When George “Butch” Harris Jr. turned 18, he had over 2,000 days of working at sea under his belt. That’s more than triple the number of days required in order to apply to become a licensed captain of passenger boats in Maine.
At age 5, the Eastport native accompanied his father— who also taught him the craft of boat building — to sein for herring, drag for scallops and on deep-sea fishing charters.
“I grew up cleaning fish,” he said. “It was interesting. It was always fun.”
The father-son duo fished for herring as well as cod, haddock and pollock off the coast of the easternmost city in the United States.
In the 1970s, he says, “Everything was about fishing,” but when the sardine industry began to decline, they put their boats to a different use — whale-watching tours in the Bay of Fundy.
What began as two weekly trips for over a dozen passengers on chowder boats has evolved into Eastport Windjammers. Butch and his wife, Janna, now offer combined lobster-fishing and whale-watching cruises as well as deep sea-fishing excursions aboard their newly built 47-foot boat. From late May through September, their son and daughter, Matt and Hailey, serve as deckhands.
Named Pier Pressure, the fiberglass vessel’s name recalls the catastrophic collapse of Eastport’s pier in December of 2014. About 150 feet of pilings gave way on an older section of the pier, crashing onto the Harris family’s schooner Ada Lore.
The damaged windjammer has since been sold and eventual plans are to restore it. Meanwhile, the Harris family rebounded from the disaster and has forged ahead with the launching of Pier Pressure. The vessel is equipped with a touch tank for passengers to see a lobster, star fish and other marine creatures up close.
On a calm, fine spring day, Harris climbed in an outboard skiff and motored out the harbor to show his family’s new tour boat and point out the general location of one of coastal Maine’s most unusual sights — the Western Hemisphere’s largest tidal whirlpool. “The Old Sow,” as the maelstrom is called, occurs when rising tides pour into Passamaquoddy Bay, further roiled by an underwater mountain, and collide with countercurrents from the St. Croix River.
“It creates these whirlpools that get 25 feet across and 4 feet deep. They’re like big funnels,” Harris exclaimed. “It’s really interesting to go, just sit and watch it.”
Over coffee at Eastport’s Waco Diner, Harris relates how the Old Sow once was regarded solely as a navigational hazard — not a tourist attraction. As a boy, he was told to give the whirlpool wide berth especially in smaller craft.
“With anything under 20 feet, you just want to be careful,” he related.
After admiring loud, slurping sounds of tides gushing to “create these huge boils” more than 4 feet high, Pier Pressure’s passengers get to see seals hauled out and basking on ledges.
“Along the way we see a lot of eagles coming and going,” Harris adds. “On some trip we would see up to 40 or 50 eagles.”
On the return trip to Eastport, which straddles the southern end of Moose Island, passengers learn how lobster is caught. The captain pulls lobster traps — marked by orange-and-black buoys — up from the ocean floor to reveal a spiny creature within.
Lobster traps he explains, are baited with herring, which draws the crustaceans in. Once extracted, lobsters are measured “from the eye socket to the back of the main shell.” They must be at least that length or be tossed back into the ocean.
The lobsters’ underbellies are then checked for eggs. “If the female lobster does have eggs, we put a ‘V’ notch on its tail,” Harris explained. “That way she can never be taken. She is a good breeder and we want her to keep breeding.”
Harris, who has lobster fished since he was 10, recognizes that he could make more money just fishing. But he enjoys the interaction with visitors many of return year after year.
“The biggest thing is watching people’s expression the first time they ever see a whale, the first time they see lobster fishing or just to have the kids holding lobsters and playing with starfish,” he said. “To make a living on the water and be your own boss, it really doesn’t get any better than that.”
To book a cruise, contact Eastport Windjammers at 853-2500 and visit www.eastportwindjammers.com.