A Boat, Two Dogs, Three Kids, and Endless Islands
Exploring the Coast of Maine with the St. Cyr Family, who spend their summer vacations on (and in) the water, carving out pieces of their own private vacationland.
“You guys want to watch” I can dump them,” says Matt St. Cyr from the helm of his repurposed lobster boat. He’s referring to Artie and Ben, two yellow labs who are lounging at the back of the boat. With a flick of his wrist, Matt turns the wheel and sends them flying. “Poor guys, that trick gets ’em every time!” he says as his three daughters squeal and laugh. The two cheerful creatures resurface a moment later in the cool green waters off Harpswell. Their tongues loll from their mouths as they paddle over to the side of their floating campground. Ben climbs the ladder, then Artie, shaggy wet snouts peeking over the side of the boat.
Once onboard, they shake off, creating little prismatic rainbows and spraying the whole St. Cyr family with wet dog-scented salt- water. Rosie puts her arm around Artie and begins to giggle. He licks her face happily. The St. Cyr pack is all together—like they should be.
When a family is close and all members feel loved, small pranks become moments of ineffable sweetness. Teasing is a sign of love, and jokes are used to solve argu- ments. An outsider might not recognize the affection immediately, but most New En- glanders will. This is how we love up here— whole-heartedly and with a half-smile.
Matt and Jyll St. Cyr communicate in a lan- guage of well-worn jokes, raised eyebrows, and grins. The couple has had plenty of time to hone their communication skills. Twenty-two years, to be precise. They met as teenagers in southern New Hampshire and fell in love quickly. After high school, Matt headed off to the Maine Maritime Academy to pursue his lifelong love of boats. Jyll went to Saint Joseph’s College, where she studied nursing. They were so taken with the state— its quirkiness, its wildness, its freedom— that they decided to stay. Two decades and three kids later, they’ve finely honed their couple’s shorthand, passing along their lighthearted nature (and their love for ad- venture) to their spunky daughters.
“We were together almost 10 years before we got married, so I was pretty sure he was the right guy,” Jyll says. As we talk, the Bellatrix sways up and down with the waves. Bella opens a Tupperware container full of blueberries (picked in the St. Cyr backyard in Pownal) and presents them to me for consumption. Jyll grabs a handful then adds, “I think we’re in it for the long haul.”
“I should hope so,” her husband shouts. He stands at the helm of his boat with his wife and three daughters behind him, all tanned from weeks on the water. “I would hate to have to go shopping now.”
In the summer, this is how the St. Cyrs spend their free time: boating around the Maine coast, stopping at islands to explore, jumping off the deck of their lobster boat into the cold water, searching the beaches of uninhabited islands for pieces of sea glass. And today, they’ve let me tag along. Together, with my good friend and photographer Nicole Wolf, we’re exploring the waters around the Goslings, a series of small islands off the coast of Harpswell managed by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust. We tell them to just do what they normally do, and Matt says that it’s “no problem. We’re a pretty normal crew.”
That could be true. The Bellatrix is no great beauty. A 32-foot Mitchell Cove from the early 1990s, she’s a “used-up, broken-down, beaten-up lobstering and tuna-fishing boat,” says Matt. “I gave her a complete go- ing-through, and now she’s damn fun.” With the help of his father, he fixed up the old girl, turning the lobster boat into a cruiser for his family, complete with a sleeping area downstairs and a toilet.
As he explains the layout of the boat, describing the amenities and showing me where they sleep, eat, and play, his nine- year-old daughter Rosie interrupts to correct something, “It’s the head!” I look at her curiously, not understanding what she means. “Did you know that that’s called the head?” her sister Maisy clarifies tactfully, gesturing toward the aforementioned toilet. At age 11, Maisy is the middle child, and she acts it. Bella, at age 13, is already comfortable performing on stage in school plays, and Rosie is young enough to be cheek-squeezingly adorable; Maisy is the calmest of the bunch. As a fellow middle child, I see a little of myself in her small, serious face.
As close as they are in age, I detect very little sibling rivalry amongst the girls. Throughout the day, they banter and play. They tell me stories of islands they visited on their last vacation in Penobscot Bay. They interrupt each other occasionally, but for the most part, they give each other time to talk. They tell me about Somes Sound and its big cliffs, the dramatic fjord-like swoop of rock and ocean. They talk about school a little, but only when I ask. It’s Au- gust, and their heads are too full of summer to think about classes or homework. Later, when we’ve anchored off Bates Island, they go ashore and teach me to play bakery.
“Last week we found some really big moon jellies and we made them into bread,” Bella says. They packed sand onto the gelatinous bodies of jellyfish, turning them into cakes, adding flourishes of seaweed and shells. “They don’t sting when they’re dead, so it was okay,” adds Maisy as she sifts through sand and pebbles. Next to her, she has a little pile of sea glass, frosty white and chocolate brown. They would be perfect on a moon jelly pastry, but there are none in sight.
According to Matt, there was no magical parenting shortcut that created this cohe- sive and creative unit. It was something that happened over the years. “We talk to our kids like they’re short adults,” he says. “Some kids don’t want to talk to adults. But our girls will talk to anyone. By joking around all the time, we’ve let them know that it’s safe to just goof back, to just be here, to be themselves.”
As the girls get older, Matt and Jyll try and savor each summer, just as they savored their own youth. “It goes so fast when you’re good together,” Jyll says, offering me advice on my recent engagement. I am happy to hear it—I want them to divulge the secrets of happiness, tell me all their tricks. “They say that when you’re young, the honeymoon years go by too fast. And it’s true. It’s one of the truest things I’ve ever known.”
Matt agrees. “My advice is to just enjoy the ride. We’re here for a good time not a long time; live well, and enjoy it.”
Both parents admit to worrying occasion- ally about the girls’ teenage years, about the upcoming passage to adulthood when they will no longer want to spend weeks playing bakery on the beach or finding blue starfish in the sand. Soon, Matt will begin searching for a new boat, one that is slightly larger and has more space for the girls and their friends. “Some of my broker friends have told me, ‘Your days with the kids are numbered! Give it a few years and they’ll be graduating and dropping out of your ranks,’” he says, giving a silly pitch to his voice. “And I’m just like, ‘Shut up! I don’t wanna hear it!’”
While he knows that they may lose interest in their summers on the water, he holds out hope that “one or two of them will hold onto it.” After all, that’s what happened to him. A childhood on the water led him to Maine Maritime, which led him to buy boats, fix them up, sell them, and start the cycle over again. This hobby has paid him back hand- somely, giving his family years of exploring the harbors of Penobscot Bay, the inlets of Merchant’s Row, and the thousands of rocky outcroppings too small to have names.
Summers on the Bellatrix have also given his girls something “more valuable than schooling.” They know how to play without screens or cellphones, how to unplug and entertain themselves. “It takes about a week to get into the routine,” he says. “But once they’ve unplugged, they spend their days jumping around, goofing around, and having a good time. They’ve learned how to not need the overstimulation of the stuff at the house. They play with board games at night. Sure, they learn skills too, how to drive the boat, how to navigate, but I think the best thing is that they know how to hang out.”
A little while later, we pull up alongside a floating dock. The St. Cyrs know the owners of this particular island, and they’ve been granted permission to play on the grounds. Bella, Rosie, and Maisy jump, one by one, off the boat, followed by Artie and Ben. Together they swim toward the dock, where they proceed to perfect their diving skills. The golden-haired dogs swim back and forth between the Bellatrix and the dock, anxiously trying to herd the girls back into the boat.
“The dogs don’t like it when we get in different places,” Maisy informs me. “They don’t like when one person is on the boat and someone else is on the dock. They just want us all to be all together, all the time.” I don’t tell her this—instead I talk
to her about my dogs and their silly, wild ways—but after spending a day with the St. Cyrs, I really don’t blame them.