What Floats Their Boats

Maine boatmen, Dr. Deborah Walter
Like generations of Mainers drawn to the water, expedition kayaker Dr. Deborah Walters uses the state as a home base and safe harbor between globe-spanning adventures.

We asked some seasoned Maine boatmen (and women) about their most memorable moments from lives spent on the water.

As told to Jennifer Van Allen
Photograph by Michael D. Wilson

Merritt Carey

Age 50. Founding board member, Tenants Harbor Fisherman’s Co-Op; manager and brand ambassador, Luke’s Lobster.

 

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When I was 10, my father bought me a 13-foot Boston Whaler. He named her Watch and Wait, but with her 25-horsepower engine and flat planing hull, the boat said to me, “Let’s go.” I immediately felt the freedom this gift offered me.

“I’m going to give the boat to you,” my father said, “but you’re going to make some money with it.”

So that June, we crossed Tenants Harbor in the Watch and Wait and docked at the Cod End market, where I met the proprietor, Mrs. Miller. Thus, Merritt’s Delivery Service was launched. On summer evenings, I’d approach the cruising yachts coming into the harbor and offer to deliver steamed lobsters, clams, and mussels from Cod End. Soon, I added morning rounds, bringing out muffins and treats.

Back then, Tenants Harbor had no channel markers, and while I knew the harbor was a no-wake zone, I figured I left less wake on a plane than at half throttle. Plus, I reasoned, why cross the harbor in five minutes when I could do it in two?

I became well known to Crow Morris, the St. George harbormaster. I don’t remember much about Crow other than that he seemed at least a million years old and always to be looking for me. I don’t remember if he ever gave me a ticket, but our paths were constantly crossing. I’d catch him out of the corner of my eye as I flew by, full throttle, hoping somehow I’d be inconspicuous. I never was.

When I wasn’t dodging Crow Morris, I kept a weather eye out for the Bajupa, the smack boat for Monhegan and Matinicus, which ran bait out to the fleets and returned with lobsters to sell onshore. She represented one thing to me: a chance to get airborne. As soon as I heard her diesel engine coming into the harbor, I’d dash down the dock to the Watch and Wait and head out full throttle. If I timed it right, the Bajupa would be still moving at a good clip, and I could launch off her massive wake. Every time, my heart raced and the flat-bottomed hull landed hard. Twice, I ripped my steering console clean out of the hull. Helping me repair it, my father — with a smile that belied his admonition — said, “Merr, for Chrissake, you’ve got to slow down.” I never did.

Merritt Carey raced on the second all-female Whitbread-Round-the-World Race and on the first all-women’s America’s Cup team. She writes her Merritt in Maine blog at merrittinmaine.com.

Rollin Thurlow

Age 70. Founder, Northwoods Canoe Co.

As a senior in high school, I was a Boy Scout leader and led a group of Scouts on a paddling trip on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. This was in 1967, when life jackets were supposed to be on the boat, but you weren’t necessarily required to wear them. I was full of experience and confidence. It was a calm day, and the lake was flat. My buddy and I had gotten quite a bit ahead of the group, so we stopped and drifted a while, waiting for everyone to catch up.

We got to talking, got distracted, and then, suddenly, we were in the water. We’d both leaned over on the same side for a look at the canoes behind us, and the shift in weight sent us overboard before we knew it. It took us a minute of flailing to realize our feet could touch bottom. When the others caught up, they weren’t much help because they were laughing so hard.

The experience reminded me how important it is to put safety first and how, even for a confident canoeist, a moment’s inattention can lead to trouble. Ever since, I have worn my life jacket every time I go out, and I always encourage others to wear them too.

That lesson hit home again a few years ago. It was a pleasant day, with few clouds and no blackflies, and some friends and I were two-thirds of the way down the Allagash, a mile downstream from the Musquacook Deadwater. The river is only about 200 feet wide there, a long stretch of calm water.

All of a sudden, the wind picked up and the clouds moved in. In three minutes, the day went from perfectly calm to a deluge of rain with extreme winds. Huge whitecaps seemed to form instantaneously, and the wind and wave directions were changing so fast that with each bracing stoke, we could be thrown off balance. If everyone hadn’t already been wearing their life jackets, there’d have been no time to fish around at the bottom of the boat and get them on.

It took all our efforts and paddling skills to get 75 feet to the shoreline and pull our canoes up into the alders. Once onshore, we hung some tarps in the trees to protect us from the wind and rain and spent a pleasant hour eating chocolate bars and regaining our strength, until it was calm again. But it drove those lessons home: never lose sight of the basics, even after 60 years on the water; wear a life jacket; and know how to steady and maneuver a canoe when conditions get tricky. Don’t expect the weather to cooperate with your schedule — on a canoe trip, you have to enjoy it all.

Rollin Thurlow has been handcrafting wooden canoes for 40 years at his shop in Atkinson.

Larry Legere

Age 63. Retired captain, Casco Bay Lines.

 

Ferries run 365 days a year between Portland and the islands of Casco Bay, and while Casco Bay Lines will postpone trips if weather poses a safety hazard, it rarely halts service. In my 44-year tenure there, I don’t recall canceling any trips due to ice. That includes the time in 1979 when Casco Bay froze.

It’s quite rare for this to happen. Salt water freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water, so conditions have to be just right. But if it’s really cold, with no wind and a light snowfall, then the fresh water sits on top of the ocean, freezes, and gets thicker and thicker. The most notable time Casco Bay had frozen was in 1934 — so thick that people drove cars between Chebeague Island and Falmouth. Back then, one of Casco Bay Lines’ wooden boats had gotten stuck in the ice, and the passengers had to walk to shore.

I was running the night boat in 1979, stopping at each of the islands. The ice was really thick between Long Island and Chebeague, and I didn’t think we were going to get out of Chebeague. I was getting nervous we’d have to call the Coast Guard, and they’d be out there half the night busting us out. We didn’t have that many passengers, but I was pretty sure nobody wanted to spend eight hours on the boat. So I started backing up, then moving forward, trying to find a soft spot, trying to bash through the ice with the steel hull of the M.V. Island Holiday, a massive, 65-foot boat. Eventually, we broke free and made it to Long Island. We were an hour late getting to town.

The next winter, operating the same kind of boat, M.V. Abenaki, I was bedeviled by ice in a different way. We were landing at Long Island, and when I put the boat into reverse to slow down and dock, the boat kept on gliding. I didn’t have many options, so I just kept steering around in a big circle until, finally, we slowed enough that the deckhand could get a line on the piling and pull us in. We had to get towed back to Portland. Later, we discovered that ice on the water had been so thick, it had torn the propeller shaft right off the engine. If not for a piece of ice that had gotten wedged against the rudder post, I might have had to beach the boat in order to keep it from sinking.

Larry Legere retired from Casco Bay Lines in 2017. His father and uncles all worked for the ferry, and his three daughters began their careers there too.

Dr. Deborah Walters

Age 67. Expedition kayaker.

I’ve paddled all over the world, from the Arctic to Central America, and I’m convinced that the best paddling is here in Maine. In 2014, a few days into my Guatemala expedition and still in Maine, I was paddling against an incoming tide. I took a “shortcut” in a narrow channel between two islands. The water was moving so quickly, I could only paddle close to the shore. I turned a corner and came face-to-face with a lobsterboat.

Whenever I see lobsterboats, I try to give them a wide berth. I don’t want them to have to maneuver to avoid me — they’re out there making a living, and I’m just out there having fun. But in this case, I couldn’t avoid paddling close as the lobsterman was hauling a trap. As I was trying to paddle past, he spotted me and said, “Hey, Dr. Deb, is that you? I just saw a piece about you on TV last night!” It was one of many moments that reminded me how uniquely neighborly Mainers are.

A few days later, I came ashore to camp at Trott Island in Kennebunkport. I landed at low tide and realized I’d have to haul my fully loaded, 18-foot, 175-pound wooden kayak up a steep, rocky beach to get to my site. Typically, I’d wait for the tide to lift the boat up, but given my timing, it would have been a long wait. As I considered my options, a lobsterboat pulled up and let off a dinghy with two young men. Without missing a beat, they offered to carry my kayak up.

It’s also the terrain that makes Maine so special: the rocky shores, hidden sandy beaches, and crystal-clear water. Above all, it’s the tides and weather. There are hundreds of islands to weave in and out of, and when you head out on Maine waters, you never know how rapidly conditions will change. Dense fogs make navigating by chart and compass so satisfying, and when the wind picks up and the waves build, the paddling becomes addictive.

Retired Unity College provost Deborah Walters left Maine in a kayak in 2014 to paddle to Guatemala, raising funds for Safe Passage, a school for kids living in the Guatemala City garbage dump. She covered some 1,500 miles before a spinal injury stopped her, then completed the trip by sailboat. She later paddled the last 1,000 miles, helping raise more than $420,000.


Jen Van Allen

Jen Van Allen is the sponsored content editor at Down East.