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Maine ‘mail boat’ delivers more than just letters to islanders

Aug 28, 2013 12:50 PM
Capt. Gene Willard peers from the pilothouse as he docks Maquoit II. An employee of the ferry company since he was 14, he grew up on one of the islands served by Casco Bay Lines.

Capt. Gene Willard peers from the pilothouse as he docks Maquoit II. An employee of the ferry company since he was 14, he grew up on one of the islands served by Casco Bay Lines.

Maquoit II is no ordinary ferry.

Operated by Casco Bay Lines, Maquoit II carries passengers, vehicles and cargo between Portland, Maine, and six Casco Bay islands. During much of the year, it also carries the mail to these island communities, hence the name by which it is commonly known: the mail boat.

Part commuter and school bus, it also operates as a tour boat and break-bulk cargo carrier. During the warmer months, it serves the tourists who flock to these islands. But for the year-round residents, it is what makes their island communities possible.

Even before it leaves the dock, it is obvious that this ferry is different. The 85-foot ferry has a cargo crane with a 20-foot boom. On a recent warm and sunny June morning in Portland, Maquoit II’s crew was busily using the crane to load some unusual items onto the stern cargo decks, including several port-a-johns and four golf carts.

Packed with passengers and freight, the ferry backs away from its base in Portland, Maine. The boat can carry 399 people and one vehicle.

Nick Mavodones, the ferry line’s general manager, looked on while the crew loaded the cargo and prepared to receive the passengers on board. Mavodones once served as captain on the route covered by the mail boat. The freight provides some insight into the unusual nature of the islands served by the boat. The port-a-johns reflected the fact that these islands, with their great natural beauty and dramatic water views, are often chosen as wedding venues. And on some of the islands, residents and visitors depend on golf carts rather than cars to get around.

 “We crammed a lot of freight on back there” on the stern, Mavodones said, recalling his days as captain. “You wouldn’t believe the number of golf carts.”

Maquoit II and the four other ferries in the Casco Bay Lines fleet carry a million passengers, 30,000 vehicles and 5,300 tons of freight a year. A substantial amount of this traffic is generated by summer visitors. But the ferry’s primary mission is to support the year-round communities on the islands. Island residents who have mainland jobs depend on the ferries. The same is true for middle and high school students who ride the ferries to get to their schools in Portland.

As the cargo loading operations drew to a close and the passengers were allowed to come aboard, Maquoit II’s captain, Gene Willard, took his post in the pilothouse. Willard, who grew up on one of the islands served by Casco Bay Lines, has been working for the ferry company since he was 14. After 34 years on the job, he exhibits an extraordinary degree of enthusiasm. That could conceivably be a job requirement, since his duties include entertaining and informing the passengers, as well as getting them safely and comfortably to their destinations.

“We’re primarily performing a commuter service to the islands,” he explained. But that’s just the beginning of it. A great many of the passengers are new to the sights and sounds of Casco Bay. So Willard behaves like an excursion boat guide as well as a ferry captain, providing a narration of the points of interest along the route.

As the ferry was leaving Portland, he advised the passengers to look back to the crest of a hill that rises from the waterfront. Silhouetted against a cobalt sky was Portland Observatory, which he described as “the last standing signal tower in the United States.”

Deck hand Colin Anderson oversees the unloading of freight at Diamond Cove, a resort on Great Diamond Island.

During the 19th century, lookouts using a telescope on the tower would spot incoming merchant vessels and then raise signal flags visible on the docks to alert workers there to the identity of the ship and the nature of its cargoes. Today, Willard went on, the tower is open to the public. “On a clear day you can see all 222 islands in Casco Bay,” he informed his passengers.

His passengers probably would not be very interested in the views from the observatory, since they were being treated to some first-class views from the decks of Maquoit II. The boat, built in 1994 by Washburn & Doughty in East Boothbay, Maine, is powered by a pair of Detroit Diesel Series 60 engines. It has a carry capacity of 399 passengers and just one vehicle (another indication that this is no ordinary ferry).

Willard is acutely sensitive to the dual nature of his passengers. Visitors may be seeing Casco Bay from the water for the first time in their lives, while many island residents routinely see it twice a day. For the latter group, Willard’s narration is so familiar as to be annoying. Passengers have been known to cut the wires of the public-address (PA) system or to stuff life preservers in the speakers. In an effort to strike a happy medium, Willard said he limits his comments to the most common questions he has heard. “I’ve whittled it down to what I’ve been asked,” he said.

That is a bit of a shame, since the route the ferry takes is rich in history. A British fleet bombarded and set Portland ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Masonry forts dating to the Civil War protected the entrances to the harbor. And during World War II, Casco Bay served as the base for Navy vessels that escorted convoys of merchant ships carrying military supplies and troops across the Atlantic. Many of the islands were heavily fortified as a result.

Willard used to describe World War II sites, but does not do so much anymore. “In the ’80s, if 40 people were on the boat, a quarter of them would be guys from that era.” As that generation has passed on, Willard has focused on other topics.

History aside, there is no shortage of local color for him to share. The son of a Peaks Island fisherman, he clearly enjoys telling a good story, including how he came to be a captain with Casco Bay Lines. His father did not want him to follow in his footsteps as a fisherman. “He did all he could to keep me off the (fishing) boats,” Willard said.

Passengers disembark at Little Diamond Island, the ferry’s first stop after Portland. The island is primarily a destination for summer visitors.

When he was 14, he had a job mopping the floors at a waterfront restaurant called the Porthole (it is still there) when he was offered a job working on the ferries. While he was a bit skeptical at first, the money offered sounded good. There was however one impediment. The minimum age for working on the boats was 17. When asked his age, his response was, “How old do you want me to be?”

A hawsepiper, he got his master’s license within a few years of going to work for the ferry company. “By the time I was 18, I had enough (sea) time to sit for my license.”

He has a 100-ton license and has no desire to move up. “I’m on my seventh issue” of the license, he said, and “never needed anything more.”

He sees no need to move up to a bigger boat anyplace else. He likes doing what he does just fine. There is plenty of boat handling to keep him sharp at what he does. “I dock the boat a couple dozen times a day,” he observed. And the boat is well suited to the task. It has three control stations in the pilothouse and one at the stern on the starboard side. “We designed this boat like a tugboat,” he explained. The outboard placement of the port and starboard control stations in the pilothouse gives him optimal visibility when he is docking the ferry.

And the variety of cargo is a constant source of surprise. “Each trip is different. That’s because the freight is different,” he said. “Yesterday we had a bunch of baby turkeys in the pilothouse. They came in the mail. We had to keep them in a safe place.”

He also likes knowing the people he serves. Many of those who board the boat know him by name. As Maquoit II was about to leave Chebeague, the most northerly of the islands on the route, a 7-year-old boy, Rufus MacVane, approached the stairs leading from the passenger deck to the pilothouse and called out, “Hey, Gene, can I toot the horn?”

Asked how he knew Willard, he replied, “My grandmother’s good friends with him.” A few minutes later, he was up in the pilothouse tooting the horn, while his parents and 4-year-old brother looked on. “I want to be a deck hand when I grow up,” he declared.

He might end up doing just that. Many of the crewmembers, like Willard, have strong connections to the islands and the ferries that serve them.

Colin Anderson works as a deck hand on Maquoit II. Like Willard, he grew up on Peaks Island. His two older brothers and his sister had summer jobs working on the ferries. In 1981, the predecessor company that operated the ferries went bankrupt. To keep service to the island going, the state legislature created a quasi-municipal nonprofit corporation to take over. Its board of directors includes members elected by residents of the islands.

Capt. Willard at the starboard control station in the pilothouse. The microphone on the console is one of the other tools of his trade. Willard uses the public address system to provide a running narrative for passengers about points of interest along the route.

“My dad was on the original board of directors,” Anderson said.

He hopes to move up from deck hand to captain. “I took all my tests. I essentially have my (captain’s) license,” he said.

He still needs to pass the medical exam, get letters of recommendation and document his sea time. “I have enough hours to get any size license,” he said.

While some things, such as strong connections to the community, have not changed over the course of Willard’s career, many things have. One is the level of education attained by crewmembers.

“Twenty to 30 years ago, no one had a degree in anything,” Willard said. “Today all the deck hands have a degree in something.”

Deck hand Greg Jukins, for example, came to Maine to attend Bates College, a prestigious liberal arts institution from which he received a bachelor’s degree in math. He has been a full-time employee for the last two years. “I guess I kinda wanted to work on the water. I wanted to work as a stern man on a lobster boat,” he explained.

Hauling freight is an important part of the boat’s mission of supporting the island communities of Casco Bay. The boat’s crane has a 20-foot boom with a lifting capacity of 2 tons. In addition to typical cargoes such as building materials and food supplies, the mail boat carries a considerable amount of more unusual items, such as golf carts and port-a-johns.

He ended up moving to Portland to look for work and landed a job on the ferries. Being a deck hand seems to suit him. He said he is not interested in getting a captain’s license.

In some ways Willard and his crew would seem to occupy a very small world: a small group of sparsely populated islands far from the nearest big city. (Portland is about 100 miles northeast of Boston.) But Willard sees it differently. People come from all over to visit his home islands. And they rely on his boat to get them there.

“The world comes to this boat,” he said.

All his passengers are important of course. But his strongest connections are to his regular customers, the islanders who depend on him most. “This is a service. We pay attention to who gets on the boat,” he said. “We are here for them.”

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