Living the lobster life, and loving it

Meet Monhegan Island's only female 'lobsterman'

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With pink-painted toenails and a long blond braid, Zoe Zanidakis doesn't look like someone who spends half of every year hauling lobster traps. But shake her hand, and those calluses give her away.

For most of her adult life, Ms. Zanidakis has worked the waters of Monhegan Island for lobsters.

During off-season, when her fellow lobstermen turn to carpentry or other types of fishing, she runs the Monhegan House, one of only a handful of places for visitors to stay on this quiet, car-free, and ruggedly beautiful island 10 miles off Maine's coast.

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Zanidakis, a spirited woman with a dazzling smile and a can-do attitude, is well-known on Monhegan, where she has lived since infancy. With only 12 other classmates, she graduated from the island's one-room schoolhouse before leaving to attend high school on the mainland.

She returned to Monhegan for summers, and holidays, and after graduation, she moved back here for good.

"Self-sufficient," "hard-working," and "admirable" are how islanders from artists to fellow fishermen describe Zanidakis, the only woman among 14 lobstermen on Monhegan. (She cringes at the terms lobsterwoman or fisherwoman.)

Zanidakis got her first taste of lobstering when she and her stepdad would take out his 16-foot skiff to set a few traps for that night's dinner. Her brother, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all lobstermen, so it's a lifestyle she knows well. While the men shuttled from buoy to buoy in cold, fierce winds, the women in her family ran the rustic but comfortable Monhegan House.

Zanidakis is keeping up both family traditions. The Monhegan House fills with guests from Memorial Day through Columbus Day just as it has since 1870, when it began catering to such prominent visitors as American artists George Bellows and Robert Henri. Innkeeper Zanidakis greets them all.

When she's not welcoming guests, she's making beds, stocking shelves, hiring help, or taking care of other tasks essential to managing a successful inn.

Of her two jobs, lobstering is her first love. "I enjoy meeting people at the inn, but my boat keeps me sane. I just love being out on the water," she says, smiling at the thought of it. "Even dealing with mechanical problems at sea is easier than some of the innkeeping chores."

She's clearly proud of her 40-foot boat, "Equinox," which she bought five years ago. And she should be. With all its equipment, it is state-of-the-art.

Unlike her old boat, it rarely breaks down. But the job isn't without other kinds of challenges. She shrugs off the issue of weather ("They make such great clothes these days"), but her eyes widen when she talks about what it's like to be the only woman captain in the Monhegan fleet. "I guess I'm known to be pretty aggressive out there," she says. "I'm always aware of the 'girl thing,' so I take my work very seriously, and I don't often hang out with the guys after work."

Her mother, a stunning beauty who used to beat every man on the island at arm wrestling, always told her daughter that she'd gone to the "school of hard knocks." Like mother, like daughter, says Zoe, laughing as she cracks open a lobster for lunch aboard her boat.

Zanidakis has hired both men and women as helpers, or sternsmen. One baits the traps, the other bands the lobsters' claws. One of her favorite sternsmen is her 13-year-old son, Ron. It's aboard "Equinox" that the two of them have had some of their best times. This past lobster season was the first year that he had his own traps. On a typical day, he'd trap15 of them, while Mom had her usual 250. And even on the most grueling days at sea, they'd often head for the nearest outpost of civilization - usually Boothbay Harbor, for dinner and a movie.

"I don't take vacations, but I try to make the best of every trip to the mainland," she says. Whereas the island ferries can take an hour or more, depending on where they leave from, she can zip over in half that time on her boat.

Only about 70 residents live on Monhegan during winter, which can feel a little too cozy at times. But for a child, the it-takes-an-island-to-raise-a-child attitude here can be idyllic. Many friends have helped care for Ron over the years, and he's especially close to Zanidakis's stepfather, who lives down the road. "He has a satellite dish, so Ron spends time at his place watching ESPN," she says, adding, "I refuse to get one."

Ron also attended the island's one-room schoolhouse. But unlike his mom, he had only three other classmates. For his ninth-grade year, he'll be going to private school off-island - a decision that was not easy for Zanidakis, who has been a single mother since Ron started walking.

But soon after getting him launched in a new school, it'll be time to close the inn for winter and start preparing for lobster season, which kicks off Dec. 1. Winter life on Monhegan pivots around "Trap Day." Activity starts at sunrise when, weather permitting, the island's lobstermen head out to out to sea, and lower 600 traps each down to the ocean floor. The next day, they haul up their first catch of the season, head home, and dust off the lobster pot for a feast that evening.

Now as the air gets cooler and the island's summer population of 800 slowly begins to leave, Monhegan's lobstermen are already talking about the coming season. And no one could be happier about the prospect of once again pulling up her boots, stepping onto her boat, and heading out to sea than Captain Zoe.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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