Does This Look Like a Man Who Would Name His Boat Princess?

Well, he didn’t.

You can tell a lot about a lobsterman by the name on his or her boat. Linguist Michael Erard looks at the evolving tradition of lobsterboat naming, while photographer David Yellen captures the men and women of Down East Maine and the stories behind their cherished vessels’ names (spoiler: it’s not all about wives and girlfriends anymore).

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Designer’s Daughter, Beals Island: Travis Beal, 51, found a way to subvert the tradition of naming one’s boat after a spouse — kind of, since his father-in-law, Willis Beal, designed his 40-foot fiberglass boat. Why not name it Glenda, after his wife? “Well, my mother came up with it, and we liked it,” he says. “We like to be a little creative.”
In the summer of 1973, a hardworking 19-year-old lobsterman named Brian Cates bought a 26-foot wooden boat built on Campobello Island, a significant step up from the string of outboard motorboats he’d been fishing out of since he was 9. As eager as he was to get his new boat (the first one that he’d owned on his own) back to Cutler, he was also eager to marry his girlfriend, a 20-year-old college student named Wanda Kilton. He’d been bugging her about it since May, along with hinting strongly that he was going to give the new boat her name. Given the traditions of lobsterboat naming, the implication was that she’d be his wife, even though the wedding usually comes first. But Wanda didn’t believe him — she wasn’t ready for that. You’re crazy, she told him.

One day in late summer, a man came into the Machias sub shop where Wanda worked. “I saw you in Cutler today,” he said.

“You couldn’t have,” Wanda replied. “I’ve been here all day.”

“I mean, I saw you in the harbor,” the man said teasingly, and when he repeated it for her, she realized the boat from Campobello was named for her. The following February, she and Brian got married. “I joke around saying that I had to marry him then, so he could save face,” Wanda says.

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Legacy, Cutler: The name of his current boat is a departure for Brian Cates. The 60-year-old lobsterman has had four previous vessels named for his wife, Wanda, but the 48-foot Legacy honors the Cateses’ five grandkids (whose names also adorn the boat). Wanda isn’t totally forgotten, though: the letters “LWF” on the bow stand for Last Wanda Fisheries.

Looking at how lobsterboats are named, and how those practices might be changing, reveals a wealth of tales about words, place, and family in Maine. I had originally called Brian because the federal lobster license registry listed his boat as “unnamed.” Had he really given his boat that name? (He hadn’t; it was a paperwork glitch.) Instead, I discovered his devotion to naming his boat for his wife, which many people told me is the most common way lobsterboats are named. After the Wanda Mae, Brian had the Wanda Mae II, then other boats, each of which was supposed to be his last, the Last Wanda and the Last Wanda, Too. It’s as if he was marrying Wanda with each boat — or, just as likely, flattering her a bit so that she’d not complain about the expenses involved. Boats aren’t cheap, and getting one involves an elaborate household dance. Famed Down East boatbuilder Calvin Beal says it most plainly:

I can have all the boats I want, as long as they’re named after her,” adding that his wife’s name, Jeannine Marie, does look good on a hull.

From where they live, the Cateses can see the Cutler harbor, and Brian notes a growing number of lobsterboats whose names suggest a trend away from women’s names. One of those boats, the Brahma Bull, is owned by a 52-year-old lobsterman named Wendell Davis, who has his nickname, Beast, tattooed on his arm. “I almost named the boat Rock Bottom,” he says, a reference to a signature wrestling move by now-retired professional wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. “Somebody said they were afraid I might hit a rock on the bottom and sink it, so maybe that’s what veered me from it.” Instead he went with Johnson’s nom de rink, the Brahma Bull — but not before checking with his wife. “She was all right with it,” he says.

Another Cutler boat, Rattlesnake, belongs to a 39-year-old lobsterman, Derek Feeney, and is the sixth boat he’s given the name to. He named his first boat after his wife, but when he upgraded to his next boat, he says he began thinking. “Down here, everybody is either the Christina Marie or the Miss This-one-that-one, and it’s kind of boring to name it for a wife or a daughter,” he says. “I don’t really run with the grain anyway, so I thought up something different.”

How much do boats like Brahma Bull and Rattlesnake run against the grain? One early September morning, I went down to Portland’s Union Wharf to talk to fishermen before they headed out into the thick fog that lay on the harbor. By chance, the boats were docked as if to illustrate the diversity of boat names. On one side of the wharf was a line of boats with women’s names: the Nancy J., Kimberley J., April Rose, and Heather Marie. (Parked among them was the Bailey & Bella, where emblems of two dogs’ faces make it clear who is being named.) On the other side, none of the boats had people names: Aldebaran, Harvester of Sorrows, Nomad, and Seven Seas. This certainly made it seem as if female names are less frequent than people think.

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Lucy W. Beal, Beals Island: Seventy-year-old Willis Beal has held a lobstering license since he was 10 years old and has been building and designing boats since he was 20 (the first one he built was a 23-footer assembled in his basement). His current boat has the same name as his very first powerboat — both named for his mother.
In order to sort out naming traditions, you need a lot of names to look at, and a good source is the National Marine Fisheries Service’s list of federally permitted vessels. In 2012, 1,332 vessels registered in Maine for a lobstering permit. How many do you think carry distinct female names? Only 584. This is the largest category of names, but by no means the majority. For some historical perspective, I looked at the permit list from 1994, where only 469 boats out of 880 had women’s names. Over almost 20 years, the proportion of boats named for women has declined.

Perhaps, I thought, the federal lists aren’t so reliable, so I contacted Jon Johansen, the organizer of the Maine Lobster Boat Races and a maritime historian, who sent me a list of names from the 1,300 boats that had registered for the race since 1999. There, too, the women’s names are fewer than half of the total, only 452 of them, plus 44 distinctly feminine names, such as Ice Princess, Working Girl, Three Girls, and Whore Afire. (All of the boat lists have about the same number of such names.)

After people names, the most common type of boat name tends to be nautical (Isle of Sky, Lunasea, Rising Tide, Bay Rat), darkly financial (Desperate Measure, Gold Digger, Destitute), and emotional (Motivation, Desire, Determination). Numerous are the stick-your-chin-out-tough-fella sorts of names, or what one person called “the Down East equivalent of the Dukes of Hazzard: Bad Habit, Hellblazzer, Hostile, Hooligan, and Misfit. There are very few foreign names (like the Astazo Amante), and you might expect more religious themes, though the Cristo Salva and the Fra Diavolo combine both. There are variations on a few recurrent themes: Little ____ (Little Skipper, Little Tater), Sea ____ (Sea Bass, Sea Dancer, Sea Fever), Ocean ____ (Ocean Harvest, Ocean Breeze), Old ____ (Old Dawg, Old Horse), No ____ (No Rush, No Respect), High ____ (High Hopes, High Anxiety), and, of course, Lobster ____ (Lobster Beast, Lobster Buster).

Do you like bird names? There are boats named for birds: Loon, Merganser, Sunbird, Duck, Eagle, Pelican, and Shitpoke (a nickname for the great blue heron).

Do you like Maine-y names? There’s Casco Miss, Downeast Pride, Keepah, Lobstah Tail, Pisscuttah.

Afraid that people might mistake you for a ferry captain? Call your boat Bait Bag, Fish Hook, Harbor Rat, or Clam Killer.

Puns work on hulls, too: Chasing Tails, Knot Again, Knot Guilty, What the Haul, and the ever-popular Miss Guided and Miss Take.

This Miss prefix is the most frequent pattern for female names on the list, which may explain why more ship names begin with the letter “m” than any other letter, according to Don Kennedy’s comprehensive 1974 book Ship Names. Another reason is that the all-time favorite feminine name in English for ships of all types is Mary. Kennedy also notes that feminine first names for all ships (not just lobsterboats) were extremely popular in America 200 years ago, but even then, they weren’t the majority. Ship registries from Boston from 1789 to 1795 showed that 41 percent of ship names were either women’s first names or full names. Their popularity declined from there.

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Already Gone, Beals Island:
The Eagles had already broken up and reunited by the time 17-year-old Kasden Beal (Willis’s grandson) was born, but the generation gap didn’t keep the incoming high school senior from naming his 28-footer after the group’s 1974 hit. Kasden was seven years old when he first set his own traps and 13 when he launched his first lobsterboat, Catch-22.
Of course, a boat can be named after a person, yet it may not be obvious — for instance, when a person’s nickname is used. “I like little catchy names different from direct names,” Calvin Beal told me. “Once in a while, if I can name it for a family member and still come up with something different, I will.” One boat he built 32 years ago, Little Girl, was given the pet name that his wife’s father used for her. Another boat, Little Buck, was named for a grandson. Still, he was tickled when he asked a granddaughter for a good name for a 27-foot boat he was building, and instead of saying her own name, she replied “How about Seashell? She looks like one.” Seashell she became.

Why should a boat be named for a person, anyway? It is, after all, a vehicle, a tool. But talk to enough people and it becomes clear that a boat is part of the family, an extension of an identity. Boats have been named for thousands of years — the oldest recorded ship name is Praise of the Two Lands, an Egyptian craft from 2680 BCE — and boats have been called “she” for centuries. (This may stem from the fact that the words for watercraft in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German, and Spanish are all the feminine gender.) Also, writes Kennedy,

Men usually go to sea without women, and feminine names are reminders of loved ones on shore.

Among the visibly named things on the Maine coast, or anywhere in modern life, these boat names — no matter what or whom they refer to — are unique because they haven’t been created by committees. People tend to use their native wit and a strong dose of tradition. Lobstermen get to name a lot of boats because they’ll have so many over a career. They can give a boat the same name as somebody else’s and won’t experience anything harsher than some stink-eye; indeed, there are numerous duplicates on the lists I saw (though they worked out of different harbors). Unlike many other naming endeavors, such as rock bands, people don’t use Google to check on the uniqueness of one’s idea.

There is some disagreement over whether lobsterboats were unnamed in the past; probably the practice differed from place to place. “The boats that I’ve ever seen, most of all of them have names,” says Calvin Beal. He suggests that if older boats were not named, as some people say, it may be because wooden boats had to be frequently repainted. Now people use vinyl lettering, which is easy to stick on.

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Jeannine Marie, Beals Island: Calvin Beal, Jr., 70, has been building boats since high school. He was 21 when he built his first Jeannine Marie, named for his wife of 49 years. He’s had six or seven others since. As for Jeannine’s baby pic on the stern: “I was ready for my nap,” she says, “and I let them know it.”

Freelance writer and musician Bryan Robbins used to fish with his brother in the 1970s out of Stonington, in a 44 Stanley named Shirley & Freeman, the letters of which were painted on by a well-known boat-name painter, Dave Gross, who went by the moniker “The Yankee Painter.” “He sat at the transom on a plank, with his nose inches away from the stern of the boat,” Robbins remembers. The letters were black with gold accents.

In 1981, when they sold the boat, the job of removing the black and gold letters fell to Robbins, an experience that haunts him to this day. “Taking the name off that boat was a strange feeling,” he says. “It was like you were embalming somebody that you loved.” Did he use a tool? Some liquid, he says, wiped with a rag.

“When I started doing it, and it wasn’t until the first word was missing, the word ‘Shirley,’ and that was my mother’s name,” he says, “and all of a sudden it hit me with what I’d just done. It just didn’t feel right, taking your mother’s name off the thing.”

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Obsession, Machiasport: Joni Schmauderer, 48, has an English degree and once considered teaching, but the ocean is her passion. She’s harvested clams, periwinkles, urchins, scallops — you name it. And while lobstering is fun, her 21-foot boat takes its name from her obsession with halibut. “The fish is so big and flapping all over,” she says. “I just like the challenge.”

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Brahma Bull, Cutler: Wendell Davis, 56, has been lobstering out of Cutler Harbor for around 15 years. He named his 42-foot boat after the nickname of professional-wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Wendell has a nickname of his own: Beast. “Way back, I guess I used to have long hair and stuff,” he laughs. “Somebody called me that and it stuck.”

For more on lobsterboat naming, check out a video of Down East digital editor Laura Serino discussing the boat that’s named after her.


Michael Erard

Michael Erard is a journalist and linguist. He's a contributing writer at The Morning News and author of Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners.