A few weeks ago, when I was about to unload the groceries from my car in Northeast Harbor, I got a call on my cell phone from my husband Bruce.

“I’m on my way over to drop Paul [his sternman] in Northeast; are you anywhere near the dock? I’ll give you a ride back.”

I was 45 minutes early for the mailboat, so the ride would get me home about one-and-a-half hours earlier than planned. My husband’s timing was perfect. As Bruce pulled his boat up to the float, one sternman got off and an alumni sternman got on. 

I never get on Bruce’s boat without thinking back to what it was like working as his crew on the Stormy Gale. It was 38 years ago in October when he hired me as a sternman.

As a “summer girl” I  wanted to see what it was like to be on Little Cranberry Island during the off season. I had high hopes of affording my stay by getting a job on a lobster boat. I didn’t think of myself as a feminist, but it did happen to be the same year that Time magazine’s Person of the Year Award went to “American women” in celebration of the successes of the feminist movement (January 5, 1976). A quote from that issue states, “In 1975 the women’s drive penetrated every layer of society, matured beyond ideology to a new status of general—and sometimes unconscious—acceptance.”

On tiny Islesford in 1976, there was plenty of that general acceptance of women. Betsy Neff and Stefanie Stefan (who later married Rick Alley) were hired by Lee Ham to work on his lobster dock (before it became the co-op). Jack Merrill also hired a female crew that fall. We were young enough and strong enough to do the work, and no one from either our island or Great Cranberry gave us a hard time about being women.

Usually bait arrived on Lee’s dock via sardine carrier, but at times, fishermen and their sternmen would go to the canning factory in Southwest Harbor to pick up cuttings. I recall the comment of one factory worker as I stood by in my gloves and oil pants, all 120 pounds of me (then), ready to load the large bags of salt that would be used to preserve the bait.

“I see you brought some ‘help’ with you,” he snickered.  I worked hard to make tossing those 80 pound bags of salt look easy. No one would accuse me of doing less of a job because I was a woman.

The sardine factory is no longer there. Now, about 90 percent of the time, bait arrives at the co-op by truck and barge, to be dumped from 20-bushel totes into large plastic barrels with the help of a fork lift; 1,800 pound totes of salt are also handled this way. It sure saves a lot of shoveling and backache for co-op workers, fishermen and their crew.

Bait delivery is not the only change for sternmen in the last 30 years. In the 1980s, lobster fishermen started using thick rubber bands to close lobster claws, preventing them from being able to crush each other while in the storage tanks. When I fished with Bruce the method was to insert a wooden plug into the membrane just below the “thumb” of the lobster claw. Plugging may be quicker than banding, but the bands are a lot healthier for the lobsters. They also provide a surface for printed information letting the consumer know the origin of their favorite crustacean. 

When it’s time to shift gear around, or bring it in for the winter, the current wire traps are quite a bit lighter than the old wooden traps. Traps that were mostly oak, with ballast rocks in the bottom weighed 75 to 80 pounds when wet, whereas wire traps with bricks weigh 45 to 50 pounds. Lobsters are off-loaded from the boat by placing them in crates to be lifted onto the scales at the co-op, but the new plastic crates are much lighter and less susceptible to breakage than the old wooden ones.   

Having a clean boat after a day on the water is like having a clean kitchen after a dinner party. You don’t feel like doing the work at the time, but you sure appreciate a fresh start the next day. My least favorite part of being a sternman was scrubbing down the boat as we were running in from fishing. Especially cleaning the underside of the cabin top, when cold water ran back down my arm inside my sleeve as I reached overhead with the scrub brush.

Once, I wondered if Bruce assumed I would clean like that because I was a woman. I’m pleased to report that the kind of work he expects from his crew has not changed over the years. On that ride back to the island, I looked around the Barbara Ann and found it to be just as tidy as the Stormy Gale was in the late 1970s. Over my head and it was spotless.  

Barbara Fernald lives on Little Cranberry Island (Islesford), and these days makes jewelry instead of hauling traps.