At daybreak, rumbling through a greasy little swell, the 30-foot Virginia makes her way from Rockland, Maine, for the lobster grounds. Backlit by the chartplotter’s glow the helmsman is steady at the wheel, while behind him, a small, almost Yoda-like figure hunches over the sorting table readying bait. Tucked inside a black Grundéns jacket, her grey hair a tousled tuft, Virginia Oliver is back at work.
This might not seem particularly significant; lots of women work as sternmen or captains in Maine’s lobster industry. But only one of them has been out on this water for nine decades. Now 100 years old, having celebrated that milestone birthday in June, Virginia sees little reason to slow down her routine of working alongside her 76-year-old son, Max, catching lobsters.
“I have 200 pots of my own, and he can have 600 but he usually has 250 or something like that,” she says. “We usually set out in June or the end of May, and we try to have them all hauled out by the first of November. I don’t want to go anymore when there’s ice on the boat and all that. I don’t have to.”
She stops to chuckle, something she does frequently—a musical laugh that sweeps all the way up to her blue-grey eyes, which scrunch up in merriment. “I’m getting lazy in my old age!”
Born in Rockland, Maine, Virginia “was raised right up in lobstering.” Her father kept a store where he was a seafood dealer. Hip-high to the men who came to offload their catch, she would weigh their lobsters, pump gas and generally help out. “I grew up on the water. When I was eight years old, I had to take my father’s boat and go over to one or two of the other islands and tell the men to come to work. I did that all by myself. So, I guess that’s why I like it, because it’s the life I’ve lived.”
She went to school in Rockland, three years of high school until she got married. “Them times people did that. I don’t know as they ought to today, it’s a different world, really,” she says. Her husband started lobstering in 1945. Virginia had worked in a printing business for about 18 years and only went out with him on weekends. But in 1976, she says, the printing place went bankrupt, and she started working full-time as his sternman.
“Then I thought, well I’d better get a regular license, and I’m glad I did because now it’s harder to get one,” she says. Fourteen years ago, her husband passed away, but Virginia didn’t leave the water. Instead, she started lobstering with their son. These days the pair works three days a week. “I don’t want to go every day because that’s a job, and I don’t want a job,” she says.
She moves carefully but purposefully around the boat, every motion a lifelong muscle memory. She never gets seasick, though she has had to make some concessions to age. For instance, after Virginia broke her right wrist a while back, she had to change the way she banded the lobster’s claws. Only her left hand could manipulate the pliers properly, so she wedges the lobsters against the raised side of the stainless-steel sorting table with her right hand, snapping the thick rubber bands around them with her left. “You can always find a way to do something,” she says. “I’ve been lucky, really, to be able to do all of this at my age. You have to keep moving around and all of that, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to do it. ’Cause you know, if you didn’t do anything for one week, you’d be a while getting back, just one week. That’s just the way life is.”
It’s that determination, that plain persistence that prompted the organizers of the annual Maine Lobster Festival in Rockland to name Virginia the Grand Marshal of the 2020 event’s highlight, the parade that closes down Main Street and draws thousands of people. The event was cancelled due to Covid-19, but her family is proud she was recognized by the community. “She may be 100, but Virginia has not let her age slow her down,” the festival’s organizers said in a release announcing the decision last winter. “The Lobster Lady, as Virginia is affectionately known, has worked as a sternman for her son on the F/V Virginia for 13 years. Virginia is a hard worker with a no-nonsense work ethic, and we couldn’t be prouder to have her represent the festival, the town of Rockland, and the lobster industry at this year’s big parade.”
It’s an honor, no doubt, and certainly one she didn’t expect and is thoroughly pleased about. Still, it won’t be changing her customary path to the boat nearly every day.
“You get up early in the morning and go to haul, and sometimes we don’t get back till two o’clock. A lot of people haven’t even seen the sunrise, they don’t know how nice it is. And sometimes the moon’s out when you’re going out.” She laughs once more. “I’ve really lived a different life than most, I think.”
This article was originally published in the October 2020 issue.