At Sea in South Freeport
Before the term was defined as undesirable, I was homeless in what has now become one of Portland's most upscale suburbs. Desperation wasn't quite the cause, though; I actually chose to live in South Freeport without a roof over my head. And at the time my living arrangements made a lot of sense to many of the town's longtime residents. Moreover, had I chosen to dwell in standard human habitat, I'm sure it would have taken a lot longer to learn as much as I did about the people of my newly adopted state. At any rate, the economics of the late 1970s did factor into my decision to reside in South Freeport. As a recent arrival in Maine, I actually started out living in a low-rent section of Portland's Western Promenade. (Yes, that tony neighborhood once did have cheapo housing.) But by the spring of '77, my Portland wages simply couldn't keep up with the cost of living, so I seized upon the relatively novel idea of residing full-time on a boat.
In those days, only the very rich lived tentatively on pleasure boats, usually in giant yachts docked in Miami during the winter. People of more modest means lived aboard much smaller pleasure yachts, but only in midsummer and only as they cruised the Maine coast for, perhaps, a week or two. Thus when I arrived at Ring's Marine in South Freeport in late March of 1977, looking for a mooring for my leaky, old, wooden sailboat and confessing I knew very little (read: nothing) about how to sail such a vessel, I got a raised eyebrow or two. Exactly how I became the owner of a boat I couldn't sail was also a matter of the economics of the time. In the 1970s, owners of wooden boats were switching to the new miracle material: fiberglass. Consequently, the price of wooden boats crashed, and a serviceable thirty-footer could be had for less than the cost of a used camper van - which was the sort of affordable housing I'd originally started out looking for. But a deep well of romanticism coupled with an irrational sense of optimism eventually led me to ownership of the sloop Triolet - for much less than the cost of a used camper van.
As for the skepticism of the owners of Ring's Marine, a little additional cold, hard cash worked wonders toward allaying their doubts. So by mid-April, I was aboard and afloat my elderly gaff-rigged sloop, moored out near Pound of Tea Island in South Freeport's Harraseeket River. Few boats were launched at that time of the year, so the harbor was pretty empty. (And even in mid-summer, the Harraseeket wasn't nearly as full of boats as it is now.) So at first it looked as if living aboard would be a fairly solitary lifestyle.
The loneliness didn't last long, however. My first priority was to establish a mailing address, which led me to one of South Freeport's most important citizens, Elsie, who ran the local post office. Although now closed, the South Freeport post office in those days was a tiny room next door to a mom-and-pop grocery store, just a short walk up the hill from Ring's Marine. Elsie ran the place with a panache that belied her senior years. "Oh, I'm sorry dear," she said when I asked about a post office box. "We don't have any left. But I'm sure they have some up in town."
Downtown Freeport is several miles away from South Freeport. When I explained to Elsie my living situation, her smile got a couple of watts brighter. "Well then, we can't have you going up town to get your mail. Why don't you just have people write you care of General Delivery, South Freeport, and you can pick up your mail right here," she said, tapping the counter of her clerk's window. When she explained that General Delivery mail was a free service, I immediately agreed. Little did I know what a smart decision that would turn out to be.
As April faded into May, I visited with Elsie several times a week, which soon led to meeting her daughter and grandson, Linda and Todd. Both were accomplished sailors and assured me I could learn the basics long before I got into trouble with Maine's fabled fogs, ledges, and squalls. Even better, Linda introduced me to people who taught me how to be a fairly presentable sailor and capable live-aboard. Best of all, Linda had cruised the coast of Maine herself and knew the critical importance of a hot shower to those living aboard. When our schedules allowed, I used her shower. It beat the heck out of a bucket of cold water in Triolet's cockpit at midnight.
Indeed, the South Freeport post office quickly became the source of news on "that guy living on a boat out in the harbor," which was a comment I overheard one day in the grocery store next to the post office. I didn't mind being the subject of local gossip. I was actually glad people cared about my well-being. That concern came in many forms, as I discovered one May evening when the Marie L was making her last run back from Bustins Island, just outside the Harraseeket River.
The Marie L was a thirty-six-foot ferry operated by Archie, a longtime waterfront personage. The ferry ran continuously all summer between South Freeport and Bustins. But that evening, Archie swung Marie L in close to Triolet to ask how I was doing. "Fine," I said as hot dogs sizzled in the frying pan and baked beans bubbled in a pot. On an inspiration, I added, "You want some supper?"
Without missing a beat, Archie said sure, tied Marie L up to Triolet and sat in the cockpit with me, gobbling down hot dogs, and swatting at the new crop of mosquitoes from the extensive marshes along the river. "I'd say let's go below but the mosquitoes are just as bad down there as up here," I remarked. This prompted Archie to tell me where I could buy screening and wooden screen stock. More importantly, Archie offered me the use of his tools to make screens for my boat. I understood the sacred trust represented by the loaning of tools and was very flattered when we finished those screens later that week.
Word continued to work its way around harbor habitués. By June, Regis at the diminutive Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster on the town wharf knew my standing order on evenings when it was too cold and rainy to make supper out on Triolet. "Fish sandwich, tea, and french fries?" she'd ask as I sat down at the small, Formica-topped table in the back corner. "With a side of sympathy," I'd say, and she'd dutifully laugh, make a comment about the weather and get my order - complete with a few minutes of motherly conversation.
At Ring's Marine, Harry the boat-hauling guy taught me the critical difference between boat kerosene and all other kerosenes. "If you're reading by a kerosene lamp, you've got to have the kerosene they get over at the Navy base," he said, referring to nearby Brunswick Naval Air Station. Evidently, high-grade kerosene is used for plane fuel, and some local gas stations had access to it. And sure enough, that Navy kerosene in my lamps made a brighter, whiter light than other less-refined kerosenes.
And so it went with dozens of people along the South Freeport waterfront. Eventually, I was generously taught sailing, living, and all the social graces of the sea. And when I got married, anchored out amid the islands of Casco Bay, most everyone found a way to get aboard a boat and help send me off on a very successful sail on the sea of matrimony.
Altogether, I lived aboard Triolet for three years, heading south in the winter and returning to South Freeport in the spring. As I wandered, Elsie dutifully forwarded my General Delivery mail to wherever I docked during the winter. When I returned, friends greeted me like a long-lost cousin, always inviting me in for tall tales and "catching up." Thirty years later, I'm still in touch with many of them.