Deckhand for a Day
What’s it really like to work as a mate on a Monhegan Island ferry? Down East Contributing Editor Elizabeth Peavey took on the c
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Photography by: Jeff Scher
There are few things that make me happy to hear my alarm go off at 5 a.m., but the prospect of spending a Maine summer’s day on the water is probably top of the list. Even if it means going to work.
Now, when I say work, I don’t just mean packing my reporter’s notebook and a thermos of coffee. I mean work. Because on this particular morning, I’ve been invited to be a deckhand — or mate — for a day on the Hardy III, a Monhegan Island ferry and cruise ship that sails out of New Harbor south of Damariscotta. And I have been promised to be treated, not like a fifty-year-old indolent freelancer, but like crew.
Those of us who have made this ferry trip to Monhegan or any Maine island are familiar with the sight of the (usually) young men and women, ably casting off the dock lines and landing the boats, collecting tickets, answering questions, and carting baggage, all with unflaggingly cheerful alacrity. As someone who has had fewer real jobs than many of these kids, I wondered, “Does the picturesque backdrop fade, do the two return trips grow monotonous? Are the twelve-to-fourteen hour shifts fun, hard — or both?”
I’m about to find out.
I arrive at the Hardy Boat Cruises’ parking lot at 7:15, even before the attendant. As I prepare to leave a note, I am greeted by Cate Molloy, an ebullient redhead who staffs the ticket booth, and Lindsay Dinsmore, a petite blonde with a bright, white smile, and who, it turns out, is going to be one of my mates for the day. Together, we make the steep trek from the lot to Hardy Boat headquarters, a small ticket booth festooned with souvenir hats, located under the deck of Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf. Our third and fellow deck mate, Noah Burch (with straight-out-of-central-casting good looks), is poised and awaiting our arrival. Cate sets about opening up the booth for the day. The reservations book comes out: the boat is sold out at its capacity of 120.
Next, Hardy Boat Cruises’ owners, Captain Al Crocetti, dashing in his nautical whites, and his attractive wife, Stacie (what, is there a screen test required to work for this company?) arrive, with the couple’s two young boys, Theo and Sebastian. After a flurry of introductions, everyone (almost) gets to work.
While the “official” mates and the captain row out to bring in the Hardy III from its mooring, I take a moment to survey one of my favorite harbors in Maine. If the state’s more ballyhooed ports — Camden, Bar Harbor, Boothbay — were carved out with a shovel, New Harbor has been carved with a teaspoon. This skinny little inlet is tucked in a corner of Muscongus Bay, on the eastern tip of the Pemaquid peninsula. Aside from the overwhelming presence of Shaw’s — a lobster shack that sprawls, both in and outdoors, over two stories of wharf space — and a couple small businesses (Hardy Cruises, a gift shop, and lobster pound), this is a rough-and-tumble working harbor. The air is redolent with both chum and fried food — the aroma of real Maine.
Every once in a while you’ll see a pleasure boat fueling up here, but there is a telling absence of swells on these docks. If an outsider lingers in one spot too long, she’s likely to attract the attention of an old-timer, hoping to give a jolt to one of the ferry-bound touristas. “Ever had a chance to try puffin stew?” I’m asked by one salt, with a whiskery wink. Happily, the boat has docked, and it’s time to join Noah and Lindsay. Like a good mate-in-training, I trail behind them, as they lug two giant urns to a nearby utility shed to fill them with water for coffee. (I personally would find this job-shadowing annoying, but they don’t seem to mind.)
When we board, we divvy up the next round of tasks. Lindsay sets about setting up the snack bar. I join Noah in what I would like to think of as the equivalent of swabbing the decks: wiping down the passenger seats. He mans the squeegee, and I follow with a rag, as we wipe the upper and lower decks’ benches. We chat as we work. He tells me he has just graduated from Wheaton College earlier this summer. Working for the Crocettis, who have owned Hardy Boat Cruises since 1994, has been a family affair: Both his brothers have served as deckhands, and he, himself, worked on the boat throughout high school. Now, he’s back, bridging that transition between graduation and “What’s next?” He agrees it’s a fine place to sort things out, but a job prospect might make him happier.
We move quickly, even though I suspect his “helper” is actually slowing him down. By the time we’re done, Lindsay has the snack bar set — and good thing, too. Passengers are already lining up and ready to board. It’s a little before eight. “Do people always arrive this early?” I ask. Yes, I am told, and sometimes earlier — except for those who will be racing to board moments before nine. (And sure to form, a frazzled grandmother, daughter, and grandchild in stroller, will careen toward the ticket booth at the last possible moment on this cruise.)
Next, there is stocking to be done. Lindsay lowers herself down into the hole, a cramped and unfinished storage space in the ship’s hull under the wheelhouse, which has that not-quite-ripe bilge smell, and Noah and I feed her sleeves of paper cups and rolls of toilet paper, every so often conking her on the head. I get prepped on what to do if someone is feeling seasick: Tell them to move to the stern, get fresh air, and chew on a complimentary ginger candy.
“These are free?” I ask.
“It beats the alternative,” I’m told.
With the ultra-adorable Theo and Sebastian “manning” the snack bar, the three mates start running baggage. Noah once again takes me under his wing. “First thing you do is tag the bags,” he says, handing me a stack of labels with rubber bands attached to them. “And then clear loading them with their owner.” He approaches a woman, standing near several pieces of luggage. Sanctioned to take it all, we set off. Soon, more passengers arrive, with more gear. (The Hardy III, unlike some other ferry companies, does not charge for bags and does not have a limit, which can result in a lot of lugging.)
Thus begins our relay race. The tide is nearly high, so the ramp down to the dock is barely at an angle. We all load up, no one more so than Lindsay, who seems to be able to heft her own slim weight in baggage. When I later ask her if people are impressed with the fact that she is a female in a traditionally, predominantly male role, she’s says, “Sometimes.” Musing a little further, she adds, “Every once in a while, when I’m carrying all these bags, I’ll get a ‘You go, girl’ from another woman on the dock.”
(Not to be outdone by these whippersnappers, I, too, pile on the bags like a pachyderm and hustle up and down the ramp. Even at the end of the day, when the tide is low and the ramp is steep, I feel I am doing a great job of keeping up — that is, until the next morning, when I am so stiff I can barely get my “fit” fifty-year-old frame out of bed.)
Once all the passengers are boarded (including the tardy ones), we are ready to cast off. Noah and Lindsay shift into serious-business mode, and I know enough to step aside. Lines are cast off, fenders are brought in. This is clearly a two-person job, and I will wait for a less critical time for training. As the three of us next collect tickets, Captain Al delivers his welcome-aboard speech over the loudspeaker. There are safety announcements and information on how to be a good, eco-friendly visitor to Monhegan. As he concludes, he introduces his crew — mates Noah, Lindsay . . . and Liz — and informs passengers that we will be happy to help them out in any way and answer any of their questions. I feel a little gush of pride.
Once we set out to sea for the fifty-five-minute cruise and the flurry at the snack bar subsides, things grow quiet. That is when Captain Al invites me to take the wheel, as he regularly does his other mates. He gives me my bearing on the compass and lets me go. It takes me a while to find my comfort zone. I handle the wheel like I am driving a Lamborghini, when I should be spinning it like Vanna White’s Wheel of Fortune. Not accustomed to navigating by compass, I keep watching the horizon, and taking us off course, then veering back on, until I eventually get the hang of things. Fortunately, the craft is large enough that my drunken-sailor steering doesn’t register with the passengers.
And then, the nature sightings begin. A flock of northern gannets hover around us, swooping by the boat on their massive wingspans. Black guillemots bob in the waves. A seal pops his head above the water’s surface. A porpoise is spotted. People on the bow in front of me lurch from side to side to take it all in. Then, Noah, who has been quietly standing behind me, sights a whale — a minke — just off the bow at one o’clock. Shortly thereafter, a massive tuna breaches and slaps the water with its great tail. Not a bad finale to our cruise, since we’re ready to dock.
The wharf on Monhegan is located on its western shore, facing Manana Island in the snug harbor. Pilings line the worn pier, which, at low tide, towers over the watercraft below. If the wind or weather is up, it can be impossible to moor. There are no other docking places on the island. You have no alternative but to reverse course and head back to shore. (Yes, I was on one of those cruises, years ago. And no, there was no ginger candy then. Just plenty of seasick passengers.) Boat arrivals are an event on the island, not only for embarking or debarking passengers, but for those waiting for guests or supplies from the mainland. The dock is always crowded. One wants to step lively.
Once again, I stand back while Noah and Lindsay fall to their tasks. Fenders out and secured. Lines cast to the dock. Gangway set up. Passengers helped ashore. Then, we begin the running of the bags. My feet light on Monhegan only long enough to drop my load and return for more. I love coming to this island yet only manage to visit every few years. But lingering doesn’t cross my mind. I have a job to do.
Once we’re done, the onloading process begins all over again. Same drill. Bags, people, lines, fenders, tickets, captain’s announcement, snack sales, then waiting for shore. Noah gives me a lesson on tying knots, and I master a clove hitch until, like all knots, I forget it three minutes later.
Back at New Harbor, we load up another group for the hour-long seal watch around Muscongus Bay. (There will be two more cruises on this day, after the runs to Monhegan: a puffin cruise, followed by a lighthouse cruise.) There are lots of kids and families and jostling about. Once under way, I take a post in the bow with some of the passengers. I have collected their tickets, signaling to them I an official crewmember.
An older gentleman approaches me and wants to ask a question. “Of course,” I say, perhaps even placing my fists on my hips, à la a superhero. He points to two boats off our bow and wants to know if I can explain right-of-way. Now, I have boated, and I have sailed, and I have overtaken and met boats head-on and survived it all, but at this moment my mind is spinning like a ship’s wheel, and I cannot find the words. If I were just my average self on this day, I would blather on until we were both completely muddled, but I am a representative of Hardy Boat Cruises and simply say, “No, I can’t.”
But before I can finish with, “But I will get the answer from someone who can for you,” a matronly woman with a tan the color of Grade A, dark amber maple syrup steps in and announces she can. She presents her credentials as an accomplished sailor and naturalist and begins on her rules of the sea. Not much makes me blush, but I now feel a little silly — an imposter — and I sit quietly as she speaks. A while after she’s done, I turn to the man who is still standing behind me. I don’t want people to think Hardy Boat Cruises employs dingdongs, so I fess up. “I’m just doing a story,” I say in a hushed voice. “I’m actually faux crew.” I’m apparently not hushed enough, however, because our sailing maven chimes in, “Humpft. I thought so.”
I have one last test of my mate’s skills on our final run over to Monhegan. As we enter the harbor and approach the dock, Noah asks me if I want to hand off the dock line. It is almost dead-low tide, meaning the boat is sitting down in the water, way below the pier, where a strapping youth stands at the ready. In order to reach the line to him, it will mean threading its eye through the end of the boathook, climbing up on the gunnels, and handing it up without A.) missing his reach, B.) dropping the hook and/or C.) slipping and toppling off into the drink. Oh yes — and both the boat and the pier are crowded with passengers and onlookers. We are fast approaching.
There is no time for pussyfooting. A decision must be made.
I take the hook from Noah, scramble up, and assume a surfer’s stance on the bow.
I lift the hook aloft, and the youth effortlessly plucks it from my grip. Just like it’s supposed to happen. I want to wheel around and see if anyone’s watching. I want the kid on the pier to give me a lift of his chin that says, “Good job.” I want Mrs. Maple Syrup to be on this cruise, so she can see I’m not a total dingbat.
Instead, I hop down and secure the hook back in its berth, as though I’ve done it a thousand times before, and hustle toward the bags. After all, there’s work to be done. I am a Hardy III mate, and I am still on duty.
If You Go
The Hardy III leaves New Harbor in the summer daily at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Departures from Monhegan are at 10:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. Ticket prices for round-trip service are $32 for adults and $18 for children (aged three to eleven). 207-677-2026. hardyboat.com
Photos for this article were taken by Jeff Scher - see more of his photos at www.jeffscher.com.
- By: Elizabeth Peavey
- Photography by: Jeff Scher