Like votary candles in a ceremony, the salmon boats are assembling around Santa Cruz Wharf for the opening of the commercial season. And at dusk and nightfall, their mast-lights illumine the cove and the decades with their tradition.
May 1 is the opening for them and all the day before these 40-50-ft vessels cruise in from the open sea at hull-speed from as far away as Morrow Bay or Crescent City.
Each one is a story or a poem. These are nomads and crusting traders. They carry the spell of the sea in their freshly-painted fo'ciles and riggings; dressed up, in their way, as gents and belles at a ball. They exude some sense that all this work is more of a calling than a profession.
Some are rouged and manicured as princesses. Some are barrel-chested and rutty as chewed cigars and coffee. They are tricked out with gargoyles and strange cables and pulleys. Outrigger poles leaning up and out from the boats at 45-degree angles suspend submerged pontoons that stabilize the roll of the vessel in the chop and roll of the sea. The jutting drop and angle of the lines seem like the boats are all at parade rest.
Santa Cruz is a rendezvous and a haven for them protected, as it is at this north end of Monterey Bay, from the strong spring winds and swells that the fishers work in.
For decades, they have drawn new paint, new hopes, and reworked gear to assemble these first weeks of May. They prowl the 2-300-ft depth zone with sonar and hunches. They leave before the birds chirp at dawn and wander back late afternoon to anchor up for the night.
These are one and two and three-man boats with high bows built against the north Pacific. They cruise at 6-knots and chatter by radio. Some are gregarious wavers and some are silent brooders. They trail half a dozen lines behind them arrayed from downriggers and outriggings and floats. The lines are pulled in and the fish netted.
The season's beginning will find them guffawing at the diesel dock and the ice house and quarreling with the fish plants over this year's price. Often the season starts, in ironic tradition, with a strike.
The salmon boats will anchor up around the Wharf in the greatest numbers for these couple weeks to Memorial Day to then disperse after the fish wherever luck takes them all.
This is one of the more beautiful and historic of sights to see in an endlessly beautiful place. Good time to go down to the sea, hole up in a tavern or restaurant, and watch the votary lights get blurry.