77-year-old lobsterwoman likes hard work

First published in the MLA newsletter, July, 2010.

Jean Symonds has been lobstering since the mid-1970’s out of the fishing village of Corea. She turned 77 in May and is still going strong, setting and hauling traps and working on gear in her shop. When Symonds and her partner, Dodie Kemske, who passed away in June, 2000, moved to Corea they built a house on the harbor where Symonds continues to live in with her golden retrievers, Andy and Abigail, and cats, Maya and Emily. The old fish house they ran together as a store is now Symonds’ workshop. Inside the splatters of paint on the workbench give away her buoy colors.

Jean Symonds likes her work….and it shows. Photo by Stefanie Alley

Some time ago I found one of Symonds’ blue and red buoys washed up on the beach of my island, Little Cranberry, about 15 miles to the westward, and returned it to her in hope of going out on her boat. As a lobsterman myself with my own boat, I was interested in meeting another woman who lobsters.

I arrived at her house perched on a granite ledge directly across the harbor from the Corea Lobstermen’s Co-op to be greeted by Abigail and Andy. From Symonds’ front porch you can see Petit Manan Light (on a clear day) almost six miles away. The small, protected harbor is full with about 50 lobster boats on their moorings. Symonds’ boat sits on a mooring just a few oar strokes from her float.

Symonds has a real affinity for lobstering and for preserving a way of life based on the ocean. She has deeded her dock to a lobsterman to assure access to the shore in the future.

Jean and her sternwoman come in from the mooring. Photo by Stefanie Alley.

In 1957 Symonds joined the Army Nurse’s Corp and taught in the Special Forces program. She received a Master’s degree in nursing from Boston University, a Doctoral degree from Vanderbilt in 1990, and taught Nursing and Women’s Studies at the University of Maine in Orono from 1984 to 1999. From 1975 onward until her retirement in 1999, Symonds lobstered every summer. After retirement she turned to full-time lobstering from April to November.

When I asked Symonds why she started lobstering, she responded, “I would watch the boats go out in the morning, and it seemed like everyone was involved. When I received my first lobster license in the mail, it was the happiest day of my life.”

Clifford Young, a Corea lobsterman, gave her five wooden traps and another lobsterman gave her five buoys to get started. Symonds promptly rowed a skiff out around the point, set the traps just outside the harbor and knew she was hooked. She learned to build wooden traps herself; Dodie helped out on shore, knitting bait bags and running the store.

Symonds progressed from rowing her skiff and setting traps to owning an 18-foot Eastporter, a 21-foot Repco, and a 30-foot Young Brothers boat before buying her present vessel, a 33-foot Young Brothers boat she named Finest Kind II. She has been the only woman lobstering from the Corea area that she knows of, until Leigh Farnsworth started fishing six years ago on her boat, Jacky’s Way. Farnsworth said that if weren’t for Jean, she wouldn’t be where she is today.

Long days on the water are part of Jean’s life.

I went out with Symonds and Jynes Albee, her sternman, to haul traps on May 28. After a strong cup of coffee we left the harbor at 5:30 a.m. The sun was just coming up over the horizon and the light played on the water, reflecting off the wake from the boat ahead of us. Symonds steered out of the harbor, hugged the rocky shore and then turned through the channel.

We headed out about two miles where Symonds gaffed the first buoy. She worked steadily, belying her years. Symonds took the lobsters out of the trap; Albee changed bait bags and banded the keepers. They worked with little conversation, just commenting on daily life, the catch, or listening to the VHF and CB radios. Other lobstermen hauling nearby spoke about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, bait supply and price and raccoons. Some raccoons were rummaging in one of the lobstermen’s garage, being a nuisance. Symonds got on the radio and offered one of her retrievers to help him out. He appreciated the joke. She recalled catching an oversized lobster with gloves on its claws last year and announcing her find over the radio. “It’s going to be a cold winter,” was the quick response from a fellow lobsterman.

Symonds’ catch that day was slow as it had been most of the spring, but the next time, she said, it may be better. “The hardest parts about lobstering,” she said, “are bringing traps home at the end of the season, dealing with tangles, and fog! The best parts are just being on the water, the beauty of the surroundings, and the rhythm that is such a great part of lobstering.” She said that she values the fact that the lobstermen look after each other and display a respect that comes from hard work on the water and dependence upon a resource that they both harvest and protect.

At age 77, Symonds has the stamina of a woman decades younger. She does occasionally take a day off when you may find her practicing her golf game at a local course. But any other day, Jean Symonds will be out working on the water.