LUBEC, Maine — The wall of her grandfather’s boathouse told the story.
“On the inside of the big doors at the front of the boathouse, he had written every name of every person he knew that had been lost at sea,” Julie Keene recalled recently.
When asked how many names were on that list, Keene,52, could only close her eyes and say, “Too many. Too many.”
Keene is a periwinkle harvester who grew up in Lubec, one of generations of Keenes who manned lighthouses, built boats and fished. She spent a fair amount of time in her grandfather’s boathouse up the hill from the town’s wharf where he built the boats that would harvest the fish, the lobsters, the scallops and sea urchins that defined the town’s working waterfront.
But her grandfather’s list wasn’t just names to Keene.
She recalled as a young girl hearing screams of help from men tossed from their skiffs into freezing water in Johnson’s Bay one afternoon. Then came the silence after their drowning, and after that, the weeping of townspeople began.
This profound loss is not just a part of Lubec’s history. It is part of being a working waterfront community, and this past year has been particularly brutal.
Since December 2008, the Lubec area has lost three fishing vessels — the All American, the Bottom Basher and the Miss Priss — five fishermen, a clammer and a periwinkle harvester.
The seven lost were Kristopher Fergerson, 27, of Lubec; Loren Lank, 53, of Lubec; Logan Preston, 19, of Roque Bluffs; Daryl Cline, 41, of Machiasport; Norman Johnson, 57, of Cutler; Joseph Jones, 29, of Trescott; and Arthur “Skip” Calder, 51, of Perry.
The seven men left behind wives, fiancees, children and parents and an extended family of fishermen who, despite the dangers and cruel losses, return to the sea again and again.
Keene knew each of the lost fishermen and helped search for their bodies after their boats sank, and she weeps openly when talking of them.
But every day, winter and summer, she boards a boat and crosses the bay, which she now calls “a graveyard,” to harvest periwinkles.
“What else can we do here?” she says. “The sea is all we have.”
Geography of extremes
Washington County has a geography of extremes: Frigid, ice-filled winters are followed by perfect, balmy summers. The rockbound coast is balanced by an inland bounty of clear, glacial lakes. The forests are deep, dense and rich with wildlife.
While the entire county is larger than Delaware, it is home to just 33,941 people, only a few more than live in Bangor. Inland, the economic tree has deep roots but only three branches: tourism, forestry, and a single paper mill, Domtar in Baileyville. On much of the coast, there is but one place to earn a living — the sea.
“Life here is so hard,” pilot and captain Robert Peacock of Eastport said. “They work with natural resources, and that requires working in all weather conditions. Working outside tends to make people tougher, both mentally and physically. Over time, they get a little harder edge and perhaps adopt a more fatalistic view of life.
“Many of these jobs are extremely dangerous at times, and some are dangerous all the time,” he said.
A fog bank, a sudden storm or an unseen underwater ledge can steal lives.
Many of the area’s fishermen work in Cobscook Bay, dragging for urchins or scallops, digging through the rockweed for periwinkles or on the flats for clams. Lobstering is minimal in the bay as the tides are too strong and the currents too rough for lobster gear.
Cobscook Bay has some of the highest diurnal tides in the world — from 23 to 25 feet.
Against the pull of the tides and current, experience can count for nothing.
“No one I ever knew was more experienced on water than Loren Lank,” Department of Marine Resources Officer Russell Wright said. “And still he was lost.”
Lank and Logan Preston drowned last March when the 34-foot All American sank near Red Island as it was dragging for sea urchins.
Wright covers the area from Pembroke to Cutler Harbor, the only section of the Maine coastline that is so dangerous that it warrants seven Marine Resources officers. He calls Cobscook Bay “the puddle,” but is quick to respect its power.
“You just can’t explain these tides,” he said. “You have to experience them.” Even expert divers brought in to help search for the sunken boats are shocked by the tides and currents.
Lester Seeley, 71, of Edmunds spent 13 years on the bay as a fisherman and warden.
“Cobscook Bay is … unique,” he said. “I’ve never seen water like this.”
Seeley said the tide may be rushing one way on the surface but in a completely different direction 10 feet below.
After the Bottom Basher sank, the tides were so erratic that no piece of the 34-foot fishing vessel was found that was larger than a kitchen table.
Just getting by
The day the Bottom Basher sank, Lisa Jones, 31, begged her husband, Joseph, not to go.
“But he told me that he had to. We had a truck payment due that week,” she said.
“These guys are just trying to get by. They are hard workers trying to support their families,” Wright said. “They are fishing in treacherous areas that when fishing was good in years past, no one would have ventured into.”
Joe Morrison, 63, a fisherman out of Whiting, said that when fishermen head out each morning “it is always in the back of their heads that today they will make the big money.” A poor day can net a fisherman $100 for 10 hours’ work; a good day can bring in thousands.
All three of the boats that sank this past year were dragging in the same area: near Reversing Falls and Red Island, an area deemed extremely dangerous by local fishermen.
People can, and do, speculate as to the causes: gear rigged too high so boats tip too easily, fishermen who do not wear life jackets, inattention, inexperience.
But the bottom line, the fishermen and their families say, is economics. The fishermen go where the fish are. If the easy-picking places in the bay are empty, the boats head into more dangerous waters.
When the Bottom Basher sank, it took three men down with it.
“New laws closed the areas that he was familiar with, the places he knew where to fish,” said his widow, Lisa Jones. “What is now left open are the most dangerous spots. Fishermen are taking chances because they need the money.”
In an effort to maintain the Cobscook Bay fishery and soften pressure on the fisheries, the DMR has installed daily limits on scallops of 15 gallons and has restricted the days allotted to fishing: Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for urchins, and all days except Sundays and Mondays for scallops, according to Wright.
In addition, there is a two-year conservation closure in the Whiting Bay and Denny’s Bay areas of Cobscook Bay, which expires in 2011.
“Still, lots of people fish that area perfectly well,” Wright said. “This has been an unbelievable year [for deaths]. We might go another 10 or 20 years without seeing such losses.”
The only year worse in recent memory was 1991, when Maine lost 14 fishermen, eight of them from Washington and Hancock counties.
Wright said he would prefer to see the areas between Reversing Falls and Denbow Point closed to dragging. “That section has claimed six boats in the past 10 years,” he said.
Rich with urchins and scallops, the Reversing Falls seabed is what fishermen call “a juicy spot.”
“The key is stiffer laws on how they rig these boats,” he added. “I’ve seen boats out there I wouldn’t go on.”
But Wright recognizes that death will come to fishermen from many directions, including weather, tide and pure randomness of events, and that fishermen will continue to fish despite the danger.
“They can’t give it up. It’s in their blood,” he said. “It’s all they know. Their fathers fished. Their grandfathers fished. No one thinks it will be them [who will be lost].”
“What else is there?” Lisa Jones said. “They took all the [sardine factories]. There are no jobs here.”
At the start of the 20th century, Lubec boasted 23 sardine factories employing thousands of workers. But the end of World War II signaled a decline in the demand for sardines, and one by one the factories closed. By 1976 there were but two left, and the last one — Connor Bros. — closed its doors in September 2001.
The very last sardine canning factory in the U.S., the Stinson Seafood plant in Prospect Harbor in Hancock County, announced this week it will close in April.
When Wright came to her door late last October, Jones said, she was unable to process her husband’s death.
“I told him, ‘No. You’re wrong.’ I could not even let it in while at the same time I knew it was the truth,” she said. “It’s the truth we live with up here.”
A history steeped in loss
Maritime historians at Lubec say the once thriving fishing community had more than a dozen boat builders in the late 1800s.
Historian Frank Smart says in “A Maritime History of Lubec, Maine” that the first ship built in town was the schooner Hope in 1804 at Sewards Neck in North Lubec.
The waterfront economy bustled with metalworkers, shipwrights, sailmakers, chandlers and other craftsmen, fish shops, loading docks, sawmills and sardine factories, as well as boardinghouses and taverns to keep the crews refreshed.
Ships’ logs list inbound cargoes of coal from New Jersey, flour from Boston, sugar, molasses and rum from the West Indies, coffee and spices from Central America. Lumber, salt, smoked fish, hay, potatoes and, in later years, sardines were outward-bound.
Many merchant ships launched from Lubec never returned, according to Smart.
The Annie Gillese was lost off Puerto Rico in 1870 along with its entire crew and Capt. James Mitchell; the Sarah was lost in 1889 off Herring Cove, Campobello, New Brunswick; the General Meade was crushed in ice off Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, in 1872. The list continues with Mary Staples, Virginia, Clara Adams, Sea Lark, Sammy Ford — schooners, brigs and sardine carriers, all with crews ranging from five to 50 men. Many of these ships carried families as well.
Commercial fishing has ranked historically and consistently among the deadliest of professions.
In the 1800s, Gloucester, Mass., lost approximately 200 fishermen each year to the sea — a full 4 percent of its total population. Although fishing, like almost all other occupations, is considerably less dangerous today than in the past, it is still the single most deadly occupation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries. Those working the sea face a risk of death on the job that is 20 to 30 times greater than any other single occupation.
Between 1992 and 1996, the latest year for which data are available, between 50 and 100 fishing deaths occurred each year, a rate of 140 deaths per 100,000 workers. For all other occupations over the same period, the fatality rate was five per 100,000 workers.
Finding statistics on Maine fishermen lost at sea is challenging.
The First District U.S. Coast Guard, which serves from New Jersey to the Maine border with Canada, produced statistics on calls for assistance going back to 1997. Those numbers provide some context, illustrating that 2009 was indeed a staggering year for the Lubec area.
In 2009, of 255 U.S. Coast Guard incidents between New Jersey and the border with Canada, which include everything from sinkings to fires to medical evacuations on trawlers to rowboats, a total of 10 calls involved fatalities. Five of those fatalities were in Cobscook Bay.
There were no fatalities in 2008; eight in 2007, including one at Little Deer Isle off Stonington; six in 2006 — half of them in Maine at Seal Cove off Mount Desert Island, Vinalhaven and off the coast of Portland. There were five Maine sea fatalities in 2000 of a total of 12 in New England — three in Chandler Bay off Jonesport and two off Portland.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there were 17 fishing fatalities in Maine between 1992 and 1996, but the department did not list where the deaths occurred.
The Labor Department stated that fishing in cold waters is inherently riskier because of hypothermia and sudden cold-water immersion. Cold-water states such as Maine and Alaska have disproportionately high numbers of fishing deaths.
The archives of the Bangor Daily News are full of the stories of boat sinkings and fishermen deaths:
ä February 1990: Johnny Myers, 51, of Lubec drowned when his scallop dragger sank off West Quoddy Head.
ä November 1988: Gilbert Pettegrow, 52, of Larrabee drowned after falling from his lobster boat in Bucks Harbor.
ä December 1986: Kevin Carver, 23, of Machias drowned off Roque Bluffs when his scallop dragger sank.
ä July 1973: Melzer Smith, 25, a lobsterman from Cutler, drowned when his outboard boat struck ledge off Cutler Harbor.
Those who carry on
Lisa Jones sits motionless. Holding onto the edge of the dining table, she closes her eyes as she recalls the first time she met her husband, Joseph.
“We were 15 and 17. It was love at first sight,” she says, eyes still closed. “He had on holey jeans, clam boots and a dirty old hat. He had the biggest blue eyes. And funny? God, wasn’t he funny.”
This is when the tears start to run down her face. She became a widow on Oct. 20, 2009, when Joseph’s urchin dragger Bottom Basher sank in Cobscook Bay.
Joseph, at 29, also left a 4-year-old daughter, Daisyjo.
“He loved the ocean and was always on the back of a boat, even when he was the captain,” Lisa Jones says. “He lived for it.”
Joseph Jones’ body has not been found.
Loren Lank’s body was recovered the same day the fishing vessel All American sank last March. His sternman, Logan Preston, was identified this month through DNA testing of bones — just a few ribs and vertebrae — hauled out of the bay by a fellow urchin dragger.
Logan Preston’s mother, Caroline, said no one could have talked her son out of heading to sea.
“He would tell his teachers in third grade that he was going to be a fisherman,” Preston said. “It wasn’t really ever a choice. It was like it was in his blood. His father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather — all fishermen.”
Although Logan Preston’s father still fishes — in a dragger named the Logan James to honor his son — his older brother, Chris Preston, 22, walked away from fishing when his brother died.
“But Logan, he loved the water. He was never afraid of it,” Caroline Preston said. “He knew the dangers were there. We all knew the dangers were there, but you think a disaster will never happen to you.”
Lank’s widow, Florence, now has to turn her head when she walks to her neighbor’s home on the South Lubec Road where she lives so she will not see the ocean that swallowed her husband.
“But that ocean was his life,” she acknowledges. The Lanks were married for 28 years, and Loren raised six of Florence’s children as his own.
“A living from the sea is all my kids know, too — wrinkling, clamming. That’s all everyone here knows,” she says.
When he died, Loren Lank was closing in on 60. He had a pacemaker, a bad knee, and was scheduled for a second back surgery.
“But he would have gotten on that boat if he had to crawl,” Lank says.
Shelley Tinker, 45, is Lank’s neighbor and the wife of Steven “Teea” Tinker, a fifth-generation commercial fisherman.
Every day, Tinker watches her husband prepare to head to sea aboard the Late Starter. Then she watches the widow Lank walk up the hill to visit. And then she picks up Daisyjo Jones, whose fisherman father drowned four months ago, on her daily school bus run.
When Tinker sat her children down to tell them of the loss of Daisyjo’s father and said she had some bad news, her 8-year-old son asked, “Is Daddy dead?” showing how close to the surface the fear of the sea is in all fishing families.
Kendrick Mitchell and Anne Seavey oversee the guidance services for the Lubec elementary and high schools.
“We are always on the lookout for how this affects the children,” Mitchell said. He said apprehension among students is high when there has been a fishing accident and particularly when bodies are not recovered.
When the Bottom Basher sank in October, rescue helicopters flew back and forth over the school throughout the day.
“Yet the kids seem to handle it so well,” Seavey said. “They have simply adjusted to the losses as part of the risks. These children come from generations of fishermen, from generations of strong, fearless people. This is a place where seventh- and eighth-graders already have their lobster licenses.”
But for adults, acceptance comes harder.
“After this bad year, I don’t look at the water the same as I used to,” Seavey said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
“We know. We know,” Tinker said, speaking of the danger. “All the boys talk about it among themselves down on the wharf, but Teea doesn’t share it with me.”
Seeley said tales of close calls are commonplace but are kept among the fishermen.
“Everyone can tell of almost falling overboard, of boats standing almost on end, of near rollovers,” Seeley said. “It’s hard, knowing that these good people, these people we see every day, could be gone tomorrow.”
Shelley Tinker said, “I spent a whole lot of years worrying and worrying. And then I put my faith in my husband and his skills. I find it hard, but I take it because I know this is the reality.”
Tinker said that after this past year, however, she cannot look at the sea in the same way.
“I’ve always loved the water and the tides,” she said. “Now, all of a sudden, it is not a nice place. It is an evil place that took people.”
One way the area is processing the latest losses is through the creation of a Lost Fishermen’s Memorial on the Lubec waterfront.
“When Joseph died, I got 400 cards,” Jones said, “and the people held two benefit suppers. It showed me that people cared, that we all support each other and that I wasn’t alone.”
Jones is working with the memorial committee to raise funds for the monument.
“I need a place to go, somewhere to place flowers,” she said. “After all, I never got Joseph back.”