Tuesday, 17 September 2013


The Maine "lobstah" greets you everywhere you go on the coast. Bright red (i.e. cooked) "bugs"adorn shops, street signs and even truck licence plates. Sheds and porches are adorned with buoys and visitors take home lobster traps to make coffee tables with. There are red lobster tee shirts, caps, toys, lamps, books, paintings, post cards, bottle openers; in fact, if you can think of a way to market lobsters, they have already done it.

Behind all the tourist trinkets there lies a real and unique way of life. Lobster boats are designed for the job of carrying a pile of traps, dropping them in a line and hauling them back aboard, often in rough water.

Actually fishing for lobsters is only a part of the job; you also have source your bait, maintain your boat and gear, even your dock needs constant attention. When you have caught your lobsters you have to keep them alive and that means having clean tanks and a good supply of clean sea water. Then you have to sell them. Last year I bought lobsters at $7 a pound. I was told the lobsterman only got $2 a piece.

It is not difficult to find a lobsterman. Drive down to the end of any of the long "necks" in Maine and you will find a shed, a dock and a lobster-pound. You might find several, and a restaurant, right there on the dock. It's all very picturesque, but it may also be "the real deal"; Maine at its best.

Our family had lunch at such a place the other day. Most of us started with clam chowder, accompanied by a blueberry muffin. (I know it sounds weird but trust me, it's not bad.) Then we had lobster, or shrimps or scallops or clams; all of it fresh from the Gulf of Maine. Afterwards we decided to explore a few headlands on the Harpswell peninsula where we drove through picturesque villages with white wooden churches and meeting houses, old schools and graveyards that were dug in the 17th century.

At Potts Harbour (no apostrophe) we pulled up at the end of the road to find a classic fishing operation with several boats tied to the dock. It is usually really hard to get our son Dan out of the car except at restaurants, cinemas and shopping malls but he ran to the dock and soon found a pretty lady to chat to. She greeted him with a big smile and said "Hi! I've been waiting all day for you to come". "Would you like to look around my lobster pound?" He didn't need asking twice and was soon being shown crabs and lobsters, which he really wasn't too keen on. What Dan really wanted to do was drive a lobster boat.

The lady, who is called Sue, turned out to be in charge of the place and she took Dan onto one of the boats and let him turn the ship's wheel. "Captain Dan" was overjoyed and yodelled and shouted his way back across the pontoon to our car. Hanna and I enjoyed the visit as much as Dan did. It was just perfect.

Back in the car Dan waved through the window and Sue ran over to say another goodbye; or so we thought.

"Captain Jim has just arrived and he wants to take Dan out in his boat".

We could not believe our ears. We were all going out in a working lobster boat.

Don't touch that lever!
Captain Jim Merryman is a striking figure of a man; tall, square-jawed and muscular. He was wearing sea boots and polarised sunglasses and looked every inch a lobsterman. He was also charming, friendly and generous with his time. Sue  left her chores behind and came along too, much to Dan's delight. He thought she was wonderful.

In order to go out of the bay, Dan had to wear a life-jacket. Sue and I put one on too to make him feel less imposed upon, but it was a bit of a battle to get it on him. The only other rule was that Dan was only to drive the boat after we left the moored boats behind; and "DON'T TOUCH THOSE LEVERS". You can imagine what Dan did next.

Dan soon had us going round and round in a tight circle so we got a 360 º view of the bay. Captain Jim was happy to leave us revolving like that for 15 minutes so I asked him a few questions.

The boat has dual controls so that Jim can work alone, operating the engine, rudder and winch from the  wheelhouse and from the port side. The hull is almost triangular in plan; widest at the stern with no transom so that traps can be pushed overboard when they are deployed. The stern deck is broad and totally clear of obstructions that might present a trip hazard or snag a line. We had to keep a firm hold of Dan but he actually has quite good "sea-legs".

As we circled we passed very close to dozens of lobster buoys. The deep channel was a maze of ropes and colourful buoys. Jim kept a close eye on them because, if one line fouled the propeller he would have to dive in to cut it free. The water is extremely cold so I wondered if he had a dry suit for such an occasion. I should have asked him.

Ex-teacher Sue Nelson manages the business at the harbour but Captain Jim is not just a fisherman either. The Potts Harbour Lobster Company is his business and he provides lobsters, crabs and other sea-food straight to hotels, restaurants and other customers with no middle-man. That means marketing, making deliveries and making relationships with new customers. He is obviously good at it.

I asked Jim if most lobstermen were local operators like him and he told me that his business was pretty well unique. Other fishermen sold to agents or co-operatives and many of them were incomers who did a bit of lobstering as a lifestyle choice after a career in the city. He was born and raised in Harpswell and has three children at the local school, so I asked him if any of his kids showed an interest in the business. "My son just loves it. He is really keen."

The lobster business appears to be booming in Harpswell and Jim told me that it was now run sustainably because of tight regulations on the size of lobsters to be taken. Small lobsters escape through a hole in the trap and all of them are measured with a gauge. Big ones and females with eggs (in berry) have to be released. That is good news because the business boomed in the old days and then went bust.

Harpswell was once the centre of the world's first and biggest lobster industry, when boats came up from Boston and further afield to collect live lobsters from the pounds here. The transporting boats had holes in the hull to allow fresh seawater in to keep the stock alive. Of course, sealed compartments provided buoyancy. Lobsters were shipped on ice using the new railroads too.

Then along came the what is now the B&G Canning Company who just could not get enough lobster to meet demand. Soon the canneries were taking lobsters of any size at all from the mid-coast area and, when they had taken them all they moved Down East to end up taking them from Canada instead. The fishery collapsed and the B&G company now puts beans in tins instead. Other canneries, like the one at Eastport, shifted to canning salmon, then sardines until those fisheries were exhausted too.

We wish Jim and others like him every success and hope that the lobster business continues to thrive in Maine. It is a whole way of life for families along the coast and represents the real Maine to me. It was a privilege to be invited aboard, to get a flavour of a unique lifestyle and experience Maine hospitality at its best.