On Thursday, we handed down our packs and bags and coolers, hugged our sweeties and climbed down the ladder from the Matinicus wharf onto the deck of the passenger vessel Robin R.
It was about 7:15 in the morning and the sky was beginning to clear. Some among the passengers were in a hurry and couldn’t wait for the airplane; others choose not to fly at all (I have heard people even suggest that “It doesn’t feel like an island unless you travel by boat.” Bah.) Most had simply committed to the boat because the weather forecast (meaning visibility for flying) was too uncertain, which is more the usual state of affairs around here. Anyway, we were seven aboard, plus George the captain, and the usual mix; sternmen, summer renters, part-time and full-time islanders. The Robin R. has soft seats and plenty of shelter, and we all got comfortable. Sue shared her coffee; Tom stretched his legs; I claimed a corner, took off my glasses, put on a noise-canceling headset and attempted to nap.
Before we even got past the breakwater things got choppy. That’s OK; this is always the wildest part of the trip. Well, usually. Well, sometimes. The standard reassurance my husband gives people is, “It won’t be too bad because it’ll be behind you.” Not today; we were headed directly into it. Wind direction on the Davis instrument at my place indicated coming from the north-northwest. Navigating from Matinicus to Rockland you head, yup, north-northwest.
Halfway between Matinicus and the mainland you really do feel like you’re “out in the middle of the bay.” You smell the bay, you feel the bay, you realize you are at the mercy of the bay. Sometimes you taste the bay. Sometimes the bay is splashing overhead, or briefly leaving you, disappearing out from under the boat, resulting in the thud of fiberglass falling back on an oddly hard surface like a kid doing a belly-flop in a quarry. Before long, you’re bracing yourself against the bucking bronco effect, knees taking the brunt of the pounding. Freight needs to be secured. Coffee cups need to be held tightly.
Halfway between Matinicus and the mainland you really do feel like you’re “out in the middle of the bay.” You smell the bay, you feel the bay, you realize you are at the mercy of the bay.
Neighbor Suzanne, headed for Portland to perform in a play, observed how any rough trip raises memories of the “old M&D,” the Mary and Donna, a Matinicus passenger boat from a while back, often overcrowded, leaky, and which toward the end of her run did not always see the finest maintenance. “Cold, wet, and terrifying,” she recalled. A few will be sentimental about that boat and remember it in a softer light and I mean no offense to them. Some of this island, though, recall some miserable crossings.
We wouldn’t have to worry about seeing daylight out through the boat anywhere on the Robin R. When the sea gives you a sharp slap, it means a lot to have confidence in the equipment underneath you; this boat is very well-maintained and can take the pounding. All will be well, but you still have to hang on.
The VHF radio came to life and provided evidence that not everybody in the bay was having a nice day. One vessel had the boss down below working on the generator, trying to fix what sounded like an electrical failure. Somebody was getting reamed out for possibly running through lobster gear; I don’t know what happened there. Moments later, another unfortunate mariner, who could barely make out the radio traffic, was hailed with this message: “You got phone signal?”
“You got cell phone service?”
“Well, I hate to say this over the radio but it really shouldn’t wait!”
Uh oh; bad news had to be delivered. Thankfully, the injured party seemed to be a truck, not a human being, but it was not to be a relaxing sail on beautiful Penobscot Bay for that individual.
I overheard a boat name on the radio that brought back another scary memory for me, of another sketchy trip across these waters years ago. Back a couple of decades I was trying to get home to Matinicus from the annual Emergency Medical Services conference in November, determined to get back despite “unflyable” weather because our children were preschoolers and I’d left my husband with them, meaning he couldn’t really get much work done. A different boat of the same (fairly common) name as the one I just heard hailed, an old lobster boat, commanded by a man I did not know, was headed for the island and the consensus around the flying service office was that we should all pile aboard. I don’t think anybody realized the state of that vessel. Six or eight of us --random islanders, sternmen, children-- got aboard, with groceries, big bags of dog chow, knapsacks and the usual stuff, and as we left Rockland, darkness fell.
The boat, as it turned out, had almost no electricity. It was more or less a wreck. No running lights at all and not much else either. The captain insisted on blasting a music radio full tilt, but the station didn’t come in, so it was just screeching static, enough to make your head spin. There was no decent communication with the island and the stereo noise made it almost impossible to talk with fellow passengers. It’s a pretty straight shot to Matinicus from Owls Head, but with no daylight and no compass or electronics, he swerved all over the bay. First I saw the lights of Rockland in this direction, then in that. It took us well over three hours to make the crossing, when in those days, with most boats, two hours was the norm. The captain’s young son was aboard, who made the observation that “My dad’s doctor doesn’t even think he should be going to Matinicus, what with the diabetes.” Oh, goody. I looked around; no evidence of safety equipment, life jackets, fire extinguisher, anything like that. Even the usually hell-bent sternmen were starting to look nervous, chain-smoking and squinting through the darkness at lobster buoys to try and make out whose “bottom” we were over. When we finally made Matinicus harbor we’d probably have piled up on Dexter’s Ledge if it hadn’t been for my mini-mag-light powered off two AA batteries. Of course, it was low tide.
That’s history, though, and I have learned that I don’t have to cross this bay if I don’t want to, because this bay is in charge; not me, not the airplane pilot, not the master mariner. Aboard the good Robin R. we were delivered warm and safe to Rockland, and then Captain George had to load the next group of people and head straight back to Matinicus, and then, almost immediately, load some geologists for a trip to one of the nearby uninhabited islands for a mapping project (and yes, the geologists did ask us about the reports of unexploded ordnance out there!) He’s busy today, but this time of year, passenger boat service is very erratic. We don’t have daily boat service like many of the other islands. He’ll run on a charter, as-needed, weather-permitting basis for another few weeks, and then haul out sometime in November. After that, it’s air service or nothing, unless you have your own boat. Even then, it often isn’t easy and it also isn’t cheap.
We live in the bay; I really believe that. This bit of land we stand on, this island, this barely significant little ledge-pile isn’t much more than a physical, geological anomaly where cold salt water is the default state, the daily reality, the deeper truth, if we can be so mushy. I love this bay. Were I smarter, I would fear it, but I don’t.
Eva Murray lives year-round on Matinicus Island