A short while back a handful of us converged on the Steamboat Wharf (not that there have been any steamboats in quite a while) at a moderately early hour and loaded our gear aboard the Robin
, the small passenger boat that serves Matinicus Island and the surrounding area during the summer. (Or, I should say, one of the passenger boats, as there are a couple of others with good captains willing and able to ferry visitors to Matinicus and Criehaven, but they are based in other harbors.)
The telephone man, the propane dealer, the Internet installer, and the electrician climbed aboard, those being all of one individual. He leaves the island's generating station in the capable hands of one willing to assist, this time the artist-plasterer-carpenter (though it might have been the lobsterman-brewmaster or the civil engineer, there being rather a short supply of power plant electricians.) You might get the idea that division of labor is a bit fuzzy within an island community. So often, attempting to get anywhere from Matinicus is very difficult, with duties to be managed and substitutes to be found, and involves much fretting about the forecast, backup plans in case of the ubiquitous fog, days wasted flying off in advance of bad weather, or freezing, even sickening boat rides without alternatives. On this island, if you are anything but a lobsterman you are likely many things, with many obligations, and little idle time.
A bunch of us were headed for a mainland wedding, and excited to get under way, like hooky-playing children. This morning was working out to be a delight, and idling never felt better. No wonder people come from all over the country to enjoy a few mornings in Maine. Once in a while, we might remember to do likewise.
The veterinarian loaded freight down below, as he was also the water taxi captain, and thus the island's sick cat would be looked after by the dental hygienist-fabric artist. The paramedic climbed aboard, as did an EMT-Basic, three ski-patrollers and a mechanic, not that we were expecting any sort of emergency. The professor of Russian language and literature embarked, headed for the mainland with the other six partly because there was a Dostoevsky convention to get to in Budapest the next week. I am not kidding.
The baker climbed aboard, and handed down a mason jar box containing seven cups of fresh coffee and hot chocolate. Fresh homemade doughnuts and sticky buns came next, and strawberries just picked that morning on the island, bright red and still smudged with garden dirt. Then, Gemma the golden retriever went aboard, along with line handlers and deckhands and sternmen, a couple of bicycle racers, the bride's parents, the meter-reader, the blacksmith, half the spinning group and me. We started out of the harbor, the captain gentling into the chop for the sake of our hot drinks, a happy little group digging into the pastries and hoping for calm seas, which are fairly rare except in the wee dawn hours, and as much a treat as the breakfast. It doesn't get, as people like to say, any better than this.
Earlier that morning, on a mission of mercy of some kind, one of our more industrial sorts had been toward the neighborhood of Old Cove and seen a sailing vessel of medium size and familiar lines anchored out toward the mouth of the cove. He borrowed a set of binoculars and confirmed that this was the historic schooner Bowdoin
, stopped at Matinicus on the last night of her spring voyage; tomorrow she would sail back into Castine and to the Maine Maritime Academy dock which is home. The Bowdoin
's arctic explorations make her story a piece of Maine's legacy, but perhaps more significant is the emotional attachment so many people have to her, particularly those who have sailed aboard, and among them we count several from Matinicus Island. Being, I admit, just a bit la-la over altogether too much related to the far North, I picked up an inkling of the sentiment too, even without benefit of a sailor's experience.
As we motored away from the island, mouths full of cinnamon sugar, and noticing the seal pop up and look back at us, we watched the Bowdoin
sail away. I recalled a stop she made two years ago when some of us were given the privilege of going aboard for a visit. We brought them blueberry pies and lots of small children; they gave us the chance to touch what we had only read about. I had read Thorndike's The Arctic Schooner Bowdoin
with my kids, and we had ventured over to Castine to help take the Bowdoin
out of winter wraps one year, as a sort of homeschooler's history lesson (back when every move we made seemed to involve the question "Does this count as school?")
Captain John Worth and Captain Andy Chase were both aboard for that trip; I mentioned to Captain Chase that in addition to schooner Bowdoin
history I'd also read John McPhee's Looking for a Ship, where McPhee shadows Chase as a young merchant mariner. Somewhere in that account Chase tells McPhee that he is a descendant of Nathaniel Bowditch, and that he has inherited Bowditch's sextant. I brought that up when I met Captain Chase (it turns out for the second time) on the deck of the Bowdoin
in Matinicus Harbor.
"Would you like to see it?" he asked.
"You're kidding. You have it with you? Here?"
Sure enough, for whatever reason, Chase had packed the historic instrument for the Bowdoin's trip up north that year, and he brought it up for me to see. I thought going aboard the Bowdoin
was field trip enough, but looking through the Bowditch sextant was like shaking hands with George Washington. Behind me, I heard somebody quietly mumble "Don't drop it overboard."