Jingle all the way down the bay

First published in the MLA Newsletter, December, 2011

My family has always had a variety of connections to the islands off of Portland – my first boat ride was to Long Island on the now-retired M/V Abenaki. I was two months old when my mother, grandmother and I went down the bay to visit my mom’s oldest childhood friend who lived on the island. When my brother Jim and I were children, we idolized the Casco Bay Lines deckhands to the point of asking our dad to make us a fake bollard at home. Jim would stand under the stairs to the deck with me up above on the landing. I would throw a line onto the tree stump bollard and my brother down below would yell “YUP!” indicating the line was on, just as deckhands on these ferries do to this day.

Hale and hearty on the Downbay Christmas party 2010. Photo by Lorinda Valls.

When I graduated from high school in 2000, all I could think about was getting out of Maine. When I graduated from Connecticut College four years later, all I could think about was getting home. I moved back to Portland with a degree in anthropology and photography. So I did what graduates with liberal arts degrees and no experience do after college: I got a summer job. In my case it was with Casco Bay Lines.

The truth is that they took a real chance with me. I lack the basic things that most good deckhands and mariners should have – I’m clumsy and have zero mechanical skills. I remember how frustrated the seasoned deckhands were that summer when they had me on their service. I didn’t blame them. Yet through some combination of good training, great captains, and my own stubbornness, we all made it through that first summer. I eventually figured out how to maneuver a pallet jack, tie a bowline, and operate a forklift. I lucked out when my summer schedule assigned me to the 5:05 and 10:00 a.m. trips to Little Diamond, Great Diamond, Long, Chebeague and Cliff Islands. It’s not that I like the early morning that much. It’s that these trips placed me on the M/V Maquoit II and the service of Captain Gene Willard.

I had never met someone who loved his job so much. Gene valued every moment on the water and his leadership and passion for the community was contagious. I loved the way that he told the history of the bay as we transported passengers and freight around the islands.

When a full time position opened up in October, I was hired. Casco Bay Lines trips change dramatically in the fall as summer residents head home. Instead of shipping luggage, catering equipment, and new mattresses to island inns, we were hoisting lifts of lumber, pallets of trap wire and runners onto the docks with the hydraulic crane on board. Passenger counts slow down, booze cruises come to a halt, and year-round islanders start riding the ferries again when school in session and taking one’s lobster boat back and forth to town gets tricky as the wind picks up and the swells run.

From October until April, running ferries on Casco Bay feels like working with a large extended family. Between shoveling snow-covered wharves and moving freight at each stop down the bay, I would catch up on important stuff with my friends and their children in the cabin: an elderly couple from Cliff is heading to the nursing home on Chebeague, someone bagged the first deer of the season, or a new family is moving to the island and they have two school-age kids! But my favorite part of any day was always conversations with fishermen. Guys would come up to the wheelhouse and chat about lobster prices or talk about their plans for going groundfishing with one of the Portland boats for the winter. Some would lament about whales, others about the groundfish regulatory process. At the time, I understood little to nothing about what they said, but it made me so curious.

Rick Frantz of Diamond Cove and Stevie Johnson of Long Island enjoy a good laugh. Annie Tselikis photo.

Gene Willard always refers to the Maquoit as the Seventh Island, recognizing its ability to bring all of the islanders together. This becomes all the more apparent every year on the Thursday before Christmas. For those residents who commute to Portland for work or school, they will board the boat at 5:45 p.m. for the trip home just as they do any other day of the week. But down on the lower deck, Captain Bill Wanzer and his crew play host to a community pot luck and holiday party.

As the Maquoit travels down the bay, she picks people up at their respective islands instead of dropping them off. People stand on the open lower deck stern telling stories and laughing until they can’t stand the cold anymore. Then they head into the cabin for a slice of pizza from Andy’s Old Port Pub or a taste of whatever delicious desserts came on board at Long Island. When the Maquoit finally reaches Cliff Island, everyone disembarks. At the ball field just beyond the dock, they stand around singing Christmas carols until the blast of the ferry’s horn. It is one of my favorite nights of the entire year.

In 2010 I was working at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. Long Island native Zach “Buoy” Whitener was working there too, so we invited several staff members to join us on the annual down bay Christmas Party. Many islanders opened their homes and welcomed me into their lives while I was a deckhand and in turn, I thoroughly enjoyed introducing my friends and colleagues to the people I adore in Casco Bay.

The down bay Christmas Party serves as my reminder of the intangible quality that makes the coastal communities in Casco Bay and all along the Maine coast so important. It’s made up of camaraderie, plain pleasures and a wealth of knowledge earned but shared freely. Many thanks to the Casco Bay Lines and the island residents for turning a summer job into an enduring passion.