Lobstering lures multiple generations of women



Leigh Farnsworth rows out to her gas-powered boat Whiskey Girl in Corea Harbor. PHOTO BY LETITIA BALDWIN
Leigh Farnsworth rows out to her gas-powered boat Whiskey Girl in Corea Harbor. PHOTO BY LETITIA BALDWIN

Everyone has heard of the “glass ceiling” impeding the progress of some women in corporate America.

Some maintain there is a “glass gangway” for women on the water.

But three generations of women lobster fishing in Corea Harbor in Gouldsboro say the challenges they face have nothing to do with men.

And each said they turn out to haul every morning for the same reason many of the men do — a love of being out on the water.

The money doesn’t hurt either.

“You really get that sea salt in your veins,” said Tomi Plummer, 23, of Milbridge. “You get to see the beautiful view. You work outside. And when you get home at night you feel like you did a good day’s work.”

The Maine Department of Marine Resources reports 4 percent of the state’s 5,171 commercial lobster licenses are held by women.

Helping to blaze the trail for women in Corea was Jean Symonds, 81, who has been fishing for more than three decades.

She has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing, a Ph.D. in education and taught at the University of Maine — leaving her time to fish in the summer.

Symonds obtained her fishing license in 1972. Colby Young of Corea gave her five traps. She got her hands on five buoys and a rowboat and was in business.

Jean Symonds, 81, continues to lobster fish. In recent years, she has taken on a sternman to haul and rebait the traps.
Jean Symonds, 81, continues to lobster fish. In recent years, she has taken on a sternman to haul and rebait the traps. PHOTO BY LARRY PETERSON

“It was like opening up a Christmas present every day,” she said. “I have almost a sense of euphoria when I start out the day.”

The rowboat was left behind long ago. Today Symonds has 550 traps and fishes from her 33-foot Finest Kind II.

She had always fished alone but several years ago took on a sternman, Don Crowley, to haul and rebait the traps.

Symonds said the issue as she ages is not so much upper body strength as endurance.

“The hardest part is bringing the traps home and getting them on the wharf,” she said.

Leigh Farnsworth, 43, came to lobstering after a life-altering event. She was diagnosed with malignant melanoma as a college student and the prognosis was not good.

A Connecticut native, Farnsworth went to Bar Harbor the summer of 1994 and never left Downeast Maine.

She left behind an undergraduate degree in speech pathology and audiology and got a job on a whale watch boat.

“I saw the fishermen and knew that’s where I wanted to be,” Farnsworth said. “I went out, loved it and got hired as a sternman.”

She got her license in 2005 when it was much easier to do so — today there is a long waiting list — and four years after meeting her husband, John Farnsworth of Gouldsboro.

Symonds loaned her the money to buy a skiff and outboard. Today Farnsworth fishes alone from her 25-foot Whiskey Girl.

She fished while pregnant. She was fishing the day she had a miscarriage between the birth of her two sons. She has pumped milk on the boat while breast feeding and kept it cold in a cooler.

“It’s been a struggle, but it’s worth it,” Farnsworth said. “I love the ocean and I love working for myself. It’s all I want to do. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

She has made a place for herself in a male-dominated industry by keeping a low profile.

The main source of any angst, she said, is balancing time on the water with time spent with Jack, 5, and Finn, 18 months.

Her husband, a carpenter, was injured and has been home with the boys, but soon he will be back at work and the children will be in day care.

“When the boys are older they’ll come out with me,” Farnsworth said.

Gabriela “Caitie” Young, 24, of Corea began fishing as a child with her father, Lennie Young.

“I would help clean the boat when I was 5 and get $5,” she said. “I was so proud.”

Gabriela “Caitie” Young, 24, of Corea began fishing as a child with her father, Lennie Young.
Gabriela “Caitie” Young, 24, of Corea began fishing as a child with her father, Lennie Young.

Young graduated from cleaning to baiting bags. She got her own skiff in eighth grade and fished summers.

After graduating from high school she took a year off, went to beauty school and had her own nail salon in Ellsworth for 18 months.

“Dad never forced me,” she said. “He told me ‘If you really love fishing you’ll know it. It’s in your blood.’”

“Taking the time off made me realize I like fishing. I love being out on the water and I love the hard work of it. I am a true girlie girl, but this is so opposite I don’t mind it.”

“Plus,” she added with a grin, “the money is great.”

Young is sternman for her grandfather, Colby Young, on his Nana Marie and is saving money for a down payment on her own boat.

She said fishermen her age tease her, but their elders appreciate the women’s work ethic.

“The older guys are finding you can depend on us more than ‘little boys,’” Young laughed. “Most women are here because we want to be here.”

Young said it’s a tough business to break into because of the cost of buying a boat and the long waiting list for new commercial licenses.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are a male or a female,” she said.

Young got her license while in high school after putting in the required number of hours as an apprentice.

The state allows apprentices to obtain their commercial fishing license if they complete a requisite number of hours on the water and buy their license before they turn 18.

Tomi Plummer, 23, of Milbridge has been fishing since she was 10-years-old with her grandfather, Tommy Bridges, and her father, Galen Plummer.

Tomi Plummer, 23, of Milbridge began fishing when she was 10 with her grandfather, Tommy Bridges.
Tomi Plummer, 23, of Milbridge began fishing when she was 10 with her grandfather, Tommy Bridges.

After graduating from Narraguagus High School, she earned her certification as a certified medical assistant.

Plummer tried the office job for six months but was soon on the water again.

“I missed it that much,” she said.

She said fishing with her grandfather has been a lesson in fortitude.

“He’s one of those guys who goes out there every single day,” she said. “He doesn’t care if it’s blowing 100 mph.”

“Some days when it’s rough and you’re getting thrown around back there you tell yourself, ‘No one else is going to do it.’ It makes you stronger.”

Plummer said she doesn’t take much grief from any of the guys and can dish it out as much as they can.

She’s dismissive of anyone who says ‘I wouldn’t want one of those women on my boat.’”

“Men bring much more drama to the fishing than women do,” Plummer said.

Her biggest challenge is balancing fishing with her love of barrel racing on the rodeo circuit.

Taylor Rodgers, 16, has been fishing since she was 8 and is graduating a year early from Sumner Memorial High School in June.

She can’t wait to get out on the water full time on her 31-foot Hindsight.

Taylor Rodgers, 16, will graduate a year early from Sumner Memorial High School next June. She can’t wait to get out on the water full time on her 31-foot Hindsight.
Taylor Rodgers, 16, will graduate a year early from Sumner Memorial High School next June. She can’t wait to get out on the water full time on her 31-foot Hindsight. PHOTO BY CHERYL CLEGG

Currently Rodgers is restricted to fishing summers and checking her traps after school.

She grew up fishing with her dad, Danny Rodgers.

“I’ve grown up doing it. I like being out on the water,” she said. “It’s hard work when it’s rough and foggy, but my dad has always pushed me to keep going. He’ll say, ‘Now go haul your traps.’”

Rodgers said the men are no problem and have let her cut the line to get bait when they know she has limited hours after school to check her traps.

As a backup occupation off season, she is looking into a one- year program at Eastern Maine Medical Center for certification to do data entry in the medical field.

Despite her intrepid nature, Rodgers admits to a little hesitation on some days.

“When it’s foggy I get scared, even with the radar to help,” she said.

But she knows that confidence and skill will come with time.

“I want to fish offshore, like my dad,” she said.

Jacqueline Weaver

Jacqueline Weaver

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Jacqueline's beat covers the eastern Hancock County towns of Lamoine through Gouldsboro as well as Steuben in Washington County. She was a reporter for the New York Times, United Press International and Reuters before moving to Maine. She also publicized medical research at Yale School of Medicine and scientific findings at Yale University for nine years.[email protected]
Jacqueline Weaver

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