During the bitter-cold months of winter, when many Mainers are warming themselves by the woodstove, Dan O’Reilly heads outside. The 84-year-old lifelong Mainer feels perfectly happy climbing into a rowboat and paddling through snow, sleet, or whatever else the elements throw at him. He’s been an open-water racer for decades. His last race was the mile-long Round Island Regatta, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 2019. Prior to that, he competed in 2018 in the Blackburn Challenge, a 21-mile open-water row around Massachusetts’s Cape Ann. Rowing has taken him throughout the Northeast, to Canada, and even to England, but his most interesting row wasn’t a race at all.
In 2013, O’Reilly rowed an ocean route supposedly traveled by the infamous Smuttynose Island murderer, Louis Wagner, in 1873. The 28-year-old Wagner, a broke and desperate German immigrant, is said to have stolen a dory in Portsmouth, rowed 10 miles out to Smuttynose Island, killed two women there with an ax, and then rowed back. He was apprehended and convicted of the crime, but some are still skeptical whether the alleged murderer could have made such a trip in the time for which he had no alibi — about 11 hours. A friend asked O’Reilly to prove it was possible. So he took to the seas in an old-fashioned dory and rowed to the island in two hours and 15 minutes. Wagner was 28 at the time of the murders. O’Reilly was 75.
The son of a lobsterman, O’Reilly was raised on Cliff Island, in Casco Bay. “When I was 10 years old, my father gave me an old, flat-bottom skiff,” he says. “He told me to load the traps and handed me some oars and said, ‘Go out there and make some school money.’” O’Reilly went to a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade, then attended high school in Portland. His commute took an hour-and-a-half by ferry, each way. Teachers figured he used the time to do his homework, but O’Reilly says he mostly talked to girls.
These days, when he isn’t on a boat, he’s likely digging clams. He lives in Kittery but works on the flats around Wells where he believes the best clams are found, often with his daughters, grandkids, and, of late, his great-grandkids. Around Kittery, it’s not uncommon to see him sporting a T-shirt with his nickname: “The Clam Whisperer.”
The 1880 one-room schoolhouse that Dan O’Reilly attended on Cliff Island still operates today, usually with no more than a few K–5 pupils.
In the 1950s, he and his wife, Judy, who died in 2015, bought a 55-acre farmstead in Kittery’s little-developed northern reaches, where they raised four daughters. As their daughters grew up and had their own families, each got parcels off the original plot, so today, O’Reilly’s grandkids are his neighbors. When they were young, he brought them along on all sorts of adventures: paddling the Allagash, clamming, rowing along the coast. Now that he’s older, O’Reilly says, the grandkids bring him along. Last summer, he joined his oldest grandson on a moose-scouting trip to Portage Lake, where they tented it and paddled all weekend. O’Reilly’s adventures feel as natural as ever: being on the water is simply part of his identity. “It’s just what I’ve always done,” he says.