It was a wintry day when Peter Miller and I visited Skip Connell’s shop in Spruce Head, Maine, to talk about a project the three of us were working on with several other fishermen. The first thing we noticed was a wooden fishing vessel which was being refitted – it was hard to miss – it just about took up the entire shop. Peter immediately asked about the boat. “She’s a 33 foot Jonesporter built by Clifford Alley in 1966,” was Skip’s quick response. “I got her for my daughter, she’s a Third Mate shipping out of Africa, but wants to come home one day and go fishing.”
“What’s she got for an engine?” Peter wanted to know. “It’s a 210 Cummins, it has very low hours, that was one of her big selling points. That and when we saw her in the water, she was very, very pretty.” And so went the conversation – the technicalities of the work Skip had done to her – a new stem, 8-10 new frames, new floor timbers, and that was just for starters.
One thing I had learned about fishermen: they go technical fast and whether the discussion is bait or the refit of a boat, there is no end to the level of detail. To say I could follow the nuances of the conversation would be a lie and after a time I brought the conversation back to a level I could readily understand.
“What’s her name?”
“Dolphin, but when I brought her back, several of the letters from her name were missing, and so it read “Dophi”. My daughter’s friends ribbed her about that and she made her mind up that the name needed to be changed. After several rounds of discussion, I got thinking: Dolphin is a pretty good name.” So for Christmas, Skip bought a ship’s bell, hand engraved it with the name Dolphin, wrapped it and put it under the tree. “When my daughter opened it she teared up and said ‘Well, I guess that’s decided.’”
Naming a fishing boat is an act that, for most fishermen, blends tradition, superstition and, at times, a dose of practicality. Boats are considered to be female so “wives, girlfriends and daughters are traditional choices for names,” a longtime fisherman told me.
And then there are the names that appear nonsensical until you learn the story behind them. “250 Yards” belongs to Hale Miller, who fishes out of Tenants Harbor. The boat came to him with the name and was so named because its former owner had a boat sink on him and he had to swim 250 yards to shore – in February. His next boat he aptly named “250 Yards”. Even the least superstitious among us would think long and hard before changing that name.
I knew Skip had two boats named Zephyr, Zephyr the red and Zephyr the white. “How do you end up with two boats that have the same name?” He explained that the first boat he had owned when he outgrew his skiff as a kid was Zephyr, Greek for west wind, which is a fair breeze in this part of the world. “The second boat I got, I was newly married and I named her after my wife, Jaime Leigh, but when we got divorced and I got remarried, well, I changed her name to Zephyr.”
And Zephyr the white? “Well when I got her and brought her back, I was kicking around name ideas, and I had leased Zephyr the red at that point. A good friend of mine said, you know Zephyr – it’s a good name and someone else is going to grab it, and how are you going to feel when someone is calling Zephyr on the radio and another fisherman answers. And he was right, I would not have liked that. So now I have Zephyr the red which is a steel hulled boat, and Zephyr the white, my wooden boat which I currently fish out of.”
Skip was not the only fisherman I knew who had changed the name of his boat as a result of a divorce. Peter Miller also said he had named a boat after his wife. “But she then became my ex-wife. So I named my next boat after my mother, Anne, figuring she couldn’t divorce me. Then that boat sunk. My current boat, SASHA, which we pronounce Sashay, is named for the first initial of each of the women in my family: My mother Anne, my sisters Sky, Susan, Heidi and Anne. It was what my father had named one of his boats way back.”
There were two undercurrents to these conversations: the deep appreciation fishermen have for well designed and constructed boats and the connection they feel with the one they fish out of. Some take names for their boats that have been passed down through generations. John Tripp’s boat, Sea Wife, a beauty by any measure, was inherited. “Sea Wife was the name of my Grandfather’s boat at one time and was handed down to my Father. I decided to keep the name when the boat was passed onto me.”
I asked Skip once how many boats he had. Wry smile. “Well there are the two Zephyrs, and then my schooner, and Dolphin of course. Then the barge, and another sailboat I have, and a lightning I picked up awhile back.” There was a pause in the conversation. “There are worse habits,” he said. “I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, but boats….” He trailed off. “Well I just fall in love, they’re a little like beautiful women, you see them and you just know, and then they end up coming home with you. If they had a 12 step program for boats, I’d probably have to show up there.”