Wisdom of the Bay

On Penobscot Bay, traditions and lessons of the ocean are passed down through generations

MacPhail’s father, Angus, is a lobsterman and artist based out of Portland.

My father is watching me through a puff of cigarette smoke as I work the handline over the side of the boat. We aren’t sure if there will be any fish today, but I continue, undeterred. The water laps against the hull, and far off a distant thunderhead is collecting, its belly arcing with silent lightning.

A handline rigged for mackerel.

We’re anchored in a small archipelago west of Vinalhaven, a few miles offshore in Penobscot Bay. There’s something about being here, listening to the murmurs of cormorants as they dry their wings in the setting sun, that makes me think of tradition, of generations, and of the things we pass down through them. It’s in the way the schools of fish travel and how the birds know where to find them. It’s in the fishing communities that live off what the ocean provides and struggle when it doesn’t. And it’s in my father’s and my connection to the boat we sail, the Maine coast that we navigate together, and the ocean that we love. The mackerel start biting in the few minutes before full darkness, just when I thought they would. I pull them up in twos and threes, their sides flashing in the moonlight, and begin to clean them.

Angus watching the sails fill as he heads to Vinalhaven.
Mackerel breakfast, left over from the prior evening’s catch.

My father was a lobsterman for many years, and everything I know about the ocean I’ve learned from him, from plotting a chart to reading the wind. Now in my 30s, I feel like I’m becoming at least halfway proficient in some of these skills. Together we’ve ripped sails, run aground, and weathered storms we had no business being in. Here, the practice of wisdom passed down is both ancient and immediate, and I’ve learned that you have to keep trying, even when you’re blundering through, until it starts to make sense. Soon enough, a layer of confidence emerges that hadn’t been there before—one that could have only come through interpreting that learning and making it your own.

Sunset over islands west of Vinalhaven

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