The Young Man and the Sea

by Karina Coombs


Paul Callahan, sometime in the 1970s. (Courtesy photo) 

In 1972, Paul (PD) Callahan was 24 and a recent graduate of Hampshire College. One of his professors, who was both a writer and fisherman, invited the Concord native to visit him in South Bristol, Maine. The visit would last ten years and open a door to a world that Callahan never imagined existed. And one he found difficult to leave behind. His new book, Door in Dark Water, chronicles his decade as a commercial fisherman, the strain it put on his first marriage and a fishing industry that has drastically changed.

Opening the door

“Fresh from college, I have no plan,” he writes. “I don’t know it yet, but I have stepped into a reality that will change my life forever. Walked through some secret doorway to a place where career path and credentials and a map of the future are irrelevant, where the physical world is everything (all anyone thinks about and talks about): the corrosive and creative force of the sea, catching something alive and selling it for food and money, living to the next day and the next day.”


Arriving in South Bristol, Callahan discovered a close-knit town of 500 located between two more industrial peninsulas. There was “one road in and one road out.” Fishing was a way of life for many but despite his status as an outsider and his woeful lack of experience, Callahan was welcomed into the community. “People were very open, which is not what I thought it would be,” he says. “Working on the water is so independent so anybody who’s crazy enough to do what they’re doing has kind of an automatic respect… after you’ve proven yourself.” 


Callahan and Sam Jones hauling a mackerel trap.(Courtesy photo) 

Starting out

Joined by his wife, then girlfriend, Joy, Callahan rented a dilapidated house on Rutherford Island and began working as a carpenter by day, chasing herring at night and trapping mackerel on the weekends with different crews. Eventually he would pursue fishing full time—ten to twelve hour trips 40 to 50 miles off shore, sometimes longer and sometimes farther. The remaining hours not spent napping were spent building a small house by hand for him and Joy, with a total budget of $3,000. Then he would get up and do it all over again.

“I fell in love with the whole culture and the experience, which is kind of what happens to you in the beginning,” says Callahan, who has lived in Carlisle since 1993. “[The] culture was extraordinarily isolated and wonderful [and] so dramatically different than Massachusetts, especially at that time.” The economics between the two states were also very different. “If you made eight or ten thousand dollars a year you could get by. If you made 18 or 20 you could live like a king. That wasn’t true in Massachusetts, even 40 years ago.” 


The hand-built house. (Courtesy photo) 

The pull of the ocean

Throughout the book, Callahan vividly details his experiences as he struggled to make a living as a fisherman, working on the boats year round in order to make the money he needed to survive. But just as clearly, he describes his love of the water and its creatures—groups of humpback whales leaping as they chase herring, a 40-foot basking shark slowly swimming alongside the boat and dark nets full of fish—and you can feel the pull that kept him there.

“…Over time I will discover that pulling fish out of the water and over the rail never gets old. Never. Being poor does get old, though. I can say that with great certainty, because we are dirt-poor for all of the ten years I chase fish, winter and summer, up and down the Gulf of Maine. But touching the lives of creatures that live in the ocean—that feeling of surprise and the look in their eyes—never does,” he writes. 

Putting it on paper

Door in Dark Water was 40 years in the making, but Callahan only began working on the book three years ago. While he had thought about capturing the experience while he was living it, Callahan explains he was simply too busy to do it. “You couldn’t pull yourself out of the culture and sit down and be a writer. I couldn’t anyway.” 

In 2011, he was able to take some time away from his second career—30 years in the telecom industry—deciding that if he ever was going to write a book the time had come. Callahan wanted to understand what that period had been about. But he also wanted to share this other lifetime with his wife Nancy Roberts and two children who had only heard about his experiences in passing. “Growing up, I was the guy who worked in technology,” he says. “I was a computer guy. That’s who they knew me as. It was kind of written for them and myself to understand, ‘What was that?’”

 Paul Callahan in a rebuilt Cape Islander, circa the 1970s. (Courtesy photo) 

Door in Dark Water

(Courtesy photo) 

Callahan wrote a first draft of the book in six months. After extensive rewrites, the final book was completed in March and self-published in July through Nightwood Press, a publishing company Callahan shares with Roberts. The book is written in the style of narrative non-fiction because he wanted to capture a real time and place. “It was very important for me to not write this as a novel,” says Callahan. “I really wanted to write about these people and use their names because I thought it would be important to them. This is a snapshot in time and it’s gone.” 

Recalling specific events in the book was not difficult for Callahan. The challenges he faced on the water are now part of him. “The book is really about fear because that’s what being on the water is all about—managing fear and ratcheting up your threshold of tolerance [for fear],” he says. “Often what you think is frightening turns out to be imaginary, illusory, in your head. The threshold of tolerance goes up, but you have to almost be in a fearful situation to have that happen. In a lot of sense, that’s why fishermen tell a lot of stories. Because those moments are very high intensity and you remember every detail.”

Looking back

Callahan gave up fishing in the early 1980s. “It was getting harder and harder to make money and more dangerous. I got in some very scary situations in winter fishing in particular.” The years have passed, but he still speaks of his time on the water with great reverence. You can still see a gleam in his eye when he describes running herring at night on the Atlantic, the ocean lighting up as the fish trigger the bioluminescence in the organisms around them. “I miss Maine. It’s a remarkable place and has stayed very much the same.” 

“Forty years ago I fell in love with a place of great beauty and way of life that is now gone,” he writes. “My infatuation lasted ten years. And in the end, I was defeated by the impossibility of that love. But nothing could have kept me from it. Nothing. It was where I had to go, a door I had to open.”

Scheduled readings

PD Callahan, author of Door in Dark Water. (Courtesy photo) 

Callahan will be promoting Door in Dark Water this summer throughout Maine. Following his July 16 reading and book signing at the Bristol Area Library in Pemaquid, he will be at the Rutherford Library in South Bristol on August 5 at 3 p.m. and Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Park on August 14 at 6 p.m. He hopes to schedule local readings for the fall. 

The book is available for purchase online at The book is also available through in a paperback and Kindle version. An excerpt is available at   ∆