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All photos by Charlotte Wilder, Illustrations by Tyson Whiting

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Racing the past in Jonesport, Maine: 5 days aboard the world's fastest lobster boats

The parade in Jonesport, Maine on Saturday, July 1 probably isn’t the longest one in the history of the world, but it certainly feels like it. Seven 18-wheelers that usually transport lobsters to faraway places roll slowly down Main Street, honking their horns in a triumphant, discordant chorus. Slightly terrifying clowns thread their way through a string of American-made convertibles which carry girls wearing gauzy princess dresses. Each one is vying for the title of Little Miss Fourth of July and waving like a tiny Queen of England.

This was supposed to be the celebration following the World’s Fastest Lobster Boat Races, but those have been postponed a day thanks to the thick fog that refuses to lift from the harbor. The parade and fireworks couldn’t be pushed back: the town already paid for the show, and the pyrotechnics guys won't reschedule. This evening — meant for winners to gloat and losers to drown their sorrows in cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon — has instead turned into a bizarre precursor to the main event, races the locals have been waiting for all year.

The lobstermen who make up this strange party compete all summer long on a race circuit that takes them and their boats to 11 fishing communities up and down the Maine coast. A 26-foot boat really only needs a 250-horsepower engine, but in order to race, lobstermen and women trick out boats of that size with 350-500 horsepower and open up their throttles for little more than pride. Some of the vessels are over 40 feet long and pack over 1200 horsepower. The winnings are negligible; first place takes home $150, second place nets $100, and third wins $50. That's nothing for people who pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year catching lobsters.

The money doesn't matter. The real prize is bragging rights.

Some people in town say the races started when lobstermen would race each other into the harbor after a day of hauling traps. Others believe they began because all the boatbuilders wanted to prove they could design the fastest boat. But everyone agrees on one thing: the competitions started here in Jonesport sometime between the turn of the century and the 1930s.

“This is our Daytona 500, the one day a year everyone went out and played, you know?” Lobsterman Richard Alley had told me when he took me out fishing the day before. “It’s just a way of life. It’s the way it’s always been.”

The town hasn’t changed much since the ‘30s, and hardly at all since the races’ heyday in the 1970s. There’s one main street, no hotels, one restaurant, a general store where you can still rent VHS tapes and DVDs, and about five last names: Alley, Beal, Carver, Peabody, and Smith (“Father’s Day is confusing here,” one of the lobstermen jokes). The biggest sign of the passage of time are the boats themselves — they used to be wooden and ran on gasoline. Now, they’re mostly fiberglass and diesel.

From where I stand watching the parade near the Coast Guard station, I can see Moosabec Reach, where the races will take place. The course used to be a two-mile loop that went under the bridge connecting Jonesport to Beals Island, but too many fishermen crashed into each other or the concrete pilings of the causeway. Now, they compete in a tamer drag race about a mile long, and stop before the bridge.

Richard rides by on his motorcycle with the fireman’s brigade. He waves. A pickup truck decorated in rainbows with a big PRIDE sign pulls a man in a tutu on roller blades. After that comes 4-year-old Kennedy Carver, grinning inside a little play schoolhouse mounted on a trailer that her father pulls behind his truck. Kennedy is the granddaughter of the couple who own the video store, where the lobstermen play cribbage in the afternoons underneath a sign that says “Old Fart’s, Daycare.” Later, Kennedy will win the Judge’s Choice Award and take home $500. Her mother will say that the check is going toward her college fund. Kennedy will say it’s going toward Legos.

Kennedy’s 13-year-old sister Jazmin sits opposite me on the side of the road with two friends. There are only 12 kids in her 8th grade class; she and the girls she’s with are gossiping about who’s going where for the fireworks later. Their faces are lit up in the blue glow of their phones as they scroll through Instagram. Two teenagers stand near Jazmin, arms wrapped around each other. The boy is wearing a Jonesport-Beals High School basketball sweatshirt and athletic shorts, the girl is in tight jean shorts and a spaghetti-strap tank top.

The parade eventually ends. I drive my rented Jeep over to Beals Island and pull into a parking spot on the wharf at Perio Point where they’re going to set off the fireworks, the last thing left to anticipate before the races themselves. I drink a beer while I wait for the show to start, which I figure is fine; I haven’t seen a cop here in three days. After a few minutes a man in a bright orange vest comes over and taps on the window. I roll it down, expecting to get in trouble for the open can in my car.

“You see that pile of wood ovah theah?”

I seem to have parked about ten feet away from a massive heap of pallets and scraps from the nearby boatyard. Yes, I say, I see it.

“We’re about to set it on fi-ah. You might wanta move yoah vee-hicle.”

I oblige.

A few men dump lighter fluid onto the pile and the entire thing goes up in flames. Orange fingers of heat lick at the sky, casting light on a headless statue of a lobster that stands next to the burning mass. The fireworks begin, and the fog, smoke, and gunpowder make the whole wharf look like a war scene. A man walks by as I brush embers out of my hair.

“You thought you came to the lobster boat races,” he says.

He points to the fire and chuckles.

“But you came to hell.”

The teenage couple from the parade is standing next to the bonfire now. They’re still embracing, gazing at each other, arms and legs intertwined. They make out periodically as explosions reflect off the clouds, holding onto each other only the way you can when you’re 16, it’s summer, and the thought of letting go is as terrifying as hitting the bridge at full speed.

They’ll probably hold each other forever if they stay in Jonesport.

Maine curves out into the Atlantic, so when you head up to Jonesport, you’re “going Down East.” The state’s tourism economy is huge, but the town is hard enough to get to that it only has a small wealthy summer community, and doesn’t draw as many day-trippers as the rest of the coast. Jonesport and Beals Island are two of the few places along the jagged shoreline where lobstermen haven’t been priced out of owning oceanfront property.

The lobster industry is booming, sustained by intricate guidelines that prevent overfishing. Not many other ways of making a living have survived in America as long as this one has in Maine. People from Jonesport tell you the names of their great-great-grandfathers when they introduce themselves. This place is tribal, and local memory goes back generations. For centuries, families have married into each other and stayed put.

Lineage is an anchor, your last name a badge. Both prove how much you belong.

I grew up spending summers in Rockport, a working harbor about three hours down the coast from Jonesport and four north of Boston. I ran the kids’ sailing program at a small, not-fancy boat club next to the fishing docks through high school and college. In 2008, a lobster boat named Miss Melinda caught fire by the boat club’s float. I was the first person to get to it, hopping on as the acrid smoke billowed up into the sky. The captain and his sternman refused to leave their daily catch. I had to beg them to jump into my skiff, and two minutes after we drove away, Miss Melinda exploded. As the men watched their boat and thousands of dollars’ worth of lobsters burn down to the water line, they told me that neither of them could swim.

***

People in Jonesport who know Doug Dodge (and everybody in Jonesport knows Doug Dodge) talk about him like he’s still the cool kid throwing spitballs in the back of math class, even though he’s 70 years old. He’s the guy, everyone told me, I had to race with.

But the races have taken forever to arrive. A post on the Fans of Maine Lobster Boat Racing Facebook page announced that the lobstermen had postponed the competition until Tuesday, the Fourth of July, due to “wicked southerly and dungeon fog.”

Last night I called Doug to figure out where we should meet this morning.

“Oh,” he said. “I sank my boat.”

“Doug,” I said. “Don’t mess with me.”

It seemed likely that a man who’d spent the past three rainy days regaling me with stories about making prank calls and firing guns down the toilet of his boat yard’s outhouse (“shooting the shit”) would be pulling my leg about something like this.

“Nope,” he’d said. “I’m not. I sank it. Was going about 40 miles per hour in Moosabec Reach and the planking fell off. I haven’t let it sit in the water long enough this year, so the wood didn’t expand fully. Some screws popped out, the boards ripped off, and we went down. I was knees deep in water before someone came and hauled me to shore.”

Doug and I are now standing beside his boat, Brenda, at the Jonesport shipyard. He’s wearing jeans coated with a patina of engine grease and specks of paint, and his faded blue tee has the blueprint of a sailboat he built on it. He’s trying not to show his teeth when he smiles, because he recently chipped one badly on the right side of his mouth.

Broken and purposeless, Brenda sits on a trailer with a rough, unpainted wooden plank nailed over the hole in her hull. In addition to being a lobsterman and boatbuilder, Doug also works as a caretaker for a couple from Connecticut who have a house in Jonesport. They were on the boat with him when he started racing another lobsterman — showing off — and sank.

Had Brenda been fiberglass, Doug wouldn’t have had to worry about letting the materials expand. But he believes in the craft of wooden boatbuilding, and in the deafening roar of the old gasoline engines. Most of the younger guys race fiberglass boats with diesel engines that can approach 80 miles an hour. Doug says he’s building a new wooden boat that he’s convinced will match those speeds.

Brenda is named after Doug’s wife of 47 years. He threw a snowball at her head one February and jokes that she didn’t come to until he married her that June. She was valedictorian of Jonesport-Beals High School, and worked as a local newspaper reporter and photographer until she developed a blood clot in her brain in 2012, then suffered a series of strokes.

Doug caught Lyme Disease around the same time. He had to stop fishing and building the boat he was working on for a man in New York City because he couldn’t be out in the sun due to his medication. The guy from New York sued him. Between that and the constant care Brenda requires, he says he ran out of money.

“But fishermen are liars, right?” he says, laughing.

They’re certainly great at keeping secrets. Lobstermen generally won’t tell you how much money they make, although when he took me fishing on Friday, Richard said he nets about $120,000 a year. Some are even reluctant to reveal exactly how fast their boats go or what horsepower they’re packing.

They're fiercely competitive, whether they’re racing boats for fun or fishing to make a living. Occasionally they’ll sever the buoys from each other’s traps to sink them if they feel encroached upon. A few years ago, on the island of Matinicus, one lobsterman shot another in the neck in broad daylight on a wharf in the center of town after catching him cutting his traps.

Because the races were postponed, I’d spent Saturday shooting guns with Doug in his backyard. Wearing a t-shirt that said THIS IS WHAT AWESOME LOOKS LIKE, he held a .44 Magnum at his hip and fired off 10 quick rounds with no warning. Then he spun the gun around on his trigger finger, looked at me, and grinned, opening his other clenched fist to reveal a handful of bullets. Doug could never buy ammunition again and still have enough to last a lifetime. He stocked up when he thought Hillary Clinton might win the election.

“I didn't want anyone taking these from me,” he'd said, gesturing to his wall of rifles, pistols, and shotguns.

Brenda — who’s 5’10, with wide cheekbones, dark hair, and unfocused bright blue eyes — stood at the kitchen window while we shot at jugs of water hanging from a fence. Pictures of the Dodges’ daughter, who moved to Massachusetts, sat on the windowsill beside her.

Thirty minutes after leaving Doug staring up at his boat at the shipyard, I’m sitting in a blue lawn chair in the stern of Richard Alley’s lobster boat Family Alliance. A T-shirt with a picture of a lobster riding a Harley-Davidson is stretched over Richard's prominent stomach, and red suspenders clipped to his jeans hold everything together. He has a shock of white hair, bleached from the sun, and deep lines baked into his skin. He doesn’t smile much, but when he does, it’s like he’s admitting he doesn’t mind having you around.

After Doug told me he sank his boat on Monday night, I’d called up Richard to ask if I could race with him.

“I don’t see why not,” he’d said, since we’d gone fishing together a few days before.

After days and days of bad weather, this is one of those clear Maine mornings when the light slants across the water at an angle so sharp it makes you ache. The sun’s turned the sky, rocky islands, and blueberry barrens into a collage of blues, greens, whites, and grays. Bright colors humans have put here punctuate the landscape; a red mailbox, a pink buoy, a yellow line down the middle of a narrow road.

Richard Alley
Lobsterman Richard Alley rafts up to a friend’s boat while he waits for his turn to race.

We’re motoring from Richard’s dock and heading to the flotilla of lobster boats rafted up near Beal’s Island by the finish line. Everyone watches there until it’s their turn to compete. Richard’s wife, Eve, sits on a cooler. She’s a freckled, robust nurse and schoolteacher with gray hair cropped close and bright blue eyes.

Eve laughs easily and often and swears the perfect amount. She and Richard met when she was 19 and he was 24; he’d just come home from a stint in the Gulf of Mexico with the merchant marines. Richard asked her father if he had any daughters left he could date, “and he had me,” Eve says, laughing. On Friday night, the two of them had gone to the town's annual race party and danced until midnight in the tent, the way they have for decades, since Eve was a teenager.

Richard hates what computers are doing to the community (“No one walks across the driveway anymore,” he laments. “They just send a text.”). But Eve uses Facebook, and says everyone in Jonesport has been posting about how excited they are for the races. She reads me a few posts, then puts her phone down, spreads her arms wide toward the water, and lets out a whoop that carries across the bay. She’s thrilled I’m here because her daughter, Shareen, and son-in-law, Chris, can’t be. Yesterday, Chris broke his leg and ankle in six places when a log rolled out from under him while he was exploring an island on a picnic. He had to leave Jonesport for emergency surgery in Bangor, where he and Shareen live. She's an auditor. He’s a welder.

Richard is the last lobsterman in his family.

Richard Alley aboard Family Alliance before his race starts.

“Our kids went out of the area to make a living,” says Eve. “There’s really not much here anymore. I’m just afraid that fishing is going to be like your Wal-Marts, where everything is corporate, you know? The independent fisherman is dying.”

We motor by the Coast Guard station — which used to be one of three big sardine factories in Maine before they all shut down between 2000 and 2010 — then pass an island where many of Richard’s family members are buried. In a cove nearby, a man named Olin lost his arm when it snagged in his boat’s pulley system as he hauled a trap. A lobsterman Richard used to see on the water everyday recently died; Richard didn’t know the guy very well, but he always looked forward to waving at him.

Richard writes poems to try to make sense of it all.

“Death motivates me to write more than anything,” he says. “I’d like to leave some kind of legacy for friends and family. People like to know where they came from, you know? You wouldn’t want to go through life not knowing who your parents were, or your grandparents, or anything like that, though I know some people do.”

He opens a canvas tote bag and pulls out a plastic sleeve filled with his poetry, along with newspaper clippings about his family. He puts his glasses on and starts to read a poem he wrote after his father died.

Honest smiles, clear skies, and calm seas,
These are the things a fisherman always sees.
But in his soul he really knows
It’s raging seas, gray skies, and the wind that blows.
He lives his life out on the edge,
Like a crashing sea on a rocky ledge.
It’s islands and birds he loves the most, and his free spirit —

Richard coughs. He tries to keep going, chokes up, and rubs his eyes underneath his glasses.

“I can’t read it,” he says, and hands the paper to Eve. She picks up where he left off, her voice clear and steady.

The spirits of his ancestors are still there too,
Working along as they used to do.
He sees them in his mind almost every day,
and this is why he loves earning his living this way.

“By Richard P. Alley,” Eve says. She looks up and smiles. “Isn’t that awesome?”

***

People on board the 50 or so boats anchored around us drink beers and dance to classic rock. It’s now close to 11 a.m. We reached the floating tailgate at about 9:30, and have been watching the races — which are divided into classes depending on boat length and engine horsepower — since they kicked off at 10. Guitar chords and peals of laughter echo across the water. The pastor of the church blessed all the boats over the marine radio before the races began, and now the organizers chat with each other, their staticky voices rising up from each boat.

The crowd on lobsterman Sonny Beal’s boat Nancy Ann wears shirts that say, “WE MAY NOT BE FIRST, BUT SOMETIMES WE’RE NOT LAST.” Dana Beal — the lobsterman who owns The Right Stuff and is somehow related to Sonny — drives by in his boat and waves. Chix Dig It floats by, blasting country music. A big trawler that’s made the trek from a harbor further south flies a confederate flag, even though 72,945 Mainers fought for the Union, and the confederacy attacked Portland Harbor.

Jazmin, the 13-year-old from the parade, whizzes by in her 23-foot boat with her father by her side. She’s losing to Noah, a 12-year-old boy who was born blind. He steers based on the directions his father shouts from the bow.

Speed on the water feels faster than speed on land, especially when you’re plowing through the ocean in a sturdy, working lobster boat. These things are closer to Clydesdales, or even oxen, than thoroughbreds. Their main job is to let their captains fish safely and efficiently. They’re not particularly graceful or hydrodynamic, and are definitely not designed to go as fast as their owners are pushing them today. Twelve of these things hurtling toward you, rocking in each other's wakes, look oddly majestic. It’s like taking those 18-wheelers from the parade on Saturday and running them three wide at Daytona.

Richard hasn’t won a race in a while. He says attendance has been falling in recent years, too. The crowds just aren't what they used to be, when most people born here stayed their whole lives, and rivalries between shipyards resulted in legendary match-ups like The Red Baron vs. Sopwith Camel. “This story should’ve been done 25 years ago,” one of the lobstermen told me.

Finally, it’s our turn. Eve packs the turkey, ham, and white bread we had for lunch back into the cooler and we motor out to the starting line, idling next to the one other boat we’re racing. There’s not much competition this year. Richard takes the wooden casing off the engine; the intricate network of tubes and pumps will stay cooler with more air circulating around them and help us go even faster.

We both start beside the race organizer’s boat, bows even, going about 20 miles an hour. It feels pretty fast, but then a guy drops a flag, and Richard pushes the throttle down as far as it will go. We rocket forward and climb up to full speed, neck and neck with the other boat. Eve screams, “Run those bastards down!” as Family Alliance pulls away. “We’re winning!” she keeps repeating, but it looks like the other boat might be overtaking us. It’s too close to tell as we cross the finish line and Richard throttles down right before we go underneath the bridge. Its shadow passes over us, and the sound of our engine booms off the bottom of the causeway.

Richard smiles.

“Don’t you think we won?” Eve asks me.

I tell her yes, definitely, even though I’m not at all sure. Richard swings the boat back around. The people on the radio are confused; they can’t tell what boat is racing when, or even what class we’re in. Everything is disorganized and haphazard, as though the act of competing were the reward rather than who won.

This doesn’t seem to be true for Richard, though; he turns up the volume, afraid he’ll miss the announcement of the winner.

Finally, the staticky voice comes through. We lost.

We race again, lose again. Our last competition of the day is a huge free-for-all for World’s Fastest Lobster Boat in which anyone can compete. It's the grand finale.

Richard opens up the throttle, we pace with the others, and the flag drops.

When you go close to 40 miles an hour in a lobster boat, you feel the vibrations of the engine in your chest, your stomach, your thighs. Richard grips the metal pulley that hangs from the open cabin’s ceiling, bracing his belly against the console. We’re cocooned inside a wall of sound and water — the spray shoots off the bow and arches up in a fountain of froth. The boat tilts so far back that it feels like we’ll all flip out over the stern, but we stay in, shooting by the rafted-up boats where people are cheering and spilling beers as they wave.

For about a minute, as Family Alliance flies down Moosabec Reach, we’re at the very center of the universe. We control the tides. Compasses point toward us.

Eve is screaming “We’re having fun!” but something doesn’t feel right — we’re much closer to these other boats than we were in the previous races. In fact, there’s barely fifteen feet between us and another called Kimberly Ann, and we keep getting closer and closer. The chop from all the engine propellers sends a huge wave crashing over the stern of Family Alliance. Eve is whooping, drenched. She raises her arms in the air like she’s on a roller coaster.

And then, suddenly, we get caught in the trough of Kimberly Ann’s wake, and we start to flip. The boat goes sideways, at what feels like a 90-degree angle to the surface of the water, and our chairs slam against the side of the boat. We grab onto the rails to stop ourselves from crashing into each other as the engine cover slides across the floor and pins Eve to a metal bucket near the stern. It all lasts probably 10 seconds, but it feels like an hour before Richard pulls the throttle back and spins us out of the fray. The other boats roar by us, making their way across the finish line and under the bridge.

Eve keeps repeating, “Oh my god, oh my god," half laughing, half gasping for breath. She and I stare at each other in shock, amazed we’re not swimming or dead.

Richard is completely calm.

He drives the boat toward the wharf as though nothing happened. Eve holds up her arm — blood is trickling down her wrist, and her watch is completely busted. Richard pulls Family Alliance up to the dock and drops me off.

I feel like I just climbed out of a blender.

After the races are over and the floating parties have died down, the whole town gathers by the Coast Guard station for the awards ceremony and raffle. Boating and fishing companies donate prizes — everything from a new engine to a fresh set of traps. People from Jonesport and Beals walk around greeting each other, some slightly buzzed on beers and hours of direct sun. Some eat hot dogs. A few smoke cigarettes.

Jazmin and a friend sit on the pavement holding their phones. She just won a new trap, and beams as she shows it off. Doug and Brenda stand by the awards table. Doug talks to Stevie Carver and Dana Beal — Dana holds his first-place trophy, a metal plate shaped like a ship’s wheel. Doug stares wistfully at the prize. Brenda stares out to sea.

Richard stands next to Doug, looking stern, his stomach now wrapped in a black motorcycle vest. Eve went home to clean up her wrist and dry off. Richard lost twice and nearly crashed once. The days when he used to win, and the chemical stench of fiberglass hadn’t overtaken the smell of cedar in boat shops, are gone. So are the days when a child and parent’s way of life were always, without question, going to be the same. When winning the title of World’s Fastest Lobster Boat was the biggest way to make your mark on this place.

“I think it’d be weird without the races,” Richard had said on Friday as he pulled a lobster out of a trap in the middle of the Reach. “You think of all the ones before you, and I guess you’re just cuttin’ your path in life when you’re doing it. It’s how somebody’ll remember you someday.”

At least he hopes they will. In Jonesport, the past means more than the future.

The lobster industry may be flourishing, but something is still being lost. Richard used to have marine equipment and charts spread out over the cockpit of his boat; now he only needs one computer screen to navigate and plot the location of his traps. Boundaries between here and everywhere else have blurred as kids move away from the town where Richard and Eve were married on July 2, 1982. They skipped their honeymoon. Richard dropped Eve off at her parents’ house the morning after their wedding and headed off to race. He won.

Correction: This piece originally stated that the Dodges’ daughter lives in South Carolina. She in fact lives in Massachusetts.