GOOSE COVE, NL – Coming up on his 71st year, Goose Cove’s Maxwell Sexton still keeps as active as ever – whether he’s fishing, playing the accordion or out in the woods gathering lumber and tying rabbit slips.
“A lot of people ask me when I’m going to retire,” said Sexton.
“My body will probably let me know that. I’m not going to set no time on when I’m going to finish. That 65 – that’s just a number.”
Sexton has had an eventful life, from his years as a refrigeration engineer, a father, a touring musician and a lifetime-fishermen – as well as successfully winning a nearly two-year battle against stage four cancer.
A lifetime fishing
Sexton fished with his father from a young age. Even in the few years he spent working as a refrigeration engineer from 1969-1972 in Twillingate and St. Anthony, he still fished part time every chance he got.
After a few years working in St. Anthony, he felt it was time to get an enterprise and move into a career as a full-time fisherman. Sexton says there was no good money in fishing; it’s just the life he loves most.
“It’s competitive, that’s what I like about,” said Sexton. “The more you put into it the more you get out of it.
“You don’t know what you’re going to get the next day; you might get a bad day, and then a good day comes along and brings you back to life again.”
Sexton says this competitive attitude and the need to always invest further and build upon your enterprise is what makes fishing such a rewarding industry.
In the early ‘70s when he got involved, Sexton says it was much easier to become an inshore harvester than now. People often built their own boats, got a bit of gear and off they went across the water.
“Anyone could get involved then and get going on their own,” he said. “You were investing all the time – start off with a speed boat, and then work up to getting a bigger boat. Then when the crab came on after the moratorium, you had to invest in an even bigger boat.”
At first Sexton fished salmon and cod. During the early years of the moratorium he kept going on species like lumpfish until crab become the pillar of his enterprise for many years.
Sexton still fishes today with his youngest son Jason on a 40-foot long liner. They fish cod and still have a quota for crab.
Like Sexton, his son Jason had a similar trajectory into his career as a harvester, a life he loved and could not stay away from.
“Jason was in high school when he first fished with me,” Sexton reminisced. “Then he got his education and did several computer trades, but he still wanted to fish. He went up to Alberta for a bit but soon wanted to come back.
“So he’s still here and that’s what he wants to do. It’s the same reason I gave up work at the plant, I liked fishing and that was it – even if there’s no money in it.”
Sexton is now 70 years old, and whenever the time come to retire he will pass on his enterprise to Jason. But he remains perfectly content with the fisherman’s life, so long as his younger and stronger son is there when his age brings some obstacles.
Sexton was also involved with various committees related to the fishery. During the moratorium, he taught courses for the FFAW (Fish, Food and Allied Workers union) to help with the fishery’s transitions at that time. He also taught sealing courses, though he hasn’t seal hunted himself in a few years.
On one sealing expedition several years ago, Sexton and his son were stuck in the ice for 23 days. The weeks they were trapped in their boat, several calls had to be made to the coast guard to bring supplies.
“The helicopter made several trips,” he said. “We’d make an order, and they’d pitch down on the ice beside the boat and bring it out to us.”
The good days with the Moonshiners
Sexton first picked up his favourite musical instrument, the accordion, when he was 14. When he got married and had four children, he says he stopped playing for about 20 years.
“When we had our family I don’t say I even looked at it,” Sexton said. “Until we started the band I got involved with it again.”
In the late ‘80s Sexton played accordion and contributed vocals to the group The Moonshiners. They toured across the island playing traditional country and Newfoundland songs, as well as their own original compositions. The group played together up until the early 2000s, releasing five cassettes along the way.
Staple tracks such as “The Good Days,” “Our Newfoundland Breed” and “The Good Days Are Gone” can still be heard today with a quick search on YouTube. Sexton’s wife even contributed a few original songs to the group.
Sexton looks back fondly on those years, and keeps his musicianship up today, lugging his guitar and accordion to kitchen parties, Christmas gatherings, come home years and casual visits to friends and neighbours.
“We’ve had a life,” he reminisced with a smile. “We haven’t missed too many weekends where we don’t got some place to go.
“I always goes around with a load of equipment. Sometime it’s good, sometimes having to bring that around all the time, I wish I couldn’t play a thing.”
Often a simple trip to the wood furnace is enough of an occasion for Sexton to bring out the accordion for a number or two.
“Now I got it on the table so every now and then I can go wait for the fire to burn up and play a couple tunes,” he said.
His battle with cancer
In 2008 Sexton was diagnosed with cancer, but even two surgeries and 12 chemo treatments could not keep Sexton away from his boat.
“I’d get my treatment and then I’d get out in boat again. I never gave up on it,” Sexton said. “I once asked Bonnie to postpone a treatment, so I could go out and pull up my crab pots.”
Following a surgery in St. Anthony and another in St. John’s, Sexton underwent six months of chemotherapy. During the treatments, he spent 48 hours in the hospital every two weeks.
It was a strenuous time but now nearing nine years later, Sexton remains active and healthy, and his willpower appears as strong as ever.
“I goes out at the wood, gets a few rabbit slips, I keep active and on the go as long as I can and one day at a time,” he said. “I guarantee if all you do is stick around the house, you’re not going to last too long.”
Future of the fishery
Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishery is at a new point of transition, with many stating that a return to ground fishery rooted in cod is the way of the future.
Sexton, however, says this transition back to cod is questionable.
“I don’t know b’y, they better be cautious,” Sexton said. “The cod is getting smaller already around here, we keep using smaller and smaller nets to catch them.
“I hope I’m wrong but that’s the same thing that happened before the moratorium – it got smaller and smaller.”
As well, Sexton says the changing weather will be a major factor in how the fishery develops in the coming decades.
“The winters have all changed; the winds are getting worse every year, the tides are getting higher. It’s a job to get out there now,” he said. “A hundred-kilometre winds is almost normal, one time you’d hardly see it.
“If I get another 10 years I know I’ll see a lot of changes myself. In another 50 years, you’re going to see something completely different.”
While he’s uncertain that cod will be the dominant species for the future of the province’s fishery, he still holds out that the fishery will survive in some fashion.
“There’s always something coming back, you’ll get some turbot or some halibut,” said Sexton. “It’ll be a different fishery, but there’ll always be something.”
The road ahead
Sexton says he soon plans to work out the paperwork to give his enterprise over to his son Jason.
Though his son will soon be chief owner of their boat, Jason gave Sexton a boat as well this past Christmas – a model replica of Sexton’s long liner.
Sexton says the small model is truly authentic, with every detail identical to his actual boat.
“We checked it over several times and it’s just the exact same thing as the long liner itself,” Sexton said. “There’s not a thing he missed.”
But until the time comes when Sexton feels ready to give it up, he’ll remain fishing side by side with his son – possibly for many more years.
When it comes to getting the most out of life, age is no obstacle or excuse for Sexton.
“There was a time when old-age pension was the best money people ever saw in their lives, but now that’s just enough to go to St. Anthony to get your gas and that’s all. I don’t depend on it,” Sexton said. “The age 65 is only a number, it really depends on how you feel.”
The Northern Pen’s recurring feature looks at the lives of seniors along the Northern Peninsula and southern Labrador. If you know a local senior with an interesting story to tell, email or call the Northern Pen.