Raising Children on Windjammers
The weather forecast for the next few days is “unsettled”—a polite euphemism for wet and dreary. For the time being, however, it’s merely cloudy, so it’s a good time for a midday lobster bake. Captain Mike motors his Angelique out of Mt. Desert Island’s Southwest Harbor and heads for nearby Placentia Island. As we putter along the calm channel waters, we pass Great Cranberry Island, the lobstering community portrayed in Trevor Corson’s excellent nonfiction book, The Secret Lives of Lobsters.
Sitting atop the wheelbox is Katie McHenry, Captain Mike’s 16-year-old daughter. As Mike puts it, Katie has been sailing aboard the Angelique “since she was a baby in arms.” Katie’s older brother, 19-year-old Ryan McHenry, is attending a small boat program at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, but he frequently sailed with his dad when he was younger.
Starting at about age 4, the McHenry kids began helping out in the galley by chopping vegetables, then slowly assumed more responsibilities as they grew older. There were times when Captain Mike would only bring one kid at a time because the two siblings were at an age when they’d fight with each other, but, despite the hassles, Mike always wanted to sail with his children.
“When they were younger,” Captain Mike says, “it would’ve been heartbreaking to leave them ashore. And even now that they’re older, I like to have them aboard just for the pleasure of their company.”
Nowadays, Katie is employed on the Angelique as a full-fledged deckhand; however, a wrist injury keeps her from hauling lines on this trip. Instead, Katie takes turns at the helm while sitting quietly near her dad.
According to Katie, this will probably be her last season aboard the Angelique. She feels a little too out of the loop from her friends in Camden when she’s out on the Bay for 6 days a week.
“Next year, I want to get a real job at a restaurant,” she says. “Either that or I’ll work on a daysailer.”
When I ask what she means by “real job,” Katie smiles.
“I get too much special treatment from my father,” she says.
Katie raises a good point, but when you see her scouring marine toilets with a bristle brush, the term “special treatment” quickly loses its meaning.
Captain Mike and his daughter.
Raising children on a schooner is not unusual in the Maine fleet: Captain Ray Williamson’s daughters grew up on the Green Boats, Captains Doug and Linda Lee raised their two daughters on the Heritage, Captains Barry King and Jen Martin are currently raising their two young children aboard the Mary Day, and Captain Noah Barnes spent a number of his childhood years sailing aboard the Stephen Taber. (And, as of early September, there’s a third generation of Barneses to sail the Taber. Captain Noah and Jane Barnes just announced the birth of their son, Oscar.)
In some ways, these kids are the Suris, Shilohs, and Prince Williams of coastal Maine: it’s easy to envy their luck at being born into the right families. Imagine spending your formative years aboard a windjammer: meeting interesting people from all over the world, learning to sail, and living the vacation dreams of so many.
On this trip, there are two schoolteachers from upstate New York. They’ve been sailing aboard the Angelique for the past 10 seasons, so, in a sense, they’ve watched Katie McHenry grow up.
Shelly and Mike.
“I remember when Katie was little,” says one of the schoolteachers. “She used to run around telling the passengers all sorts of jokes. ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ and stuff like that. But look at her now.”
When we anchor for our lobster bake, Katie lowers herself into a rowboat, assumes the coxswain position, and confidently instructs the passengers to stand their oars, raise their oarlocks, and row to the northeast shore of lonely Placentia Island.
Could you have done the same at 16?
During the many trips and lobster bakes I’ve attended this season, I’ve seen a fair share of Maine’s deserted islands, but this one takes the prize. Placentia Island is managed by the Nature Conservancy of Maine; it is a 500-acre spruce-covered island with sprawling views of Acadia from its cobble shoreline.
Cobblestone seabeds, like this one, are perfect nurseries for immature lobsters.
When a lobster egg hatches, its larva floats to the surface and drifts the ocean currents with the rest of the plankton. Then, over the course of 10 to 20 days, the larva will molt four times until it transforms into postlarva, which is a recognizable — albeit tiny — lobster.
A postlarval lobster isn’t yet a bottom dweller. Instead, it swims near the surface with its claws pointed forward in a posture that resembles Superman in flight. For this reason, postlarvae are known as “superlobsters.”
Chris Sherman trims the headsails.
For roughly two weeks, a superlobster will swim with the current and occasionally dive to the bottom. If it finds mud or a rocky shelf during a dive, the superlobster will return to the surface, swim for a while longer, then dive again. If, on a subsequent dive, it finds a cobblestone bottom — a habitat with many natural hiding spots — the superlobster will give up its powers of “flight” and settle into an adulthood of walking along the seafloor.
Lobsters are invertebrates, so the only way they can grow in size is to molt their shells. Over the course of its first year, a lobster will molt roughly 10 times. As the lobster grows older, it molts three or four times a year — cycles that are usually triggered by water temperature.
While molting, a lobster is extremely vulnerable to predators, so it must first find a hiding spot before shedding its shell. Once hidden, a lobster shrinks its extremities by extracting fluids from its flesh, then withdraws from its carapace. When the old shell is cast aside, a lobster is little more than a pile of living meat covered by a soft membrane. This membrane will eventually thicken into a new shell, but, in the meantime, the lobster must remain hidden.
When the shell has grown thick enough to walk, the hungry lobster will emerge from its hiding place in search of food. Many of these soft-shelled lobsters, or “shedders,” find their first meal in the kitchen of a lobster pot.
In July, the water temperatures along the coast of Maine are perfect for molting, and by late July/early August shedders begin showing up on dinner plates.
Here on Placentia Island, the Angelique crew prepares a steaming kettle of shedders. This is a real treat. The meat of a shedder (according to some) is sweeter than its hard-shelled brethren. Plus — while cracking a hard-shelled lobster can feel like splitting rocks — opening a shedder is as pleasant and summer-like as splitting snap peas.
Within minutes, the entire pile of cooked lobsters is gone.
When lunch is finished, Captain Mike and Katie McHenry share a father-daughter row back to the Angelique. Soon after, the passengers return to the vessel, and we sail for tonight’s anchorage off Brooklin.