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From grandfather to granddaughter, a fishing tradition continues in Harpswell

By Susan Olcott, originally published in the Harpswell Anchor

Lexie Saxton helms her boat, I Mean Bu$ine$$. (Chris Saxton photo)

“My great-great-grandfather’s boat blew into Cundy’s Harbor in a storm and he decided to stay.” That’s Rob Watson describing how his family ended up there back in the 1850s. The Watsons have run the general store in Cundy’s Harbor since Rob’s grandfather, who worked in the saltfish business, founded it. Since then, they’ve sold everything from molasses to ice cream and life jackets. Rob, who is in his 70s, now runs the store, but for over 60 years of his life, he spent much of his time carrying on the family’s maritime tradition as a lobsterman in local waters.

While past generations shared secrets among fathers and sons, Rob has passed his fishing knowledge on to his granddaughter, Lexie Saxton. Lexie started setting her own traps at age 8, the age when a Maine resident is eligible to get a student lobster license that allows the holder to have five lobster traps.

Lexie Saxton is now 18 and has her own boat, I Mean Bu$ine$$, which she operates out of South Harpswell, where her family runs the Dolphin Marina and Restaurant. Her mother, Amy Saxton, is Rob’s daughter. Amy grew up in Cundy’s Harbor before meeting her husband, Jeremy Saxton, whose family has run the Dolphin since 1966.

Lexie’s boat, an 18-foot Pointer with a 115-horsepower outboard engine, allows her to tend her 40 traps and run a charter business in the summer, Lexie’s Lobsters. She takes people out on her boat to show them how to haul traps. She will even cook up their catch at the end of the day. Her boat’s name is a testament to her determination to make working on the water a successful business.

She credits much of her success to her grandfather. “My grandfather is one of the biggest influences in my life,” she said. She pointed to the lessons her grandfather taught her early on — lessons that established a foundation for fishing smart and fishing safe.

“Before my grandfather actually set me up to go lobstering, he made me read a whole book on lobsters — the regulations, how to use all the necessary tools, and how to find those ‘honey holes,’ as he would call them,” she said. A young fisherman has a lot to learn, and having her grandfather to pass on that knowledge was critical to starting off right. “He taught me how to coil the rope, how to bait the iron, and how to band a lobster. He taught me everything,” Lexie added.

In addition to his knowledge of the fishery, Lexie’s grandfather also passed on his love for it. “I went out lobstering with him one day and completely fell in love with fishing,” Lexie said, remembering her first trip aboard her grandfather’s boat. “I wanted to be just like him.”

But she decided to be just a little bit different. When she turned 8 and her parents bought her a 14-foot white wooden skiff named the Miss Lexie, she decided that her buoy colors would be exactly the opposite of her grandfather’s — a blue buoy with an orange dot in the middle versus his orange buoy with a blue dot.

“I remember the day I set my five traps,” she said. “My Grampy and I went out on my little skiff and set my five traps right over all the ledges in the harbor.”

Since that day, she has dreamed bigger and worked harder to save for more traps and a bigger boat. “I wanted the big boat with 800 new traps,” she said. She isn’t up to 800 yet, but she’s getting there. She has even built some of her own traps — another nod to family tradition. “I cleaned out my savings bank to do it — but it was worth it,” she said. “They fish so much better.”

While there are certain traditions that remain the same from generation to generation, Lexie realizes that her family has had to adapt over time. “The lesson lobstering has always taught me is that as a human, you have to be able to adapt and change,” she said.

From the schooner her mother’s family arrived on over 150 years ago to the wooden traps her grandfather started fishing with to her own boat’s GPS and sonar, the technology has changed quite a bit. Lexie knows it takes more than practical knowledge to keep up. “It’s not just driving a boat and pulling traps up and setting them back,” she said. “There’s math involved, learning to read a plotter, radar and GPS. There are so many little important pieces to fishing.”

Rob helped Lexie to see the value in skills like reading and math and showed her how she could apply them to fishing. Even though reading a book to learn how to use a plotter may seem modern, Lexie pointed out that “they are all necessary skills to keep the tradition of lobstering going in our small towns” — something she values very much as a seventh-generation Harpswell resident.

Lexie’s mom, Amy, said that she and Lexie’s father are proud of their daughter. “She’s incredibly driven and hardworking,” Amy said. “We love watching her on a boat — she is a competent fisherman after years of learning from the best.”

Lexie’s family is an example of a multigenerational fishing family that has both adapted and held on to the heritage of fishing in Harpswell. As for what the future holds, she sums it up by saying, “The world doesn’t stand still for us; we as young fishermen have to run to catch it.”

To learn more about Harpswell’s fishing families and traditions, join the upcoming event “Conversations From the Fishing Community.” This event is part of “Living and Working in a Waterfront Community: A Conversation Series,” organized by the Cundy’s Harbor Library, Harpswell Anchor, Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, Holbrook Community Foundation and Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, with support from the Broad Reach Foundation.

“Conversations From the Fishing Community,” an informal storytelling roundtable with members of different generations of Harpswell fishing families, will take place at the Cundy’s Harbor Community Hall from 6-7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 18. To attend in person or online, click here to register or reach out to Julia McLeod at outreach@hhltmaine.org or 207-837-9613.

Susan Olcott, of Brunswick, is the director of operations for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association. She has a weekly column, “Intertidal,” in The Times Record, and writes for Maine Women Magazine.

A grant from the Broad Reach Foundation supports the Harpswell Anchor’s reporting on the working waterfront.