Zain Padamsee Found Himself on Frenchboro

Former Island Fellow recalls being not quite a Mainer, not quite an islander

Story and photos by Scott Sell

On the top deck of the Henry Lee on his way to live for at least a year on the island of Frenchboro, Zain Padamsee looked longingly back at the mainland fading from view, wondering if he had made a huge mistake. This is it, he thought. No escaping, at least until the next ferry back to Bass Harbor. That would be three days later.

It was September 2015 and Padamsee was on his way to being Frenchboro’s new Island Fellow, tasked with working on the island’s comprehensive plan and other town projects. The community had planned a potluck that evening in his honor and there were a few hours to kill beforehand. After dumping his duffel bags at the parsonage—his new home—he decided to take a walk through the woods to clear his head and shake the anxiety of having to make a good impression. Not to mention suddenly living more than eight miles out to sea.

man with dog in cedar-walled house

It was a warm fall day, and he made his way to Deep Cove at the southern end of the island. Taking out his phone to snap a photo, he saw that he had less than 30 minutes to get back in time for the potluck. He also realized he had gotten turned around and lost the trail. Panicked, he started running in the direction he thought he should be going, but found himself heading deeper into the thick woods with no trail in sight. At last, he burst out onto the high road, right behind the parsonage.

Drenched in sweat and with no time to change his clothes, he anxiously hustled over to the community building where he was surprised to find only one or two people gathered, setting up tables and chairs. He wasn’t late at all. But he still caught strange looks. His shirt was soaked through and he couldn’t keep beads of sweat from rolling down his face. Months later, when people were more comfortable with him, they told him they were convinced he was covered in sweat from being so nervous. Which, of course, was only partially true.

“I’m an odd dude,” he says, laughing at himself. “Being on Frenchboro allowed me to accept that part of me. I found myself early on trying to pretend I was someone I wasn’t. I learned that, on an island, people are able to figure out who you really are pretty damn quick.”

Now, nearly five years later—after two years of his fellowship and another two staying on the island to be a sternman on Zach Lunt’s lobster boat—Padamsee has come to see these people as his family, the island his home, and a large part of his identity wrapped up in this place.


It was Nov. 17, 1990. Padamsee’s parents were attending a glitter ball at the Australian Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh when his mother’s water broke. As they rushed out into the streets, they saw cars on fire and a bus being turned on its side. President Ershad’s government was in the midst of being overthrown. Zain was born a few hours later, covered in glitter.

His father—a Bangladeshi national—and his mother—an Idaho native—divorced shortly after. Padamsee and his mom moved to Ithaca, N.Y. where she got her doctorate in adult education and community development from Cornell University. While finishing her thesis, she started looking for teaching jobs in places that were good to raise kids and several positions were in Maine. Padamsee was five years old and remembers visiting Old Orchard Beach in between job interviews. It was the first time he saw the Atlantic Ocean. 

They settled in Gorham where she taught at the University of Southern Maine for ten years. When he was in middle school, his mother felt a calling to be a preacher and she went back to school to get a master’s degree in theology. Her first job as a full-time minister was at the Methodist church on Peaks Island, giving Padamsee his first taste of island life.

“It was a completely new experience,” he remembers. “I went from being just another kid at Gorham High to being the preacher’s son on an island where everyone knows everyone.”

For two years, he crossed the bay with commuters on the 6:15 a.m. ferry to make classes at Casco Bay High School. During his summer breaks from American University and then University of Maine at Farmington, he scooped ice cream at Down Front, near the ferry landing. He and his mom were welcomed into the community, but still, he felt like he was never really able to let his hair down, always needing to be on his best behavior in living under the microscope. It wasn’t until he got to Frenchboro that he understood what living on a remote island truly could be.

“Frenchboro made me believe in love at first sight,” he says. “I instantly fell in love with its beauty.”

man with dog standing in front of rocky beach
Zain and Henry on Frenchboro’s Eastern Beach.


In front of a roaring fire and slowly sipping a “Frenchboro Sunset”—vodka, cranberry juice, and tropical fruit juice, a cocktail of his own making that’s now beloved on the island—Padamsee remarks that the fading sun outside is creating colors in the sky similar to those in his glass.

Henry, his chocolate lab, sniffs around the coffee table, hoping to find something that’s dropped on the floor. Padamsee takes a bite of a chunk of cheese and gives Henry the other half. 

“There you go, you big fool,” he says, scratching behind his ears. The two are inseparable: together on long walks in the woods, drives in the truck around the island, in and out of houses where Henry can scrap with other dogs. After Padamsee has been away at work on the water, Henry is excited to see him. One afternoon, the dog saw him walking toward the house and sprinted down the road to jump up and give him a kiss, but ended up giving him a bloody lip instead.

“It’s worth it. He’s the perfect pup. And having him around has helped me when times have been tough.”

It’s been hard to be here over this last year, Padamsee admits. The previous winter felt longer and more lonely. Whenever he doesn’t have to be on the island to fish, he’s on the mainland trying to make plans for what comes next.

man petting brown dog wearing orange vest

He finishes his drink and stands, looking out through the bay windows as the sun disappears completely, the sky turning a brilliant orange.

“Let’s go outside and catch that sunset,” he says.


Padamsee had a good sense of the work he’d be doing as the Island Fellow, but didn’t know how he’d fit in with the roughly 50 people living on the island.

“I was already from away and I look like I’m from away,” he says. “I’ve grown up with that as a mixed race kid, especially in a state that’s predominantly white.”

He made a point of being neutral and professional and as much of a Mainer as possible. But he felt he was seen as the Island Institute Fellow and that was all. He spent the first few months figuring out the interpersonal aspects of living on the island and tried to meet everyone. And he found a clever way to do so, home brewing IPAs and brown ales in the kitchen of the parsonage—he called them “Holy Brews”—and hand delivering fresh batches. It would inevitably lead to conversations on front porches and at kitchen tables. He was touched to learn, later on, that many of the teetotalers on the island were the same people who graciously accepted bottles of his beer.

Working on the comprehensive plan also helped with his integration into the community. With municipal planning in most towns, you can get away with surveying 75 percent of the population. But on Frenchboro, with its 30-something year-round residents, Padamsee felt he would be doing the town a disservice by not getting input from everyone. That meant knocking on every door and talking to people about the plan any chance he got. He made the argument that the plan was the town’s defense against state mandates and potential development on the island.

“I was the annoying guy with the surveys,” he says. “I told everybody, ‘I’m going to keep bugging you until these are all done. We’re going to learn about this process together.’ That was a big theme of my time here: figuring it out on the fly.”


Padamsee stands sleepily against the wall of Zach Lunt’s kitchen, layered in sweatshirts and jackets, cradling a steaming cup of coffee. Lunt listens to what his young daughter wants for breakfast with one ear and the crackle of the VHF radio with other. He’s waiting to see how other fishermen are faring on the water before they decide to go out this morning. It’s not stormy, exactly, but with a strong easterly wind, it’s shaping up to be pretty rough seas.

The two men have been going hard lately, lots of long days as they start to take some traps out of the water in addition to fishing. A couple of years ago when he first started with Lunt, and was 70 pounds heavier, it would have been difficult to keep up with the workload. But in keeping with how his fellowship had gone, his being asked to be Lunt’s sternman was another opportunity to learn on the go.

“I couldn’t tie a knot. I didn’t know how to measure a lobster. I knew nothing,” he says. “People had every right to think I wasn’t cut out for it. Zach was one of the only people who believed I could do it.”

Hard work wasn’t something Padamsee was afraid of: he knew he could work his ass off. There was another problem.

“Holy smokes, did you get seasick!” Lunt says, belly laughing.

“If I had to deal with a day like this when I first started,” Padamsee says, “I would have been green before we left the mooring.”

For the first few months on the boat, he would get sick almost every day. He tried using Dramamine, ginger gum and candies, Sea Bands, anything people suggested for nausea. Nothing seemed to work. But Lunt assured him his body would eventually get used to it.

two men laughing in messy garage

“People saw me get up, go out, puke all day, go back home, wake up, and do it again day after day. And I think after a couple months when they saw I was sticking with it, it gave me some credibility.”

He worked some of the hardest days of his life last winter, spending hours stacking ice-coated traps on the slippery deck of F/V Joann’s Angels, icicles forming on his beard. At one point, after rocking and rolling all day, the boat’s bow dipped deep into the trough of the waves before a wall of water overcame them, somehow not taking any traps with it.

“Fishing changes a person, physically and mentally,” he says. “It will push you to do things you might not have known that you could do before. You learn that you can work a grueling day and get up to do it again and again. You develop a trust in the boat and the captain, that no matter the circumstances they will make sure that you make it home safe.”

The wind pushes against the kitchen windows, rattling the panes.

“I can’t say I’m happy to be out here,” a voice finally says over the VHF radio.

“Nope, me neither,” says another. “I’m headin’ in now.”

“Well,” Lunt says, pouring himself another cup of coffee, “might be a good day to stay warm.”


As his fellowship neared its end, Padamsee realized he’d be taking on a new challenge: becoming a full-time islander. Without plans on the mainland, he decided to stay on the island to continue working with Lunt. But it took several months to shake his role as a Fellow. His personality didn’t change, but people started to hear opinions from him, things he might not have said when he was a Fellow. And sometimes they didn’t like what they heard.

“I told them, ‘I’m living here as a resident, not as an employee for the Island Institute. I’m speaking for myself now.’ It was difficult to do after two years of having the safety net of the organization.”

But islanders knew him well by this point and saw promise in his leadership, asking him to serve on the select board, which he did for a full year, from June 2018 to June 2019.

man sitting on pile of lobster traps

“People trusted me enough to want me helping with important decisions,” he says. “That felt good. I knew enough from my fellowship to carry on something resembling civic responsibility.”

With fishing off the table for the day, Lunt and Padamsee walk across the low road and into Lunt’s trap shop to see what they can work on inside. The shop—big enough to do repairs on traps and paint buoys and not much else—was one of the many places Padamsee called home over the years. As is the case on most year-round islands—where work is available but housing is scarce—Frenchboro has few places for sternmen or other young people to live. After his fellowship ended, he no longer had a permanent home and spent the last two years living in five different places on the island, packing up his things into duffel bags every few months.

His bed in the trap shop was an army cot cozied up next to a space heater. He stayed here for three nights until his friends Danny Saxby and Sarah Brake—a fisherman and his Fellowship advisor—told him he was nuts and invited him to live with them. He quickly got absorbed into their family unit, a loving roommate to their two young sons, Arlo and Bennett. He’s perfectly comfortable living here: he wears his boxer shorts around the house and on mornings when Saxby has already left to go fishing and Brake is still sleeping, Padamsee will often cook breakfast for the boys, making them egg sandwiches just the way they like them.

“It will be really cool to come back to visit in a year, in five years, and see how the family is doing,” he says. “The work they’ve done on the house, how the boys have grown. I’m sure there will be a million things that are different about the island by the time I come back.”


On a bright November morning, Padamsee walks the trail to Northeast Point while Henry happily bounds over the mossy rises of rock and through the pines. He adjusts his glasses, looks out across the bay towards Mount Desert Island, and shivers a little. He lets out a sigh. Henry races back through the trees and nearly onto his lap.

“What’d you find?” he asks and the dog licks his hands.

In a few weeks, Padamsee and Henry will leave the island for good. They’ll move to Biddeford, where the rent is reasonable and he has friends living nearby. After living in camps and uninsulated houses on the island—with iffy heating and sometimes non-existent ways of cooking food— he’s excited about buying fresh vegetables. He’ll be able to go to the gym, sit at a coffee shop. He knows he’ll enjoy the convenience, more of a social life, his days being his own.

He’s quick to admit that he’s unsure what the next chapter is, but he’s certain his time on Frenchboro prepared him for whatever it might be.

“I think I’ll miss the quiet nights here most,” he says. “I have way too many quiet nights right now. But I know I’ll miss it as soon as I leave.”


Scott Sell is a freelance filmmaker and writer, focusing primarily on documentary storytelling. He served as an Island Fellow on Frenchboro from 2006 to 2008 and was the Island Institute’s media specialist for several years. He lives in Rockland with his wife, the artist Alexis Iammarino, with whom he runs Little Legs Projects, a multimedia production company.