The Hillier Way of Life (A Profile of Captain Pingree Full Hillier II) - Lucas Fried

“The end of the Earth: Rockport, Mass,” proclaims Captain Pingree Full Hillier II, taking a deep breath of the salty morning breeze. It’s 8:15 on a blustery Sunday in March, and Pingree is the last lobsterman to arrive at the tiny, seagull-speckled wharf. “The early bird gets the worm, but we're not after worms.” The grizzled, fifty-one- year-old lobsterman grins, rubbing the short silver quills on his chin. Pingree’s bright blue eyes and black felt cowboy hat—its once-smooth surface matted by thirty-five years of sea spray—give him a John Wayne-like aura. The iconic leather cowboy vest, however, has been swapped for a giant pair of orange rubber overalls that balloon around his waist and stretch over his wide shoulders and paint-flecked canvas jacket. Pingree stands mesmerized as a wave slaps the stone pier, briny tendrils reaching up to him before slipping back out into the blue abyss.

Ever since he was little, Pingree has been drawn to the sea: “my grandfather—the original Pingree Full Hillier—would tell me stories about being out two-hundred miles on Georges Bank in an eighteen-foot dory. I thought that stuff was totally fascinating.”

Pingree’s family’s history of lobstering started long before even his grandfather—the Hilliers have fished out of Rockport’s quaint Pigeon Cove Harbor for over five generations. “We’re the oldest fishing family in the northeast,” he says, flashing yellow teeth in a Cheshire-Cat grin. “There’s another family that disputes that.” He shrugs and his neck muscles flex under brown sandpaper skin. “Ask any fisherman around here, though. They’ll tell you I’m right.”

His tiny diamond earring glinting in the morning light, Pingree seizes the railing and swings his five-foot- ten frame out of the landing skiff and onto Olde America. “My girl’s a thirty-eight- footer, built up in Nova Scotia back in ’81,” he says, caterpillar eyebrows wriggling with pride. Pingree’s boat is smaller than the two moored on either side of it in the tiny harbor. Their cabins bristle with antennae and radar equipment, while only two stout antennae and a single white radar disc top Olde America’s fiberglass red-and-white hull. Pingree jumps down off the raised bow and glances in the direction of his twenty-three-year-old son, Connor, who lies sprawled on the rubber deck. Like his father, Connor wears orange overalls that match the color of his close-cropped beard and mustache. Pingree barks his name, but Connor remains comatose, his eyes closed and lips pursed around a long, peach-colored cigarette. Exasperated, the captain turns away to work the controls inside the small cabin.

Smudged plexiglass windows surround the cabin, save a doorway leading out to the stern. White paint peels from the walls into tiny ocean breakers, covered in one spot by thick coils of rope hanging from a nail. On the starboard side, the helm—a large metal steering wheel—protrudes from below a plywood counter, on which rests a blubbery “survival” wetsuit. Opposite the doorway, a large heat lamp glows fluorescent orange. Electronic equipment lines a wooden beam above bow-facing windows. “Radar, communication radio, GPS, stereo,” Pingree says, going down the line and pausing to switch on the stereo. Two large ceiling-mounted speakers, coppery with rust, begin blaring David Bowie. Pingree’s turquoise eyes crinkle with pleasure. “I won’t work without music,” he declares.

Whistling inharmoniously along as Major Tom calls ground control, the captain punches a rusty button and the engine thrums to life, jarring a cluster of tiny wooden hoops dangling above his head. “My Native American dream catchers,” Pingree explains, beaming. Leaving the engine to warm, he steps out to the stern, where Connor now ferries chunks of tuna from a giant blue barrel to a stack of black plastic bait totes. Pingree tugs on a pair of bright blue rubber gloves and dives elbow deep into the melee of pink and white fish. As he rifles through the bloody chunks, a pungent odor of meat, salt, and seaweed unfurls from the bin. “Today for bait we got, salmon, flounder, and some tuna,” he says, waving around various slabs of rancid flesh. Drops of brown slime fling from the fish, coating his spotless overalls. Returning to the cabin, Pingree pulls the throttle and the stern kicks up froth as Olde America churns out of the rowboat-dotted harbor. The captain spins the helm, charting a course for his first set of traps.

Pingree was sure of his course in life from a young age. After graduating Rockport High School, he received a partial scholarship offer to play baseball at BU, but “I didn’t even seriously consider it,” he says. “I just went straight out after high school and worked on the boat with my dad and my brother until I could buy my own.”

Despite his early start, Pingree has only a Massachusetts state fishing permit, not a federal one. “I had my own license starting at the age of twenty-one—I’m fishing my dad’s now—but when I married my ex-wife, I got out of the business, sold my license,” he explains. “I had a federal endorsement on it, too.” In 1999, though, the government stopped issuing federal permits, so now aspiring lobstermen can buy only existing ones. “Something like that costs you fifty or one hundred grand.” Pingree’s rough-hewn cheeks sag slightly as he admits that people fishing federal water—from three to seventeen miles out—do significantly better because of the deeper water and calmer undertow. Out there—they’re making a lot of money.” Pingree’s eyes flicker as he gazes out at the undulating horizon stretching before him. “They’re coming in with a thousand pounds while I’m struggling to come in with a hundred.”

Barely half a mile out of the harbor, the boat chugs toward a red buoy, the rippling of the waves revealing a thin belt of white around the buoy’s midriff. All lobstermen have their own signature buoys so they can tell their traps apart. “Mine are red and white, just like my boat,” he says, a proud smile lifting the edges of his mouth. As Olde America pulls alongside the buoy, Pingree cuts the throttle and uses a hook to snare the buoy and fling it onboard the boat. Clasping the algae-slicked buoy line, he curls the frayed rope over the pulley block—a pulley suspended from a wooden arm—and then around a grooved metal wheel below the helm. Pingree swivels a knob on the dashboard and the wheel begins spinning with a screech of protest. Soggy rope slides from the ocean and swishes into smooth coils on the deck. After thirty seconds, a large yellow cage breaches like a whale, spraying droplets of water into the captain’s face. Pingree yanks the cage onto the deck and Connor scrambles to undo the bungee cords pinning down the trap’s lid.

Among tiny scuttling crabs, a single brown lobster roams the bottom of the cage before Pingree scoops it up with a gloved hand. It snaps and flails its claws as he flips it like a pancake to reveal a translucent, bluish underbelly. “She’s an egger,” he declares, sighing as he points to clusters of black, tapioca-like pearls lining the lobster’s abdomen. Regulations forbid lobstermen from taking females with eggs. With a flick of his wrist, Pingree sends the crustacean somersaulting back into the water.

Meanwhile, Connor has unclipped a curved piece of metal that hangs from the top of the trap. Picked clean by the lobster, two bleached fish skeletons dangle from the metal rod. “That’s the bait hook. This baby’s my own contraption,” Pingree proclaims, bobbing his hat brim with enthusiasm. “It hangs in the middle of the trap—instead of in front of the entrance—so seals can’t poke their head in and eat my bait.” He seizes a flounder from the black tote and pops the sharpened end of the metal rod through its empty eye socket. Pingree is careful to make sure the white side, not the pink side, of the flounder faces outward, so the lobsters—who are scavengers—don’t think it’s still alive.

As the next trap comes gliding up the rope, Pingree turns away with a look of disgust. “We call that a skunk: zero, zilch, nada,” he mutters, glowering at the trap, which contains nothing but a cluster of crabs. Pingree rebaits it, and Connor lugs the cage to the opposite side of the deck. The stern of the ship is set up like the bed of a pickup truck: a flat rubber deck, lined by low walls on both sides, and open in the back. After lobster extraction and rebaiting, the traps are lined up flat on the deck, ready to slide off the open stern and into the ocean.

This buoy is a “twenty trawl,” meaning it’s connected to a string of twenty traps. Right now, Pingree has 114 buoys each with either ten or twenty trap trawls. In peak season of mid July, his buoy count reaches 160—averaging him about 400 pounds of lobster per day. During the summer, he’ll often work weeks at a time. “Sometimes I have to force myself to take a day off. When it’s hot and humid, there’s no place better to be than out on the ocean. Cool breeze, salt spray, beautiful view—what more could you ask for?”

The next trap comes up with two lobsters—one slightly smaller than the other—which Pingree scoops up in one huge fist. Extending a blue, rubber paw, Pingree snatches his lobster gauge, a tiny brass ruler, from the plywood counter. Holding one end next to the smaller lobster’s feathery feelers, he explains that federal regulations require each lobster to be between three and five inches from eye to tail. The distance to this lobster’s tail hinge falls just short of the three-inch mark and Pingree dejectedly flings it back into the ocean. Not even bothering to measure the slightly larger lobster, he tosses it onto a bed of yellow rubber bands lining a shallow wooden box. Stunned, the hapless lobster remains sprawled on its back, spiny claws groping overhead.

The next eighteen traps prove just as fruitless, as Pingree throws back countless lobsters either too big or too small for the gauge’s size criteria. Even after all twenty traps have been crammed onto the deck, only three satisfactory lobsters nestle inside the wooden box. Pingree doffs his hat and runs his hand through a thin line of sweat-slicked, spiky brown hair. “I don’t do well in January, February, and most of March. Things start picking up, hopefully, next month when the water warms up.” He sighs and his shoulders sag, but then he perks up a little. “Some days, though, you go out and make a thousand bucks in a couple hours. Those are the good days—you don’t mind if it’s rough or cold.” His fierce blue eyes shine.

Financial uncertainty is just one of the many perils of lobstering. “February twenty-eight of last year, I’m fishing with my friend Dan ‘Sugar’ Raff and he goes off the stern of the boat,” Pingree recounts, his face becoming stony. Dan stood at the stern, helping let out a trawl, when three tangled traps slid toward him. To avoid being dragged under, he dove overboard. “The water’s thirty-six degrees so, ya know, life expectancy in that temperature is not long.” Pingree shakes his head. “I could see him swallowing water, but he’s able to do a back stroke to the boat, and I rip him up onto the stern and drag him into the cabin to warm up. I went over to the rail and just stood there for a while, thought about if I had had to go and tell his young kids, ya know, nine- and thirteen-year olds, ‘your dad fell off the boat and he’s dead’ so…” he trails off.

Some weren’t so lucky, however. “We lost a guy out of Pigeon Cove last winter—a buddy of mine in his mid-fifties,” the captain says, staring out at the crystal swells. “Sometimes the ocean gives, and sometimes it takes. You learn to respect it, but these things happen—guys need money and go out when they shouldn’t. He got caught in a storm and his boat was swamped. He ended up drowning—put his huge rubber life suit on, jumped in, and must have swallowed water. The Coast Guard found him floating there like a giant orange Michelin Man.” Pingree tries to smile but ends up grimacing instead. “They tried reviving him.” The story comes to an abrupt halt as the captain throws the boat into gear and tosses his buoy overboard. One by one the traps slide off the back of the open stern, their ropes hissing along the deck like snakes.

Pingree lets go of the helm, glancing down at his Samsung clam-shell phone, its wallpaper a photo of a plump grey tabby cat plopped on a pile of pillows. “People complain that they can’t contact me when I’m out on the boat. Not much service out here, and I’m not big on electronics, anyway. I mean, obviously I have a GPS and all these gadgets now, but I can pretty much navigate by feel,” he remarks. “My dad used to go out without a radar, GPS, any of that.”

Pingree’s boat, too, is a tribute to the old ways of lobstering. “Two years ago, I renamed the boat Olde America. People ask me why and I tell ’em, back when I was a kid, you didn’t need to get a bullshit ten-dollar permit just to go cast your rod off the end of the dock.” His jaw stiffens but then he relaxes. “I was gonna name her after the Pink Floyd song ‘Comfortably Numb,’ cause that’s what you gotta be to get into this business.” He grins. “I love Pink Floyd.”

Pingree is aware of his occupation’s hazards yet decades later remains unfazed. “I don’t really look at lobstering as dangerous or hard,” he says. “When I was in high school, my dad’s boat was ripped from the mooring and destroyed by the storm of ’78. As a family of six kids, we were on food stamps for a while, but that’s just the way I grew up. You struggle, you make it, you have fun.”

Pingree admits that some people don’t see the challenges of the lobstering business in the same light as he does, though. “My ex-wife didn’t like the idea of being married to a fisherman,” Pingree mutters, his tone conveying her disdain. “Having to raise Connor, she couldn’t handle the uncertainty, the danger either, I guess. So I went to school to please her, got a BA in architecture from Wentworth in ’93 and didn’t so much as touch a fishing rod for ten years. I had a lot of bosses, but I don’t play well with others.” Pingree hated being ordered around and cooped up in an office, so after getting divorced nine years ago, he returned to the sea where he could work on his own terms.

Connor believes that his father regrets ever leaving lobstering. “I think he’s really bummed that my mom made him stop. If he had just told her, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and followed his own path, then he’d be running a big offshore operation now. The thing about the lobster business is it’s really hard to start off in. You gotta buy a permit, a boat, and all the traps and gear. That’s not something that’s easy to do twice.”

The next two trawls are more forgiving than the first. Thirty traps later, sixteen lobsters clamber over each other in the tiny box, their claws creating a chorus of clicks. Pingree saunters over to the wooden box and picks up what looks like a pair of metal tongs. Plunging his hand into the jumble of crustaceans, he emerges with a fistful of rubber bands and snaps one around the tip of the tongs. Holding a disgruntled lobster by the base of its claws in one hand, he spreads the tongs and envelops the lobster’s plump crusher claw, forcing it closed. Pingree shimmies the tongs out from under the rubber band, plunking the sealed-up lobster through a hole in the wooden table and into the twenty-gallon tank below.

After five more hours and 192 traps, salt crystals streak Pingree’s suspenders and forehead. The captain hums to angry chords of Led Zeppelin as Olde America chugs back around the stone breakwall and into the now glassy harbor. Connor ties into the mooring, and Pingree removes the day’s bounty from the tank, stacking the squirming shellfish inside a plastic crate. Shedding their gloves and overalls, Pingree and Connor clamber over the railing and into the landing skiff, which noses up against Olde America like a foal. Once back on land, Pingree shuttles the lobsters over to a gray shack at the end of the pier. Pulling a key from his pocket and unlocking the door, the captain steps inside the clammy, dimly-lit building. What look like rectangular bathtubs line the walls, each one teeming with lobsters. Stopping just inside the entrance, Pingree gingerly lowers the crate onto a large metal scale. He goes silent, his body tensing up. The only sound is the plinking of tiny water droplets hitting the concrete floor. Two red digits flash on the scale’s tiny monitor: sixty-three pounds. Pingree shrugs, his blue eyes growing serious. “Average day, I guess. I can’t really expect better when I’m fishing off a state permit.” Based on the weight, Pingree estimates that the bin contains about forty lobsters, his best haul of 2016 so far. “That’ll fetch about two hundred bucks. All the lobstermen at Pigeon Cove leave their lobsters in these tanks—everybody records their lobster count so there’s no foul play—and once a week a restaurant distributer comes and picks the entire catch up.”

Leaving the shack, Pingree trudges over to his sandy-colored Ford truck and slides his tattered Carhartt jeans into the driver seat. The bed of the truck holds stacks of thick rope, two dented yellow traps, and a pile of empty pizza boxes. The truck’s side mirrors have both been smashed and swathed in black duct tape. Inside the cab, a turquoise dream catcher with a tiny silver arrowhead woven into the netting sways from Pingree’s rearview mirror. “When I got divorced, I got a tattoo of a dream catcher on my arm and bought a bunch of ‘em for my car and my boat. I guess I just like the symbolism, ya know, the filtering out of the bad stuff.” Tugging off his slimy rubber boots, Pingree pulls a tanned-leather cowboy pair over his damp wool socks.

At the entrance to the pier, Pingree shouts, “hey Dave-o!” and snaps a thumbs-up to a bearded man sitting on a pile of traps before pulling away. “Real nice guy, he’s got the mooring next to me,” he says, banking a left onto a semi-paved road. “The fishing community is cliquey, though. At night, groups of fisherman get on Facebook and brag about how well they’re doing, ‘oh, this spot’s so great, blah blah blah’”—Pingree clenches his jaw, milky chin hairs bristling like a porcupine— “which is stupid cause then everybody else knows to set traps there. Me, I just go out and do my job.”

Lobstering, Pingree says, is a job you’re never done thinking about. “It’s almost 365 days a year, ’cause you’re always doing something even when you’re not hauling traps: working on gear or painting buoys or doing line or chasing bait or networking or repairing boat parts—the list goes on and on.”

On the days Pingree isn’t out on the boat, you can often find him fixing traps in the cramped basement of his father’s house, which he has converted into his “hopefully temporary workshop.” Pingree’s father recognizes his son’s reluctance about being dependent on him for workshop space. “He’s had a tough run of it. It’s unfortunate when you start in the business at sixteen and you still don’t have your own workshop at fifty-one,” Fred Hillier says, adjusting his red baseball cap to cover his ocean of white hair. “He’s even using my boat still. I mean, he does all the maintenance work and stuff, but it’s technically my boat.”

Exhausted, Pingree drives back to his small apartment above the town’s only coffee shop. “You’ve gotta be willing to live a certain type of life to be a lobsterman,” He gives a hoarse, almost pained laugh. “It’s the best job in the world as long as you don’t need money.” Murky clouds roll in on the horizon. “Anyway, you wanna know why I call Rockport the end of the Earth? All the way out here, we’re practically part of the ocean. Here you’re a lobsterman, and you stick with it. That’s what my family’s done for five generations, and I don’t plan on stopping.” Ignoring the incessant beeping telling him to fasten his seatbelt, Pingree flicks on the radio. Bon Jovi blares. The strip of pavement curves and the trees part, revealing the endless blue field from which generations of legendary Hillier family lobstermen have reaped their bounty. A fond smile floats onto the captain’s coarse lips.