Julie Eaton: Lobster Boat Captain

interview by Meg Pier

Captain Julie Eaton, 48, is a lobsterman on Deer Isle, Maine.  I visited the island twice this summer and while having breakfast at the Harbor Café in Stonington, admired the work of a fellow photographer hanging on the wall.  On closer inspection, I saw Julie’s card, which identified her as the artist – and a lobsterman.  Intrigued, on impulse I called her in the hopes she would be willing to be interviewed.  As the phone rang, I suddenly felt a stab of anxiety, with that little voice in my head saying that anyone tough enough to be a lobsterman wasn’t likely to be too interested in talking to the likes of me.

Julie couldn’t have been more gracious and friendly and, as I was to find out over coffee the next morning, she certainly personifies strength and courage—in ways I hadn’t expected.  With disarming openness, she shared with me early in our conversation that a horrific car accident at age 23 had altered the course of her life.  Over the next two hours, I received powerful lessons in humility, good humor and starting over—as well enlightenment on what life is like on the water, what some of the factors are that influence the price of lobster, and a fisherman’s view of global warming.

Last but not least, meeting Julie afforded me further validation to trust my instincts–and not second-guess myself out of a conversation that would prove to make me a better person.  I hope you’ll make the time to read Julie’s story—it could change your day. 

Meg:  Are you originally from Deer Isle?

Julie:  No.  I come from a little town called Surry that’s between Ellsworth and Blue Hill.  If you blink you’re through it.  That’s where I was raised.  I went to high school at George Steven’s Academy in Blue Hill and went to college in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Went on scholarship, didn’t even know where Utah was.

Meg:  What was the scholarship for?

Julie:  I majored in aeronautical science and minored in airport management. I soloed on my 16th birthday.  I got my private ticket {Ed: slang for license} on my 17th birthday and got my commercial pilot’s license when I was in college.  I could fly long before I could drive a car.  I came home and was hell bent to fly because I wanted to do something that I felt was really important with my ability to fly.  I thought the best way to do that was to fly for the state police.

When I was in the process of applying for the state police I was in a terrible car accident and sustained massive head injuries.  They didn’t think I’d survive the accident.  But I was blessed.  I had no broken bones, it was all head injury.  I was in a coma for months and when I came out of it, I went through months of therapy and slowly came around.  They taught me to walk and talk and read and write again.

And of course I knew nothing about flying at that point.  I mean it was gone.  My past was gone.  It was four days after my 23rd birthday and I started all over again.  It was the biggest blessing I ever received in my life because all of a sudden I understood what was important.  It wasn’t the new outfit I was going to buy for my next date, it was the ability to take a step and not have somebody hold on both sides of me.  It was the ability to take a breath and not be on a respirator.  I mean that really hit home.

Meg:  When you were re-learning how to do everything you must have had a lot of frustration.

Julie:  I really didn’t experience a lot of frustration because it just wasn’t allowed. My family wouldn’t allow that.  They were very encouraging and very focused and we pushed ahead.  My dad would sit at the kitchen table with me for hours with one of those great big fat pencils that little kids use and the big wide lined tablets and draw my letters over and over and over, trying to learn to write again. I didn’t know how to hold a pencil so it was the death grip on the pencil.  But if we kept things light then it was better.  And I was so driven to get better that I didn’t have time to be frustrated.

I went through a very small period of “Why me, why did this happen to me? Poor me.”  Big pity party. Then I went to a national head injury support group meeting.  I was well enough to drive by this time and I drove myself. I walked in all cocky and I was going to find out why this happened to me. I was really pissed.  As I sat in this chair in the back of the room all indignant, I saw people being wheeled in on gurneys and wheelchairs and family members in tears.  It was a funny thing because I never said a word.  And when I walked out of that meeting it wasn’t “Why me” it was “Why not me? This is all right, I can handle this.”  Even though you might feel like you’re going to buckle under, you’re never given more than you can handle.

It was like the biggest learning experience I’ve ever been through.  Why not me?  I can do anything.  I survived this for a reason and I can do this.  And that was the end of the frustration.  That was the end of the pity party and from then it was just, as my mother calls it, balls to the walls.  Let’s go, life’s short, let’s go. I never want to come so close with “Why didn’t I do that?  Why wasn’t I nicer?  Why didn’t I try this food?  Why didn’t I try that sport? Why didn’t I try a little harder” It’s full out.

Meg:  How did you get into fishing?

Julie:  I didn’t remember flying so I couldn’t do that.  I hooked up with an older gentleman named Bud Kilton out of Sorrento who knew me from before the accident; I didn’t remember him.  He used to take me out on the boat and I loved it.  It was very peaceful.  It was very therapeutic.  It didn’t matter how different I was–the seagulls didn’t care.  Everyone just went about its business and they didn’t stare and I was okay.  Life for me was very calming out there.

That winter Bud took two divers and I went with him. I ran around the boat like a three-year old, which was about the mental ability I had. I had a towel to dry their faces because I thought I was being a huge help.  And of course, I really wasn’t, I was being a big pain in the ass but I was trying.  At the end of the season I said to these two guys “Next year I’m going to dive” and they’re like “yeah, right.”  I got certified that summer and I was diving that next winter and I dove for scallops for 14 years and loved it.

After about the fourth year of diving, I knew that if I were this passionate about it and wanting to do it year-round in Maine, that’s lobstering.  So I moved to Vinalhaven, an island 13 miles off Rockland accessible only by boat.  And the guys out there were good enough to teach me the business.  I mean I was really lucky, they were all my teachers…

Editor’s note: Meg’s interview with the amazing Julie Eaton continues on View From The Pier. She and Julie discuss family and livelihood, foggy weather and decision making, global warming and her boat, Cat Sass. All accompanied by Julie’s photos. Continue reading here.