The Working Waterfront

Those who served at back of the boat

Sternmen provide colorful fodder for stories

By Barbara Fernald
Posted 2024-06-06
Last Modified 2024-06-06

I’m reposting an abridged version of a column from May 2012. I smile thinking of all the different people Bruce and I recalled and what fun we had doing it. On Little Cranberry Island sternmen stories abound!

Most of the lobster fishermen in our area take an extra person or two with them on the boat. On an average day a “sternman” keeps busy with a range of jobs, staying in constant motion.

They keep a supply of bait bags freshly stuffed and ready for the next trap that comes up, often filling 300 to 400 for the day. Once a trap is on the rail, the sternman removes the old bait bag and replaces it with a fresh one.

They clear the trap of things like crabs, kelp, sea urchins, fish, V-notched female, and under-sized lobsters. They place marketable lobsters in a holding box to be measured and banded and placed in a tank. They save a captain a lot of time.

Lately, my husband Bruce had some unplanned days alone on the boat, making his sternman saga part of our dinner conversation.

Paul did not see a piece of kelp on the deck and slipped, knocking out a front tooth.

In two weeks of May he had four different people on his boat, all of them hardworking, but each with circumstances that kept them from being able to stay on the boat consistently. We reminisced about the people who have worked with Bruce over the last four decades.

From childhood friends to current co-op members, over 20 different people have worked on Bruce’s boats.

John Bryant was Bruce’s sternman the first time he caught over 1,000 pounds. When John had a day off he would pick up two Whoppers from Burger King to eat on the boat for lunch the next day. Bruce would gag just a bit when John ate this congealed meal.

I asked Bruce for a job in 1976 but he had already hired a mutual friend who was far stronger than I. When the man became seasick on his first day out, I got a chance to prove myself. I also made sure to take Bonine.

Bruce remembers another determined sternman who would “toss his cookies” regularly yet manage to fill bait bags without losing a beat. It’s great not to get seasick but you still have to watch your feet.

Paul did not see a piece of kelp on the deck and slipped, knocking out a front tooth. Fishing stopped for the day so Bruce could take Paul to see the doctor.

Other sternmen have been sidelined by injuries sustained away from the boat. I’ll never forget answering the phone one night to hear that his crew member had been stabbed with a knife. Fortunately, he survived and continued working several more years for Bruce.

Another sternman called one morning at 4:30 to say he was in jail, apparently after a fight with his wife.

One April, Bruce’s sternman was the father of a college friend of our son Robin. He was a successful businessman from Baltimore, who loved Maine and had always wanted to work on a lobster boat. Our son Fritz arrived from college to work with his father that May. At the same time Robin was working on his cousin Malcolm’s boat, and their grandfather Warren was still fishing. There were three generations of Fernalds working on the water that summer.

Trevor Corson is another long-time summer resident who dreamed of spending a year on the island and working on a lobster boat. The time he spent lobstering with Bruce developed into his book, The Secret Life of Lobsters. I recommend it if you want to know more about the nature of lobsters and some of the people who catch them.

There are many more sternman stories but I’ll end with one from 1977. Bruce asked his crew member to scrub the growth from 80 buoys in a barrel of hot water. When he turned to check on the progress at the end of the long day, he saw tears rolling down her cheeks.

“I don’t want to scrub any more buoys!” she said in a tiny voice. In my own defense, I finished scrubbing all those buoys, even though I had blisters under my fingernails. I continued as sternman for two more years. I may not have been the strongest or even the best, but Bruce still tells me I was his favorite.

Barbara Fernald lives on Islesford (Little Cranberry Island). She may be contacted at