MOUNT DESERT — Last month, for just the fourth
time in roughly half a century, Cranberry Isles
residents had no mail to pick up and no one to pay
for a trip to the mainland.
With winds whipping in excess
of 80 mph during a storm Dec. 15, Beal and
Bunker’s mail and ferryboat, Sea Queen, was
More often than not, during
the past 50-plus years Beal and Bunker has
delivered the town’s mail, weathering whatever
conditions were offered.
That is why the decision last
month to cancel the trips was so rare. Islanders
count on the boat, for rides ashore, for packages
and for mail.
“In the winter, we’re really
the only show for people to get back and forth,”
said Captain Bob Mailhot of Lamoine, who has
skippered the Sea Queen for the past nine years.
With the storm’s winds
gusting to hurricane strength, and more
importantly, directly from the east, owner David
Bunker made the decision to cancel. The Sea Queen,
44 feet long and 12 feet and six inches at the
beam, could have handled the seas, but safety is
always a concern under such conditions.
“If something fails, you
could be in a mess in a hurry. A lot of time we
try to do at least one run to get the mail,”
Bunker said. “But where the weather’s been bad,
not a lot of mail is coming through. It was just
the wind direction and the velocity of it.”
It is unusual for winds to
blow from the east across the channel separating
Northeast Harbor and the Cranberry Isles, but when
it does, the kicked up waves blast the Sea Queen
broadside. With an easterly blow, docking the boat
also can be tricky, Bunker said. An easterly wind
also can make it more dangerous for passengers
getting on and off the boat.
The Sea Queen has seen her
share of rough seas since she was built in 1972,
but Bunker has trouble remembering a stretch of
wild weather like the one the state has
experienced over the past several weeks.
“This is about four times
this fall so far we’ve had hurricane force winds,”
Bunker said. “We haven’t even started winter yet,
but there’s certainly been an overdose of winter
[weather] so far.”
One of those storms in
November produced some of the worst seas Mailhot
“It was one of those days the
wind blew like hell,” he said. “The last trip
going back, the waves were some of the biggest
I’ve seen.” He recalled them cresting at a choppy
Unlike fishermen, who often
decide to stay on shore when the weather turns
sour, the mail boat makes its six-mile trip
between Northeast Harbor, Great and Little
Cranberry and Sutton Island virtually regardless
of weather. Like the Coast Guard, which is often
forced out in rough seas, the mail boat has
islanders depending on it for its service. The
boat delivers everything from refrigerators to
families and a handful of contractors who spend
their winters repairing homes on the island.
While there are fewer
passengers and fewer weekly trips during the
winter, the weather finds a way of providing other
challenges. Even when the skies are clear, it is
usually unpleasant outside.
“Probably 90 percent of the
time the only difference is it’s cold,” said
Mailhot. “It’s that other 10 percent that makes it
a bigger challenge.”
Though he primarily works
inside Sea Queen’s heated cabin, the cold presents
its own challenges in the form of frozen steps and
Ice also can form on the boat
deck and often it needs to be pounded off, Mailhot
“Usually, this time of year,
the people riding the boat are pretty savvy about
getting off and on, but you still have to be
careful,” he said.
Seasoned passengers also know
how to combat the cold.
As one passenger boarded at
Little Cranberry, she chose a seat on the bench
directly over the heater, which, she explained to
another passenger, is the choice spot on the boat.
The woman also warned her travel mate not to sit
near the large windows lining the cabin because
water splashed up from the waves often seeps
through and onto the seat.
“During the winter, for the
most part, it’s just the year-round islanders
going back and forth,” Mailhot said. Over the
years, they have learned all the tricks.
Due to the foul weather that
is more prevalent in the winter, the floats that
usually provide easy access to the mainland from
Sea Queen are lifted out of the water. That means
the boat must back in and out of the main pier, a
tricky proposition when the wind is blowing.
On Dec. 22, with gusts out of
the northwest at 10-25 knots and two-foot waves
chopping sporadic white caps, Mailhot still had to
take extra time landing at the main dock on Little
“If the wind wasn’t blowing,
you could come around and tie up pretty routine,”
he said. “This isn’t a bad day. This is pretty
Outside of landing, passenger
comfort also is a concern. Even under mild
conditions waves sporadically break over the bow
and Sea Queen rocks a bit.
“You try to avoid that as
much as possible,” Mailhot said. “Sometimes you
have to tack like a sail boat to keep your bow in
Fisherman Bruce Fernald, who
boarded at Little Cranberry and took a spot
standing near Mailhot at the steering station in
the cabin, primarily uses the mail boat in the
winter. It is just easier, he said, than going
back and forth to the mainland on his lobster
boat. He, like his fellow islanders, has come to
count on the mail boat, even during the recent
stretch of rough weather.
“It’s been pretty nasty,” he
said. “There’s been some days when you just
wonder. [The boat’s] usually good unless you have
a boatload of people. That’s when it gets scary.”
Fernald explained that with
40-50 people on board, he sometimes wonders what
would happen if something were to go wrong.
Indeed, Mailhot remembers a bilge pump letting go
during the warm summer months.
“You picture that with 40-or
50-knot winds,” Fernald said.
“It would be awful,” Mailhot
The worst part about
canceling is making the decision, Mailhot said.
There are times when looking out the window it
looks to be relatively safe, but fishermen on the
radio will scare you with stories of the rough
seas. Other times, Mailhot said, it looks and
sounds worse than it really is. All of that
information has to be balanced against the needs
of a dependent community.
“You have people that are
depending on you and who have to get somewhere,”
Often conditions inside the
protected loop of islands are better than
fishermen experience just outside Cranberry.
“We’re pretty lucky compared
to a lot of places with the surrounding islands we
have,” Fernald said.
Even with that protection,
however, things can get nasty, particularly with
an easterly wind. While landing at the Great
Cranberry dock, an easy proposition under calm
conditions, Fernald pointed out the landing is not
always so easy.
“This dock, when the winds
blowing easterly, it gets nasty because it’s a
straight shot right in,” Fernald said. “There’s
nothing in between here and Canada.”
In spite of the challenges,
there have been only four times in the last 50
years the Sea Queen hasn’t gone out on her
appointed rounds. Dec. 15 was one of them.