Deer Isle girl carries grandfather’s legacy

First published in the MLA newsletter, May, 2010.

Meredith Oliver of Deer Isle, Maine, inherited her grandfather’s strong arms as well as his 36-foot Jonesport wooden lobster boat, the Edward Lee. At 15, Meredith became Maine’s youngest female captain to own a boat of that size. Not only did Meredith gain a boat from her grandfather, she also gained skills and knowledge almost lost in today’s high-tech world: navigating with only a compass, lobstering by observations of nature, and maintaining wooden lobster boats.
Lee Edward Eaton, or Pappa Lee, as Meredith calls him, passed away last winter. But Meredith’s love and admiration for her grandfather lives on through her dedication to fishing and her loving refurbishing of the Edward Lee.

Meredith with a photo of her grandfather.

The Boat
Its signature triangle-shaped side windows and hull design make the Edward Lee recognizable as being built by Maine boatbuilder’s Hall-of-Famer, Richard Alley of Beal’s Island. The wooden boat has sheathing on both sides because Meredith’s grandfather scalloped from one side of the boat and hauled lobster traps on the other.

The boat is set up to haul from the port side. “I don’t know why, because I’m right-handed, but everything came to me quicker on the port side than it did on the starboard side,” said Meredith. “When you do all of your controls, everything’s with your right hand. I like knowing that my strong hand’s on the controls,” she said. Built in 1979, the boat has twice been rebuilt.

“Four years ago, the boat, the cabin and stuff was all rotten,” said Meredith, who just turned 17. “Well, not rotten, it was soft. Nothing in fishing is rotten, it’s just soft,” she laughed. The house had started to sag; the trunk house was getting weak. The boat had sat in the water for 10 winters and had a lot of ice damage to its bow and sides.

Edward Lee, before the restoration.

When Meredith told her grandfather she wanted to go lobstering when she grew up, he said, “Oh, you do! If you want it, we’re going to start from square one.” Together, they ripped out the house, trunk house, decks and floor. “He took everything out of it,” said Meredith. “The only thing there was the bare hull.”

Grandfather and granddaughter built it all back new, replacing the engine with a 210 Cummins diesel. “That’s what it’s got in it now,” said Meredith. “I didn’t bother to change that. Engine runs! She does about 18 knots, which is fairly good for a bigger boat,” she explained. They also shifted the bulkhead forward three feet. Before, it had been mid-ship, making it difficult to see ahead when the boat traveled at high speeds.

A year ago, they hauled the boat out for more work. “The boat was in pretty hard shape, as far as looking at it,” said Meredith. Her father, Danny Oliver, contacted Kim Lawson, a boat carpenter friend of his. Kim and his brother, Todd Lawson, have a boat repair business. Kim, Danny, and Meredith put in a new trunk house. They also scraped, patched and painted. Neighbors driving past complimented the Olivers, saying that the boat looked better than it did originally.
“Kim was a lot of fun to work with. I learned a lot from working with him. He’s good at what he does,” said Meredith.

Even though the major work is over, the wooden boat still requires more upkeep than a fiberglass boat. “You’ve got to have things redone; some things yearly,” explained Meredith. “That was one thing my grandfather always wanted me to be able to do, was caulk a boat. I watched him do it numerous times.”

Meredith will caulk a few more spots before she puts the boat back in the water this season. When she does put it in the water, she will have to let the wood soak and swell for about week. “You can’t go too fast at first. It will suck the caulking out of the places you just caulked.”
And the wooden planks do soak up water. When they hauled the boat out of the water, it weighed seven and a half tons. When they put it back in after almost a year out of the water, it weighed only three and a half.

Learning how to fish
Meredith started lobstering when she was three years old. She’d stuff bait bags aboard her father’s boat, standing on a crate to reach the bait box and singing along to songs on the radio.

When Meredith was six, her grandfather needed a sternman.
“My mom told him to take me,” Meredith remembered. “He said, ‘I don’t know, she’s kind of small; I don’t want something to happen to her.’ Mom says, ‘No, try it.’ Years went by and people asked him, ‘How do you like having a girl out on the boat?’ He said, ‘Best sternman I ever had. She’s quick. Does what I tell her to do. She don’t argue. That’s the main thing; we get along.’”

Meredith and her grandfather grew close after nine years of working together on the Edward Lee. He taught her to navigate using a compass. They had no Loran, no GPS, no radar. “The compass is what he used to get by,” said Meredith. “He’d put it right on the dot. He’d look at his watch, and he’d tell me, ‘Well, we’ll be over there in about 15 minutes.’ That’s how he taught me,” she said.

Meredith has since installed a GPS, but she said, “I have never touched a button on it. I go over there with a compass. It’s all in remembering stuff.” But, she continued, “It does help if you’re in the fog.” She also learned where and when to set her traps from her grandfather. “He used to look at the trees. He’d go, ‘Well, you wait, and when the leaves look this color, bring ‘em in. Set ‘em in here, and when the leaves change this color and they look like this, haul ‘em out ‘cause the lobsters are gone.’ He knew. He was a smart man,” she said.

Fixed up and ready to haul.

Meredith has been home-schooled since second grade, when, as she describes it, she was “hauled out for being too disruptive.” Now, she diligently sits down to her school work after a long day of hauling.
She says she appreciates the way she learned on her grandfather’s boat. “He never once yelled at me when I was out on the boat. If I did something wrong, he’d always stop the boat. He’d come back and show me how to do it, why to do it this way,” she said.

Passing it on
When new people learn that Meredith fishes for a living, they’re surprised. “They kind of jump back,” she said. “A lot of people think it’s kind of weird. ‘A girl doing that kind of work?!’ But not around here. It’s just every day life,” she explained.

People in Deer Isle and Stonington already had a heads up that Meredith would be a lobsterman because her grandfather told them so. Meredith said, “He told the wardens, he told numerous cousins of ours, and all the guys at the co-op. He said, ‘I want her to have the boat.’”

Her grandfather had planned to give her the boat and go as her sternman, Meredith said. But he died before summertime came.
“I didn’t really plan on going lobstering without my grandfather so soon. It’s definitely been a change but it’s what I want to do. He knew I wanted to do it,” said Meredith.

“I love what I do,” she continued. “I’ve always wanted to go lobstering. I was lucky to get the boat to where it was now. My grandfather, I’m sure he’d be pretty pleased.”