The Esther II: A father’s boat, a son’s heart

 TREMONT –  Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, Charles Orville Trask used to set out from Bass Harbor and head 20 miles offshore to lobster fish and tub-trawl for hake around Mount Desert Rock, Great Duck Island, and Frenchboro.

The first Esther. Photo courtesy George Trask

Trask used to be an assistant sales manager for Ditto, Inc., in Chicago, pre-photocopier. He was fairly successful, but had a bad spell after his first wife divorced him. He returned to Maine and married Esther Moore, a teacher who was born and raised on Gotts Island (and was a sister of famous Maine author Ruth Moore).

Trask decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and fish for a living. Needing a boat, he had Sim Davis, a boatbuilder on the Bass Harbor shore, build a boat from a half-model he had carved. The two men finished up the boat in 1941. Trask’s first-born child, Dr. Muriel Davisson – a scientist who now lives in her aunt Ruth’s Bass Harbor house – knows this because of a particular circumstance.

Sim Davis’ shop. Photograph courtesy Tremont Historical Society

“My mother was down varnishing in the cabin and I was born that night,” she laughs. “Must have been the fumes. I was born at 4 o’clock in the morning at home. She didn’t have time to get to the hospital.”

Trask named the boat after his wife. It was pretty classy, with a lot of varnished mahogany, and it made a nice charter boat in the summer. Winters, lobstering off Mount Desert Rock, he set up to 250 traps, hauling doubles in 90 fathoms. When the hake were in, he got out his tub-trawls. He didn’t like the crowded inshore. At the time, he and Laurence Newman – the father of Southwest Harbor boatbuilder Jarvis Newman – were the only fishermen to be seen off the Rock.

Young Muriel and Bud Trask on the first Esther. Photo courtesy Muriel Davisson

“I have a feeling he didn’t like to fish in a mess of other gear,” says Trask’s second child, George, who is known as Bud. “Nothing like it is today, but even back then there were a lot of summer fishermen. My father used to get kind of peeved about people who kind of skimmed the top off.”

The Esther was easy before the sea, and hard into it, being flat forward. But she was sturdy and brought Trask and his sternman, Maurice Leighton, back from the Rock even in a bad winter nor’easter – “two hours out, seven hours coming in,” recalls Bud. “There were five-gallon gas cans, six of them under the stern deck. As he ran low, he poured one of the cans into the tank and threw it overboard. That kind of tells you how much he thought they were going to make it back.”

Motoring into Bass Harbor in the wee morning hours, they encountered on the dock Leighton’s wife, Geneva, who ran a doughnut shop nearby and was either irate or worried or both.

“Where the hell have you been?” she demanded to know, according to family legend, then marched away.

In the late 1940s, the Esther burned out from under Trask. He’d had some work done on the engine in Southwest Harbor.

“He didn’t talk too much about things like this, but my mother told me he surmised the mechanic spilled gas down in the bilge when he was working on carburetor,” Bud says. “My father didn’t realize any had been spilled and he started back to Bass Harbor.”

The gasoline fumes ignited when he was halfway back, just off a scenic spot called Wonderland. Flames shot out the companionway door on the port side. Typically, in those days, lobsterboats had a rope and pulley steering system; if the wheel wasn’t held down, it straightened right back up. But Trask’s system was more automotive. That allowed him to run forward to the wheel and roll it down, heading the boat toward shore, then run aft to get away from the heat. When the boat ran ashore, Trask, operating on adrenaline, grabbed a couple of bait tubs, hung one over each arm for flotation, and jumped. He probably landed on ledge anyway. He waded ashore and ran up the beach when the gas tank exploded. People saw the smoke and came down. One took him to Doctor Milstein, who treated his second-degree burns. Then Milstein reached into a private cabinet and pulled out a fifth of scotch and, according to family lore, said, “This is to treat the rest of the trauma.”

Bob Rich’s boat shop, Rich at center. Photo courtesy Tremont Historical Society

The sea provided Trask with a living, so he had to find another boat quickly. He bought one, but was unhappy with the design, possibly because it was low-sided and he couldn’t swim. So he went to his cousin, Robert “Bobby” Rich in Bernard, to have him build a new boat similar to the Esther. Rich used the Sim Davis molds but modified them according to his personal touch.

It was “a typical lobster boat of the 1950s – white, medium buff trim, copper bottom,” says Bud. Although it would seem small now, at 37 feet it was close to the largest boat in Bass Harbor at the time, probably bested only by Perry Lawson’s 50-foot dragger.

Esther II on the ways at Bob Rich’s shop. Photo courtesy George Trask

Muriel Davisson recalls going to Rich’s shop with her father to watch progress and take in the aroma of wood shavings.

“I loved watching the boat take shape,” she writes for the Tremont Historical Society newsletter. “Bobby’s workmen would be climbing over and inside her, sawing, fitting, and nailing as she seemed to grow up out of the floor and tower above us.”

The boat wasn’t as fancy as the first one, but was still pretty, with a lovely sheer line and an elegant tumblehome.

The boat ran beautifully.

“You look at the lobsterboats in the water now, they’ve got great, big roostertails behind them,” Bud says. “Not her. She’s flat.”

In 1952, Ruth Moore christened the Esther II.

Orville Trask, during a family picnic on Black Island. Photo courtesy Muriel Davisson

A “typical” Down East fisherman (Bud’s words) who didn’t talk much, a family man with traditional values, Orville Trask was deeply rooted in the community, as was Esther. Several of their ancestral lines go back to the original non-native settlers off the “back side” of Mount Desert Island, including Gotts Island’s first settler, Daniel Gott, followed by Moores, all in the 18th century; and the Joyces, early 19th century settlers on Swan’s Island.

Orville’s great-grandfather, Joshua, was the first Trask to arrive on Swan’s Island, in the early 19th century. A farmer, fisherman, and schoolteacher, Joshua was lost at sea when he was aboard the schooner Henry Clay during a gale in 1851.  Joshua and his wife Mary had seven children who survived to adulthood. One of them was Captain Lorenzo Trask, who was born on Swan’s Island and died on Gotts Island. Lorenzo and his wife Maggie had seven children, including Orville’s father George, a lobster fisherman who lived in Bernard.

George married Emily Rich, a daughter of the area’s extensive Rich family and its multiple branches of ship and boat builders. Emily was a hardy soul who lived to age 97 and was one of the last packers at the area’s last sardine-packing factory. A bus used to go around the harbor to pick up workers; even in her 80s, if she missed the bus, Emily walked the two miles from one side of the harbor to the other.

“She was a tough old bird,” Bud recalls of his grandmother.

Young Orville attended the elementary school in the small fishing village, and went on to high school in the next town over, Southwest Harbor. A girl named Esther grew up on Gotts Island and went to the same high school. Orville and Esther knew each other and were only a year apart, but she had been “warned to stay away from him when she went off Gotts Island to high school, because he was a ‘wolf,’” Muriel recalls. Orville’s mother wanted him to study electronics, which may be how he ended up in Chicago at Ditto: The family isn’t sure.

Esther Moore, mid-1930s. Photo courtesy Muriel Davisson

Esther’s family had deep roots on Gotts Island, going back five generations. Her father Philip fished, ran a store out of the house, and was the island’s postmaster, Her mother Lovina tended to her children, the garden, the cow and chickens, and the boarders, and cooked meals for summer visitors. According to Jennifer Craig Pixley’s essay, Homesick For That Place: Ruth Moore Writes About Maine, Esther once said her mother was possibly the model for the “strong, resourceful, and emotionally resilient women characters that abound” in the books written by Esther’s sister Ruth.

Esther went on to study English at the University of Maine. Her aim was to be a schoolteacher, but by the time she graduated, the Great Depression was on and there were no jobs. She had a little money, went back to college for a year, then finally found a position.

When Orville left Chicago and returned to Bass Harbor, he and Esther hooked up. Things moved pretty fast. They married in 1940 and moved in with her parents Lovina and Philip, who by then had moved off Gotts Island to a large house in Bass Harbor. Esther stopped teaching. Soon they had their first child.

A view of Gotts Island, where Esther Moore grew up, from the Trask home in Bernard.

In 1946, the growing family – now with four children – moved to a big house overlooking the harbor on Tryhouse Point in Bernard, just above the old Steamboat Wharf. (The names reflect the area’s bustling commerce of the late 1800s, when Bass Harbor was the state’s second-largest fishing port and an important maritime stop.) Two miles across the water, Esther could see Gotts Island, where she grew up. More importantly, Orville’s boat was within sight of the house; he could keep an eye out when the weather was bad.

The three-story house was also big enough for the still-growing family, with separate rooms for Esther’s mother, by then a widow. Esther could store canned goods on the deep shelves in the cellar. The family gathered around the large dining table for meals, and adjourned to a small sitting room for evenings around the Philco, listening to The Lone Ranger and The Shadow, Orville ensconced in his favorite easy chair. The children had their own bedrooms. Old-fashioned, narrow windows overlooked a sloping lawn and a maple tree that made for great climbing. No matter how many people ended up coming to dinner, Esther could dip into the big, six-foot-long chest freezer that was in front of the windows in the dining room, and find enough to feed everyone.

Esther and Orville were kind parents. Probably it was mostly Orville with the old-fashioned values – girls wash dishes and do laundry, boys chop wood and fish with dad.

One day, recalls Muriel, her father couldn’t find any of his three sons.

“Daddy was working on his engine, and he was going out in the harbor to just circle around, and he needed somebody to steer the boat,” she laughs. “I was the only one here, so I got to go and steer the boat while he was down in the cabin tinkering with the engine. That was one of the best memories. It was like God reaching down. It was just wonderful.”

Not that Orville’s traditional thinking made him much of a disciplinarian. Quite the opposite; his purpose in life centered on love for his family. Really, he was more like one of the kids.

“He was more bark than bite,” she says. “We all felt close to him.”

Orville’s lobster traps and car. Photo courtesy Muriel Davisson

Sunday outings were sacrosanct, she recalls. The family piled on the boat and went for picnics on all the islands in the bay.

“In those days, you could fish on Sundays year-round, so if it had been not so good weather and you couldn’t get out during the week, all the other fishermen would go out on Sunday,” she says. “But we always went on a picnic – no matter what. He wasn’t a great moneymaker. We were poor. But we never missed those Sunday picnics – family things, and whoever could be scooped up went along.”

Bud spent long hours as a kid fishing with his father, and grew extremely close with him. From age 9 to 11, Bud had his own boat, a 13-foot lapstrake, flat-bottom punt built by his great-uncle Clifton Rich, who ran his small shop up the road from Tryhouse Point.

“The first year, I went lobstering with a seven-foot pair of oars. Stood up to row so I could see where I was going,” he says.

Orville gave his son 15 or 20 of his old, hard-used traps. Sometimes Bud took his younger brother Brian with him, and they traded rowing. He earned enough money the first summer to buy a 3 ½-horsepower Evinrude. The second summer, with the outboard, he carried 45 or 50 traps. The third summer, he had maybe 70.

At some point, the hake disappeared, and Orville stuck with lobstering, summer and winter, off Mount Desert Rock. By 1955, the hake came back. Bud, who was 12, was recruited to crew.

“He had gone tub-trawling in the ‘40s and made pretty good money at it,” he recalls. “So he got 16 tubs of trawls. We fished eight at a time. I think they reached about six miles. Hake bite in the middle of the night. You leave the harbor around 1 a.m., you’re off Long Island head by maybe 3 a.m., set out eight tubs of trawl, then run back to the beginning again and haul back.”

A Gouldsboro dealer sent a boat to Bass Harbor to buy the fish.

“We sold them round. They weren’t dressed. We were busy hauling back. It took us a while to get the trawl back.”

The Trask kids, from left, Brian, Muriel, Emmy, Bud, and Phil. Photo courtesy Muriel Davisson

Bud spent the next four summers on the boat with his dad. The longest day was 27 hours. Orville let his son sleep some. If they headed into a really good school of hake, they could get maybe 10,000 pounds. At 3 ½ cents per pound, that was $350 and pretty good money.

Back home, the family was dealing with a medical issue.

“My youngest brother Phil had growth problems,” Bud says. “His left leg grew faster than his right leg. He was developing a limp, so the doctor said, ‘You ought to have the longer leg pinned to slow growth.’”

The Trasks had the work done at a children’s hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts. On one of those trips, in 1961, they decided to continue the trip south to Connecticut, to visit one of Esther’s cousins, a Gotts islander who had relocated to West Hartford.

The car was sitting in the driveway when the engine suddenly caught fire; the carburetor was leaking gas. Orville went into action.

Bud recalls, “He was running back and forth to the kitchen sink with a bucket, to pour water on the engine. And he had a coronary. It was totally unexpected. Never any warning.”

Trask was only 53 when he passed away. Esther was devastated and could barely move for weeks on end. Among the children, the loss was hardest on Bud, who had spent so many wonderful days and nights on the water with his father and probably knew the man in ways no one else would.

Esther Trask in the late 1990s, age 80 or 81. Photo courtesy Muriel Davisson

Esther managed all right financially. She had gone back to teaching when her youngest started kindergarten. Orville had faithfully paid into Social Security over the years, which not all self-employed people do, so Esther had a stipend for the kids until they got out of high school. The children had after-school jobs and won scholarships to pay for college. Esther’s energy never faltered. At 65, she retired from teaching and promptly became Tremont’s elected tax assessor for another 20 years, until she was 85. She was head of the Bass Harbor library’s board of trustees, catalogued the holdings, and did the New York Times crossword puzzles right up to her death in 2002, at age 93. Along the way, she went back to the University of Maine to get a master’s degree in English and took courses to keep up with the assessing laws.

“She loved it. She loved numbers,” says Muriel. “At 85, she was walking long driveways in to these summer houses to assess them – in the middle of winter.”

“She was just ‘there.’ I sensed her as a rock,” says Bud.

When Orville died, Esther had to sell his boat, the Esther II, to pay bills. A fisherman named Robert Dunbar, who lived in Brant Rock, Massachusetts, bought the boat. For Bud Trask, who had many happy memories with his father, it was a second excruciating loss.

“When he died, I kind of went into a stupor and I think that probably lasted until about now,” Trask says. “It affected my life greatly. I dreamt about him much longer than is considered normal.”

Esther II at Mount Desert Rock, c. 1952. Photo courtesy George Trask

Trask became a high school math teacher, married, became credentialed in the use of computers in education and spent the last 13 years of his career, before retirement in 2011, at the Baxter School for the Deaf, on Mackworth Island off Portland. (He now works part-time in fiberglass boat repair.)

For four decades and more after his father’s death, Trask thought about how his life might have been different if he’d kept the boat and fished it, and not gone off to college, and paid off the bills his father owed, because they were mostly gear bills.

He thought about trying to track down the old boat. He didn’t really know why; it was just emotional.

The idea dogged him. But he was conflicted. In a sense, he couldn’t bring himself to look for the boat because, on the one hand, it would be wrenching if she were still around somewhere and, on the other hand, it would be horrible if she were rotting out “up a crick” somewhere.

In 2004, he made a decision. His wife and daughter were going on a shopping expedition to Boston, which is 40 miles north of Brant Rock. The time had come.

“I said, ‘I’ll go along. You take the T into Boston and I’ll go to Brant Rock,’” he recalls.

Brant Rock, on the Massachusetts Bay shore, is “kind of like Bass Harbor” – a horseshoe of homes and businesses around a harbor. The Tremont and Southwest Harbor boatbuilding Rich family was well known in the area, particularly Bob Rich, who sold many boats to fishermen along the shore south of Boston from the 1950s through the 1970s.

Trask drove down the west side and found only a bunch of boat storage buildings. Back at the head of the harbor, he ventured into a store and asked the clerk if there were anything about Brant Rock lobsterboats. The clerk pointed him across the street, down a road that would lead to a boatyard.

“So I went down, and there was a boat sticking up,” he says. “I said, ‘That looks like a Ronald Rich boat.’ Not Robert, but Ronald.”

Ronald was Bob Rich’s brother – and another of Bud Trask’s cousins in the Rich branch of the family –  and had a boatbuilding shop for 50 years in Southwest Harbor.

Trask found the owner of the yard.

“He wanted to know how the devil I knew that was a Ronald Rich boat,” Trask says. “I explained the connection. He said, ‘Well, I’ll show you all the Rich boats that I know of in Brant Rock. And he took me out around the shop and pointed them all out. They had a definite look to them.”

Trask could tell the boats that were built by Bob or by Bob’s son, Robert “Chummy” Rich.  There was just something about the superstructure and the shape of the hull, the tumblehome and the shape of the bow. And, of course, they were wood.

“But there was nothing that looked like the Esther II,” Trask says.

Finally, the yard owner directed Trask to a fellow named Ray Noyes, a fisherman who’d had Bob and Chummy Rich build him three lobsterboats between 1963 and 1981, and probably knew everything there was to know about every Rich boat in the area.

Esther II “in hard shape” as she was found by Ray Noyes. Photo courtesy Ray Noyes

“I went and looked him up in the phone book,” Trask says. “I got his wife.  He wasn’t in. She said, ‘But he’ll be in tomorrow. You can call him tomorrow evening.’ I was, by this time, pretty wrought up. I’d gotten this close and I might even see her that day. So I blurted out, ‘My wife and I are just down for the day. We’re going back to Maine tonight.’ She said, ‘Probably the phone will work from Maine.’”

The phone worked just fine. When Trask got hold of Noyes, he learned that Robert Dunbar had renamed the boat the Finestkind and, at some point, sold it to a Braintree, Massachusetts, man. In the late 1980s, Noyes spied the boat in a Braintree boatyard and recognized by its lines a Rich-built craft, even though it was missing the steering shelter and was otherwise “in pretty hard shape,” as Trask recounts.

Trask recalls his conversation with Noyes, who said the boat “looked like she was being used as a dumpster.” In 1990, Noyes bought the boat for $1,200, hauled it to his home in nearby Marshfield, Massachusetts, and sent a carpenter friend to Chummy Rich’s shop in Bernard to learn the skills to rebuild it. A major project followed. The steering shelter was missing, so the boat was rebuilt in the bass boat style, with windshields but no top.

Reconstruction of Esther II. Photo courtesy Ray Noyes

Noyes showed Trask the scrapbook he kept to document the project. The initial photos show plenty of rot and rusted fastenings. When Noyes relaunched the boat in the late 1990s, it looked good, with sistered timbers, plank repairs, new fastenings, a rebuilt engine bed, and fresh paint.

But the boat still had problems. Noyes got Rich to haul the boat back to his yard and give him a complete estimate.

Trask relates what happened next: “Ray said when Chummy called back sometime later, after looking her over, it was like the veterinarian calling, the Friday after you took your old dog in, to tell you he had to put the dog down. Chummy said, ‘Ray, you haven’t got deep enough pockets for this one. She needs a new keel, stem, and horn timber, and maybe a few new planks and timbers.’ The estimated cost was $25,000 to $30,000.”

Esther II in Falmouth. Photo courtesy George Trask

Noyes decided to cut his losses and sold the boat to Carlton Johnson, a boatbuilder in nearby Lamoine. Trask followed the trail and found Johnson, who had kept the boat a year or two, then sold it to a Portland couple, Nance Monaghan, a private investigator, and Bruce Bailey, who sets up offshore oil rigs for a living.

Trask emailed Bailey, who wrote back with their telephone numbers. Bailey also attached a photo of his boat on a mooring off Portland’s Eastern Promenade, with Mackworth Island – where Trask worked at the time – in the background.

“It was Sunday, probably 8 o’clock,” Trask says. “I said, ‘I really shouldn’t call.’ But I overcame my good sense and I called. And I got a machine at their home number. ‘Should I try their cell number?’ I did, and I got her. She was very cordial and happy to tell me about the boat.”

Dimly seen, the outline of a side scupper that told Trask he had found the Esther II. Photo courtesy George Trask

Monaghan told him he could find the boat at a yard in West Falmouth. Trask made arrangements to visit – not entirely convinced this was the old boat. After all, Bailey’s photo showed a bass boat, whereas the Esther II was a typical lobsterboat. Not only that, but the Esther II had her scuppers on the side. When he finally reached the yard, Trask found a boat that had its scuppers in the stern. Then he looked more closely, and there at the turn of the bilge he found the plugged holes of the Esther II’s side scuppers, hidden under a coat of white paint.

“At that point, I said, ‘I guess I got her’ –  and shed a tear, if you want to know the truth,” he says. “That was quite an emotional time for me, to catch up with her.”

For all the years Trask had wondered whether to track her down, the Esther II had been within hailing distance numerous times.

There was the time the boat was at Chummy Rich’s shop, just down the road from the Trask family home.

Traveling Portland’s Eastern Promenade on his way to and from work on Mackworth Island, he had admired the boat on her mooring – not knowing it was the Esther II. He had circled this lovely, unknown boat, taking pictures, on the way to his daughter’s wedding on Chebeague Island.

The boat went adrift one year in a blow and nearly went ashore on Mackworth, probably within a quarter-mile of where he works. When he found out, “That was kind of an eerie feeling. A nice feeling,” he says.

A photo of the boat at a Portland pier shows an attractive dark green hull, the sheerline gently swept up to the bow and set off by perfectly proportioned mahogany cabinsides.

The Esther II in Portland. Photo courtesy Bailey/Monaghan

“That’s my idea of a beautiful boat,” he says. “And I know it’s defined by the fact that I grew up with this.”

Moved by Trask’s story, Monaghan and Bailey renamed the boat the Esther II. They offered to sell her to him, and he polled his siblings about the idea. But they agreed that restoring the boat to full structural integrity would cost too much.

Since 2004, Trask sometimes takes the long way through Portland so he can travel the Eastern Promenade and get a glimpse of the Esther II. For the last couple of summers, the boat has been nowhere in sight. But he doesn’t feel a compulsion anymore to track her down again. The first search, he says, was a wonderful experience that gave him a glimpse of his father’s boat on its journey to other people and other places. Now he’s achieved closure, and he contemplates, with a sense of inner peace, the possibility that the Esther II may have gone – where he thought he’d find her in the first place – to her final resting place in a “crick” somewhere.

As for his beloved father, Trask remembers a conversation, sometime in the last few years of Orville’s life.

“He had done some substituting at the Tremont school, and he liked it,” says Orville’s son, who almost grew up to be a fisherman. “He said, ‘If I had it to do all over again, I think I’d be a teacher.’ Well, you know what I did. I became a teacher.”

A note on the launch of Orville Trask’s Esther II in Bob Rich’s album.

George “Bud” Trask. Photo courtesy Muriel Davisson

Ruth Moore christens the Esther II. Photo courtesy Muriel Davisson

Laurie Schreiber

About Laurie Schreiber

Laurie Schreiber has been writing for award-winning newspapers and magazines on the coast of Maine for more than 20 years.