Lobster boats and gear populate wharves on Portland Harbor on Tuesday Nov. 16, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The shape of buoys today is pretty much the same as it has been for many years; the colors, well, that is another story. The colors — as varied as they can be — abundantly dot the blue surface of Maine waters like an Easter basket brimming with brightly painted eggs. They look alike for the most part, but are in many ways distinct and different, just like people.

And with an imminent storm approaching by way of more regulations aimed at protecting whales, I fear for the worst and hope for the best as I remember the first time I watched fishermen work the water one summer Down East.

In the summer months, the floating colors of the lobster trap buoys are probably the second thing people driving along the coast will see, just after the raucous waves of the sea pounding against granite ledges. If a person is lucky a lighthouse will be perched not too far away.

The buoy is a fisherman’s calling card. It is also his note to self of where he was yesterday and where he will be going tomorrow. But more importantly, it is his signature of a life lived on the water.  

Many of us never realize the time and money invested in an occupation such as this. The average trap runs over $130, and the rope and buoys add to that cost.  Then there is the time and labor in making it all right in preparation for the daily trips out to sea. A fisherman in Maine can fish up to 800 traps, and the boats to haul those traps can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

If the fisherman fishes year round rather than just the summer months, then the gear and tackle needed to go miles offshore are much different and far more expensive. The work is also dangerous, whether fishing in a shallow cove or miles from shore. And though it may be hard to believe for us watching this from land, the job can be lonely and full of repetition, perhaps even boring, as days become years.

Fishing is intrinsic to life Down East, and this is glaringly obvious to visitors and natives alike. Numerous signs of the constant work and effort that go into this livelihood are just as evident outside a fisherman’s home as they would be on the dock of a working harbor. Piles of equipment, traps on the mend and lines that stretch for miles can be spotted in the yards of fishermen plying their craft. Freshly painted buoys drying on a line, boats parked on blocks awaiting their due, coils of rope and stacks and stacks of traps are all signs of this effort.

The smells, the sounds, the hard and repetitive work seem glamorous to those from away but a constant reality to the fisherman and his family.  It is a living, sometimes easy, but often hard when too many are doing it or get too close to one another while doing the job. The constant unpredictability of the weather added to shortages of things such as bait and the ever tightening of fishing grounds adds to the stress and tension of going out and coming back with a decent catch. This is all right there, underneath a painted buoy floating on Maine waters.

The trap buoy is just a small piece of a much bigger picture, sort of like an iceberg with much of its girth hidden from view. From the shore, the colored buoy is a pretty slice of Americana, with so much of the work, devotion and dedication hidden under the water, not visible, not palpable to many of us. But it is there: the struggle, the effort, the work and the stories of those who have done this before. Fathers, grandfathers, sons and daughters tethered by line to trap and to the past, a past that rolls with the breakers and speaks when a trap is pulled and breaks the surface revealing its bounty.

So when I look to the waters off the coast of Maine, I see more than just dots of colors bobbing on a blanket of blue. I see lives floating before my eyes. And as the wind whips a frenzy of froth, foam and salted spray, I wipe my face and give thanks to those who live life on the water for themselves and for us. Their lives are what I behold every time I look to the sea.  

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.

RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.