Stern Learning


Stern Learning

Rufus Nicoll


Author’s Note: The bulk of this article was written in February 2018. Now, it is late May 2020, so the context regarding work and working during COVID is a little different, but the guiding principles basically remain the same. Take care of each other, engage workers in mutual-sharing programs that presume embodied experience, compensate everyone fully for their time and effort. 


“The coolers, full, weighed about 200 pounds, and the only way for Aldridge to move them alone was to snag a box hook onto the plastic handle of the bottom one, brace his legs, lean back and pull with all his might.”


-Paul Tough ‘A Speck in the Sea’ 


The above quote describes a critical moment for John Aldridge, the very lucky, perservering Long Island

lobsterman who first fell overboard, then was rescued a couple years ago. 


Maybe this scene makes sense to a general reader, one without experience moving two hundred pound objects stacked on the deck of a lobsterboat. I have a little. 


Is the only way to move 200 pound coolers to lean back? 


To pull with all your might? Might you sometimes push, or lever?


I question “the only way” always whether we are talking commercial fishing, copy-editing, or anything else in life, something I think I share with Aldridge and other people drawn to fishing. 


Sometimes this relentless questioning seems like a defect in my essential temperament. 


It is exhausting, for me and I imagine anyone who has ever spent any significant amount of time with me.


I question the “the only way” in this instance because I am a doubting skeptic, and also because I have moved stacks of two-hundred plus pound coolers, fish-boxes, and other kinds of irregular loads often in my adult life. 


All kinds of loads across all kinds of surfaces with all kinds of degrees of success and grace and plenty of falls off plenty of planes. 


In addition to my personal experience moving heavy objects I have also observed many other people of many different sizes and shapes move immensely heavy objects in calm and rough seas in many different ways. 


Many ways different enough from one another to make me think there is always at least one other way never an only, and confident that even if in the physical world there truly isn’t your captain might still think there is and expect you to learn it and execute it repeatedly quickly right now.


Like have you seen this one-millionth way to tie a bowline.


No, not like that, like this. 


Not like that, like this, see? 


And this captain’s way might actually be different and serve a particular purpose, even if it doesn’t seem to at the time, so pay attention and watch again, try to see is it different is it for a reason? 


In my experience captains, like most boat people, are particular people. 


Captains tend to like doing particular things particular ways because for whatever reason these particular ways make them feel better, safer even though those particular ways might also work just as well.


And maybe their way actually did save your life, or did one time theirs’, and is dependable enough.


Captains, like most boat people, or people generally, also tend to like staying alive, being better, safer, and who can blame them for that. 


Most of the time when I have seen fishing people move on decks of fishing boats or skiffs or piers or wharfs or trailers or barges or beds of trucks I have seen them move in ways which minimize risk to themselves at all times in whichever ways they understand or know best. 


To me these sometimes fussy ways usually seem to be an off-the-cuff-but-also-born-of-at-least-one-lifetime’s-personal-experience calculation which seeks to minimize relative-exposure-to-personal-hazard balanced against risk-to-gear and catch-aka-reward.


Not always, and not always immediately apparent is this calculation, but most of the time I think you will agree it is present if you observe any people for any little while.


My primary teachers on these topics as they apply to the world of fishing have been three experienced commercial fishermen with many decades of combined year-round fishing experience who all have the same number of fingers and eyes and ears and toes as they started with to show for it, I think. 


These people are all of Stonington of Deer Isle though only one was born here I think.


Why does this matter why should we care what you have to say why are you making a nit-picking point on a topic like this just get on with it already.


He moved a cooler with a boat-hook, it happened to break, one-in-a-million he went overboard, one-in-ten-million he was rescued shut-up-and-pass-me-a-beer. 


I’m making this point because I have been this person before, done something that I knew was risky and had it catch up with me, and I know better now but I still do dumb things and am trying always to learn. 


There are always alternatives to putting our bodies in positions of more risk or hazard than needed. 


There are always alternatives to putting our bodies in positions of more risk or hazard than needed. 


The need to put our bodies at risk is always a big gray area up for discussion. 


The need to put our bodies at risk is always a big gray area up for discussion. 






Take care first of the body.   


Keep your body safe.


Again, why does this matter why should I care.


Accidents happen, preparedness is critical. 


Preparedness need not feel like drills and overburdensome organizational planning meetings and certification processes. 


Preparedness can come from a philosophy of working that is at its core a philosophy of self-and-nearby-others’ preservation. 


That isn’t a popular way to think or speak, I don’t think, in industries stereotyped to be dominated by masculine,

we-can-do-it-all-damn-the-torpedoes-full-steam-ahead kinds of attitudes as is the fishing industry.


But the people I happen to see who are moving well well into their later years, aging well, living to be pictures of health whatever their chosen or tracked professions, make smart use of their bodies no matter what they put into them.  


This is true of a lot of people who work in these kinds of male-dominated industries, the weirdos and the misfits who figure out better ways to do things are usually just trying to stay alive a little longer, get home a little quicker, like a lot of captains. 


These people live as testimony to different ways to be, examples of different thinking, different thinkers. 


They don’t tend to shoot people.


We know these people, who are only ever sometimes men, have worked with them before, maybe ourselves been them or been saved by some little trick these kinds of people cooked up in their very own brains or hearts or bodies. 


Usually those guys who go on forever have a garden, walk a lot, keep a full woodshed and give it all away. 


Each town tends to have at least one of these men who become legend, maybe after a youth full of bad behavior and what is that about and how can we do better.


My sense is that these two things are related, the low self -image in places that matter and the over inflated self-image in places that don’t. 


And that is thinking that didn’t come from any school I ever went to.


And being always willing to see if another option might keep you on deck for one minute longer if you find yourself there alone again with a heavy burden and a job to do. 


The story about Aldrige, written by Tough, is for me a good example of coping effectively with mistakes. 


I bet the lucky man and his thankful coworker (and friend) never lean over like that with a boathook again, and tell other people not to either. 


Probably their lesson is told with such mortal intensity it works. 


And if we read the rest of that article we all might now know what wonders those bulky Dunlop boots can do, and a little better what we might try to do if we found ourselves in such a situation. 


The implications of this kind of thinking, of acknowledging the boundless creative reserves of everyday workers like fishermen and acknowledging where it is not yet being sufficiently deployed are many. 


For example, I sometimes wonder: what could happen if today’s anti-opiate crusade was led not by fisherman per se but by all kinds of workers who work more generally in basically insecure wage-or-share-based industries, or may even dabble in the gray or black markets, or have combined decades of experience strategizing for their own health or their own survival amongst myriad overlapping and sometimes contradictory systems. What could we  teach each other and accepted medical experts and law makers and enforcers about healing, resilience. 


How could we wrangle us unruly bunch? 


Does anybody positively know? 


No one knows things like risk or fish better than the people they effect directly, first-hand, always. 


I’m in awe of fishing people because of their innate and exquisite ability to sit and reason, appreciate a sunrise, or a flower, and also their ability to find beauty and peace in the sometimes very boring, sometimes very risky work itself.


It is absolutely a skill to find beauty in what you are looking at even if it happens to be piles of dead you are trying to bring to market for someone else to eat.


I don’t ever see fishermen putting themselves in positions of extraordinary physical risk without first calculating a whole bunch of variables quicker than I’ve ever seen a computer click on. 


These are the kinds of people who should be leading  changes in workplace wellness practice.


In short, thinking like a fishing person is good practice: 


Change your bait often and let it work. 


Move your gear with care, take care of your self and your crew and your captain and your boat and your piers, have fun while you’re out there, do good work, stay safe, come back soon we miss you dearly.


Dirigimos Always,

Rufus Morgan Kreilkamp Nicoll

February 2018

Share this post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *