Labor and Loss at Sea

Consider this.
Consider this. // Creative Commons

Fishermen here carry knives in their jackets so if they’re swept from their boats, pulled underwater by a tangle of ropes a mile from shore, they can cut themselves loose. This precaution is for naught if they’re knocked unconscious in a collision with something — a buoy, a lobster trap, their boat.

That’s what they say might have happened to Jeremy, who died on a Wednesday in mid-August, found lifeless by another lobsterman out among the multicolored buoys that indicate troves of crustaceans deep under water. It was my neighbor who found the body, but I don’t hear that from him.

A different topic drives our conversations: the Maine Lobsterman’s Union, a fledgling local organized by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Before the news of Jeremy’s death, it’s the political and social dimensions of the organizing drive that interest me. I wonder about new, oceanic frontiers of the labor movement. What can a union do for a fisherman at sea, with no employer in sight, only the punishing winds?

My neighbor’s musings are about his checkbook. Are the dues worth it? Can a coalition protect his trade?

He’s ventured a yes in response to those questions. He tells me this August he’s joined the local — one of several hundred members. The union will swell in membership if it proves itself by lobbying in Augusta, he says. Lobstermen want the state to scrap a requirement that fishermen use whale-safe rope in their hauling operations. This rope frays and snaps. It also rips up their hands, my neighbor tells me.

A dozen days later, suddenly no one’s talking about frayed rope or endangered whales. In hushed voices, they’re talking about Jeremy’s four children. Or is it three? I hear conflicting reports. I learn that one of his children is having her first birthday next week. At dinner a woman serving me soup says she’s going to Jeremy’s house the following day to run the dishwasher, sweep the floors and blow up birthday balloons.

“There’s a pall over the whole island,” a friend of my parents says. A cloth spread over a coffin, hearse, or tomb.

* * *

The island of Vinalhaven lies in the Penobscot Bay, off the coast of Maine, a tiny point in the Atlantic separated from the mainland by a 15-mile stretch of ocean. A hulking white ferry boat takes people and their cars across in an hour and 15 minutes. The Camden hills scarcely recede in the ferry’s wake before the pine trees lining Vinalhaven emerge at the bow.

Closer to the harbor, the smell of gas is thick, emanating from the dock, where lobster boats idle, their 800-horsepower engines humming.

Stunning physical beauty is the backdrop for a rough-hewn fishing culture that evolved as lobstering replaced quarrying as the centerpiece of the island’s economy. Fifteen-hundred people live through summer and winter on the island. In warmer months, the population doubles.

Some families have lived so long on Vinalhaven that the ocean inlets and winding lanes bear their names. Volunteerism isn’t a cliché. The weekly newsletter, “The Wind,” reminds people to put aside money for the sick and spare time to clear paths in the nature preserve. Every week people cook for the bean supper and sort recyclables for Elder Care.

Residents are co-workers in the civic labor of the island.

* * *

The day I leave the island, one of Jeremy’s high-school classmates is also aboard the ferry, traveling to the mainland to see his friend’s body. His father is with him, too, because the path to a friend’s coffin is best not trod alone.

This image reminds me of a poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” by Walt Whitman. In the summer of 1865, amid national grief over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Whitman wrote of death, and its disparate effect on the dead and the living.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

In life that’s communal, it’s the survivor who suffers. Grief besets the wife and children, the high-school classmates and those he knew at sea.

I learn only later that Jeremy, like my neighbor, was a member of Local 207, the island’s lobster union. He wanted to tie his fortunes to those of his neighbors. He thought he was stronger with others, and joined in the struggle against the whale-safe rope.

The union is accepting donations to assist the family. Please make checks payable to the family fund.

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