Stephanie Taylor

The challenge of catching a holiday tradition

“Crab Pots at Monterey Wharf”
mixed media on vellum
“Crab Pots at Monterey Wharf” mixed media on vellum Special to The Bee

From Bodega Headlands, the sea has a dangerous swell. Under a dark gray sky, massive waves crash into the windswept peninsula that protects Bodega Bay and the boats moored at Spud Point Marina.

Captain Frank Terlouw prepares the Barbara J, a classic wooden fishing trawler, for a 4 a.m. departure to check and unload his 260 crab pots, no matter the weather. He and one crewmember will head north toward Anchor Bay and return 38 hours later with Dungeness crabs destined for holiday meals, a Northern California tradition.

It was a “challenge getting in and out of the harbor due to the big swell. It hit 22 feet while we were out. Not bad on the outside, but a rough trip none the less,” Terlouw says in an email after returning.

His haul was 3,000 pounds of mature male Dungeness crabs. “It’s been a good start to the season, and this trip we got $4 a pound. Due to Christmas market. Yeah!” he wrote.

In my naivete, I thought it would be interesting to hitch a ride on another crab boat. Jason Taylor blew into Bodega Bay on a violent storm in 1989 and never left. He warns that even getting in and out of the harbor can be terrifying, and invites me onboard the Annabelle for a brief visit.

Crab pots are stacked high at the stern and identified per permit by colored buoys. Taylor demonstrates how he would bait, lift and hurl a 120-pound baited crab pot into the sea. He shows me the hoist that pulls the traps from the sea. He explains how long stabilizer arms work with anchors, and how a mistake can lead to disaster.

It’s hard to imagine how Taylor, the captain and another crewmember maneuver around this impossibly cramped deck and cabin under even the best conditions. Permitted for 350 pots, they plan to fish for two days, pull 200 traps the first day and another 150 the second.

Taylor will work 18 straight hours. When filled with more than 100 crabs, the pots will weigh about 320 pounds. He must measure each crab, tossing only mature males at least 6 1/4 inches wide into a container that holds 7,000 pounds. He’s lost six friends in seven years to fishing and the sea, yet he starts each day with gratitude: “Looking forward to an adventure,” he says.

When fishermen return to dock, cranes lift containers off decks to waiting tubs. Crabs tumble en mass into aerated, circulating water, claws clacking ferociously. Brokers distribute them to be sold live or cooked. The 2011-12 season broke historic records with a catch of almost 32 million pounds at an average of $3 per pound. This season looks promising.

Dungeness crab season normally begins in mid-November or early December with the tasty crustaceans reaching avid consumers at the start of the holidays. Arranged artistically in rows upon beds of ice, I buy some for dinner with a friend. And now that I’ve seen what it takes to get them to market, I’ll never question the prices again.

Stephanie Taylor, a Sacramento artist, graduated from UCLA with a degree in history and a focus on political philosophy.

“Market Dungeness”

mixed media on vellum

“The Barbara J”

mixed media on vellum

“Crab Pots at Monterey Wharf”

mixed media on vellum

Related stories from Sacramento Bee