Changes in Latitude - MAINE

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Where the bustle moves indoors

MAINE - Where the bustle moves indoors

A winter boatyard in New England is a quieter place than it once was; shrinkwrap has largely eliminated the rustling and flapping we associate with earlier types of boat covers. It’s a ghostly kind of quiet, accentuated this year by the snow that arrived in early December and punctuated

Regardless of the port you call home, the waterfront is a different place during the winter. Here are perspectives from other latitudes:   Changes in Latitude - CHESAPEAKE BAY    Changes in Latitude - THE KEYS

occasionally by the quiet swoosh as powder slides off a cover to the ground.

At the boatyard down my street in Yarmouth, Maine, the spars are still uncovered. Lacking a building big enough for the purpose, management stores them on an outdoor rack that eventually gets shrinkwrapped like the boats. But for the time being all the masts, stays, foils, roller-furling spools and associated rigging sport caps of snow. I wonder if that’s a good idea, though aluminum and stainless steel were probably put to use in spars with such conditions in mind. If the shrinkwrap crew doesn’t get to the mast rack soon, the few wood sticks there likely will need some serious attention to their varnish come spring.

Ramps and floats are piled in the parking lot; buoys, disassembled water pipes and other paraphernalia are stacked in their usual winter spots. The crew is largely indoors these days, attacking maintenance or repair projects of various scope in large, heated sheds. They have fitted snowplows to the yard’s pickup trucks, and within a few hours of a snowfall the driving conditions at the boatyard are as good as you’ll find on most Maine roads in the winter.

Down the road in Portland things are a little busier, though still relatively quiet. The scheduled island ferries are running in and out of Casco Bay Lines’ terminal on Commercial Street but on a reduced schedule; the parking garages aren’t as full as they are in August; the big cruise ships that visit Portland and Bar Harbor in the fall are gone. It’s business as usual at the Fish Exchange, meaning there isn’t much business given the state of the groundfishery.

Farther along Commercial Street a pair of energetic entrepreneurs, the Ready brothers, have launched an innovative scheme for marketing lobsters called “Catch a Piece of Maine.” Investors purchase a lobster trap’s harvest for the season and are guaranteed 40 lobsters, shipped to destinations of their choice. Up at City Hall the squabbling goes on over the fate of the city-owned Maine State Pier, a neglected stretch of working waterfront that could become all sorts of wonderful things if decision-makers knew what they wanted.

In December there were two other developments of note on Portland’s waterfront: the announcement that regular service by the container ship Simone J will cease after New Year’s, and that Phineas Sprague plans to put his extensive waterfront real estate holdings on the market for an unspecified price. Sprague’s buildings will be familiar to many as the site of the annual Maine Boatbuilders Show in March.

To the east, in Port Clyde, the fishing community has tired of waiting for the federal government to “save” the cod and haddock fisheries from depletion through the various amendments to the Magnuson Act. Being independent sorts, the fishermen have decided to do something: join a “community supported fishery” project to help them change to less-destructive gear and “brand” their catches as sustainable. They’ve received a substantial grant to get started. It’s a leap of faith, particularly for rugged individuals more accustomed to competing than cooperating. This winter, as a way to build support and show they mean business, they’re selling their shrimp catch through churches in Rockland. (Groundfishermen often rig for shrimp for the winter season, which begins at the start of December.)

In Spruce Head the lobster co-op was successful — with support through Maine’s Working Waterfront Access Pilot Program — in obtaining permanent access to the slice of waterfront real estate it had been leasing. Such property has become prohibitively expensive in Maine at a time when fish catches (lobster included) have declined. The lobster fishery hasn’t collapsed, of course, but it’s not what it was a few years ago. Costs — fuel, bait, real estate, interest rates — have risen astronomically. Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar is down against the Canadian dollar, further altering the equation. A lot of “Maine” lobster actually passes through Canadian hands.

Access to Maine’s working waterfront has become a major concern, attracting the attention of non-profit groups — for example, the Island Institute and Coastal Enterprises Inc. — as well as the legislature and the governor. The Spruce Head co-op’s shorefront purchase was one of six recently funded through the access pilot program, and more are in the works. Voters have now passed two bond issues for the purpose and, except for some grumbling from one big lobster dealer with plenty of waterfront of his own, the program has garnered excellent reviews.

Three other Midcoast towns — Rockland, Camden and Belfast — could be joined soon in an unseemly off-season tug of war. Camden, home of Wayfarer Marine and its yacht-servicing predecessors for a century or so, recently turned down a local committee’s plan to change harbor zoning to allow Wayfarer to realize “residential” prices for some of its waterfront property (sell it for condos, in other words) in exchange for an agreement to maintain commercial operations on the rest of its extensive harborfront. Camden has become rather gentrified, and as that process has taken place, property values and taxes have risen — to the point where a boatyard (even a high-end one) has trouble making ends meet. Hence the proposal, which went down to defeat on November’s referendum ballot.

The tug of war is what might come next: Rockland, just down Route 1 and with a spacious harbor, would love another commercial yard. So would nearby Belfast. Here, credit card giant MBNA rebuilt much of the waterfront but then cut back when bought out by Bank of America. Belfast harbor was once the blood-soaked home of Maine’s chicken-slaughtering industry, and when that messy business left for sunnier climes the credit card folks cleaned up the place. Now they’re mostly gone, and what will come next is anyone’s guess. Wayfarer Marine, anyone?

Boatbuilding is as active as usual, with major restorations of vintage boats under way in Belfast, BoothbayHarbor and other spots. Chebeague Island designer and builder Michael Porter and his wife, Barbara, departed in mid-December aboard his new aluminum vessel (hull fabricated last winter at Lyman-Morse in Rockland) for a few months in the South, where he will finish the interior.

Farther Down East, on Swan’s Island, six generations of the Buswell family gathered for a family photo that appeared on Donna Wiegle’s wonderful Web newsletter, “News from the Island.” The eldest was 97, the youngest 2-1/2. Six generations, all alive and looking good — ponder that! Swan’s Island got its first snowstorm of the winter, 8 inches accompanied by strong northeast winds, Dec. 3 and 4.

“Lobstermen along the coast have complained of a disappointing year, and many are bringing all their gear home and hauling their boats out for the winter,” Wiegle reported. “With the high cost of fuel for boats, vehicles, and heating homes, many folks on the island and along the entire coast will really feel the pinch this winter.” Sobering news, even if a community can produce six living generations.

If you conclude from all this that Maine’s winter waterfronts are beehives of activity, you’re correct, as long as you understand that much of the action is more or less out of sight. These aren’t your summer waterfronts, jammed with boats and cars and fishermen and tourists, all jostling for limited space. In winter the activity is more muted and less obvious, but it’s more focused and often more effective. Boatbuilders and repairers are working indoors; the shrimp fleet is out there, selling their catches from pickup trucks along Route 1; boards of selectmen and members of city councils are making serious decisions; the legislature is about to begin its off-year session; state agencies, financiers, fishing co-ops and groups in small communities are making the choices that will define these waterfronts for years to come.

So this coast’s winter silences are, in a sense, an illusion. If you think nothing’s going on under all that shrinkwrap, don’t be fooled.

David D. Platt is editor of Working Waterfront, a monthly newspaper published by the Island Institute of Rockland, Maine.

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