Life on the Water: Frankie Bichrest
The Harpswell Anchor
There are very few people in this world who have spent seventy years working on the water, but Frankie Bichrest is one of them.
Bichrest, age 81, is the third generation to live in Cundy’s Harbor, followed by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. His childhood is filled with memories of the local schoolhouse and the water. Bichrest started hauling a “handful” of traps in the harbor at age seven and joined his grandfather at age ten. When he wasn’t mending or hauling traps, Bichrest and his friends always found things to do outdoors; they would swim five times a day and run freely between their houses in the summer, and go ice skating and sledding during the winter. Bichrest spent his childhood learning through experience from his surroundings.
Everyone knows that fishermen love to tell a good story. Storytelling and social learning, however, are more than just fish stories. The culture of the working waterfront is largely based on the social connections between individuals and their ability to pass on experiential knowledge. “If anybody needed a boat built in the winter, a crew would get together and build a boat. There was always a boat being built somewhere. They were busy all winter building boats for somebody. There was always a boat shop you could go into and swap lies….You think of the craftsmanship there was, with no training, all hand tools. It’s unreal. Some of these guys were craftsmen….Sometimes you didn’t really know how the boats were gonna look. It was hit or miss. Some of them had wild, crazy names because they didn’t look that pretty. They had foolish names for them,” explains Bichrest.
Bichrest spent the past several decades in different fisheries, including lobstering, dragging, and shrimping. “I don’t care how smart you think you are, there’s something new that comes from every day. Like why didn’t I think of that? How come this is catching here or there? It isn’t like it used to be, with a compass and marks on the shore. Like that water tower they’re talking about taking down….When they tell me they’re gonna tear it down, I say, boy, I made a lot of money using that water tower! Shrimping and stuff….Take marks on shore if you’ve got a place you know you can fish. I never did it that much because sounding machines started to come on then. When I put my first sounding machine in, I took my grandfather aboard and it was like he knew what it was, the bottom. It was crazy. He fished here so much. The knowledge that those guys had, it was unreal. No radar. Go out in the fog with them, never get turned around. Just a compass. Unbelievable.”
Fishing is more than a job, it’s a way of life. Bichrest explains the importance of hard work in relation to success as a fisherman, and acknowledges the challenges that fishing families face today, including the rising cost of property and diminished access to the waterfront. Bichrest recognizes the changes that have occurred over the course of his lifetime, but is quick to say that the laid-back lifestyle in Cundy’s Harbor is still alive and well. When asked for an example of local culture, Bichrest describes the tradition of “hanging out and swapping lies” on Sunday mornings at Watson’s Store, where locals have been gathering for over 150 years.
Bichrest explains the nature of fishing as a way of being independent and entrepreneurial while being on the water. “Some people study it. They really do. It’s their business and their livelihood and they study it. My boys all do real well. They work hard…If you want to work, you can do alright. If you want to sit around and cry about it, you’re not gonna make anything. Everybody’s had their bad days.”
The Bichrest family has been fishing for five generations. Bichrest’s five sons have each carried on the tradition as a multi-generational fishing family by participating in different fisheries. “They started when they were young too. I used to tell them, when they were young, if they could swim across the cove, they could go on a skiff and have a small outboard and then they’d swim across the cove and start messing with traps. They’d start lobstering, changing different things. They’d have to get out of high school first, if they wanted to do it. They just didn’t wanna go on to school, and some of them did real well in school, and others were thinking of fishing. My oldest boy, smarter than hell, but, boy, it wasn’t school…he was daydreaming of fishing when he was in school. They do well. But they work hard. Just like anything, if you work, you can make a go of it. You’re not gonna get rich everyday. I got two boys gillnetting and lobstering, and my oldest son is just getting ready for purse-seining. One of my boys works on boats and stuff in the winter and lobsters in the summer, and he used to go shrimping too. One of my other boys lobsters. They all like it.”
Travel is important to Bichrest, who enthusiastically tells stories from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Florida. He is naturally drawn to the waterfront, even while traveling, and often finds himself making friends with fishermen in faraway harbors. “I’ve done a lot of traveling and talked to a lot of fishermen and they have the same problems. If I go around the fishing boats, I’ve gotta stop and swap lies. Once they find out I’m a fisherman, they walk me right out on the boat. I like to meet different people. I’ll talk to anybody. If there’s somebody who won’t talk to me, I’ll find somebody that will…Everybody’s got their own ideas. If you talk to a guy who’s doing well and ask him what his gear’s like, he’ll usually tell you. My wife will say, Frankie can always carry on a conversation with somebody. I’ve met a lot of good people that way.”
Bichrest will continue to spend his days lobstering with his granddaughters after he launches his boat in June. Bichrest’s wife, Dawn, operated The Block and Tackle Restaurant for 35 years until its recent closure; their daughter-in-law will be reopening the restaurant in the near future.
“You’ve gotta take the bitter with the sweet. Boy, it isn’t always gonna be sweet. You just can’t get discouraged. You’ve gotta get back up and give her hell again if you’re gonna survive. I’ve seen the hard times. I would go right back and do it all again. I wouldn’t trade my life for nothing. I’m not rich, but I can still do what I want to do. I still have my health pretty good….This is a good place to live. It’s changing a lot. So aren’t we, so there you go. You’ve gotta change some with the times. If you don’t, boy, you’re gonna get run over.”