October 24 – PORTLAND, Maine – In January 2020, the 42-foot fishing vessel Hayley Ann sank 50 miles southeast of Portland. The Coast Guard never determined what happened. No distress call was sent. Only an automated distress beacon alerted them to the tragedy.
The disaster claimed the lives of Captain Arnold “Joe” Nickerson, 60, of Arundel, and his teammate, Christopher Pinkham, 44, of Boothbay Harbor.
Based in Cape Porpoise, Nickerson was Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and was known across the coast for his calm and strong leadership in the fishing community. He was a tireless advocate for the safety, health and well-being of fishermen. Nickerson is also committed to preserving the diverse culture of small boat fishing.
Today, nearly two years after his death, Nickerson’s work continues with the help of his daughter and a fashionable tote bag maker based out of the Portland docks.
Nickerson’s daughter Hayley Brown designed a limited edition sea bag with a photo of Hayley Ann on the outside and a nautical chart on the inside. A heart marks the spot on the map where Nickerson and Pinkham were lost.
All proceeds from sales of the Hayley Ann satchel go to fund the Fishermen’s Association programs that Nickerson cared about most.
“He’s not here to do the job, so I needed to step up and do something,” Brown said.
The Fisherman’s Association is a nonprofit association that promotes anglers and fishing in the Gulf of Maine. Sea Bags, based at Customs House Wharf, has retail stores on the East, West and Great Lakes coasts. The company is known for its functional, fashionable and high-end bags made from the sails of retired ships.
Nickerson was passionate about safety, said Ben Martens, executive director of the Fishermen’s Association. Nickerson helped start the Safety at Sea program where boat captains could borrow safety gear like life rafts and survival suits when theirs were not available.
“He didn’t want anyone to have to choose between being safe and making a living,” Martens said.
This program later became a comprehensive wellness program for fishermen, including free physical and mental health assistance.
Clockwise from left: A heart marks the spot inside the Sea Bag Memorial where the Maine fishing boat Hayley Ann descended 50 miles off Portland in January 2020 ; Hayley Brown holds a commemorative tote bag she designed as a fundraiser for the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in memory of her father; and fishing boats are moored in Cape Porpoise harbor. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
Martens said Nickerson had also fought to protect various small fishing boats – like his own Hayley Ann, named after his daughter and wife. In the summer Nickerson fished for lobster. In the spring it preyed on glass eels and in winter on groundfish and scallops.
Although not a founding member of the Fishermen’s Association, Martens said Nickerson was a valuable ally in the community. Her imposing 6ft 4in frame and years of experience fishing in Maine and Alaska have commanded respect from other anglers. Nickerson didn’t speak much, but when he did, people tended to listen.
“Joe has been instrumental in the growth of our organization,” said Martens. “He was one of the first fishermen to step up and embrace what we were trying to do – and he was a close friend.”
Brown said she and her mother were unaware of how much respect Nickerson had in the fishing community before her death.
“We were blown away by the number of people who reached out and came to his memorial service,” she said. “We didn’t realize the impact he had had.”
Although not a fisherman, Brown decided to help somehow continue his father’s work. She said Nickerson occasionally spoiled her with an expensive sea bag after returning from Portland, so designing one in her honor felt like a natural and personal tribute.
“It was his idea,” Martens said. “She wanted a way to honor her father.”
The first set of bags was offered in August 2020.
“Our original goal was to sell 10,” said Brown. “We sold twice as much in the first few hours.”
Martens said there was a constant flow of people asking how they could get a bag since the first batch of 250 sold out in a matter of weeks.
That’s why another set of bags is available for pre-order this month at $ 210 apiece. Sea Bags expects them to be shipped before the holidays.
“This collaboration is important to us at Sea Bags because the fishermen of Portland are our neighbors and, on this wharf, our family,” Sea Bags President Beth Greenlaw said through a spokesperson. “We are proud to support Joe’s legacy and to help future fishermen in Maine.”
In addition to the bag, the Fishermen’s Association also sells other Hayley Ann items, including a key chain, coasters and Christmas tree decoration.
Brown said she hoped her father’s death would remind fishermen and their families not to take the future for granted and to hug, every day. She also wants the public to understand the dangers fishermen face at sea.
Just 11 months after the sinking of the Hayley Ann, another Maine-based boat, the 82-foot Emmy Rose was lost 20 miles northeast of Provincetown, Massachusetts. None of the four crew members were ever found.
“These bags are more than just a reminder of my dad, his boat and his teammate,” said Brown. “They are a way to honor all who venture into the ocean and risk everything for a living.”