Lighting up the holiday season

Posted Nov. 30, 2009, at 8:35 p.m.

JONESPORT, Maine — There was a bit of holiday magic in the waters between the coastal town of Jonesport and the island of Beals on Sunday night.

There was Santa Claus sitting in the fire station and talking with children, and parents taking photographs. There was the annual lighting of the bridge, an enormous span between the mainland and the island.

There were cups of hot chocolate and a huge bonfire and homemade chili supplied by volunteer firefighters and their wives.

But the true magic happened just after 6 p.m. when Buddy Mills gave the word over the land-to-sea radio channel: “Light ’em up.”

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Nine boats that had been idling in the Moosabec Reach — the channel between Jonesport and Beals — including eight lobster boats and a U.S. Coast Guard lifeboat, turned on their generators and became floating, sea-borne holiday decorations.

From stem to stern, the boats were ablaze with lights which reflected on the calm sea and doubled the size of the spectacle. There were icicle lights, stars, Christmas trees, holiday banners, a creche, wrapped presents, angels and reindeer.

Slowly the boats traveled the reach, going under the Jonesport-Beals Bridge, turning around at Hopkins Point and retracing their path. Over it all lifted the voice of Debbie Kelley of Beals Island, a lobsterman’s wife, who sang carols from her husband’s boat, the Debbie D.

“The weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn,” she sang, and for many in the boats, that could have been their Christmas wish.

Nearly 80 percent of the residents of Jonesport and Beals Island make their living from the sea. It can be a harsh and unforgiving life. In the past year, eight fishermen have been lost to the sea Down East.

A heavy weight in such small communities: Typical of Down East towns, the 2000 Census showed Jonesport had a population of 1,408 and Beals 618; the average per capita income was $13,834 and nearly a quarter of the children under 18 lived below the poverty line.

But an uncertain future in the fishing industry, the struggling economy and just the difficulties of existing through another Maine winter were all put aside Sunday night to celebrate being one community.

“It just gets better and better every year,” Boyd Crowley, the fire chief for both Jonesport and Beals Island, said after the flotilla had docked. “We are really one big community here.”

Kelley said her sea concert was her holiday gift to her friends and neighbors. “We’ve all been raised in such a loving, nurturing place, we all feel the need to give back,” she said, then added, “Or maybe pay it forward.”

The Jonesport-Beals communities are extremely close-knit, she said. “We are the village that is raising our children,” she said. There may be a bridge separating the two communities, but they are clearly joined at the heart.

They share geography, schools, and the dangerous way of making their living from the sea that has stretched back for generations.

“Events like this make a community not just happier, but stronger,” Darrell Kelley said.

“Look at the kids,” he said, pointing to a group clustered around Santa Claus. “Community events like this give us something to hold on to.”

Lobsterman Ronnie Carver drove the Mr. T in the flotilla. “Folks love to see us come up through,” he said. “You know, the problems with the fishing industry are out of my control. So let’s just have a flotilla.”

The flotilla was the idea of Buddy Mills, a part-time lobster fisherman. About four years ago, the idea came to him and he began talking it up with the local fishermen. “They loved it,” he said.

Some years there have been more than a dozen boats; this year there were nine. The boats are careful to go all the way up and down the reach, getting waves from many residents lined up on the bridge.

“The senior citizens over at Sunrise Residential, the local nursing home, are always excited to watch us go by,” he said.

One year, the flotilla turned around too soon and there were complaints from residents who lived near Hopkins Point. “We never made that mistake again,” he said.

About an hour before sunset, people could be seen crawling all over the lobster boats, getting the lights in place.

Shades of a brilliant red and orange sunset bounced off the water and reflected onto lobster boats tied at the pier.

Mills laughed as he watched two boat crews argue about the best light placement. “The men start the work and the women always finish it,” he said. “In the end, the women get the decorations the way they want them.”

Mills paused for a moment and watched the progress.

“This is just so awesome,” he said.

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