The relationship fishermen have with water could be described as tangled; a relationship built on passion and love but tested on a regular basis. It is tumultuous, emulous, and co-dependent. On the one hand, the water provides a workplace and good living for fishermen. The beauty and tranquility granted by the Gulf of Maine stirs a passion and desire in many fishermen that almost possesses them and motivates them to return day after day. But the water, the sea, can take so much from fishermen without warning or remorse.
Gerry Cushman, a 9th generation fisherman from Port Clyde, Maine, was raised on the water, along with his three brothers ‘pretty much from the time [they] were born.’” Gerry professes that he “loves the water with his whole heart.”
“I know the ocean can pretty much take me any time it wants to. I respect it because it also gave me the life I have chosen,” -Gerry Cushman.
In late October 2018, Gerry’s reverence was tested by the ocean.
Gerry fishes out of the Port Clyde Fishermen’s Co-op. There is one wharf that is home to 27 lobstermen and their boats. At the end of the day, most days, fishermen come in one by one, unload the lobsters from their boat, and leave to put their boat on the mooring in the harbor. Occasionally, sometimes because of weather, numerous fishermen arrive at the float at the same time and a line of boats forms. This day was one of those days.
“Typically, I take my oil pants off when I go to the mooring to put the boat on the hook, but I was in a rush to unload [because of the line of boats] and I didn’t take the time to take them off.”
Gerry stepped to the bow of the boat to reach the hook to put the boat on the mooring and, while walking back to get into the wheelhouse, he went to grab the rail on the side of the boat and his hand slipped. The next thing he knew, he was in the water.
Initially, Gerry insisted he was not “freaked out” and his first instinct was to pull himself into the skiff. But his oil pants, which were initially buoying him up, began to fill with water and he was sinking. He says one foot hit the bottom of the ocean floor, but it was low-water so only about 12-13-ft. deep. Water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine in October are around 50 degrees.
Just about 6 inches in front of his face he noticed a green rope dangling. “99% of the time it’s in the skiff but when I fell it was dangling there in front of my face. So, I grabbed it and started swimming up as hard as I could to try and get back in the skiff, but I was fucking done.”
Gerry grasped the green rope and wound it around his arm, “in case something happened they could find me.”
As his head broke the water’s surface, he started screaming.
The weight of his oil pants and boots was like an anchor and he had lost all buoyancy, but with just his nose and mouth above the water, he desperately continued to struggle and yell. Gerry describes a feeling washing over him as he continued to thrash about in the water as peaceful, like “the drug they gave me right before my colonoscopy.” (The drug Gerry is describing is Diprivan, a short-acting medication that decreases consciousness.)
Gerry could see other people, but they could not see him, so he continued to scream, water filling his mouth as he struggled to keep afloat.
The fishermen on shore eventually noticed the sounds of Gerry in the water, but they could not tell from where the screams were coming. Randy, Gerry’s older brother and fellow fisherman, realized that Gerry had gone to his mooring but had not yet returned. Randy called to their brother Michael, who was in his skiff with two other people on his way back to the wharf, to motor to Gerry’s boat to check on him.
As Michael pulled up near Gerry’s boat, he was stunned to find his brother struggling in the water. Michael did not even wait for the boat to stop before he jumped into the ocean to grab his brother. It took all three people to get Gerry out of the water and into the skiff. Michael said that seeing his brother struggling in the water was incredibly scary. Adrenaline helped Michael get to Gerry quickly, and get him out of the water. He says he even ripped off one of his fingernails struggling to get Gerry into the skiff.
“When the paramedics came, they could hear the water in my lungs,” Gerry says. “You let your guard down for a second [on the water] you’re vulnerable.”
Following the accident, Gerry says he was able to get right back out fishing, “I remember I had to and at first I was fine, just a bit hairy. For months I never really thought about it.” But about six months after it happened, he began to dream of the incident and be unable to return to a restful sleep after starting awake.
In any relationship, to manage expectations, it is necessary to think about whether you are asking for too much from your partner. The connection fishermen have with the water, with the ocean, is exacting; fishermen recognize, mostly because of experience, that the moment they expect the ocean to be anything other than unforgiving is when the relationship will be tried.
Fishermen on the coast of Maine, like Gerry, care deeply about their families and their community and for many of them, those values are intrinsically tied to the water: kids swimming; fishing trips with dad; first time driving a skiff on your own; maybe even a first kiss on the wharf.
Gerry thought he was going to die on that day in October, but he says it is not the way he thought he would go, “I always thought if I went, I’d get pulled over by a string of traps or something.” He chuckles. It only occurs to me later that lots of fishermen have probably thought about how they might die on the water, whether being pulled down by a rope or knocked over by a wave. And that it might even cross their mind how vulnerable they are in the middle of the Gulf of Maine on a regular occurrence, maybe hourly or daily or weekly. And yet they keep returning to the water.
Pictured above: Gerry Cushman loading lobster traps onto his boat, BIG CATCHA, in Port Clyde, Maine. Image courtesy of Maine Coast Fishermen's Association visit www.maincoastfishermen.org to learn more about how you can support Maine fishermen.
About the Author:
Monique Coombs is the Director of Community Programs for the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association and she is married to a commercial fisherman. Together they live on Orr's Island with their kids (15 and 11), two Golden Retrievers, and three cats. The kids run their own small lobster company during the summer called Next Generation Lobster. Monique writes about being a fishing gamily on her blog www.AragostaMama.com