The boat blazed through salt spray, the skipper piloting the craft from the starboard deck, squinting into darkness. He reached into the sea with a hook on the end of a long pole to grab the buoy and heft it aboard. With the swift, sure moves of an athlete dressed in rain slickers, he wrapped the line around a pulley, flipped a switch that powered the wheel and pulled the line up till the crab pot reached the rail. Then he grabbed the pot, tossed it to his partner who yanked it open. Together they dumped the contents into a holding tank, the skipper returning to his hook and his watch while the crewman tossed overboard unwanted creatures and crabs too small to keep, then cleared the space for the next pot, which was on its way.
Their work was frenzied but they moved together like old dance partners, never slowing, getting little pause between pots, while the wind blew seawater across the deck and a glimmer of moon flashed through the cold night.
Luckily for me, a landlubber, this was only a video. I didn’t have to endure the hardships of these crab fishermen, I just had to show up and move in close to the table to get as much crab as I wanted. The video was part of a crabbing demonstration produced by the Noyo Women for Fisheries at Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg during Mendocino’s Crab and Wine Days, a festival in its fourth year now, and one I would have attended for four years running if I’d known about it before.
There were many things I didn’t know about Mendocino, one of my favorite places in California roughly three and a half hours north of San Francisco. But I knew almost nothing about crabbing beyond knowing I enjoyed eating the Dungeness crabs California is famous for. The video convinced me I’d never want to be a crab fisherman, and gave me a new respect for what goes into bringing this delicacy to the table.
The fishermen set their line of crab pots anywhere from an eighth of a mile to a half mile off the coast, at depths from five to one hundred fathoms (a fathom is six feet). Fishing so close in would suggest that this isn’t dangerous work, but it would actually be safer farther out because in-close the boats are subject to the perils of surf. And that holding tank in the middle of the boat is a hazard. It has to stay full of water to keep the crabs alive, so every crab boat has an unstable load smack in the middle of it, a real danger in rough weather.
But that wasn’t my concern today. Somehow in my many visits to Mendocino I’ve been blessed with sunny weather almost every time, and today was no exception. After getting a close look at a real crab boat in the harbor, watching the crabbing video, and allowing our two young daughters enough time to gobble crab-shaped cookies and apple juice at the reception in the Coast Guard Station, my wife and I still had a couple hours till feeding time, so we headed out into the fresh air for a stroll around the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens.
The gardens cover 47 acres from Highway One to the sea, a half mile walk on trails that can handle a stroller to dramatic coastal bluffs, through twenty sizeable collections of plants sheltered by pine forests. February isn’t the best time to be here, but we still saw lots of blooming heather, early rhododendrons in full bloom, camellias already dropping some blossoms, daffodils signaling that spring was arriving. It didn’t matter that most of the gardens weren’t in bloom. The kids had plenty of fun picking up pine cones and needles for their collection at home, and the walk though the grounds reminded me of why I like this area so much: the setting of sea, bluffs, mountains, meadows, rivers, pine and redwood forests, is a salve to a weary city soul. When we popped out of the woods to the meadows atop the bluff, the sea breeze plastered our clothes to our bodies and even on this mild, sunny day the chill cut to the bone. We ran to the edge for the best view of the breakers up the coast, then rushed back to the sanctuary of the forest and gardens proper.
A short while later we were back at Noyo Harbor for one of the main events: the Crab Cake Cookoff. We were warned that this event might not be suitable for kids, but our girls love Dungeness crab, and I was determined to get them in for a quick lunch if nothing else. Well, with eleven restaurants competing for crab cake bragging rights and seventeen wineries offering tastings of several varietals for the same prize, the tent was buzzing. Luckily we found a table where we could park out of the crush, then spent the next two hours taking forays out into the crowd to collect crab cakes and wine samplings. Huge buckets of cracked crab legs occupied tables set apart from the competitors, and we went back again and again. We sampled just about every crab cake in the competition, ate three times our weight in crab legs, and vowed to patronize several of the restaurants participating, because if the rest of their menus came close to their crab cakes, they’d be serving pretty fine meals.
My girls showed no signs of distress until we’d hit the two-hour mark, and then we were saved by Cowlicks Handmade Ice Cream. The event may not be suitable for kids, but mine sure enjoyed themselves.
Stuffed, or close to it, we returned to the tranquil Colonial Inn to rest before, well, before going out to dinner. We had a date with more crab, and tomorrow we’d be heading home, so we made our way to the Wharf Restaurant, again in Noyo Harbor, and sat at a window overlooking the harbor, the last run of the river beneath the high bridge and out to sea as the sun set. The girls would get to play on the beach in the morning and collect treasures, and we’d have a quick lunch in the historic village of Mendocino before the drive back to San Francisco, but for me the highlight was now, sitting with my family in the warmth of a friendly restaurant looking down over the harbor, the last rays of sun glinting off the water, knowing that a platter of crab was on the way.
For anyone within shouting distance of Mendocino, the Crab & Wine Days festival is only one of many throughout the year. For information, contact the Mendocino County Alliance, 866-466-3636 FREE, 707-462-7417, or www.goMendo.com.
About Larry’s Corner:
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated newspaper column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on some eighty titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family in San Francisco. Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.
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