Fishing for Clues Among Maine's Tight-Lipped Boatbuilders

I WAS visiting the Maine Room in the Bar Harbor library with its beautiful books and collections of obscure Maine poets and still I could not find the answer. I had a job for a year to discover why local boatbuilders were not building fishing craft large enough to compete in waters within the newly passed 200-mile limit. The best boatbuilders in the world seemed immune to the call of deep-ocean big fishing, and had been resigned to coastal waters ever since Sam de Champlain named the bubbles of mountains that appeared to him from his square-rigger, ``Isle de Mons Deserts.'' I had the government data written up to pass in the report: I would look good. It was thick, bound, used a lot of words I learned from grant-writing and would satisfy the most budget-conscious state official. But I didn't have the answer: Why did Maine fishermen build craft large enough only for day-journeys, with enough fuel and reserve for overnight, in case of storm, but bet the ranch each trip on being in by nightfall? There were rich waters out there, all American now, and the fisheries economy ``on paper '' looked pretty dismal; so why this independent ``cowboy'' attitude?

I asked myself, remembering a story from a visit in schooldays from Henry Kissinger who said that in his early days in government, his boss sent back a report five times, each time benignly with the words - ``Is this the best you can do?''

I could turn in my report ``Study of Maine Boatbuilding and the 200-Mile-Limit,'' clock my hours, mileage, collect my paycheck, and get back to my other business: But it wasn't the best I could do. I needed the answer. My trouble with turning in just another government report was that along the way I had fallen in love with Maine boats, the pebble-shored sea, and meeting the craftsmen I knew were all putting me on. Mainers don't tell you anything, you have to guess it; and that's the poetry of what they call ``the most western Eastern state.''

So there I was in the library pondering the riddle. Then I got it. Thinking of a New England poet, I remembered the title of Frost's poem ``Love and a Question.'' They were answering me in questions, these surly-humorous boatbuilders, as they didn't want to give away the secret of their love for their craft. All I needed was to find the right question.

I went over in my mind all the boatbuilders I had interviewed, from those laying out keels at Bath Ironworks to the sailboat Boatbuilding School at Lubec; over and over I kept seeing the amused faces of highly skilled craftsmen and students. I remembered others, including E.B. White's son Joel, who reacted angrily to my persistent questioning. I thought, surely the son of ``Charlotte's Web'' could quit smoothing gunwales long enough to offer a clue. But no, they kept it to facts and figures and an occasional joke to throw me off, as if I were as welcome as an IRS man with a briefcase.

``They'd rather go out fishing in a canoe alone,'' said Ralph Stanley kindly of Southwest Harbor, ``than accept a government subsidy and build bigger boats. These are independent family men. They don't want to work in factory ships.''

``Why?'' I said stupidly, not doing the best I could on a question.

``Set the dowels for that stem,'' Mr. Stanley called to an assistant, and my interview in his boat shed was over.

I decided to give it one more try. I had a friend who knew everything about Maine ocean's surface and the air. He flew a simple, homemade craft, to spot herring for his sons. He wasn't a boatbuilder, but I had once admired his old airplane in the field, that went 65 miles per hour in a stiff breeze. He was a brave man, I thought, flying in that thing off the island over sea; and brave men make you brave when asking questions.

``You come too,'' he said to me, preparing to go aloft. There was no back seat, but he shifted stuff around, and I crouched behind him as he took off. It was like being in an enclosed motorcycle swaying on corners of air. Yup, I thought, while high in the air under taped-up wings, this is the best I can do! ``... Egg Rock, Porcupines, Monhegan over there,'' Harold said. ``There's my boys.'' Two white boats, bows pointed together, on the flat ruffled sea, setting up a floating herring purse. He turned back, over Monhegan Island.

``John Smith lived there,'' says Harold over the drone. I was almost cheek to cheek with his captain's sideburns to hear. I didn't know any John Smith.

``Sixteen hundred something. He was the first. Cod was king, then.''

``You mean of Pocahontas?''

``Before. He was originally a seafaring man. They went out days, made it home at night. Been the same ever since.''

We flew south, looked at the silvery pools of herring, miles away, swimming up to his boys' nets. ``Good. They're on course. Sometimes they get a notion to go out farther.''

We landed with a bump.

``So why's it been the same ever since?'' I asked.

``Pretty good idea, isn't it? A man toils all day, gets home to raise his kids, comfort his wife - you can't get more than that.''

So that was the secret - family. That was why they were cowboys, surly, independent, in love with their work. By not going after the lure of big money, they were maintaining a tradition, doing the best they could, with a little.

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