The young men and the sea
Fishing is their love, sport, teacher, livelihood
TOPSHAM — While many teenagers rush off after school to soccer practice, drama club, a job or a friend's house, some start up their fishing boats and venture out to sea.
Three Mt. Ararat High School students are among those who have the ocean in their blood.
Martin Ramsay, 16, a junior from Orr's Island; Nils Wessel, 18, a senior from South Harpswell; and Chris McIntyre, 15, a sophomore from North Harpswell, are the latest links in a long chain of Mainers who have eked out a livelihood on the water, and received the blessings and the burdens that come with it.
All three have been fishing from early childhood.
"I grew up on the boat," Ramsay said. "I went aboard the boat when I was 3 or 4, and I've been out there ever since."
Both of McIntyre's grandfathers are lobstermen, along with his father and three of his uncles.
Wessel's uncle, who owns a boat shop, told his nephew he would give him a good deal on a bigger boat, which Wessel plans to buy in the next couple of years.
The warmer months understandably deliver the most business. Ramsay starts around 5 a.m. in the summer and wraps up by 2 p.m. four days a week. "It depends on whether the lobsters are hitting real hard and you can haul in three nights," he said. "Sometimes it's five days a week."
McIntyre and his grandfather tend to start around 4 a.m., and the length of the workday depends on how fast they haul, how broadly their traps are spread and how many they haul in that day.
Getting up so early for fishing makes getting up for school a relative picnic.
Since September through November are key times for lobstering, Wessel gets out of school early three days a week in order to hit the sea. "I'd be out there until like dark, hauling," he said. "That's when the money is, in the fall."
Because of the large amount of time fishing demands, the teens have had to make sacrifices. Ramsay has not been able to play baseball for two seasons since he has been busy preparing traps. Fall sports are an issue for McIntyre, who has been unable to participate in preseason practices.
The sacrifice of baseball does not bother Ramsay, he said: "I'd much rather go fishing."
Wessel and McIntyre readily agreed. "I'd rather be on the water than doing just about anything else," McIntyre said.
There is one thing that McIntyre does not sacrifice, with his parents making sure he puts school work first; the demands of fishing have taught him to manage his time and money properly.
"It's going to be a way for me to be able to pay for college, if that's the way I decide to go," McIntyre said.
Ramsay said he struggles with school, "and fishing's a big part of it, actually, because I'd much rather be out making money. I make good money as it is, and it's hard for me to be in school."
Still, all three acknowledged the importance of staying in school. "You're working for yourself, and you never know, it's always different, so it's definitely an industry that you want to have something fall back on," McIntyre said. "You can make a lot of money, but you can lose out on a lot of money."
"It's not going to be a steady income," Wessel added.
McIntyre saod "it's hard, definitely, coming to school here, when I could be out making quite a bit of money for someone my age. ... But you've just got to keep in the back of your mind that you could be fine for a couple of years, and then all of a sudden lobster gets puts on the endangered species list or whatever, and you're out of a job; you're working at McDonald's flipping burgers, and that's definitely not somewhere I want to be."
The recent economic downturn, which also saw lobster prices drop last summer, has shown the young fishermen how much like a roller-coaster the industry can be. "Luckily the price, near the end of the year, it went up a little bit, but still not right where it should have been," Wessel said. "So I know a lot of lobstermen missed out on a lot of cash."
"People could have made a lot of money this fall," McIntyre echoed, "but the price didn't help."
While he is still building up his traps and expects to make more money each year, McIntyre said, "I know I made about the same amount of money this year as I did last year, and I caught a lot more lobsters than I caught the year before. ... There were a lot of lobsters around."
"I had dropped off about probably $2,000 from the year before, and my catch was significantly higher than it was the year before," Ramsay said.
The teens sell their catch at local wharfs, which determine the prices. Ramsay and McIntyre both sell to Cook's Lobster, and Wessel sells to Interstate Lobster.
Once high school is through, Ramsay said he would like to go to a two-year school to become a diesel mechanic. "I'll always be a fisherman, I'll always have traps," he said. "I just want to be able to have something else I can fall back on."
After he graduates this year, Wessel plans to keep lobstering until late October or November, and then enter Southern Maine Community College next January. He would like to go into masonry or carpentry.
Although it is still a few years off, McIntyre, too, plans to go to college. He would like to play hockey there, as well as study history. "I definitely want to continue lobstering when I get out of college," he said.
All three spoke of backup plans. But if they knew they could make a successful career of it, all three said, they would be fishermen.
For Ramsay, the draw is "working for yourself. Being your own boss. You don't have anybody to answer to."
"I just like being out there on the water, my own boat, my own traps," Wessel said. "Just learning more about it every year, getting better at it."
"I love that it's always something different," McIntyre said. "Nothing is ever the same. There's so many variables in lobstering, and it's different every single day you go out there."