First Encounters

This post comes to you from Shrimp Boat Projects

These maps show the tracks of our first two weeks of shrimping on Galveston Bay aboard the F/V Discovery, at three different scales. The tracks are recorded by our onboard GPS chart plotter and then overlayed onto NOAA nautical charts and Google satellite images.

You might think that after 6 arduous months of restoring our shrimp boat, we might ring in the first day of actually shrimping with some of the pomp and circumstance that marked our christening of the F/V Discovery. But alas, this day came and went and that seemed perfectly fine and perfectly appropriate. But really, we had no say in the matter. On a typically hot morning in late August, we arrived at the boatyard and were greeted by John and Gary with a very clear message: “Y’all are goin shrimping today.” We may have not known it as we left the boatyard the night before, but they were absolutely right. The boat was nearly ready for use and we had been stubbornly laboring over painting details and deciding how and when to furnish the cabin. Those things could wait till later and they knew it. And we knew it. But we just needed the kick in the butt. And so, on an unremarkable day in late August, we embarked on something that seemed remarkable: leaving the comforts of the boatyard and finally steering our boat cautiously along Dickinson Bayou toward Galveston Bay with a boatload of excitement, uncertainty, anxiety and cautious optimism.

Our new schedule begins at 3:30am when we leave Houston for the 1-hour drive to San Leon. The early morning hours are justified by the profession: the law allows us to drop our nets 30 minutes before sunrise and it usually takes an hour or longer from the dock to get to a decent spot for shrimping. It’s not easy to adjust to these hours but the optimism of a new day is usually present when we set off from the dock. These images give a sense of the calm that often defines the bay at sunrise: (left to right) viewing another boat in the distance; the cables from our boat to our big net disapearring into the bay; Our ever-present avian neighbors on the bay.

The reality of our first encounters with the bay aboard the F/V Discovery were not so romantic. The first two weeks might best be called the Sea Trials as they seemed to involve equal parts shrimping and trouble-shooting. One might say that’s just the nature of shrimping, or any commercial fishing for that matter, constant problem solving. Really, there was no way of truly knowing if the boat was ready until we put it to the test, but we hoped that the kinks we were working out might at least go away for a while. We signed on Gary Jones, the welder and former shrimp boat captain who had already helped us put the boat back together, to be our captain and help us run the boat in the early stages. But even with an experienced captain, the problems we had to solve were probably inevitable. The giddiness of our first day on the water seemed a distant memory when we ultimately ended up back at the boatyard for an entire week replacing the seals on our transmission (and driving all over Houston to find the seals for our Tonanco 729D transmission).

Undeterred, we did get the boat back on the water after each hiccup, and have been able to piece together enough problem-free days to start developing a routine and the beginnings of an education born not from the boatyard but from these new encounters with the bay.

The maps above begin to document these first encounters. The black lines chart the routes we took over approximately 2 weeks of shrimping, and while they look like the maps of someone lost and wandering aimlessly around a new place, this is only partly accurate. The lines show us leaving from two specific places over this period, either the boatyard deep into Dickinson Bayou, or our new home at Captain Wally’s marina on April Fool Point in San Leon. The lines then show us motoring to various areas in the middle-upper areas of Galveston Bay… places where we hoped to find shrimp! Some of these places were guided by Captain Gary’s past experiences, some because we saw other boats working those areas, some because of hearsay at the dock or the fish house on previous days, and some just to try a new spot. In each place where we chose to drop in our net, the line on the map takes the shape of a squiggle or a loop and this is in fact the mark of the route a bay shrimp boat takes when dragging its big net: a primary goal when dragging the net is to keep it away from the wash of the propeller directly behind the boat (a deterrent to catching shrimp), which means we keep the boat in a constant turn. Thus the squiggle and the loop. And if it appears that a line just stops somewhere in the bay, we can blame that on our chart plotter getting turned off by mistake.

These maps are the beginning of us grappling with a geography that we are getting to know afresh and in a completely different way. As much time as we’ve spent around Galveston Bay, reading about Galveston Bay, talking to shrimpers and others familiar with the Bay, and going out onto the Bay in other boats, it appears that all of that was merely in preparation for the real education yet to come.

Shrimp Boat Projects is a creative research project that explores the regional culture of the Houston area. The primary site of the investigation is a working shrimp boat on Galveston Bay which serves as a catalyst for labor, discussion and artistic production. Shrimp Boat Projects is co-created by Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser, artists-in-residence at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

Go to Shrimp Boat Projects

%d bloggers like this: