The Backshore is Beau Gribbin's backyard
By Doreen Leggett
Beau Gribbin had been roofing and framing houses for more than five years and his business – born when Hurricane Bob swept across the Cape in 1985 – was doing quite well.
“I hated it,” Gribbin said.
He had tried to “pacify” himself by going tuna fishing and catching striped bass, but it wasn’t working. He was miserable. So Gribbin decided he was going lobstering off the backshore.
“‘You’ll never catch lobsters there,’” he was told.
“Bullshit,” he returned.
The first day he went out in his new boat, Glutton, he set down a line of pots. He came back to a jackpot.
“I couldn’t get them in the boat there were so many,” he said with a grin.
What the naysayers didn’t understand was that Gribbin had spent almost his whole life in the six miles of ocean that rolled in against the dunes of Truro and Provincetown.
His father earned his living on draggers and Beau had been fishing commercially since he was 10. Like most Provincetown boys he had been messing around in boats long before that – everyone fished for fluke and had old boats that were constantly on the verge of breaking down or sinking.
Gribbin, wearing a grey shirt emblazoned with name of his business, High Pressure Fisheries, told this story 18 years later while steaming away from Provincetown’s MacMillan Wharf at 4:30 a.m. He and his crew were aboard a new iteration of the F/V Glutton, in part named for Gribbin being a glutton for punishment when it comes to fishing.
Three deck hands were quickly stuffing herring and codfish skins into red net bags to bait the lobster traps as the full moon hung in the air above the 48-foot boat.
Gribbin was in the wheelhouse. A big man in sweatpants and white oilskins, his stories of the past revolve around getting in trouble (he spent a lot of time in boarding schools and in his share of fights) and a fractured childhood, but today he is a successful and respected businessman though still opinionated and feisty.
With the ride to his traps close to two hours away, he tells the story of the first time he went fishing. It was on Martin Luther King Day and he had the day off from school. He was in fifth grade and aboard Arthur Duarte’s boat, The Taurus, with his dad, Andy.
“It was cold, but it was beautiful,” Gribbin said.
They were dragging and kept bringing up thousands of pounds of cod and flounder.
“I was just hooked. I immediately knew this is what I wanted to do,” he said. He loved the hunt for the fish and the success of a great day on the water. Sometimes he’d be on the big draggers with metal doors that would scrape along the bottom and funnel fish to the nets, sometimes he’d go lobstering with his uncle.
He didn’t talk with his dad much about those lobstering trips. His dad, like most draggermen, hated the lobstermen who they felt got in their way. The feeling was mutual.
Back then, in the 1970s and 1980s, Provincetown was a big, thriving port and there were lots of fish.
“I thought for sure my whole life would be fishing, dragging,” Gribbin said. “It was the best thing in the world.”
Although he didn’t appreciate it at the time, it was the community of fishing that drew him in. There was a hierarchy on the boat, and as the youngest he was at the bottom. The social structure, the fact that the younger members learned from the more experienced fishermen, stuck with him.
“I didn’t realize how cool it was,” he said.
And he has also grown to appreciate other experiences he resented at the time, moments emblematic of the fishing community that once was. Since the town was overwhelmingly Portuguese Catholic, no one worked on Fridays and customers would put out very specific orders to the captains – one haddock, no skin, for instance.
Gribbin had to deliver the fish on his bike with a “very uncool basket,” pedaling home to home. He was able to interact with the true characters in Provincetown, many who were famous in their own small-town right.
The industry – and the town - is much different now, but similar ties are forged on the Glutton.
Gribbin’s two mates, Eric "Rockey" Rego and Keven Chase, have been working with him for more than four years. They have been through a lot together, including near-death experiences.
Rockey and Eric work hard, moving thousands of pounds a trip, hauling and resetting gear, most of the time on one foot as the boat and gear move.
“They are like my little brothers, our lives become intertwined,” said Kathleen Gribbin, Beau’s wife, helping as Beau nursed a hand injury, grabbing lobster after lobster, deftly putting green bands on waving claws.
Legal size lobsters were put in a five- by 10-foot box with different compartments. Small lobsters, as well as undesired fish, were tossed overboard virtually unscathed. Eric would grab the big yellow or white metal traps and stack them at the back to be set out again.
Gribbin checked every lobster in the various compartments, to make sure they weren’t v-notched or females with eggs. He also looked at the claws of some of the lobsters, noticing that the dark reddish brown had been scraped away to reveal white underneath. That means the lobsters are on the move, coming in.
“That is what I like to see,” Gribbin said.
When the water is warmer, the separation of the lobsters in the boxes isn’t as important. But when the temperature drops the crustaceans are apt to get feisty and tear one another apart.
“Keeps the violence to a minimum,” he said.
In amongst the lobsters, he pulled up a Jonah crab – marked with a thin, plastic, green tag. Gribbin fishes for crabs too and this is one he knows. Gribbin is working with scientists to see if the animals are staying local. He is also testing a scallop trawl that avoids catching flounder unintentionally and is working with the New England Aquarium on new lobster gear that won’t entangle whales.
Gribbin enjoys having scientists aboard. He is a storyteller and unlike some other fishermen he is not reserved. But he does have a stubborn streak and a strong sense of right and wrong, perhaps because he grew up fishing with old timers. He abided by a certain code of ethics.
He had gone to Alaska for three years and come back “to a totally different fishery” -- a new raft of regulations and what many considered the government’s over-involvement.
Gribbin tried to leave, did some building, but when the time came to get back to what fed his soul he chose to lobster in a spot where it had never been done. He now has 800 traps.
Lobstering is very territorial. He sets his trawls as close as he can to one another without getting tangled up in a blow.
But there was a time when lobstermen new to the industry were encroaching on his spots. And they knew it.
Gribbin isn’t the type to just steam away. He knows the bottom he wants and tries to keep exact locations secret, just like he doesn’t talk about what bait works best or how he sets up the traps to catch the most lobsters.
So when newcomers tried to take over he just set up his traps as usual, which happened to be right on top of theirs.
He lost enormous amounts of money, the gear alone is more than a $100,000. But the money was beside the point. There was the principle, and there was the territory. Eventually, people got the message.
His family understands his tenacity; his daughter helped him for years before she went off to college.
“She is really proud of being from a fishing family,” Gribbin said.
Kathleen, Gribbin’s wife of close to 25 years, has her own profession but has been helping out since Gribbin hurt his hand. She puts in time lobstering and also on Gribbin’s second boat, Hell Town.
It was Kathleen who was the angriest when the state almost didn’t allow Gribbin to name his boat after an emblematic part of Provincetown’s history.
Centuries ago, Puritanical settlers thought the town was only good for cod, heathens, pirates and fishermen. The outcasts created their own community on the backshore, which was called Helltown.
That long history of the town being a refuge and home for fishermen is not far from Gribbin’s mind when he is on the water. Fishermen can always see the Monument; it’s a reminder of the town’s tradition.
“It’s in your genetic makeup,” Gribbin said.