Lea Wait, reporting.
Lots of festivals are held in Maine. The Lobster Festival in Rockland. The Clam Festival in Yarmouth. The Franco-American Festival in Waterville. The Highland Games in Topsham. The Balloon Festival in Great Falls. The Moxie Festival in Lisbon. Windjammer Days. County Fairs. An assortment of strawberry festivals and blueberry festivals. There used to be a Blueberries and Moose Festival, but it, sadly, was discontinued. All of those festivals are scheduled during summer months, and are designed to provide fun, photo opportunities, plenty of local food, entertainment for visitors to Maine — and employment and income for residents. (Those of us who live here have also been known to enjoy a clam roll and a bottle of Shipyard Ale at one or more of those festivals, too.)
But a few festivals are really reserved for Mainers themselves. One of those is the annual Fishermen’s Festival in Boothbay Harbor, the 39th of which was held this year from April 27-30. The Fishermen’s Festival celebrates working fishermen and their heritage. There’s no glitz, no glamour, and no souvenirs, although you could buy a cup of coffee or a tee-shirt from seniors at Boothbay Region High School raising money for their graduation party. Most people attending live in Boothbay or one of the surrounding towns.
The festival started Friday night with a haddock dinner, followed by the Shrimp Princess Pageant, in which a dozen young ladies between the ages of 9 and 12 demonstrated their talents (most sang, but one played the violin and one jumped rope), and the winner was chosen Shrimp Princess. After the pageant those so inclined could adjourn to a local restaurant where Jehovah and the Holy Mackerels were playing until 1 a.m.
Saturday there was food, beginning at 6 a.m. with a pancake breakfast at the Lions Club, and moving on to a fish fry and a lobster bake that basically went on all day, and ending with a church supper at the
Congregational Church (2 seatings, one at 5 and one at 6 p.m.). Saturday was cold, even for a Maine April. Temperatures were in the high twenties, with 20-30 mph winds gusting from the ocean, when my husband and I arrived at 8 a.m. — in time to see the Codfish Relay Races — but the streets were full of excitement. The Codfish Races were followed by the Bait Shoveling Race, the Trap Hauling Competition, and, one of the highlights of the day, the Lobster Crate Running — in which participants must run along the tops of lobster crates strung between two town docks. A fall meant a dunking in 40 degree water. There was also Dory Bailing, Oyster Shucking, and an assortment of less strenuous activities for the youngest kids.
But if Saturday was the fun day, Sunday was really the heart of the festival.
At 1:30 Sunday afternoon the people of Boothbay Harbor gathered, as they do every year, at the Fishermen’s Memorial on the east side of the harbor to honor area fisherman who have been lost at sea. This is not done casually. The names of the 229 men whose names are engraved on the Memorial are read out loud, and a bell tolls for each of them. The first name is that of Captain John Murray, 27, who died May 17, 1798. Many of the names are from the same families: fathers, sons, brothers, fishing together. The worst single disaster was in October of 1851, when the S.G. Matthews was lost, taking with it thirteen men, 8 of them under the age of 21. Fishermen begin their profession young. Martin Lewis was only eleven when he was lost at sea in 1845.
Many attending this year’s service were holding a list of the names read; each year it’s printed in the local newspaper. Many present had known men whose names were read. (No women are on the list. Yet.) Many who live in Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor today are the descendants of those honored. Preble. Clark. Tibbetts. Greenleaf. Gardener. Reed. Hodgdon. Townsend. Pinkham.
The last name carved on the monument is that of Roy Bickford, who died October 13, 2003. He fell overboard while lobstering aboard the Sharon Marie near Pemaquid.
By next April’s Fishermen’s Festival there will be another name on the memorial. The men and women listening to the reading of the names were all too aware that just one week before the festival the body of lobsterman Earl Brewer was found, adrift, south of Squirrel Island. He had been alone on his fishing boat, the Sea Foam.
After the reading of the names the fishing boats circled the inner harbor and passed the Fishermen’s Memorial so the fleet could receive blessings from the local clergy for a safe and profitable year.
Maine may seem a scenic and somewhat romantic, perhaps even old-fashioned, Vacationland, to many. But for those who make their living from the waters, lobstering and fishing are still, over two hundred years since Captain John Murray lost his life at sea, hard and risky ways to make a living. For the fishermen of Boothbay and their families, taking time once a year to relax, celebrate their heritage, and acknowledge the risks of the new season, are reasons enough for a festival.