Winds Keep Cranberry Isles Mail Boat Tied Up Shoreside

 By Craig Crosby

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.

The 42-foot Sea Queen is trusted by Cranberry Isles residents who count on her for mail, cargo and passage ashore.

 
Bob Mailhot has skippered the Sea Queen for nine years.

STAFF PHOTOS BY CRAIG CROSBY

With winds whipping in excess of 80 mph during a storm Dec. 15, Beal and Bunker’s mail and ferryboat, Sea Queen, was stranded shoreside.

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 can remember.

“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 six feet.

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 docks.

Ice also can form on the boat deck and often it needs to be pounded off, Mailhot said.

“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 Cranberry.

“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 average.”

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 the water.”

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 agreed.

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,” Mailhot said.

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.

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