Five young businessmen will be graduating from Deer Isle-Stonington High School in June. They’re lobstermen. Fishing has run in their families for generations, all have been fishing since they were tadpoles, and, when you consider an average cost of a boat at $60,000, around 500 traps at $60 each, and a truck, rope and buoys, those with boats of their own have invested about $100,000 in their businesses.
Who are these youthful entrepreneurs? They are Ben Billings of Sunshine, Kyle Jones of Stonington, Richard Robinson of Little Deer Isle, Matthew Shepard of Stonington and Ben Weed of Deer Isle. Weed and Jones are cousins.
Although most of the boys started with a boost from family members who purchased their first boats, the boys paid off or sold those “starter” boats and purchased bigger, better models.
In Matt Shepard’s case, his parents, Mike and Susie Shepard, bought him and his younger brother Patrick a 21-foot outboard when Matt was going into sixth grade. By the time Matt was 15, he paid off the boat and bought a 20-foot Mitchell Cove. At 18, he paid off the Mitchell Cove and bought a 29-foot Osmond Beal.
When Ben Weed was in third grade, his uncle, Mike Weed, gave him a 12-foot skiff he’d built. Ben bought a 22-foot Webber Cove when he was in sixth grade, and after paying that off, at 16, he bought a 30-foot South Shore.
Kyle Jones’s parents bought him a 15-foot Sturrey outboard when he was ten. At 15, he bought an 18-foot Sturrey outboard, and after paying that off, at 17, he bought a 30-foot Repco.
Richard Robinson bought a 14-foot skiff out of his own money when he was ten. He still has it, but at age 12 to 14, he bought a second 14-foot skiff, then at 18, he bought a 34-foot Arno Day.
“We always help each other,” said Matt Shepard. He explained, “Ben Billings is sternman for Ben Weed. Richard Robinson was Ben’s sternman last year.” This coming summer, he said, Richard will fish by himself for three months, in the fall he’ll go as sternman for Matt.
Talk to most generational fishermen and you’ll find they first went out with a father or grandfather at age three or four. They decided upon becoming a fisherman soon after. The difference between most fishermen and these five teenagers is these lucky fishermen have been taking classes in marine technology since they were in seventh grade.
The students have their island to thank for the marine trades department at Deer Isle-Stonington High School, said instructor Thomas Duym. The towns on Deer Isle choose to pay for the program. “Very few high schools have any type of self-funded vocational program,” Duym said. “This island invests dollars and time, and that results in support for these young people.”
Since Billings, Jones, Robinson, Shepard and Weed are already fishermen, the marine trades department offers classes to give students access to such skills as navigation, shoreline economics, boatbuilding and maintenance, fishing mechanics, and electrical engineering; advantages most of their fathers never had. And the fathers have impressed upon their sons how lucky they are. Kyle Jones said his father told him he was in his early- to mid-20s when he got what Kyle has now. Ben Weed said, “My father said he never had what we have. He bought a 36-foot boat starting the year after graduating from high school.” Matt Shepard said his father told him much the same thing. In a way, it’s almost as if the Deer Isle-Stonington students have been given the advantage of going to a secondary school version of Maine Maritime Academy.
Duym has his students design a theoretical fishing business, starting with the purchase of a fishing boat. As Billings said, “It’s a simulation, and we talk about [the various aspects]. We keep daily logs.”
For experience with actual ocean bottom, the class went on a Department of Marine Resources (DMR) boat that carried a Remotely Operated Vehicle [ROV]. Jones said the ROV showed them how different the bottom was from what they’d seen on their boats’ depth finders. “We were witnessing some traps upside down, on their sides, standing up on end. We were also witnessing how the lobsters were moving around the traps. The lobsters were going everywhere but in the traps.” Shepard said it gave him a lot better understanding of the fishing environment.
Jones said this 2004 season is going to be his first with a plotter and radar and other modern navigational equipment. “Before,” he said, “all I had was a compass and a chart. Mr. Duym’s navigation classes have helped me chart courses and plot points.” Weed added, “It’s on-the-job training.”
Billings wants to build boats. To help teach those skills, Dennis Saindon, who teaches boatbuilding, has the students building a 13-foot rowing skiff. They started taking boatbuilding in 10th grade.
“It’s from scratch,” explained Shepard. “We started with just a set of plans. We even had to build our own molds.” The kids are frustrated, though. Given only 80-minute classes every other day, they say they don’t get as much accomplished as they’d like.
Nevertheless, they appreciate the gift Islanders have given them. “Between [Mr. Saindon] and Mr. Duym,” Shepard said, “we have a great working atmosphere.” Weed added that Saindon taught his father and his uncle, Mike Weed.
In addition to their regular classes, the students are building a tank to observe how lobsters and crabs react to different baits and traps. In a back room they have a 1,200-gallon round tank they’ve filled with fresh water to which they’re adding salt. (Bringing in ocean water was more involved.) They’ll hook up a filtration system, put small-sized traps in, and because the water’s clear, they’ll be able to watch what’s happening on the bottom. Jones said, “Each of us can build our own unique trap designs and see if we can catch [lobsters and crabs] in here.”
Duym runs his department like a shop. “It’s more informal [than regular classes],” he said, “but there are rules about conduct. For as many times as I’ve been disappointed in [the students’] behavior or attitude in school, I’ve been ten times more impressed with their work ethic and skill and drive toward their chosen profession. I don’t know that I’ve taught them a lot. What I have been able to do is broaden their awareness in and around the business.” Duym also praised their parents, saying, “They’re phenomenal people.”
One of Duym’s methods of broadening his students’ views and knowledge is a field trip he’s planned to Prince Edward Island (PEI) before school ends, so these young fishermen can see how fishermen from other islands live their lives and run their businesses.
The proof of the pay-off of Deer Isle’s investment in its young fishermen lies in their businesses. “Their bills are paid,” said Duym, who feels his students’ successes are not due to the marine trades courses or instructors, alone, but also to their parents. He thinks the parents help manage their student fishermen’s money. “They give good advice,” Duym said, “and the kids take it. They listen. They work hard,” he declared. “They work all the time and they love doing it.”