Hayley Brown stands on the rocks overlooking Cape Porpoise Harbor on Friday where her father Arnold "Joe" Nickerson used to keep his fishing boat. Brown is holding a memorial tote bag she designed as a fundraiser for the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association in her father's memory. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — In January 2020, the 42-foot fishing boat Hayley Ann sank 50 miles southeast of Portland. The Coast Guard never determined what happened. No distress call was sent. Only an automated emergency beacon alerted them to the tragedy.

The disaster claimed the lives of Capt. Arnold “Joe” Nickerson, 60, of Arundel and his crewman, 44-year-old Christopher Pinkham of Boothbay Harbor.

Homeported in Cape Porpoise, Nickerson was chair of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association board of directors and known up and down the coast for his quiet, strong leadership in the fishing community. He was a tireless advocate for fishermen’s safety, health and well-being. Nickerson was also dedicated to preserving diverse, small-boat fishing culture.

Now, nearly two years after his death, Nickerson’s work is continuing with help from his daughter and a fashionable tote bag manufacturer headquartered on the Portland docks.

Maine fisherman Arnold “Joe” Nickerson sits beside his boat, the Hayley Ann in an undated photograph. Both were lost at sea in January 2020. Credit: Courtesy of Hayley Brown.

Hayley Brown, Nickerson’s daughter, has designed a limited-run Sea Bag featuring a picture of the Hayley Ann on the outside and a nautical chart on the inside. A heart marks the spot on the map where Nickerson and Pinkham were lost.

All sales proceeds from the Hayley Ann Sea Bag will go to help fund Fishermen’s Association programs Nickerson cared most about.

“He’s not here to do the work so I needed to step up and do something,” said Brown.

The Fisherman’s Association is an industry-based nonprofit fostering fishermen and fisheries in the Gulf of Maine. Customs House Wharf-based Sea Bags boasts retail stores on the east, west and Great Lakes coasts. The company is known for functional, fashionable, upscale bags made from retired ship sails.

Nickerson was passionate about safety, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Fishermen’s Association. Nickerson helped initiate the Safety at Sea program where boat captains could borrow safety gear like life rafts and survival suits when their own were unavailable.

“He didn’t want anyone to have to choose between safety and making a living,” Martens said.

That program later grew into a complete fishermen’s wellness program, including free physical and mental health help.

Clockwise from left: A heart marks the spot on the inside of the memorial Sea Bag where the Maine fishing boat Hayley Ann went down 50 miles off Portland in January 2020; Hayley Brown holds a memorial tote bag she designed as a fundraiser for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in her father’s memory; and Fishing boats sit moored in Cape Porpoise Harbor. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Martens said Nickerson also fought hard to protect small, diverse fishing boats — like his own Hayley Ann, named for his daughter and wife. In the summer Nickerson fished for lobsters. In the spring he went after elvers and during the winter it was groundfish and scallops.

Though not a founding member of the Fishermen’s Association, Martens said Nickerson was a valuable ally in the community. His imposing 6-foot-4 frame and years of fishing experience in Maine and Alaska commanded respect from other fishermen. Nickerson didn’t talk much but when he did, people tended to listen.

“Joe was instrumental in the growth of our organization,” Martens said. “He was one of the first fishermen to step up and embrace what we were trying to do — and he was a close friend.”

Brown said she and her mother didn’t know how much respect Nickerson commanded in the fishing community until after his death.

“We were blown away at the number of people that reached out and came to his memorial service,” she said. “We didn’t realize the impact he had.”

Though not a fisherman, Brown resolved to somehow help carry on her father’s work. She said Nickerson would sometimes spoil her with an expensive Sea Bag after returning from Portland so designing one in his honor felt like a natural, and personal, tribute.

“This was her idea,” Martens said. “She wanted a way to honor her dad.”

The first run of bags were offered in August 2020.

“Our original goal was to sell 10,” Brown said. “We sold twice that in the first few hours.”

Martens said there’s been a steady stream of people asking how they can get a bag since the first batch of 250 sold out in a matter of weeks.

That’s why another run of bags is being made available for pre-order this month at $210 apiece. Sea Bags expects them to ship before the holidays.

“This collaboration is important to us at Sea Bags because the fishermen in Portland are our neighbors and, on this wharf, our family,” Sea Bags President Beth Greenlaw said through a spokesperson. “We are proud to support Joe’s legacy and contribute to the future fishermen in Maine.”

In addition to the bag, the Fishermen’s Association is also selling other items with the Hayley Ann’s image, including a key ring, coasters and a Christmas tree ornament.

Hayley Brown wears a necklace in the shape of her father’s fishing boat at Cape Porpoise Harbor on Friday. Brown remembers doing her homework on the boat after school as a child. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Brown said she hopes her father’s death reminds fishermen and their families to not take the future for granted and to hug each other, every day. She also wants the public to understand the dangers fishermen face on the sea.

Just 11 months after the Hayley Ann sank, another Maine-based boat, the 82-foot Emmy Rose was lost 20 miles northeast of Provincetown, Massachusetts. None of the four crewmembers was ever found.

“These bags are so much more than just a reminder of my dad, his boat, and his crewman,” Brown said. “They are a way to honor all of those who venture out into the ocean and risk it all to make a living.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.