On the Job

A lobsterman in Maine talks about the lure of working on the water

Cheryl Carlin

Richard Larrabee has been a lobsterman for most of his life, and despite the long hours and dangerous conditions, he loves the job. A native of Deer Isle, Maine, he has also served as a town officer for Stonington, the island's largest town, for some 16 years. Larrabee talks about the lure of working on the water.

How did you get into the business?
On my mother's side, all her people were fishermen. And on my grandmother Larrabee's side, all her people were fishermen. It was in the blood. You can go to work on land—we used to run a trap mill, building lobster traps—but always, there's the water. I guess it was just meant to be.

What's an average day?
I get up around 3 [a.m.]. I'll have a cup of coffee and pack my lunch, and I'm out the door. I go to the little store and buy a cup of coffee, and then I go to the shore. I start the boat up, get the electronics going. My stern man shows up, and we'll cast off, take what bait I need for the day. Then I'll steam for the first pair of traps. Weather permitting, I try to haul 270 a day, a third of my traps. When I'm done, I come into the float [at the Stonington Lobster Co-operative, which takes the catch], tie up, throw the lobsters on the float.

How do you stay warm?
You wear thermal underwear and a snowmobile suit. And you have a hot-water barrel. You have a little metal coil and a thirty or forty-gallon barrel. As your engine warms up, the heat circulates through this coil and heats the water so you have 170-, 180-degree water all the time that you can put your hands in. I wear cotton gloves. You dip your hands in, and they stay warm.

Do you get seasick?
I used to. A lot. I know fishermen, captains who have been fishing all their lives who get seasick. I kind of outgrew it. You see people who are sick and you feel bad for them. I think a lot of it is brought on by fear. They see this roll, this big swell, and they think, "Oh no."

Is falling overboard common?
No, but sometimes they get pulled overboard. Ropes. Setting traps. When you have a stern man in the beginning, you're real careful with the ropes. I always look at my feet when I set a trap, and I'm always turning and watching him. I know a lot of fellas that have been pulled overboard.

Do lobstermen wear life jackets?
No, none of them that I know. Most don't swim either. Where are you going to swim? Hypothermia is going to get you nine chances out of ten. If the boat is sinking, and you get hold of somebody on the radio, they could probably save you. You have survival suits, life rafts. But if you go overboard, you're not going to go far. In the winter, it's 38, 36 degrees. How long are you going to last? Not long. But you don't think about that.

Have you ever faced a major emergency on the water?
My cousin's boat sank two years ago. He blew the back exhaust off. We were offshore the day it happened, and there was no way we could cover the distance to get there, but there were other boats that were right there with him. It's dangerous. Sometimes when you're offshore, the wind comes up. It can be bad. The seas come in so quick. I'll idle until I come in home. It can take hours. You're fighting the sea. You're fighting everything. Some fellas stay out there, just stay out there and wait, hope it blows through.

Is lobstering competitive?
There's territory. For example, if we get too close to other lobstermen's lines, they'll cut our lines. A lot of the old timers know the boundaries. You have lines you stay within. When you try to get your territory back, it won't be one fisherman, it will be ten fishermen who cut your lines. It works both ways. You expect it and they expect it. There's a lot of competition, but in a matter of emergency, everyone pitches in and helps no matter what.

How much does the gear cost?
The traps themselves run you about $84. That's without rope or buoys. Completely rigged you've got about $125 each for them. Boats range from $80,000 to one down here that's worth $750,000. A $50,000 or $60,000 boat is probably not in great shape.

What do you most enjoy about your work?
I think it's the freedom. Out there, it's like you're being born again every day. Everything is new. Sometimes when the weather is bad, and you've got a lot of wind and fog, or it's raining or down around zero, you hate it. You're freezing to death. The next day, you get up in the morning, and you can't wait to do it again. You love it every morning you get up.

Have you ever been injured by a lobster?
Oh yeah. There isn't a fisherman here who can say he hasn't been. A lot of times, you'll see this nice big lobster in the corner of the trap. You reach across, and they're might be a small lobster that'll latch on. The claw pulses when it has you. The minute you feel them slapping, you pull your finger out. I've seen some lobstermen throw that lobster the length of the boat. Temper. But what good is that going to do? You'll never catch that lobster.

Lobstermen and others on the island seem to live long lives, commonly into their 90s. Why do you think that is?
It's the way we eat. We eat a lot of fish, a lot of sea products. And the beef we get here is pretty decent; it's Maine-grown. And we work in the air. It's the quality of the air here.

Can you tell us about your efforts to change the management of other fisheries, such as cod, that are severely depleted?
I'm doing it for the younger fishermen, for my son and grandson, so that they will have an alternative fishery. In my opinion, there are no better stewards for the fishing industry than the fishermen. Technology is going to be the ruination of fishing. The fish mentality hasn't changed. They haven't grown smarter. We're working to protect a more traditional fishing—hook fishing. We want to close an area off to the big boats. You need an area where the fish have spawning grounds, where the fish are going to return. We just want inland [25 miles from shore]. We're saying to the government, let us build an industry.

Any advice for someone who wants to be a lobsterman?
A young person just starting out should definitely learn from and respect the older fishermen. There are some out there who are 75 years old. The best thing I could tell them is to be patient. A new fisherman is going to lose at least a third of his gear the first year. [Other fishermen] are going to cut him off. They're going to set boundaries. He has to prove to them that he's capable of being a clean fisherman. And you've got to be willing to work 16 hours a day, because you're not only going to haul, you're repairing gear, you're cutting rope, you're getting ready for the next day. The life of a fisherman is his life. There is no other life.

Are there any women lobstermen?
Oh yes. It's the same life for them. Most of their husbands are fishermen too. A lot of the women on this island have a [lobstering] license. They're just as good as the men, probably better. They go at it harder.

Do you eat lobster? No, I don't like it. But my wife loves it, so I cook it for her.

Siobhan Roth is a regular contributor to Smithsonian.com

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