BATH — The coast of Maine is full of characters. Many have a lifetime of interesting stories: The wharf owner with strong opinions on fishing regulations (the late Dain Allen of Allen’s Seafood in Harpswell); the sturdy septuagenarian who ran a tiny local seafood joint in Cundy’s Harbor (Dawn Bichrest), or the ninth generation member of a family saltwater farm in West Bath (Jim Hennessey).

There is no shortage of salty men and women raised on the rockbound coast – some quite famous; others just plain folk. It must be something in our briny atmosphere that breeds folks with a unique blend of fortitude, humility, and humor.

For Charlie Wing, their stories just had to be shared, before a whole generation of coastal Mainers was forgotten.

Wing, with the salt of several generations of Harpswell people in his veins himself, is the writer of over 30 how-to books, all nonfiction and technical. Then something about coastal Mainers took him on a totally different authorial tack; he began recording their stories.

Bowdoin educated, with a PhD from MIT, he is a physicist, former Bowdoin instructor, sailor, energy expert, and otherwise a man of many talents, who might well be counted as one of this breed.
But for Charlie, who modestly doesn’t think he’s that special, discovering and talking to coastal characters became a passion.

The happy result is a book, “Salt in their Veins,” a must-read for anyone trying to understand the unique Maine psyche.

And, as his wife Barbara wryly puts it, “this is Charlie’s first book with a pulse.”

It all came about when he discovered Studs Terkel’s classic, “Working,” and fell in love with it. He said, “I thought, why can’t I do the same thing, talking with working coastal Mainers, and just let them tell their stories like Studs did?”

His selection process was pretty simple: They had to be born in Maine and be an intrinsic part of the coastal community. At first, he had no age criteria, but after interviewing a half dozen young folks, he gravitated toward the oldsters.

“They had much more to say!”

Later, he also added a few notables “from away” with such strong connections to the coast that they were, as he puts it, “almost from here.”

He started by asking around with people he knew. One that intrigued him was a 70ish fellow working on a 57-foot yawl he called ‘The Bucket.”

“I asked him about his first boat and he told me, ‘One day at the beach I just had this urge. I was four and my sister helped me drag our sandbox down to the water. Of course it sunk, but I’ve been sailing ever since.’ So I just let the conversation run on, and at the end he said, ‘You know, you ought to talk to Walter Green (a Yarmouth boat builder).’ That’s how it went. I would talk with one person, and at the end he or she would say, ‘you should talk to so and so.’”

In all, Charlie interviewed 88 people, from Cape Elizabeth all the way Downeast to Lubec. It took him eight years, logging more than 15,000 miles up and down the coast in his car. Eventually, he winnowed the subjects down to 35.

Getting taciturn Mainers to open up wasn’t always easy. Charlie would start by talking about his lobsterman grandfather and other salty relatives and the many coastal towns he’s lived in, thus establishing his Maine roots. (He would often deliberately forget to mention his academic credentials.)

His interview technique was straightforward. “I’d start out talking about our lives and we’d always find some commonality. We would laugh and joke about stuff.”

Then he’d pop on his tape recorder and say, “Here’s the deal: This is your story, not mine. If I write something up from our conversation, I’ll send it to you for vetting. And if you don’t like it at all, I won’t run it.”

That approach had positive results; few wanted to change even a word. One fisherman actually said, “Gawd, I never knew I talked so good.”

Only two backed out. One felt she had been a bit hard on other people. The other had a wicked smart reason: “Good God, man. I’ve told you things my wife don’t know.”

To understand how he got such great stories out of people, you have to understand a little about Charlie. In spite of his many credentials, he’s a Maine man at heart and down-to-earth to boot. Giving up a promising future at MIT and Woods Hole, he returned to his coastal roots and taught physics for three years at his alma mater. While there, he created on odd-ball course in ’72 that set him in new directions.

Bowdoin had begun to offer “senior seminar” programs in which professors would teach something way out in left field. The idea was students would learn some new subject, while the instructor was learning along with them. So Wing devised a course called “The Physics of the House.” He may have been a highly technical scientist, but his “education” in practical matters was woefully inadequate.

At the time, he was rehabbing a 1790 Woolwich farmhouse, which badly needed it. “We’d be sitting at the dining room table on a winter night and the candles would blow out,” he recalls.

He set about fixing the old place and realized he didn’t know what he was doing. In typical Wing fashion, he read everything he could get his hands on about home building. He devoured architecture books and studied construction engineering on his own. He asked questions, talked with local architects and used that intense learning curve to structure his Bowdoin seminar.

That course, a big hit among students, set Charlie on a whole new career path, writing practical books based on his new experiences. He was founding partner of the now-famous Shelter Institute in 1974, and then wrote a ground-breaking book on smart building (called, appropriately, “From the Ground UP”), which grew out of his hands-on curriculum at the Institute.

He was in the forefront of the energy conservation when solar energy and super-insulation were fledgling concepts. He wrote and hosted a public broadcast TV energy series and developed the first Department of Energy home energy audit.

Then he spent nine years living aboard a cruising sailboat, and, in typical Charlie fashion, wrote five marine-related books, such as “How Boat Things Work.”

Today, at 78, he’s not slowing down. In addition to promoting “Salt,” he’s revising three earlier books on boating and building. And he and Barbara will be starting a new journey soon, taking off in an RV to travel cross-country.

“I’ll bet there are lots of interesting people everywhere. I plan to find them and get them to talk about their lives,” he said.
Does that mean another book?

“You bet.”

Charlie Wing will be talking about his new book at 7 p.m. Oct. 18, at Patten Free Library, 33 Summer St.

Avery Hunt is a Coastal Journal contributing writer. She lives in West Bath.