash Barry’s gritty memoir Tough Island. Then, in August, Crash took a break from  Bill and Dave’s in order to turn his novel Sex, Drugs and Blueberries into a feature film. Now, he’s back and ready to finish telling the rest of his true stories from his time living and working on Maine’s most remote island. Click here for episodes 1 to 16.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Donald being dragged, fore to aft, headed overboard, to be drowned by the churning, greenish gray-blue February sea. I’d been focused on filling bait bags with greasy herring, so I hadn’t seen his right leg get tangled in pot warp, the long piece of rope that connects a lobster trap to a buoy. When I looked sternward, Donald was being stretched into the ocean. His arms, thick as legs, saved him. He’d wrapped them around the steel bar that spanned the width of his boat’s transom. I dashed forward, throttled back and threw the engine into neutral.

Accidental death at sea is a sensitive topic among fisherpeople. The saddest discovery for a lobstering community is an empty boat driving a slow and lazy circle. Usually means a captain, going solo, got caught in rope and dragged overboard. The gruesome task of hauling the last pair of traps set by the missing person is usually done by the father, or a son, or the best pal. They’re the ones who find the corpse.

That’s why a fella has gotta be mindful when setting gear. When a boat is awash in rope, he might step into the bight of a fast-moving line. It becomes a noose, working under the strain of two opposing forces: The boat’s forward momentum versus the heavily weighted traps sliding backwards and plummeting down.

“That’s what happened to Donald”

That’s what happened to Donald. The competing forces tripped and pulled his feet out from under him. An instant later he was on the deck, flailing as the herky-jerky dragging began. Then his body was pulled over the stern. Only his sheer strength and determination kept him from letting go of the boat.

But if he had let go, there would have been a few quick and frantic splashes. Then the plunge. Would he have caught a final glimpse of his boat on the way down? Would he look up and see her dark bottom chugging away? Would Donald have stayed conscious long enough to feel his boots grow heavy with ocean and realize his loyal oilskins – that kept him dry for years – had become a hindrance when getting dragged to the bottom? Would he have time to note the irony of being murdered by his beloved boat and the traps he built by hand?

Donald didn’t have to worry, though, because he had a sternman. I was there in a flash, my sharp knife raised over my head, blade poised to slash the line trying to kill him.

Donald’s eyes opened wide, in terror.


Now that we were in neutral, there was slack in the line. I heaved and hoed to relieve the tension of the sinking traps. Donald snaked his leg free and clamored aboard.

“We’re gonna set these last two,” he said, gasping and pointing. “Then we’re goin’ home.”

Donald staggered to the helm, put the boat in gear, and collapsed. Sprawled on the engine box, he was barely conscious, wheezing in shock.

I took the wheel and got on the radio, told his brother what happened, and headed back to the island. Then Donald was flown to the mainland. The emergency room doctors said they’d never seen such a dramatic dislocation of leg from hip. They shot Donald up with some serious dope and pushed the bone back into its rightful socket. The docs gave him some pills and sent him home, predicting he wouldn’t heal for a month.


“You ain’t going.”

A week after the accident, while working in the shop painting buoys and splicing rope, I felt the staircase shudder, the sure sign of a visitor. I looked out the side window and saw Donald slowly climbing the stairs. Taking ‘em one at a time, struggling. Grimacing with each step and gripping the railing tight. The docs had underestimated his will to work and his urgent need to escape from Mary-Margaret.

“Hello,” he said, brightly, a big smile on his face, like he was glad to see me. “You ready to get back out to haul? Later this week. Maybe Friday, if the weather is alright?”

“Jeeze,” I said. “I was hoping to leave Friday.”

“Leave?” he asked. “Leave? Where are you going?”

“Down to Portland.” We’d discussed this several times. “I’m going to see Alice. During school vacation. Don’t you remember?”

“But that was before…” he paused for a second. “Before I got hurt.”

“Yeah, well…”

“Now we’re a week and a half behind. We need to haul the gear!” He shook his head. “You can’t take vacation. Not until I go down to Florida, next month.”

“I need to go next week…”

“We need to haul our gear and make up for lost time.” He pointed at me. “You can’t go.”

“I gotta go, I promised her that…”

“Tell her to come out here.” He grinned. “She can stay at her gram’s house…”

“That house isn’t winterized,” I said. “Besides, I’m going down there…”

“She can stay with you,” he said, like it was the most generous offer in the world. “In your room. That way, when we get in from haul, she’s got your supper ready and…”

“I don’t think so,” I said, shaking my head. Alice wouldn’t want to spend her vacation on Matinicus, hauling water from the well and staying in my cold and drafty room. Besides, I needed to get off the island. “We agreed that…”

“Things change.” He snorted. “Mary-Margaret sent me down here to invite you for supper. And she’s got your check.”

“Great,” I said. “I’ll be there.”


“Too bad you’re not gonna be able to go to Portland,” Mary-Margaret said, holding my pay envelope. “But Donald says he’s ready to get back to hauling and he needs you so…”

“Listen,” I interrupted and snatched the envelope from her fingers. “Maybe I could stay here until Sunday…”

“You ain’t goin’,” Donald said. “If you wanna keep your job.”

“You’d fire me?” Rationally, I knew he could. But up until a split second before, I didn’t think he would. He needed me.

“I don’t need you,” he said. “Easy to find someone around here who wants to make some money. Lemme put it to you this way,” he pointed at me. Practically stuck his finger in my face. “Since you wanna go to Portland, instead of doin’ your job, I’m done with you.” He snorted. “You better have everything out of the shop by tomorrow noon.”


“You heard me.”

“You can’t fire me…”

“I can’t?” he snapped. “Says who?”


We stood there, he and I, squared off. He was an old man, recovering from a painful injury. I was young and super-strong. And angry. From the look in his eyes, I could tell he wanted to slug me. And I wanted to hit him back. Hard. Mary-Margaret let out a squeal and grabbed him by the arm.

“Good!” he said. “Get your friggin’ stuff out of my shop.”

“Yeah sure,” I said. “No fucking problem. Asshole.”

Crash Barry’s new book Marijuana Valley comes out April 1, with a Launch Party on April 4 at Longfellow Books in Portland, Maine.


  1. Bill writes:

    You’re beautiful, Crash!