A fishing town in Maine’s Down East region, about an hour north of Bar Harbor
A fishing town in Maine’s Down East region, about an hour north of Bar Harbor
A fishing town in Maine’s Down East region, about an hour north of Bar Harbor (Photo: Greta Rybus)

My Priceless Summer on a Maine Lobster Boat

During her college break, the author went all in on solitude—living alone on a Down East island and working for one of the area’s few female skippers. Luna Soley reflects on a time of loneliness, hard work, and natural beauty.

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Instead of a bilge pump, I brought lupines and daisies. Stupid, I thought. Twenty years old and you think you’re invincible, think your life is some romantic story. Ahead of me, terns swerved in and out of my circle of vision, blurring into the fog. I’d left just minutes before, but already I couldn’t see the mainland. My yellow plastic kayak, pink and white flowers tied down where there should have been safety gear, looked cheerful and garish against the gray ocean. I heard a lobster boat grating into gear somewhere ahead and to my right.

Scared in my mind but not in my body. I felt like shouting this to the wind, but my grip on the paddle was slipping with sweat, even as my shirt darkened in the cold, wet air. I stroked right, settling the compass near 185 degrees, and glanced at the flowers, stems ragged from where I’d torn them off by the road. If I’m headed to Portugal, I thought grimly, at least I’ve brought flowers for the funeral. Then I laughed, with relief and something else, because I’d hit the landing of the four-acre island straight on, the metal ramp to the dock glinting under a dark smudge of trees. I freed my bouquet, now wilted, lashed my kayak to the float, and climbed up slippery pink granite to the trail. They’ll be all right, I thought, once I set them in fresh water.

The author on the coastal island where she spent the summer
The author on the coastal island where she spent the summer (Perrin Milliken)

Last summer I lived alone on a tiny island in the easternmost part of coastal Maine—a region known as Down East—where I worked as a sternman on a lobster boat. I say “sternman” because nobody says “sternwoman.” I could count the number of female captains in the harbor on my hand—not enough to budge the traditional vernacular. I worked for one of them.

My family has owned the island since the early 2000s, when my father built a small cabin pinned to rock on the southern end, facing the bell buoy and open sea. The land is 500 feet across at its widest part—it takes me three minutes to run a lap of the narrow perimeter trail. Only a half-mile from the mainland, the little stand of spruce trees, overgrown with lichen and smelling of bitter peat, feels ancient, totally apart. The rest is rocks.

At the cabin, rainwater is collected on a roof tank and pumped by hand to the kitchen sink; a solar panel runs the lights. I had cell service and an old propane stove, lit with a match, that puffed and startled me every time. No internet, but I was used to that—I grew up without TV, and I’ve never had a smartphone. When I arrived, there were newspapers stacked by the woodstove and a chest fridge I filled with produce bruised by the kayak ride. One day I brought a pair of rock crabs home for dinner, only to spend the passage across the channel anxiously listening to them wrestle between my knees.

“This is not our life on hold,” I’d texted a friend as the prospect of returning to school in the fall became increasingly uncertain. “This is our life.” Over the summer, I was determined not to join my peers for a déjà vu routine of odd jobs and high school friends. Living at home meant being shuttled between two estranged parents who were neighbors and fellow eccentrics but refused to speak to each other. After a while, I’d start to feel eclipsed by their personalities.

If I was going to be lonely, I decided, then let me be lonely. Six feet required between me and the next person? Make that half a mile of open water that was cold, foggy, and sometimes too windy to cross. I’d lived in Maine my whole life, grown up on a large, populated island off Portland, and ridden the ferry every morning to school, but I’d never experienced lobstering, a thing that felt essential to Maine identity. The smell of bait was familiar, but I’d never had to wash it off my hands.

My first day on the island, I broke spiderwebs on the trail and swept the cabin. I opened all the windows in the smaller of two bedrooms and made space for my books on a shelf. “Does 6:30 am work for you?” texted Leigh, captain of Priceless, the boat I would start working on the next day. “We’ve only got 45 pair to haul.” In Maine, everyone knows someone who knows a lobsterman; two weeks ago, I’d gotten Leigh’s number and called her to ask for a job. Yesterday I’d taken the earliest ferry into Portland and started the long drive north. I didn’t know what 45 pair meant, but 6:30 worked fine. I set my alarm for 4:30 and climbed into bed before the sun went down.

Lobstering is rhythm and speed. The trap comes up on the line of pot warp—the rope that runs through the water from buoy to trap—slick with algae and silt. You break it over the rail, slide it toward you, open it, unhook the old bait bag and sling in a fresh one, measure the lobsters, toss the shorts, drop the keepers in the call box, close the trap, slide it back, spin it perpendicular to the rail, race back to the bait tray, replenish the bait bag, band the claws if you have time, and then the next trap is coming over the rail and you’d better be there to catch it. Always the panic of motion and then, between strings, a reprieve to hose down the deck.

We set over 300 traps during the time I worked for Leigh, often in fog and chop. Singles in the bay, pairs outside it, two traps to a buoy. With the gear she’d set by herself in the spring, that made 400 and some traps on a three-day rotation. Leigh’s license allowed her to fish a full 800, but that was too much to juggle with two young sons.

Sometimes the lines got tangled, and we were forced to spend precious minutes freeing traps ensnared by a more careless fisherman or the tide. My vocabulary of curse words expanded. Over the radio, we heard the complaints, encouragements, and speculations of the boats we passed and raised a blue-gloved hand to. (“We wave to everyone,” Leigh told me. Even the guy who cut your traps last season? Even him.) The voices of other lobstermen were something like companionship on the long days we spent alone on the boat.

“Ayeh, weather lookin’ pretty fine today.”

“I tell ya, whoever’s messin’ with my traps, I’m gonna fuckin’ kill ya.”

“I’d like to hear where he stands with the Lord.”

“Bear in the yard eatin’ outta the feeders last night.”

“Big sea on, I’m callin’ it for today.”

There was pride in this work that I’d never felt before, in the self-reliance of it, in the wealth of knowledge Leigh held about all things that moved the sea to surge or settle, and in the understanding that every lobster you set your hands to was more money earned for the boat. Leigh herself was sturdy and proud. Five feet tall and a staunch believer in sunscreen, she wore men’s clothing and silver hoops in her ears. Originally from Connecticut, she worked one summer on a whale-watching boat in Bar Harbor, saw the lobstermen, and thought: I want to do that, that looks real.

That was 24 years ago.

A call box, where lobsters are sorted by size: keepers are sold and shorts are thrown back.
A call box, where lobsters are sorted by size: keepers are sold and shorts are thrown back. (Greta Rybus)

Besides Leigh, I had no friends, nobody to talk to. When I walked from her boat wharf to the co-op, a sort of lobstermen’s union where members sell their catch and buy bait, a man blocked the door.

“Can I pick up some oil pants and gloves?” I asked. “I’m going sternman for Leigh.”

He grunted. I decided to take this as a yes. From the top of the stairs, he watched me, arms crossed, as I made my way to the supply room and rifled nervously through the vinyl gloves, trying to find some that were small enough.

“I’m Luna,” I said.

He grunted again.

I got what I needed and asked to pay.

“I can’t do that, come back later,” he said tersely, so I left and hurried back to Leigh. I was sweating.

“You get your things all right?” she asked.

“Yeah, but the man who was there wouldn’t let me pay.”

“Go back when Claire’s there, she can put it on the account.”

“All right.”

“He didn’t give you a hard time, did he? What’d he look like?”

Sixties, I guessed, trim, with white hair cut short, a clean, long-sleeved T-shirt under a dirty, short-sleeved one.

“Oh, that’s Sam,” she said, frowning. “Total asshole. You let me know if he gives you a hard time.”

It would be a while before I saw him smile, but when I did, I’d see stained and broken teeth.

The first three weeks, it was foggy nearly every day, often so thick that I couldn’t see the water from the house. I kayaked from the landing on the north side of the island to the harbor each morning in a sweatshirt hacked off at the elbows, a spray skirt stretched tight over my Carhartts. It took me about 15 minutes.

There was a light under the pitch of the co-op roof that shone all night, and in the very early morning I would follow it through the fog until I smelled diesel. Usually, the sun just finished rising as I reached the harbor, where 40-odd lobster boats were moored and wharfs heaped with traps jutted out into the little protected bay. Leigh met me at her wharf, where she’d park her truck and I’d leave my kayak, and we crammed together into the punt, which she paddled standing up. Following an unspoken agreement, we always kept quiet until the boat’s engine was on. Then the mooring pennant splashed, and our day began.

We finished hauling by 1 or 2 P.M., then I’d paddle home. I stripped down to my underwear, hung my clothes outside, and scrubbed my forearms raw with a Scotch-Brite and dish soap, but the smell of bait still followed me everywhere. Nobody ever asked me how my day was. It would have been a hard question to answer anyway. My feet hurt. I never sat down, I hardly had time to eat. My arms weren’t strong enough, so I used my back. I got seasick. I got sun poisoning. Scrapes on my arms became infected from the rusty metal of the traps. Leigh and I peed on the floor and washed it out through the scuppers, along with seaweed, bait grease, and lobster bands. How was my day? I loved it.

When I wasn’t working, I read. Discovered Ruth Moore, a Maine islander writing about Maine islanders in the mid-1900s. “That was the place that you were homesick for, even when you were there,” she wrote of Maine in her novel The Weir. That sentence echoed in my head all day. I gave up on Moby-Dick and plunged instead into Ahab’s Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund’s novel, built off a brief reference to one of the only women mentioned in Melville’s epic. The reason sailors wore gold, I learned in the book, was to cover the cost of a burial—their own. That way, if they washed up on foreign shores, their debts were paid, even in death. But they chose to carry beauty, adornment, rather than coins. Which would you see first, I wondered, the body or that flash of gold? I thought of the wildflowers on my deck, flimsy and defiant in the fog. Maybe they really would have served me better than a bilge pump if I’d been blown to Portugal.

The author aboard Priceless, motoring out to the lobster traps
The author aboard Priceless, motoring out to the lobster traps (Leigh, captain of Priceless)

At the end of each day, we unloaded our catch at the co-op. Sam and two boys my age slid it onto the dock, weighed it, and sent it up to the storage room, where seawater drizzled over the lobster cars—floating crates with slits in the sides and folding tops—and the air smelled of ammonia and the tangy, oily scent of fish. A big man with a beard sped around on a forklift and sent down buckets of bait. He never stopped laughing. (“I think it’s a nervous tick,” Leigh whispered. “That man’s life just isn’t that funny.”) One of the boys, tall, with shaggy dark hair, chattered about the weather. The other boy didn’t talk much, but he’d smile at us around his cigarette. I was curious about them.

“Like, where do they live, Leigh? Do they live at home? What about in the winter, aren’t they lonely and bored?” I immediately felt bad for asking. And for being from a place where college was expected, rather than a rare exception. “I wish I knew their names,” I said.

I’d come here, I realized, to keep my loneliness company. Because there was something in me that craved the open horizon, was smoothed by wind and sound and the cold, restless leap of fear. Was my life any different because I woke up each morning alone? Don’t we always wake alone?

“The cure for loneliness is solitude,” Marianne Moore once wrote. My mind fetched up on that and stuck. At college the first time around, in a city, I felt homeless. There I needed some sort of barrier between me and the world—I couldn’t daydream while crossing the street, I had to look both ways. I met people all day long, but I felt myself receding. Following a need I couldn’t articulate, once that semester I biked 30 miles just to taste salt water. Chest-deep in the ocean, elbows pinched in at the hips, I felt the edge of myself. Thought, Never again will I live someplace where I can’t walk in the middle of the road.

How close, I wondered, does another person get to us, and how often? Rarely, someone makes it to the shoreline; a few times in a lifetime, maybe they duck branches, scrape the tangled center. And me? I walked the interior trails of my little island quickly, preferred the rocks. I liked their pink foreheads combed over with seaweed, the thorny meadow where I stained my fingers in blackberry juice and blood. Had I made any mark on this place, or would the island close around my absence, complete?

For some reason, or no reason at all, Sam started being nicer. Leigh thought he was trying to embarrass me, but I wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know anyone to be embarrassed in front of,” I pointed out.

It became a joke between us.

“Hi, Luna!” he’d yell whenever he saw me, which was often, since I had to kayak past the co-op to go in or out of the harbor.

“Hi, Sam!” I’d shout back. He seemed satisfied with this.

Leigh shook her head.

The Down East shoreline
The Down East shoreline (Jack Soley)

Mornings were my favorite part of living on the island, besides fishing. They were also the only time I didn’t smell like bait. I guess my skin absorbed the last of it in my sleep. I liked to wake up with the stars and make breakfast while the sky turned blue. I scattered seed on the granite that was my front yard, and a pair of mourning doves started joining me. I imagined confiding in them. I want to scrub my life clean, to see if, underneath it all, I have anything that shines. But I’m afraid to weigh my worth. The doves wouldn’t understand that, they were light. And lived from dawn to dawn, and mated for life. They’d fly away as the sky turned pink and gray, the colors of their feathers, and I’d follow them down the trail to the dock.

“Leigh,” I asked as we cleaned up for the day, “why’d you name your boat Priceless?”

She stopped for a moment to wipe her forehead on a shirt sleeve. “Well, it’s like this,” she said. “The price is bad right now, right, but still, the job’s priceless, the boat’s priceless, my kids are priceless. Guess it’s a way of saying my life is priceless, even when it’s priced.”

“Anyway,” she added, “it’s better than Whiskey Girl—that was my last boat.”

Days when the clouds were high and close and the sun warm, I lay on the rocks and read. Time passed strangely that way, in leaps and chunks. Sometimes I fell asleep so long that the tide rose and the ocean sneezed on me. I’d run back in the house then, light a fire and turn the radio on, and the fog would roll in again as I cooked dinner.

“Life is good,” Leigh told me one day on the boat. “Life is funny.” She paused, reconsidered. “Life is good. Shit, I shouldn’t say that, something’s gonna break.”

One weekend in July, my mother visited. I made pasta with mussels from the tidepool, and we cracked our teeth on tiny pearls.

A lobster trap breaking the surface as it's tossed out
A lobster trap breaking the surface as it's tossed out (Greta Rybus)

As the summer waned and we pulled up at the co-op for the last time, it was business as usual. We passed the heavy lobster car onto the dock and got an empty one back. I dumped a new bucket of bait into the tray and winced as brown juice splattered my face. Leigh and I each raised a hand in thanks and shoved off.

“I’ll miss you, Luna!” Sam called as we passed. I kept on scrubbing the deck, trying not to smile. Then, suddenly, I turned and shouted back, “I’ll miss you too, Sam!” Because it was true.

He swung our car onto the scale, pretending not to hear. Leigh caught the mooring, and we rowed to shore.

I’m home now, and summer is waning, a good book I read and reread and dread reaching the end. Texts from friends: “I got this teapot for the house”, “Jill can we drive to your place and go apple-picking? My uncle’s visiting, wants to know about lobstering. I should tell him I’m not afraid anymore. I learned the heft of my heart with the weight of the trap, and I carried that load alone. I want to say that loneliness is better in the morning than a cup of coffee. That it wakes you, makes everything after sweet. That for now, I’ve leveled my debt.

But I don’t. “When I think about it,” I tell him, “there’s one day I remember.”

We were fishing outside the islands, so we started early. I beat the mourning doves to breakfast, and the air was cold and very dark blue when I left. I shut the door softly, even though there was no one to wake. Leigh picked me up at the landing, a treat, and the sun was just rising as we motored past the islands, big green stones skipped from the mouth of the bay. It was, as Leigh would say, a beauty day. The sea shone like one of my mother’s pans after she’d taken steel wool to it, the sun a yellow lump of butter melting out.

The fishing was good that day, the white plastic tank mostly full and the herring down to dregs in the bait tray. I was tired from pulling pairs and from being two miles offshore, nausea flooding in and out with the low, rolling seas. Near the end of our last string, a tiny silver fish flopped onto the rail. We stopped, amazed. It looked like a herring, like bait, except it was small and perfect, barely the length of my pinky. “An anchovy,” Leigh said. We stared at it too long. By the time we threw it back, it was motionless, maybe dead. It had been so luminous and bright, the prettiest thing. For some reason, I felt sad. Felt like this whole hard thing had been worth it just to see that little fish. I shook myself, stuffed a bait bag hurriedly. Next to me, Leigh was speeding toward the last pair, fish forgotten.

“This is the one we’ve been looking for all day!” she joked, and I smiled, bracing my knees against the gunnel in the swell. Leigh gaffed the buoy and opened the throttle on the hauler, the little anchovy just a glimmer now as it drifted past our stern. In the rumpled green water, the line from the deep ran straight.