The Beauty of Purpose

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Nature’s splendor is more than a backdrop for those who make a living at sea.

“In the recurrent rhythms of tides and surf and in the varied life of the tide lines there is the obvious attraction of change and beauty. There is also, I am convinced, a deeper fascination of inner meanings and significance.”

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— Rachel Carson, Edge of the Sea, 1955

The coast of Maine. Winslow Homer didn’t discover it, but the 19th century dean of American marine artists made it famous.

Ever since Homer set up his easel at Prout’s Neck and began turning out his powerful Maine seascapes, the region of pine-clad islands and rocky headlands, sturdy watercraft and hardy people has attracted the eye of artists great and small.

“[They] have always found great inspiration here in Maine, both visually and spiritually,” says artist Don Demers from his Maine studio. “There is a poignant relationship between the rugged land and the simple havens that have been built and established over the last couple of hundred years. There’s a charm and a human narrative that draws out artistic inspiration.”

That’s perhaps embodied best in the Maine lobster boat, plying the waters around East Boothbay, Monhegan Island and Down East to the Port Clyde peninsula, Camden and Mount Desert. “The watercraft along the coast are unique, compelling and very often beautiful, regardless of whether they are working or pleasure craft,” says Demers. “They are a constant, unending source of visual interest and artistic inspiration.”

But Maine is more than just subject matter. There’s something about nature there, something in the atmosphere. “Winter is characterized by crystal-clear air and the austere play of light and shadow,” says Demers. “The soft, damp fog of spring creates a mysterious quality. And summer’s blues and greens lead into the ambers and the slanting shadows of fall. It’s easy to find visual stimulation along the rocky, pine-laden shores.”

Keith Reynolds, who has painted in Maine for more than 50 years, gets into his rowboat at 7 a.m. and rows out in the calm, watching the shore. “I watch the fishermen going out, the reflections on the water,” he says. “There’s a sailboat in the harbor, sitting quiet. The sun is coming up, just catching the top of the mast. There’s a mirror image in the water — it’s just absolutely beautiful.”

Maine, as Demers puts it, activates all of the senses.

— Steve Knauth

Don Demers’ Wind Driven recalls a Winslow Homer painting of the same name. Maine thrusts a rugged coastline into the Atlantic, and blue-green waves beat incessantly along the rocky, windswept headlands where the sea meets the shore. This is where Homer was inspired to create the “powerful Maine seascapes” that put the painter — and Maine — on the artistic map. The dramatic vistas of Maine’s coast have provided inspiration for generations of artists since then, and Demers has been one of the most celebrated.

The coast of Maine is a coast of contrasts, at once a place of rolling sea and perilous surf, of quiet coves and anchorages where a lobster boat can rest on a mooring at the end of a long day. The Scottish painter Ian Marshall, known for his grand, historic canvases, captures the peaceful mood using watercolors in Blue on Blue.

Working the Maine waters means following the rhythms of the season. Trap Day is a winter ritual, when the local lobstermen set their first traps of the season. On Jan. 1, as depicted in Loretta Krupinski’s Waiting for Trap Day, the fishermen would descend on the harbor and load the waiting traps onto their boats, anxious to make one of those legendary first-day hauls.

I don’t have to look back too hard or too far to see Fred the lobsterman dousing the wooden boat ramp with buckets of seawater as he prepares to launch his skiff. The planks descend from the top of the seawall that runs along the inside of the cove until they finally disappear under the water.

Stationed at the top of the ways like a weathered old herring gull is Fred’s wooden outboard skiff — low-sided, well-worn and full of wooden baskets, totes, bait, fuel tanks, a fishing rod and other tools of the inshore lobsterman’s trade.

The boat was launched using “Norwegian steam” — muscle power. We were boys who spent many summer afternoons gigging flounder in the cove. When Fred summoned us from the water and our summer-long daydream, we would quickly assemble around the bow, eager and dripping wet more often than not. And on his command, we’d put all the lean, springy muscles of our backs and shoulders and legs into the task of making that skiff slide seaward.

“Come on, boys,” Fred would growl. “On three now.” And once inertia was overcome, “Keep her moving. Keep her moving. Watch yourself.”

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We all knew, of course, who really made the boat move. Fred had the powerful ropey forearms and the defined biceps of someone used to wrestling with traps day after day, season after season. But we loved being part of it all: the boats, fish, lobsters, our expanding salty vernacular and, perhaps most powerful, the sense that this was where we belonged, that we were locals and most everyone else an outsider.

Although we were not related by blood, he was always, to me, “Uncle Fred,” a title that spoke of a long, lasting friendship between families. I continued to refer to him that way as I grew into an adult. His wife, Loretta, was my godmother, and she, too, was addressed with affection as “aunt.”

I see him standing at the stern, holding the long, extended outboard tiller in one hand, dressed in worn khakis and a T-shirt, knee-high fishing boots, a pipe in his mouth. He opens the throttle, the boat begins to plane, and he carves a smooth turn out of the cove, headed for the reefs and his traps. What kid wouldn’t be impressed by this tough, independent lobsterman with a growl to match his tough little skiff?

Looking back, it is fair to say those years shaped forever my perception of boats, of the men who made their living on the water and of the waters themselves. They left me with a lifelong appreciation for the beauty, utility and — in the right hands — the seaworthiness of small craft, especially those derived from workboats. It was early exposure to the proverb that form follows function.

Maine lobster boats fish in fair weather and foul — spring, summer, fall, winter, inshore and offshore. They are run by watermen like Fred, who know better than to get too sentimental about a boat; that’s an indulgence for those of us who don’t earn our paychecks from fishing.

Whether they’re carrying pots and bait barrels, a gill net or a small scallop dredge, these are boats with a purpose — stout vessels designed to carry their skippers and crews out to the grounds and back in one piece, economically, safely and consistently. Not a lot of frills but not a lot of surprises, either.

On the working waterfront, functionality, reliability, economy and seakindliness are their own form of luxury.

-William Sisson

February 2015 issue