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- The Forecaster
PORTLAND — Old habits die hard. In David MacVane’s case, they don’t even retire.
“I got a built-in clock, I wake at up three o’clock,” MacVane said Oct. 24, as he nibbled a breakfast croissant at Cia Cafe in the Knightville neighborhood of South Portland.
MacVane, 81, is a Cliff Island native, one of three owners of Portland’s Widgery Wharf. He retired last week from a life of lobstering that began when he was 5.
“I used to bait the irons when I was a kid. I got seasick every day,” he said.
Cia Cafe on Ocean Street is the third stop MacVane makes most mornings, after tending to wharf business and popping into nearby Becky’s Diner on Commercial Street in Portland.
MacVane now lives in Windham. Until a couple of years ago, he was hauling the maximum 800 traps allowed by law, even after heart surgery, a new knee and cortisone shots in his shoulders.
His wife of 57 years, Patricia, died Aug. 12. Shortly after, he decided to step off his lobster boat, Empty Pockets, and into life on solid ground.
“I’d do it now if my shoulders were good,” MacVane said. “If my wife was here, things would be different.”
Plainspoken with a ready grin and a wealth of stories, MacVane misses his wife, whom he met in the waters off Cliff Island. He was a native. She was from away: Winchester, Massachusetts. Her family spent summers on the island.
“I was pulling traps and her brother knew where I was, he would see me and he’d cut the power,” MacVane said, recalling sights of Patricia’s water-skiing.
He left the finer story details to Cia owner Jeannie Dunnigan. MacVane’s future wife was wearing a mink bandeau bikini top, enhanced with nylons that were trailing in the water when he helped her onboard. His first look at her was generous enough that she immediately demanded he ask her father for her hand.
“You tell it so good,” MacVane said to Dunnigan when she finished.
His own tales of growing up on Cliff Island are as vivid. It was a time when he could keep baby seals as pets, and take a rifle to school so he could go hunting after class.
“They’d move around the floor and jumped up on the couch,” he said of the seals. His passion for hunting developed on the island, where he helped thin the herd each year.
As a child, he witnessed electricity come to Cliff Island.
“I remember when they put the line over, my mother took me over to watch and said ‘I want you to remember this,’” MacVane recalled.
David and Patricia MacVane moved to the mainland shortly after the birth of their youngest daughter, in part because it was potentially difficult to evacuate the island in case of emergency. The family settled in a house MacVane found and restored in Raymond Cape, in Casco, far closer to Sebago Lake than Casco Bay.
“I used to get up early, I had quite a ride from Raymond Cape,” he said.
About 50 years ago, shortly after moving inland, MacVane joined his father, Rufus MacVane, a cousin, Leland Merrill and six others to buy Widgery Wharf on Commercial Street.
MacVane and Peter Kelly are the last of the original group of shareholders, although Kelly’s son, Tom, is now also a partner.
“We were all fisherman. We could tie up to it, that’s what I bought it for,” MacVane said.
Tucked between Union and Chandler’s wharfs, Widgery Wharf dates to 1776 and remains a working waterfront, to the pride of MacVane and Kelly.
“We all grew up more or less the same way,” said Kelly, who has worked on and owned boats since he was 13. “We kept it going, used to pay rent ourselves.”
The partners resisted sales offers, such as the one that led to the construction of the Chandlers Wharf condominiums, barely a rope toss across the water from the Widgery’s shacks and moored workboats.
“We wouldn’t sell. ‘You can’t buy us out, you haven’t got enough money,’ we’d say,” Kelly recalled.
MacVane said he and his wife got even more involved, working at the forefront of efforts to preserve the city’s waterfront through zoning enacted about 25 years ago.
“My wife and I got a group together to stop some of that, we had meetings,” he said.
MacVane’s interests expanded beyond the water. He is a registered Maine guide who headed to the Allagash region over the weekend for some bird hunting, before deer season fully opens. He’s also owned land and camps near and far from Portland, including Buxton and Eustis.
When not tending to wharf business, he catches up with old friends like Merrill, Buxton lobsterman Steve Straw, and Skip Larrabee, who once tended lighthouses.
Although certain he misses his wife, MacVane is not sure how much he misses hauling traps.
“I’ll let you know in the spring. I loved going out in the spring,” he said. “When you go out in the winter and the waves are coming over you and it’s freezing, it is not a good business.”
“You tell it so good,” David MacVane said to Cia Cafe owner Jeannie Dunnigan last Friday, as she filled in details of how he met his wife. MacVane pulled his final lobster traps last week, ending a career of about 75 years on the water.
“We wouldn’t sell,” said Widgery Wharf co-owner Peter Kelly Friday, recalling efforts to keep the wharf part of Portland’s working waterfront. Kelly and David MacVane are the last of the original shareholders who bought the wharf 50 years ago.