Ticked Off Crabs

By Tom Neale, 10/18/2007


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

Don't Mess With a Mad Crab
“Son, don’t ever take them boots off.” It was advice I didn’t like to hear because I always go barefooted every chance I get. And he was just an old crabber and I was a kid with a new boat. I thought I knew it all and I sure wasn’t going to keep my boots on in my boat in the hot of summer. That’s why I found myself straddling the gunnles, my bare feet burning on the hot gray paint, precariously trapped as the boat wobbled from side to side in the chop.

I looked down at the writhing mass in the bilge. It seemed like there had been at least a hundred of them. And they were all ticked off. I mean, really ticked. (OK, I’d like to use a better phrase than “ticked off,” but I’m not supposed to. But you and I know what I mean here.) They were ticked for several reasons. First, they were ticked that they’d been caught in my crab pots. Second, they were ticked that they’d been pulled up out of the water and dumped out of my crab pots and into a basket that didn’t contain that juicy morsel of rotten fish in the bait trap. Third, they were ticked because they didn’t like to be piled up on top of each other and jumbled together (who would with a bunch of crabs?!).

And then they were ticked because I’d accidentally turned the basket over a few minutes before and they probably thought for an euphoric moment that they were free at last but found themselves still trapped, but this time trapped in the bottom of my boat with its usual smell of outboard motor gas and oil. Some escaped from this by crawling up into my boots that I’d left tipped over on their sides near the stern. One or two crawled up into my work gloves that I’d left next to the boots. The old fellow had also told me to keep my gloves on.

You see, he was trying to teach me how to do it, as he watched me take off on the enterprise of starting a successful crabbing business. But when you’re a kid with a new boat, (and sometimes an adult with a new boat) you think you know it all.

Bites and Scrapes

1. Anytime you work under or about the water, you’re extra likely to get bites, cuts or scrapes.

2. The risk of infection and other complications from these is relatively high, and some of the infections can be more than just inconvenient. They can be fatal.

Click Here for More Tips

So I was straddling the gunnles, not about to step down into the boat with those crabs and loose all my toes in a split second flat. And I couldn’t pick the crabs up and put them back in the basket. I knew how to pick up a crab, but not when there are that many. I needed a shovel so I could stand on the thwarts and shovel them back into the basket, but all I had was a net and it and its handle were buried under the crabs.

At a time like this you don’t really want to call for HELP, even if there are other boats around, because it’s not the best for your pride to admit that you’ve been captured by a bushel of crabs. And besides, there weren’t any other boats nearby. This was in the old days, when it was like that a lot. So I hopped down onto the midship seat, thinking to myself that I was glad these crabs weren’t any taller than they were. I grabbed one of my oars that I always left lying fore and aft on the seats, and started slowly but deliberately (yes, and sometimes violently) pushing the mass of crabs up toward the bow. I knew I was going to have to get a new oar after this was all over, because some of the bigger jimmies were taking some chunks out of the blade (OK, they were very old oars that I’d found up in the marsh after a storm), but I figured that was better than the alternative.

Crab Hole

I spend about an hour shoving crabs and watching them scuttle back and shoving them again. It was like trying to hold back the tide with a teaspoon. But finally I had things well enough under control to grab my boots, dump out the crabs, and put them (the boots) on.

When I got my bushel back to shore and started taking the crabs around to the neighborhood ladies they would say things like, “Oh, I know you must have really worked hard in all this heat. Here’s an extra nickle for you.” I took the nickels and didn’t tell them how little they knew—or how little I knew.

I really don’t like ticked off crabs. They not only remind me of past mistakes, they help me to make new ones. They can cause problems even when it’s just one or two of them. You’ve probably seen how mad they get when you scoop a doubler off a piling with your crab net and interrupt what some would call an “indecent act.” But I’ve even had trouble with them while they’re still underwater, and I’m under there with them.

I encounter them regularly when I dive my boat, especially in the Chesapeake Bay where, in my opinion, crabs seem the most aggressive. It happens when I move in through the murky waters, peering ahead, trying to see my shaft strut and shaft and propeller so that I can clean them. Sometimes they’re perched in the V of the strut, sitting there like they own the world, including my boat. And sometimes they sit between the blades of my propeller. They’re usually hard to see in any of these places, but they’re ideally situated to see me and defend their territory. Why crabs think they can claim the V of shaft struts or the hub of a propeller, I don’t know. But they do. This really gets interesting when you can hardly see in the muddy water and you try to grab the strut with your hand. I always wear gloves, but a good crab can pinch right through most good gloves.

Usually I have a paint scraper with me and, if I see them in time, I reach out and knock them out of the space. Sometimes they swim off, sometimes they scuttle around to the other side and sit there. As they wave their claws in my face, I know they’re ready to kill. And, of course, I’m ready to surface. I can only stay down for so long, not having developed gills yet. But I persevere, ducking up and down, grabbing air and holding it, and, eventually I get this gear cleaned, angry crabs notwithstanding. (Be absolutely sure there is no way your engine can start if you try this.)

But then comes the bow thruster. After I finish at the aft end of the boat, I head up to the bow, take a breath, go under and peep into the tunnel. It’s pretty hard to see what’s in there because it’s, well, “in there.” In addition to the fact that I’m looking into a tunnel under water, the propeller blades have small clearance with the sides of the tunnel and they do a great job of hiding anything that may be treacherously lurking behind them. Crabs love to treacherously lurk, especially in dark holes, especially in bow thruster tunnels.

Crab Home Sweet Home

So the trick here is to take a long screw driver down with me. I poke it into the tunnel, reaching behind the blades, scraping the walls, and making as much racket as I can. Then I swim around to the other side and do the same thing. Almost every time I see at least one very ticked off crab shooting out, hopefully the opposite side. Sometimes they try to hold out, which isn’t hard to do because I have two propellers on my thruster and they have protected territory in between them. This can all be a harrowing experience when you’re under water trying to hold your breath which means that you can’t scream. (Always remove all sources of power from the thruster before you work on it.)

But I got an idea one bright day. Why mess with these ticked off crabs? All you have to do is take care of things before you dive. So now I start my engine and put it in gear briefly and shut it down. I also run the thruster briefly. When I dive down—no crabs. Unless there are pieces of a really unwise crab. Like I was an unwise kid when I didn’t listen to the old guy trying to teach me a little about crabbing.

That was quite a few boats ago, and quite a few years ago. I hope I’ve learned a few things since then. But it’s always amazed me how, on the water, even something as lowly as a ticked off crab can make you realize how little you do know.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale