Volunteer Josh Ryan hoists a beam in the boat shop through the large crack between the floor and wall Friday at Brown’s Boatyard in North Haven. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

NORTH HAVEN — For more than a century, the Browns have been building and repairing boats from a cavernous post-and-beam shop at the water’s edge of the Fox Island Thoroughfare, but the combination of increasingly severe weather and a steadily rising sea is threatening to wash it away.

But the people of this island, with its 400 year-round residents located about 12 miles east of Rockland, aren’t letting go without a fight. They’ve come together to try to resurrect a boatyard devastated by back-to-back storms, record-setting high tides, and the looming threat of climate change.

“The support has been overwhelming,” said Kim Alexander, a fourth-generation member of the Brown family. “People started showing up before the (first) storm was even done. Young ones, old ones, family, friends, neighbors, old customers, competitors: Everybody’s trying to help us save the place.”

Wednesday’s storm swept through and almost took the waterfront shop where they have been repairing and building boats since 1901. The storm surge knocked out a wall and opened the building to the ocean. The floor buckled. Anything that wasn’t nailed down or stored up high was washed away.

The community descended upon the boatyard to clean up, tie down, shore up or knit together a building that appeared on the verge of collapse before Saturday. At noon, a second storm bore down on the island just as a new moon high tide crested, adding an extra foot of high tide to the 3-foot storm surge.

It felt like the whole island was holding its breath. Some people sat in their cars in the ferry terminal lot, watching the storm surge race through the boat shop and over the pier and floating docks, wondering if they were about to witness a tragic chapter in island history.


Luckily, the southeasterly wind didn’t blow as hard Saturday as it did Wednesday, and the rain felt as if the sky was spitting rather than dumping buckets, islanders said. The building stood. The ocean fell about 5 inches shy of the high water mark left on the outside of the shop wall Wednesday.

Foy E. Brown, a fifth-generation Brown known to all as Little Foy, surveyed the inside of the building Saturday after the storm surge had receded. He joined his father, Foy W. Brown – Big Foy – and Alexander, his aunt, as well as a few of the littlest Browns, inside the shop. “It worked,” Little Foy said, looking around. “It worked because the whole town turned out for us.”

“It feels like we dodged a bullet,” Alexander said. “It’s bad enough as it is, but we could have lost it all.”

Foy W. Brown sits inside the boat shop 2 1/2 hours before the high tide during the storm on Saturday. Brown, along with his family and community members, had just finished up securing and stabilizing the boat shop the best they could and removing anything valuable. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Browns know that even if they salvage the shop, they are fighting a long-term war against a foe that can’t be defeated with a shovel or a backhoe. The ocean has been rising for centuries, but climate change has sped up that pace and led to more frequent and intense storms.

Why? In a warming world, glaciers and ice sheets are melting, adding water to the ocean. The volume of the ocean is expanding as the water warms. The Gulf of Maine is expected to rise 1.5 feet by 2050, and 4 feet by 2100. If that holds, the shop will be overrun at high tide by 2050, and the boatyard by 2100.

North Haven is not alone. This week’s storms have wreaked havoc on many other coastal communities, from Kittery to Lubec, damaging lighthouses, wharves and piers, knocking out power, washing out low-lying causeways, and eroding the handful of Maine’s sandy beaches.


Some link the uptick in the ferocity and frequency of extreme weather to climate change, as the science supports, while others consider it simply the latest chapter of the age-old battle against nature. But most are at least considering seawalls, culvert replacements, or raised roads to keep the Gulf at Maine at bay.

Wednesday’s storm “rim-racked” Stonington, the state’s most valuable lobster port, wiping out much of the infrastructure required to make the waterfront work, according to town manager Kathleen Billings. Total infrastructure damages will climb into the millions, Billings projected.

That doesn’t even count the money lost by lobstermen who will have no place to land or sell their catch.

North Haven residents look at the flooding around Brown’s Boatyard at high tide during the storm Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“The devastation makes you want to cry,” Billings said. “It was by far the worst storm we have ever had.”

Security cameras outside Billings’ office documented the moment the storm overran the town fish pier, taking out the electrical systems, pumping stations, and computer systems. The Stonington Lobster Co-op docks are gone. A huge chunk of the Oceanville marsh was washed over a town road and out to sea.

The causeway linking Stonington to the mainland was under 18 inches of water shortly after high tide.


And extreme weather is just one part of Stonington’s climate challenge. During recent summer tourist seasons, the town has had to truck water in to satisfy growing demand as aquifers have run low during droughts and rising ocean saltwater threatens to intrude on the freshwater that remains.

“We’ve been talking about climate change and sea level rise in Stonington now for years, but still some people didn’t want to believe it was happening,” Billings said. “But these storms, well, they’re a shining example of what we said was gonna happen. Now it’s time to stop talking and start doing.”

Farther Down East, in Machias, the town has twice had to close the causeway section of Route 1 that runs over a temporary dike and connects the downtown to Washington County as rain, high tides and record storm surge overran the levee and flooded downtown.

The state is planning to replace the old dike, which was removed after it was declared unsafe, with an elevated dike that would prevent salmon migration and could still get overrun in the future if seas keep rising, or by a bridge that could lead to flooding of properties on the other side of the levee.

The state goes back and forth between the two. As of six weeks ago, the plan was to build a new dike.

Either way, the causeway that locals and tourists alike rely on must be higher, said town manager Bill Kitchen. Without it, the town is cut in two. Either of two detours adds another 15 minutes to a cross-town journey. On Saturday, a car crash on one detour route left Down East hanging on by one thread.


“In Machias, we don’t focus on the why or the who’s to blame,” Kitchen said. “We focus on the need to change, period. And these two storms, back to back, the dike being breached twice, something that isn’t supposed to happen at all, well, that makes it pretty clear to everybody that we need to change.”

For Machias, that means an elevated causeway (bridge or dike, he says, what happens underneath does not matter when it comes to protecting the town’s best interests), a flood wall and a stormwater system to protect the downtown from flooding, Kitchen said.

Sigmund Alexander, 11, walks through debris left behind after the flooding around the boat yard during the storm on Saturday in North Haven. The boat shop survived the second storm of the week. Sigmund, who is the sixth generation of the family, will start officially working at the boat yard this coming summer. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe


North Haven is just beginning to develop plans to prepare for and mitigate rising seas, according to the town administrator, Rick Lattimer. The town has formed a climate working group and is working with a consultant to develop a resiliency plan for the village downtown, including Brown’s.

On Jan. 5, the island learned that FEMA had granted it a $200,000 hazard mitigation grant to fund the initial planning for its waterfront resiliency project. While this was good news, Lattimer said, it could not help but feel like it had come a “day late and a dollar short.” Many, many dollars.

“But it’s not like this problem is going away,” Lattimer said. “I think we can all agree we can’t keep doing what we did this time to survive the storm and save the boatyard every few weeks or even months. These once-in-a-lifetime storms are turning into weekly events. That’s not sustainable.”


On Wednesday, the onetime lobster and clam cannery was swamped by 3 feet of seawater. Storm surge buckled the shop floor and outer dock, knocked out part of a shop wall, and opened the structure to the sea, carrying away tools and anything that hadn’t been nailed down or stored high on a shelf.

Waves ripped the electrical unit off the building, which knocked the gas pump out. A boat storage shed floated from one end of the sprawling property to the other, settling next to the mail lady’s vehicle. The hardware store flooded, too, soaking low-lying inventory and leaving the cash register kaput.

Karen Cooper, right, and her aunt Kim Alexander take a look inside the boat shop after the flooding receded from their family’s boatyard during the storm on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographe

Alexander estimates that replacing the shop building alone would cost at least $750,000, if not more. If it could be replaced at all, given that it is built atop piers at the water’s edge, where additional regulation applies and the insurance needed to qualify for commercial loans just isn’t forthcoming.

The boatyard was not insured, she said – no one would insure a wood building full of heavy machinery, power tools and a wood stove sitting atop wooden piers over a shifting, soft-mud bottom, despite all of the happy memories made there and island services provided out of it.

“Mother Nature really got us good,” Foy W. Brown, a lobsterman and boat builder, said Friday of Wednesday’s storm. “This storm was the worst I’ve ever seen. Now I’ve seen a few blow as hard as this, yes I have, but never with water this high, no I have not.”

The island’s response to the tragedy pleased but did not surprise him, however. There’s almost no place in the world you can go where people haven’t heard about North Haven, visited, or lived there, and if you have done the latter, you would have likely walked past, or even through, Brown’s boatyard.


Alexander teared up Friday as she thanked islander Bridget Hopkins for the bags of food she put on the shop counter-turned buffet table to feed the small volunteer army of would-be engineers, carpenters and all-around cleaners.

“Think nothing of it,” said Hopkins. Years ago, the Browns had stepped in to help her when her house had burned down. Island life embraces a what-comes-around-goes-around kind of lifestyle, volunteers agree. “That’s just what islanders do.”

On Saturday morning, the army had done all it could. They had raised and knit the buckled shop floor tight using chains slung over ceiling beams. At low tides, they had climbed under the shop to shore up the floor with extra support.

Joseph Racz helps carry a piece of wood out of the boat shop before the tide comes in Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Alex Barbour and Matthew Hayes, two Portland carpenters who worked at Brown’s 15 years ago, came over on the Friday morning ferry with a part needed to get the gas pump’s electrical unit working again and a burning desire to help a business, family and island they both loved.

As college-age employees, they did a bit of everything – painted boat bottoms, sold lobster, made water taxi runs, or manned the store cash register. This weekend, the 35-year-olds carted sailboat masts and boat batteries to higher ground and used bottle jacks and chainfall hoists to stabilize the sagging shop.

“It’s people I love and a place that I love,” Barbour said. “I was just doing what was modeled for me by the Browns and the close-knit island community. When someone needs help, the community shows up. That’s what Matt and I were doing, showing up.”


They spent the night on neighboring Vinalhaven, eager to learn how the boatyard would fare Saturday.

The Browns debated removing the floorboards altogether to allow the seas to rise and then fall without damaging the shop walls but decided against it. Instead, they stacked cinderblocks on top of the floor, hoping to anchor it down against the rising sea.

The storm that approached was expected to bring a peak surge of 3.5 feet on top of a king tide, which is traditionally a foot higher than a regular high tide, with wind gusts of as high as 65 mph. The big question: Would the slightly lower wind gusts overcome the extra foot of high tide?

Just before 9:30 a.m., as the wind began to howl, the crew came together and agreed they’d done what they could. The volunteers returned to their homes or cars parked in the nearby ferry parking lot to dry off and wait. The family embraced in the adjoining shop before talk turned to island baseball.

Connor O’Neil records video from the Brown’s Boatyard dock on North Haven during the storm Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Like many island boatyards, Brown’s is the heart of the North Haven community. If it’s broke, Brown’s can fix it. If it needs to be made, Brown’s can make it. It is the island’s only source of home heating oil and gas, and home to the North Haven-Vinalhaven boat service.

The photos and memorabilia tacked on the shop and store walls could double as a working waterfront and island museum. Chandlery, repair and boat receipts from the rich and famous that summer there, including Morgans and Bushes, hang next to old horsehoes.


News shared around the wood stove doubles as the island’s most reliable year-round grapevine.

Standing in his coveralls on the steps that link the ferry terminal to his boatyard, as one of his nephews worked behind him to get the gas pump running again before islanders would need to use generators to power through the storm, the normally smiling Foy said he was both tired and sad.

“I don’t know how to come back from it, how to prevent it from happening again,” he said. “I just don’t.”

On Saturday, after the storm had passed, his mood had lightened. A man known for his indispensability and infectious smile began to talk about the future, hatching plans to clear debris from the boatyard and start washing mud and rust off the tools starting on Sunday.

The family will have to decide whether or not to rebuild the newly stabilized shop, replace it with a new elevated building, or retreat a block up the hill and move the entire operation to the upper yard, where a portion of the boat repairs are already conducted in a newer, heated building.

The boatyard would need to maintain a waterfront presence to lift boats out of the water for repair and refueling, however, so even a retreat wouldn’t eliminate the problem of how to manage a rising sea. It’s unclear if Big Foy or the islanders who long for another chat around the shop stove would ever go for it.

“We’ve all told our share of stories around that stove,” said Rex Crockett, 85, the retired island plumber who married into the Brown family. His late wife, Linda, ran the hardware shop. “It warmed you on the outside when it was cold, and on the inside, too. The boatyard is a really special place.”

Rita Brown, 13, hugs April Brown as they greet each other inside of the boat shop after the flooding on Saturday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

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