Some things don’t change—thank goodness
by Glen Strickey
It’s 4:45AM in the village of North Rustico, PEI, and the place is a hive of activity. The local coffee shop has a line of cars snaking around the entire parking lot and up the main street. The wharf and road leading to the lighthouse and point is packed with vehicles and people of all ages. The gulls are squawking and the smell of salt is in the air. This can only mean one thing—it’s setting day on PEI.
Setting day is the day that lobster fishers around the island sail their traps out and set them in preferred fishing spots to start the season. For generations, setting day has come to symbolize many things. An awakening of hibernating fishing harbours and the businesses that support them, a sign that spring is finally here, the tourists are arriving, and Islanders will be having their traditional Mother’s Day lobster feast soon.
Preparation for setting day starts for most fishers in March. Getting the traps ready involves mending holes, replacing twine, attaching rope, buoys, and tags. The boats also need attention. An exhaustive check of all engine parts, electronics, and hauling equipment must be done, with many parts often needing replacing or repair. The fishers must also source and gather bait to fill their mountain of traps.
"One by one, they jump on their boats and pull away from the dock, forming a seamless line as they slowly weave their way out of the harbour, navigating with impressive skill up the narrow channel”
Normally setting day is May 1st. This year, it was delayed by Mother Nature, making everyone more anxious to get on the water. The boats are loaded down by the weight of hundreds of traps, bringing the water line perilously close to the top of the hull. Rough waters with loaded boats send an uneasy feeling from tip to tip as families stress and wait for their loved ones to return safely. Tragedy can strike in an instant.
Fortunately this year, it was worth the wait, as the weather was as perfect as it can get. No wind and mirror calm, with visibility as far as the eye can see. With weather this beautiful, fishers will often take their young children on the boat to share this magical event, and the harbours rest a little easier knowing the weather should not affect the day.
Down at the wharf stories are tossed around about setting day adventures, the price of fuel, bait, and the price the fishers will be paid for this year’s catch. They are ready to sail and wait on word from the fleet. Their baseball mitt hands holding steaming coffee in anticipation. One by one, they jump on their boats and pull away from the dock, forming a seamless line as they slowly weave their way out of the harbour, navigating with impressive skill up the narrow channel, around the point, and toward open water where they sit and wait for the word from the harbour master that they are clear to sail to open water.
"With weather this beautiful, fishers will often take their young children on the boat to share this magical event, and the harbours rest a little easier knowing the weather should not affect the day”
On shore, families, friends, and others cram together to line the route out of the harbour. There are people of all ages here. Retired fishers in their 90s stand and sit along the shore, holding court and telling stories of their setting day adventures to eager young ears. The next generation of fishers also watch excitedly. You can feel the sea in their blood as they dream of setting days to come, when they are leading the procession.
The beauty of this iconic morning and the parade of boats cannot be expressed by words alone. It is a feast for all the senses. Reflections of boats on the glassy water, and reflections of the exploding sunrise with yellows, oranges, pinks, and purples. The sounds of the boats, gulls, and people on shore. The smells of the ocean breeze and the feel of it on the skin. This is the way it has been for generations. It’s like you have gone back in time. This could be 1919 as easily as 2019.
If you ever get the chance to go to PEI and experience setting day for yourself—do it!