photo: Eat Maine FB page
Well folks, this is an interesting summer to be in Maine. Because of a glut of spring lobsters caught, an abysmally low price for the catch and the fact that lobster is now cheaper than freakin' bologna right now, we have what is called an unspoken "tie-up." This is a fascinating chess move where lobstermen up and down the coast refuse to go hauling, but are forbidden to collude or pressure anyone from going out. The few folks I've spoken to who will naturally remain anonymous say that despite what you may think, this has been very peaceful. No trap molestation, no underground wars. These people work HARD and they're getting screwed. So do your part, buy some lobster this week; let's run down this glut, run up the price so these guys can go out fishing again! I'm including a column by Working Waterfront's Philip Conkling here, which explains how this has all gone down.
The Great Silent Lobster Tie Up
July 12, 2012 Column Long View
by Philip Conkling
This morning on Vinalhaven was eerily silent as the sky lightened in the east. No gulls keened, no ravens croaked and no muffled diesels thrummed on their way out of Carver’s Harbor. On the way to the morning ferry, little knots of lobstermen stood on the post office steps, in front of the Odd Fellows Hall and at the large parking lot where lobstermen park their trucks on their way to their boats.
As the 7 a.m. ferry pulled away from its pen, another half dozen lobster boats were similarly frozen in place in Sands Cove, along with a dozen more in Old Harbor and a few others at Dyer Island. When the ferry passed through Lairy’s Narrows and churned its way across West Penobscot Bay, no North Haven lobster boats were hauling off Crabtree Point. All the way down the bay past the lobster harbors of Owls Head, the Weskeag, and Sprucehead, the horizon was completely empty, as was the case from Rockland to Rockport to Camden on the western shore. It would be an exaggeration to say that the scene was like the empty skies the day after 9-11, but there is a similarity.
So how did this unprecedented cooperation among fishermen throughout a huge lobster fishing area happen? No one is saying, and for a good reason. It’s called the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which prohibits collusion among businesses on practices that influence price. Since virtually all Maine lobstermen are independent businessmen, the law theoretically prohibits any lobstermen from talking to another and agreeing not to go fishing. That’s called “restraint of trade” and led to the conviction of Leslie Dyer, the first head of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, in federal court in 1958. It was a thunderously unpopular verdict, but has left a bitter enough legacy during the last half century that even talkative lobstermen run silent and deep when it comes to any mention of tie up.
The issue, however, is sensitive enough that Maine’s Commissioner of Marine Resources, Pat Kelliher, just released a statement cautioning any fishermen from issuing threats of force against any other fishermen who might continue to haul their traps. In the deafening silence of how the great silent lobster tie up has been be achieved, the “coconut wireless” has been unusually active. One such story is that a fisherman in one unnamed harbor hired a small plane to conduct surveillance to find out which boats were still fishing. Woe unto him.
The real explanation for the unprecedented inactivity in lobster fishing communities along much of the Maine coast is both simple and complicated. The simple explanation is price. Lobsters that a year ago were fetching only $2.50 per pound—a historically low price for this time of year, have fallen in many harbors to as low as $1.50 per pound. Almost nothing in the universe can create unanimity among lobstermen, but lobster prices have not been at such a low point for approximately 30 years. With prices this low, it is simply not worth leaving the dock.
The more complicated part of the story concerns why prices have plummeted to this abyssal level. And there the explanations are varied, each containing a piece of the truth. To begin with, the lobster shedder season started six weeks early this year in southern Maine after an eerie warm spell that lasted most of March. Lobster processors buy shedders to sell as claw and knuckle or lobster tail packs because they are cheaper than hard shells. Not only have the shedders come early, but their percentage of the landings has also increased—upwards of 70 percent in some harbors throughout May and June. Hard shell lobsters command as much as $2 more a pound than shedders, so typically in June, a lobstermen’s average price for his catch might hover around $3.50 per pound with a mix of shedders and hard shells. After the Fourth of July, when upwards of 90 percent of lobsters are shedders and their price is so depressed, well…you have to decide whether it is worth it to go fishing.
Added to this unhappy state of affairs, is that a number of lobster processors in Atlantic Canada have gone under in recent years, which has further reduced the demand for Maine’s shedders. Canadian lobstermen, who only fish in early spring and late fall, also reportedly landed larger catches than usual and filled much of the existing Canadian demand.
Then there is the state of the general economy. Few people realize that two of the biggest markets for Maine lobsters are the all-you-can-eat cruise lines and national restaurant chains like Red Lobster. The cruise lines have not distinguished themselves this year after the Costa Concordia ran aground in the Mediterranean and Seafood Business News recently published a story detailing how Red Lobster is overhauling its menu to appeal to more cost-conscious diners, which cannot bode well for the lobster industry.
And now for the real kicker: after many decades of self-imposed lobster conservation measures by the lobster industry, the population of lobsters crawling about the bottom of every bay, sound, thorofare, and tidal river is at a historic high. Just when the demand for Maine lobsters has slackened, the supply has gone off the charts, with the inevitable result of declining prices. So lobstermen have to decide it they want to address the fundamental structural business issue they face: they fish hardest for lobsters when the seasonal prices are lowest. In the long run, prices are only affected either by increasing demand—a long and expensive process—or by reducing supply—a painful and discouraging process. There are no silver bullets.
Almost three years ago, the governor’s lobster task force recommended a joint public-private strategy to invest in the “Maine” part of the state’s tarnished lobster brand, which has many imitators nationally (including fraudulent ones) and a lackluster reputation internationally. But lobstermen were just recovering from the shock of the onset of the Great Recession and balked at the recommendation of a five cent a pound levy on landed, brokered and processed lobsters to create a significant marketing and branding fund. The Lobster Advisory Council has recently resurrected a discussion about this strategy at meetings along the coast during the past month.
With lobstermen caught between the pincher of low prices and the crusher of increased fuel and bait costs, few expect to see a groundswell of enthusiasm for making a new investment under current price conditions, which are unlikely to improve very much anytime soon, or to reduce fishing days during the shedder season or some combination thereof. But then, you have to ask yourself, when is it a good time to invest in your business and brand? If you did not invest when times were good and your wallet was fat, what will you do when your back is against the wall?
Philip Conkling is President and Founder of the Island Institute based in Rockland, Maine.
Article courtesy of The Bangor Daily News
FRIENDSHIP, Maine — The sinking of two lobster boats is rekindling memories of hostilities among lobstermen two years ago that led to a near-fatal shooting, boats being sunk and a barrage of lobster trap vandalism along Maine’s lobster-rich coast.
Someone this week sabotaged two lobster boats, allowing them to drift free and flood with water before washing ashore in this postcard-pretty harbor. The dispute has shone a light on the unwritten rules of the sea, where fishermen often take matters into their own hands to settle grudges.
Lobstermen for generations have cut trap lines and shouted threats to settle differences over who can set their traps where. In more extreme instances, they’ve been known to ram boats and fire warning shots into the air.
The vandalism crossed the line late Monday night, when the 28-foot Lobstah Taxi and the 35-foot Fantaseas were sunk. Only a portion of the larger boat’s cabin was above water when it was found Tuesday morning on an island outside the harbor. The smaller boat was found on a mainland beach, but escaped serious damage.
Investigators don’t know if the attacks were the result of a personal vendetta or a territorial feud. At the least, they’ve brought unwanted attention to this fishing community 75 miles northeast of Portland.
“It’s sad, awful sad,” said lobsterman Doug Simmons, 60, as he worked on his gear Thursday in preparation for setting his traps in the coming weeks. “It’s cost people a lot of money.”
The boats were owned by Gary Jones and his 15-year-old son, Logan, who live in the neighboring town of Cushing, said Marine Patrol Sgt. Rene Cloutier, who is investigating with the Knox County Sheriff’s Department and the U.S. Coast Guard.
“There’s nothing that says this is a territorial thing,” Cloutier said. “It could be, but nothing points that way now.”
Gary Jones has been on the receiving end of vandalism before. In 2010, another Cushing lobsterman was charged with cutting 22 of his lobster buoys. At the time, Jones said trap and gear vandalism had cost him nearly $10,000 over three years.
Gary Jones’ wife, Tina Jones, said she and her husband aren’t commenting on this week’s incident, adding that her husband and son are hardworking fishermen.
“People are looking at us and thinking if that happened to us we must be bad-assed people,” she said.
This week’s boat sinkings are bringing back memories of 2010, when hostilities especially were in high gear.
On remote Matinicus Island, 20 miles offshore, a lobsterman fired a handgun at two fellow lobstermen, hitting one in the neck in a near-fatal dispute over lobster traps. A jury later found Vance Bunker not guilty of elevated aggravated assault.
Two weeks after the shooting, someone sank two lobster boats and damaged a third in Owls Head, another midcoast fishing harbor. Throughout the summer, police investigated a rash of complaints about lobster trap lines being cut, resulting in lost lobster gear.
Last year was relatively calm, but the sinkings in Friendship are raising questions about whether this coming summer will be heated.
For now, there aren’t any indicators that tensions are ready to erupt, “knock on wood,” said Marine Patrol Maj. Alan Talbot.
“Hopefully it’s just a random thing,” he said. “But who knows what’s to come.”
Gary Jones’ boat was taken to a boatyard in Owls Head for repairs. His son’s boat sits on boat jacks at Lash Boatyard in Friendship.
Lobstermen in town are a reticent bunch, but they’ll tell you they think the perpetrator was from somewhere other than Friendship. The Joneses are from Cushing and don’t even fish the waters off Friendship, they say.
“You might be able to say this was a Friendship thing if he fished here — but he don’t,” said lobsterman Kendall Delano as he sanded his trap buoys in a waterfront building.
Wesley Lash, who works for his father at the boatyard, said the sinkings don’t reflect well on this sleepy town, which has about 1,200 residents, just a single store and not even a traffic light.
“It gives Friendship a bad name,” he said. “People’ll say, ‘Friendship, that doesn’t sound like a friendly place.’”
Lash’s father, also named Wesley, said there have been feuds as long as there’s been a lobster industry.
“You go from Portsmouth [N.H.] to Eastport and it’s the same thing,” he said.
Still, Friendship gets its share of feuding.
Simmons remembers years ago when somebody slammed a crowbar through the hull of another boat, causing it to sink. This past winter, somebody fired a shot from a high-powered rifle into the hull of a lobster boat, Cloutier said. The shooting is under investigation.
“It happened late at night, nobody saw anything and Friendship is a pretty tight-lipped community,” he said.
Well you know, to write the novel, I had to learn not only how lobster traps work but also what it would take to really thrash the sh** out of one--say in some dubious middle of the night situation. Disclaimer: I didn't actually go out in the middle of the night and thrash the sh** out of one.
Here at the 38th Annual Maine Fisherman's Forum, I wandered over to the Friendship Trap Co. booth to ask about the steel runners they had on display and how they worked with wire traps. Here, for the layman lobster aficianado, is how it works.
To sink a galvanized wire trap so that it stays on the bottom of the ocean, you need weight, but not so much weight that you throw out your poor, friggin achin' back just to lift a trap onto the rail.
When you're in your 40s and 50s
What you're looking at here are LiteLoad Runners, steel runners that attach to the bottom of the trap with a heavier density in the water. In the photo, they are showing how much these runners weigh once submerged. If you want to see how it really works along with a big burly lobsterman, check out the video here.
But basically, these LiteLoads will save your back and guys who've been lobster fishing all their lives and have a little extra to spend are likely choose these rather than the next two options.
When you're in your 30s.
As you can see this is a wire trap with concrete runners bolted right onto the bottom. Apparently PVC and concrete bolt-on runners are the medium range of weight. Let's say you've been lobstering since you were 12 and you might have tweaked your back on a couple of good keg stands or falling off a dock, but you haven't mangled yourself yet. There's still some usefulness to you and your wallet to go this route.
When you're in your 20s and teens.
This here, as you can see is about as old-school as you can get. Wire trap. A place for a brick. Add brick. The lobstermen of yore used to weigh their wooden oak traps down with bricks because obviously with wood, you need something to keep them from floating. But today, I'm told (and please comment if I've left anything out or said it wrong) that this is about as budget as you can get. Great for kids up and coming because they have backs like Superman.
So what's the best for an unstompable trap?
Here the nice gentleman from Friendship Trap Co. actually has a display that shows when he's standing on the bottom of a trap reinforced with bolt-on concrete, there's no give or sag when he steps upon it. He steps over to the next trap (to his left in the pic), only clad in oak runners and bam, it goes down like wilted lettuce. So, that's what I found out. If you don't want your traps to get the sh** thrashed out of them, outfit 'em in concrete.
I'm re-posting this column by one of my fave Maine islanders, Eva Murray, who basically delivers a spin on a column I wrote about a year ago "Top Ten Dumbest Questions Tourists Ask." This is Eva at her best, giving it to ya straight. Re-posted from Village Soup.
There is no boat
Someone you know needs this. Send it to them, please. I know who I’ve got in mind. It won’t do any good, most likely, because it’s very hard to get people to give up their preconceived mistaken ideas, but it might make us both feel better:
1. Stop saying “the boat.” There is no boat. At least, not like what you’re thinking. Sometimes there is a boat.
2. When there is a boat, there is no “morning boat,” like every morning at 9 a.m. or anything regular like that. There is no daily ferry. There is no island mail boat. There is no zip-back-and-forth-anytime-you-want water taxi. The state vehicle ferry comes roughly 30 times a year but the schedule for 2012 looks like this: Friday, Jan. 13, leaving Rockland at 8:15 a.m.; Monday, Feb. 13, at 9:45 a.m.; Friday, March 23, at 8 a.m.
Are you starting to get the picture? Three trips in April, three in May, four in June. People keep telling me the ferry serves Matinicus every two weeks. I don’t know where they get that. I explain how it works and once in a while they even argue with me, which seems nothing short of bizarre.
By the way, the passenger boat, which is not the same thing as what we call “the ferry,” keeps a completely different schedule, also irregular and based on the tides, and is seasonal only. This time of year, when even once-monthly state ferries can and should get canceled due to nasty weather there is, for all intents and purposes, no boat.
3. You might assure me that, “Surely one of the fishermen will take you across whenever you need to go” but you have dreamed that up in your head (or are reminiscing about the 1960s).
4. They might give us an extra ferry trip if there are several trucks waiting to get across, such as to deliver firewood, lumber or propane, but a few walk-ons who wish a cheaper passage than the air service can provide will not cause the Maine State Ferry Service to muster the four-man crew, thrash all heck out of its equipment, and spend a fortune on diesel fuel. Sorry. It costs a lot to get here. It costs a lot to leave. Such is island life.
5. For some, this is still not sinking in. I swear somebody is going to call me up this week and ask, “What time’s the morning boat?” That’s because people think what happens on one island represents all of them, and most other islands do have daily boat service. Each of the inhabited islands has entirely different transportation mechanisms. Somehow I doubt you believe me.
6. Why is it too expensive for you to come here, but you seem to think it no big deal for me to come to you? The cost is the same in either direction.
7. If you call the flying service and plan an island flight too far in advance, it probably won’t be “flyable” when you mean to go. If you don’t call and make a reservation at all, they’ll probably be busy with other flights when you show up. Call the day before and then keep checking in if the weather is questionable. Fog, snow, rain, icing conditions, high winds, or too much mud means “it is not flyable.” Write that down. Your boss will probably not understand, but that is not your fault. Bring your toothbrush (because, you know, there is no boat).
8. If it is almost flyable, your best bet is to hang around. Don’t leave town. Don’t go farther away than the Owls Head General Store. While you’re there, get a pizza. Remember, you can’t get pizza on this island. If you’re at the store anyway, grab some extra milk. Always wise.
9. If you are on the wharf or at the airstrip, you are a freight handler. A longshoreman. A baggage carrier. If you can’t help because you are infirm or managing a baby or an animal, that’s one thing, but if you stand right smack in the middle of things obliviously primping your carefully arranged hair while others unload your boxes from the vessel or aircraft, and you are perfectly able-bodied, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.
10. Most of the obvious things you think we should do, we think we should do too, but we can’t afford. Put up wind turbines for the power company? Open a store/restaurant/public fuel dock? Take down all the dead spruce trees? Make the roads so you can roller skate on them? If you think any of this is merely a matter of will, you haven’t done the math. If any of this is within your personal budget, come on ahead. If you think we just hadn’t noticed how our lives could be made better because we are simply Neanderthals, you’re an idiot.
11. But, of course, we are Neanderthals. Just read the papers.
12. Nobody runs this place. There is a sort of town council of the semi-willing, which sometimes functions and sometimes doesn’t, and there are generally a few guys refining those indirect and subtle Machiavellian reality-TV-style schoolyard political machinations in their efforts to try and run the harbor. I try not to pay too much attention. The old ladies used to run the place, but we are now completely out of old ladies.
13. I truly do not know how many people live here. Nobody does. More and more of the guys catch their lobsters and leave. Sometimes that isn’t even their fault.
14. A few bog wraiths drift around, driving at unsafe speeds and snarling at those of us who really live here. They like to think they’re tough. Sometimes those idiots presume to stomp around on the wharf, and bark orders or issue pathetic threats to people unloading freight, as if we who carry on our year-round daily lives here are somehow in their way. Shut up, you thugs, and either help or move over. You have absolutely no authority to patronize the rest of us. I don’t give a rat’s posterior who you shovel bait for.
15. I hear they named a hockey team somewhere around here the Sternmen. Go Sternmen.
16. All that most of us care about is that somebody teach school, pump oil, keep the electricity and the telephones going, get the mail out, sell bait and buy lobsters, and repair stuff (sumps pumps, largely, and a few washing machines). The paperwork has been growing exponentially, though. Agents of various facets of the nameless bureaucracy seem to think that it matters that somebody fill out forms in a timely manner detailing how many nuclear power plants and ski areas we have, or whether the boundaries of our peculiarly insular municipality have expanded, or whether we plow the sidewalks, or whether such-and-such a house has hardwood flooring, or what percentage of our demographic lives in parks or under bridges, or how many nuts and bolts the power company keeps in inventory. I kid you not.
17. We don’t have any bridges.
18. Or sidewalks. Or a morning boat.
Thanks to Bob Trapani of the American Lighthouse Foundation for this great pic of the Trap Tree, just lit this week. I still ours is the best :)
Tomorrow night at 6 pm, my neighboring city of Rockland (known as the Lobster Capital of the World) will light up a special kind of Christmas tree.
It is constructed from approximately 152 wire lobster traps, supplied by Brooks Trap Mill in Thomaston, Maine. It is 30-feet tall and is topped with a five-foot fiberglass lobster known as "Rocky" and lit from the inside with 24 green 75W halogen lights that provide so much light that it can be seen clearly from Vinalhaven Island, eight miles across Penobscot Bay.
If you happen to be in Midcoast Maine prior to the holidays, don't miss it. It's kind of like our version of the World's Largest Ball of Twine.
Though some may beg to differ this isn't the best lobster trap tree in the world, I still say Rockland's is magnificent. Gloucester, MA started the trap tree tradition first in 1998; Rockland followed five years later. And last year, Beals, Maine claimed they were the best the best with their 50-foot tree.
What's your vote? And be nice.
The point is, the trap tree draws attention to the hard-working folks in our lobster industry and raises money for a good cause. Each year raffle tickets are sold for $50 each for a chance to win all the traps used to build the tree. Every year, a lobsterman wins the traps and uses them for the following season.
Go Rockland! See ya at the tree lighting.
photos and story by K. Stephens
In Maine, if you’re doing what you really you want for a living, you usually have about four part-time jobs. That’s how Captain Gary Libby makes his living in Port Clyde. When the weather is good, he’ll work seven days a week doing a little commercial fishing here, a little lobstering there, and when there’s time, he’ll run casual tours off his lobster boat, MisKim.
Until recently, if you ever wanted to know the ins and outs of lobster fishing, you had to rely on books, documentary DVDs or YouTube clips. Smart people do not approach working lobstermen in the harbor and ask them brilliant questions like “How come those lobsters in your trap are green?” There are better ways to find that out.
Port Clyde Lobster Tours originated out of the public’s need to get up close and personal on a lobster boat. Kim Libby, office manager for Port Clyde Lobster Tours, said: “I worked at the postal service in Port Clyde for several years and got asked the same question time and time again: ‘Is there any way a person could go out on a lobster boat and see how it was done?’ Back then, there really wasn’t. So, a few years ago, my husband saw the writing on the wall and got his lobster license back. He’s also a commercial ground fisherman. Once he got his lobster boat in operation again, we decided to put this tour together and started getting a lot of calls.
“You can expect a real live lobsterman who works 400 traps at any given time when he’s not fishing or doing tours. He’s got his Grundens on, and is usually looking pretty unkempt with fish goo up to his elbows. He always takes Red, our dog along. The dog’s part of the deal.”
Just then, Red climbed up into the canvas chair, the only other spot a person can sit on the boat. He’s a sweetheart of a dog, but it’s clear that this is his spot on the boat and he ain’t moving. Since the tour can only fit about four people comfortably, it’s easier to stand.
The boat itself is refreshingly grungy, as is Captain Libby. This is no sanitized schooner tour with life vests, cushy blankets and barrels of soft drinks. Grime splatters the windows and the mung flies off the warp as it coils onto the boat deck. Next to the canvas chair is a live well, which is a built-in saltwater tank to hold the lobsters he catches.
“If you don’t have a live well on your boat, ya got dead lobsters,” Libby said.
Just next to that is a tubful of bait — pogies, the term for menhaden, that have been sitting there salted for the last few days.
Captain Gary Libby is as nice a guy you could ever get for a guide, said his wife, who understands how curious people are about the profession, yet intimidated to approach a working lobsterman.
“He just a really laid-back, laconic guy,” she said. “If he were any more laconic he’d be dead. But his approach is really easy going; he doesn’t mind answering any questions at all.”
That said, one of their favorite questions from tourists is: “Why do all the boats point the same way?” Hint: Google this before you ask it.
The two-hour tour starts in Port Clyde as MisKim putters around the harbor. Captain Libby will tell you anything you want to know about lobstering as he hoists his traps up on a winch, opens them up, takes out the lobsters and demonstrates how to measure them with a brass gauge.
He likes to let his trap sit — or “soak” for at least four nights before he checks them again. Out of his wire traps, he pulls out large whelks, Jonah crabs, and a bunch of undersized lobsters, called shorts, before tossing them all back into the sea. After we’ve pulled up about six traps with only a few soft shell lobsters in each, Captain Libby does some calculations. Bait costs $120 a barrel and that covers roughly 100 traps. So he needs to catch at least a one-pound lobster in each trap to break even on his bait costs, but that’s not counting gas.
Ideally, catching five or six lobsters in each trap would make a profit. Captain Libby doesn’t like to waste anything. You get the sense when he’s hauling traps on these tours, it’s not just for the tourists’ benefit; he’d actually like to make his bait back while simultaneously educating his guests. As her husband of 17 years talks and tends to his traps, Kim Libby rubbed Red’s head and said, “All we have to do is bottle that accent of his and we’ll have it made.”
As Captain Libby motors between islands tending traps, you will get to observe seabirds, seals sunning themselves on rocks and the occasional porpoise. You will also have the opportunity to see take pictures of the Marshall Point Lighthouse most known for its cameo in the movie “Forrest Gump.” Winding through Huppers Island and Raspberry Island, you will understand what fishermen in Maine have known for centuries; there is nothing more beautiful than being on the ocean on a sparkling, sunny day.
At the conclusion of each tour, each customer receives a live lobster to take home. (Check out their website to see how you can remotely “own” a lobster trap and all of its sustainable lobster to be shipped to your home.)
For more information about Port Clyde Lobster Tours, visit portclydelobsteradventures.com/index.htm; call 593.6808 or email Kim@portclydelobstertours.com.
Earlier this month, I described what it was like to to spend a day on an 140-year-old schooner as it raced against another old girl. I'm reposting this excellent article by Maine writer Eva Murray, author of Well Out To Sea, as she describes with much more detail the exhilarating ride we all took. In short: it was a blast!
Earlier this month I was fortunate to be invited along for an extraordinary boat ride. On a warm sunny day in mid-June the two oldest working schooners in Maine, and in America, undertook a friendly race from Camden to Rockland in honor of their 140th birthdays. The historic schooners Stephen Taber, based in Rockland, and Lewis R. French, of Camden had planned a birthday party.
A bunch of us piled into a shuttle van to Camden, including a few guys who work for the City of Rockland and a couple of friendly regular tourists who’ve sailed on the two vessels before. The wife of the captain of the French was providing some of the history of the schooners, how in their day they hauled “everything…Christmas trees, sardines, bricks, lime....”
As we boarded the Taber from the yawl boat that carried us from the Camden dock, Captain Ken Barnes, previous master of the Taber, stood on the deck and played his bagpipes. Soon, coffee and cake appeared from the galley.
Aboard were most of the living former captains of the Taber, including Orville Young, Jim Sharp of the Sail Power and Steam Museum in Rockland, Ken and Ellen Barnes, owners of the Captain Lindsey House Inn also in Rockland, and presumed future captain Oscar, age two, who is messing with the parallel rules. His grandmother Ellen shows him the chart.
I am close enough to overhear much of the talk on the marine radio between the captains of the two contestants. “I guess I’d better call Garth and ask him where the starting line is.”
Captain Noah keys the mike: “Hey…so what’s the starting line?” Oscar toddles up to him and asks, “Are we going to race?” On the VHF: “This is the Stephen Taber to the Racing Schooner Lewis R. French…” Both captains have their little boys aboard. Oscar announces to everybody that this is a fast boat.
A bit more of a work-boat person myself, I feel a tad self-conscious mixing with this sailboat crowd. I don’t speak the language, wear the usual clothing or know how to work the gear. I will endeavor to stay out of the way. As the last boat load of guests is finally aboard the schooner and Captain Noah Barnes gives us the safety lecture, he tells us point blank, “You are all, as a rule, in the way. That’s OK.”
“By the way,” he adds, “I might be firing a cannon from time to time…probably at the Lewis R. French….”
He pointed out the hot Charlie Noble smokestack sticking out of the deck, the chimney of the wood stove upon which our lunch will be cooked.
“That’s hot! That will burn a hole in your $300 pata-gucci fleece shell in two seconds.”
He showed his guests where the life vests are stowed.
“When should we put them on?” somebody asked. “If you see me putting one on,” replied the captain. Later in the trip, a photographer wants to climb out on the bowsprit for a picture. “Should I put on a life jacket?” he wonders. “Uh…yeah.”
At the helm, Noah Barnes and Jim Sharp and a couple of regulars joked about the several City of Rockland officials aboard. Some wag made observations on ancient maritime tradition: “They’re ours. We can do what we want with them until we set them off on shore.”
A woman quietly said something about, “There’s probably a plank aboard here somewhere.” A voice behind me suggested they might renegotiate their parking place.
Lunchtime was, of course, at the roughest point in the trip. Cook Anna, former owner Captain Ellen, and messmate Hanlon passed us all big cups of hot fish chowder. They offered delicious “Newfie rolls,” which tasted to me like Anadama bread, but I guess you can’t get away with such a thing with a cook named Anna. A man who had sailed on the Taber before mused, “I don’t know how you do it in a kitchen that small,” indicating the galley. Ellen Barnes just grins. She “wrote the book” on that!
There are lots of other historic schooners around; we see the Olad, of course, which is at the starting mark, and the Surprise, the Angelique, and later the Bowditch. I learned what the expression “head us off at the bow” really meant when the Lewis R. French did just that to the Taber. Aboard the French, a big-muscled crewman in a Dixie-cup sailor’s hat and jumper does his best Popeye routine.
The wind came up just in time for the serious part of the race, to the extent any of it is serious. Small boats circled us, heavy laden with photographers. Should anybody be curious, there are probably 100,000 images of these two handsome vessels to be had somewhere. Aboard the Taber, the Code Enforcement Officer for the City of Rockland had a clever rig he’d built with two digital cameras mounted to a small board, a switch to hit both simultaneously, and a spirit level. “3-D photography,” he smiled. I think he’s the one who wanted to climb out on the bowsprit.
We heard the call of “Ready about!” whenever the captain needs his crew’s attention. Gregory, Celia, and the other crew stopped answering passenger questions and turned to listen. When they had done what was needed – they hauled, hoisted, fastened or adjusted rigging, sails or anything else – to the extent the captain requires, he called, “That’s well!”
I have never heard that expression anywhere else. I like it.
People from New York point and explain lobster buoys to each other. Crew member Celia advised Rockland mayor Brian Harden to duck clear of a swinging boom. Noah said, “It would be embarrassing if we killed to mayor.” Harden sat with Captain Sharp and Representative Ed Mazurek. We all ate chocolate peanut-butter bars although the last few got sprinkled with salt spray (which does not hurt them one bit).The passenger list today is a bit heavy with writers, including K.Stephens, author of "The Ghost Trap," somebody doing a story for Classic Boat Magazine and another from Good Old Days Magazine. I am grateful that I am not a reporter, and not obliged to interview anybody on this beautiful day. With all this press aboard, the background and more facts about these two schooners and this race will not be hard to find.
After the Taber beat the French to the Rockland breakwater, out around the buoy, where I was pleased to hear the tones of two bells, and back into the harbor she slowly inched up to the wharf at the Pearl Restaurant. Nathan Lipfert, senior curator of the Maine Maritime Museum, spoke, as did Captain Sharp and others at a small awards ceremony, where the Maine Maritime Museum presented Captain Garth Wells of the Lewis R. French with the “Irish Pennant” award for “coming in second in a two-boat race”). There was a large cake, which I heard was baked by both cooks in the galley of the Lewis R French. Lipfert took us back to 1871, the year when the French and the Taber were launched: “There was a big fire in Chicago. Lewis Carroll published ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ The first shipment of bananas arrived in Boston from Kingston, Jamaica. The whole New Bedford whaling fleet was trapped in the Arctic ice. Stanley found Livingstone; ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’”
Both schooners are National Historic Landmarks (I think, ‘landmark?’ A heck of a title for a boat). As Captain Ellen Barnes makes clear, “These boats have to be loved and held close, because they are treasures.”
This story originally appeared in The Herald Gazette on 6/29/2011
The Go Go Lobster Girls
Blessed again this year with great weather and excellent spirits (both the human kind and the kind that fits in a cooler), the flotilla had the best seat in the house to watch the Lobster Boat Races in Rockland on Father's Day, June 19. This floating block party was all about friends getting together, water balloon fights, dancing and grilling out.
We only had two mishaps this year. It was so choppy on the water that the flotilla of lobster boats began to squeeze too tightly against one another and in trying to physically push them apart at one point, two of the windows got smashed on the total Total Eclipse.
As many followers of this blog know, Ryan Post's iconic lobster boat, The Instigator perished in a freak spring storm, tossed up on the rocks. His new boat, Tall Tails, replaced The Instigator as the starting boat this year. And the second "incident" was the water balloon fight. Okay, so some of us threw water balloons at Tall Tails as it passed by, but that DID NOT give them the right to swing by again and douse us head to toe with the boat's hose. Damn you Ryan!
As many of the readers of my novel know, schooners play a big part in the setting of The Ghost Trap and I've been lucky to know more than a few captains of windjammers in midcoast Maine. Luckier still, yesterday I'd been invited to hop aboard The Stephen Taber for a first-ever schooner showdown between The Taber and The Lewis R. French, two of America's oldest working wooden schooners, both which happen to be 140 years old.
The rivalry between both tall ships was purely friendly--each captain only wanted bragging rights. They were gunning as hard as they could against the brisk wind that cropped up at the start of the race as The French took the lead. Both ships took decidedly different courses, tacking in southerly wind, as the crew of The Taber constantly adjusted the foresails and searched for the best wind advantage--all the while chef Anna was cooking us a homemade fish chowder lunch with Newfie rolls, a mixed green salad topped with strawberries and peanut butter bars. (I was amazed they found the time to do this for the 25 or so passengers all aboard). After roughly four hours under a beautifully sunny sky, The Stephen Taber crossed the finish line first at The Rockland Breakwater as Capt. Ken Barnes broke out the bagpipes and serenaded the lighthouse.
Honestly, I always tell people who come to Maine: You haven't experienced anything until you've been on a day sail on a schooner--or better yet, on a longer trip when you can sleep in a cramped cabin. This was such a remarkable way to spend a summer day.
Columns and news about the subculture of Maine lobstering.