In a pair of tiny fish houses, two brothers and their families spend summers together on the water.
When home is a shack on stilts over the water in a tidal estuary, your days are ruled by the rise and fall of the sea. Timing your comings and goings with the tides is essential, lest you find yourself in the situation that Brian Harrington and his fiancée, Michelle Hagan, got themselves into the first night they spent in their Kennebunkport fish house.
It was a cold and rainy Memorial Day weekend. The couple had spent the entire day painting the house. By 7 p.m. they had worked up quite an appetite, so, still in their painting clothes, they went to the Ramp, one of their all-time favorites, for dinner.
As they were finishing up, Brian looked at his watch. They knew high tide was approaching, but decided to have one more drink before leaving. Later, as the couple made their way back home, something wasn’t right. Down the dirt road their head- lights swept across what had once been their driveway but was now just blackness. It was then that they realized their driveway was underwater. Not only was it a high tide; it was a full-moon high tide.
In the sideways rain and 40-degree tem- peratures, the couple waded across the waist-high water until they reached the pier leading to their unheated cottage. (“Thank God for body heat,” Brian laughs when he tells this story, which has now become part of the family folklore.) That night, the cot- tage earned its name: “It’s About Tide.”
If you can find them on a map, the five fish houses on Turbat’s Creek resemble the fingers of a spread hand, reaching out into the water. Built on piers over the creek, they were originally used by lobstermen for stor- ing gear. Today, they are used as seasonal cottages visited year after year by many of the same families.
When two adjacent fish houses went on the market several years ago, local hotelier and developer Tim Harrington took his brothers, Brian and Kevin Harrington, to see them. For years, every summer, Brian and Kevin and their families would stay at Tim’s house. As their families grew, quar- ters were getting a little cramped. “In what has to be the nicest eviction ever,” says Brian, “Tim bought the fish houses as a way for us to be close by but have our own spac- es.” While they joke that Tim wanted them out of his house, the truth is that each of the brothers wanted a place to make memories together, the way they had all grown up do- ing in Maine. Brian and Michelle have three girls: Jillian, 12; Kiley, 11; and Kathryn, 10. Kevin and his wife, Susan, have a boy and a girl: Jack, 19, and Julia, 17. Picture cousins running back and forth between the docks, fishing off the piers, hunting for crabs off the floating dock, kayaking in the creek—it’s a kid’s (and parent’s) summer dream.
Once the two houses went under contract, the brothers had to decide which family was getting which. They went to—of course—the Ramp, where, rather than pull straws, they wrote on two pieces of paper: “clam box” for the bigger house and “shrimp roll” for the smaller one. Like everything they do, this was a team effort. Tim served as ceremonial name drawer. And just like that, chance settled it: Brian and his family would have the smaller one and Kevin and his family, the larger one. While this arrangement worked out well (the smaller house has a wall of bunks on the second floor, perfect for the three girls), the families don’t spend much time inside, except for sleep. “The kids put their bathing suits on at 7 a.m. and don’t take them off until 9 p.m.,” says Brian. Back at home in Connecticut, Brian and Michelle have a spacious home. Each of their daughters has her own room. Here, they have bunk beds in a room with nothing but a partial wall of shelves between them and their parents. “It’s close quarters,” says Michelle, “and yet they’re perfectly con- tent.” “We’ve learned we don’t need a whole lot,” says Brian. “We’ve come to appreciate the simplicity.” The absence of a phone and TV helps. When the couple looks over the divider, they see the girls lying on the top bunks reading or watching the sunrise over the ocean.
“That is really and truly what it’s all about,” says Kevin. “Watching the kids so happy.” The parents will sit on the back deck while the kids play together—whether it’s kayak- ing or swimming right off the dock, or hunt- ing for sea life once the water recedes at low tide. “The nice thing is that it’s so secluded and safe here; we don’t have to worry. They can go off and be kids.”
The kids aren’t the only ones having a good time. Tim, who lives in Cape Porpoise, will paddle board or kayak over for breakfast. The families boomerang back and forth between houses for gatherings, which often include cookouts and lobster dinners on the back deck. “Some of our best times up here were little impromptu cocktail parties that turned out to be 40 people,” says Brian.
Brian, a sales manager for a forest products company, and Michelle, vice president of a bank, have come to dread summer Sundays when it’s time to head back home to Con- necticut. They aim to come up every week- end and for a couple weeks at a time for an extended vacation. The couple hopes to be here full-time when their kids are older. For now, their jobs allow them to telecommute when they’re here. (“The only problem is when you’re on a conference call and a seagull comes squawking by,” says Brian.)
Kevin, who is operations director for Atlantic Holdings, and Susan, director of strategic accounts for a medical company, moved their family to Kennebunkport from Andover, Massachusetts, just a few months ago. The move happened after they spent two consecutive summers living at the fish houses. “We decided we didn’t want to pack up and leave Maine anymore,” says Kevin. “So we bought a year-round house just a mile down the road.” Now for them, Sunday is no longer a bad word.
One of the things the Harringtons love most is that the fish houses exist off the beaten path. You would never just happen upon them; you have to know exactly where you are going. On the day I visit, I think I’ve made a wrong turn. The road doesn’t seem like it goes any farther, and I suddenly regret my choice of footwear. When I finally figure out the way, I quickly learn what makes this place so special. Sure, it’s the setting and the seclusion and the views and the modest shacks themselves. But the real magic is that of childhood unfolding—the moments that will one day be fondly re- membered by the adults and kids alike.
At one point on my visit, Brian insists that I sit in the rockers where he and Michelle like to sip coffee and read the paper in the morning. “I’ll open up the barn door and just sit in the sun reading the Times,” he says. “It’s delivered right to our deck.”
I must look surprised, because then he smiles. “Well, unless it’s high tide, of course.”