At one point, Gene tells me how much he likes the mountains and going camping on his days off. The idea of him in the mountains seems almost absurd, as if it’s nearly impossible to picture him anywhere else but on this bay, at the top of a ship, masterfully steering us from island to island. After decades on the sea, at the helm of this ferry and the others like it, he knows all the islanders who ride the boat. They shout conversations upwards at him from the dock and the decks. He knows the history of each island and tells facts and stories about the bay’s geography and history into a microphone that broadcasts over the ferry.
Gene Willard, ferry captain at Casco Bay Lines, is a part of that history: His great-great-uncle was a captain who founded the bay’s ferry system many, many years ago. Now his daughter is training to become a captain herself. The captain’s job isn’t just about getting from point A to point B (or island to island). It’s a large part of maintaining the lifeblood of Maine’s islands: everything and everyone that sustains and builds and protects island life rides the ferry.
HOW DID YOU BECOME A CAPTAIN?
By accident! I started working here and took the test. It’s a little more complicated than that but I’ve been a captain here since I was 18.
HOW DO YOU LEARN THOSE SKILLS AT AGE 18?
By that time, I had spent hundreds of days on the water. You need 360 days now. So I had hundreds of days. You need hundreds of days on the ocean, documented, minimum four-hour days, and once you have that you’re qualified to get your license.
WHAT CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR DECISION TO DO THIS WORK?
I was young and while a lot of my buddies were going off to college, around the age of 18, I already had enough time to get my license. So my friends were going to be spending tens of thousands of dollars to go to school to earn the income that I could earn at that moment. So I decided that at 18 I would stick with being a captain. A lot of my friends went off to maritime academies to do what I’m doing today. They do other things, have much larger licenses and they’re sailing around the world. That’s good for some, but I like going home at night.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE GROWING UP ON PEAKS ISLAND
It was different from today. Back in the 70s, Peaks Island growing up was probably 400 people. It was not affluent, as it is today. It’s a beautiful place but now there’s over a thousand people. It’s changed a lot. You went to grade school on Peaks up until the 6th grade. Then middle school began in the 7th grade back then, 7th, 8th and 9th, so you’d take the ferry to school. It was a 15-minute boat ride back then.
DO YOU HAVE ANY MEMORIES FROM YOUR RIDES TO SCHOOL ON THE FERRY? DID YOU GOOF OFF?
Oh yes. You don’t want to talk about those times, though! Things were a lot different then. The crew could discipline us. You try to discipline someone’s kid today and they’re going to take you to court and take you down. Back then you didn’t get out of line because when it was time to get off the ferry the crew literally would hold the kids back. Your parents were on the boat with you too. If the kids messed up the boat, the kids cleaned up the boat. So the adults would get off the boat, the crew would stop every kid and have them clean, and the parents let it happen. They’d say, “You guys clean this boat before you get off.”
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR FAMILY HISTORY AND HOW IT TIES INTO WHAT YOU’RE DOING NOW
Well actually, on eBay last week, we found a book called “The Life History and Adventures of Captain B. J. Willard.” He’s my great-great-uncle. He was a captain right here in Portland. He’s the guy that wrote his daily observations and turned them into this book. It’s a great book by the way, because it’s just his stories. In the 1880s, 1890s, he started a ferry called the Elizabeth which ran from South Portland, which was Cape Elizabeth, to Portland. Ferry Elizabeth. Then they merged with another line to create Casco Bay Steamboat Company. He was just one of many people in the Willard family but he’s the one guy that wrote a book about himself, a book that got out there. The Willards came here in the 1700s, settled the area and have always worked on the ocean. So for me that would make me 8th generation and my daughter, who’s going to college, she recently picked up on that and decided she wanted to go to a maritime college, which totally threw me for a loop.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO HAVE YOUR DAUGHTER FOLLOWING IN THAT FAMILY TRADITION?
Well I think she’s aiming for much bigger things, I do, but I think it’s nice. I think, well I didn’t really pick up on family history at a young age, she has. She’s 19. Or she’ll be 19 this week.
WHAT DO YOU THINK IT IS ABOUT THIS LIFE OR THIS WORK THAT YOU LOVE?
You know, even though I took a full-time job here really young, it wasn’t something I wanted to do. It’s like the kid growing up on the family farm, you want to get off the farm to go to the city or something, want to do something different. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do and I didn’t really like any of the crew, for obvious reasons, since they don’t let you get off the boat until the boat’s clean. But once I realized I could earn some money doing it, I was all about it. So I started working here when I was 14.
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE ISLANDS YOU VISIT
These islands, they all have their own personalities and each one also has its own characters. I don’t want to say which island’s which, but you get to an island that might be a little more transient than others, or more alternative, and you’ve got your islands that are more conservative, more family-oriented. These islands, people gravitate towards them for a reason. They’re beautiful places and, of course, depending upon the island that you’re from, yours is the best island in the bay. And I understand that, I grew up on one of them!
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE CHARACTERS THAT COME ON THE FERRY OR THAT YOU SEE ON THE ISLANDS
You have to meet these people. You meet, as sailors, a lot of amazing personalities. They’re everywhere, they are, they’re everywhere. I can’t explain it. When they’re on the ferry, some of these people are on here sometimes two hours at a time for a commute. You can be on this boat for up to four hours a day, so yes, they’ll tolerate certain things and they don’t tolerate certain things amongst one another. So they’ll create space for themselves with beanbags and stuff. Sometimes they carry the dogs on the boat in backpacks because if you carry your animal you don’t have to pay for it. If you were to take a ride in the evening, people going home at 5:45 p.m., no, 4:30, 5:30 going to Peaks Island, that’s when you can really see the community. The day’s over, they know they’re going home and they’re standing in groups, talking about whatever they’re talking about. I’ve been involved in those conversations growing up on the islands, so I understand it.
I always thought the best part of living on the island – and I didn’t realize this until years later – is that as short as a boat ride it is to Peaks, was that fifteen minutes of forced relaxation. You go to town, you figure out what you need, you might have a plumbing project or electrical project or whatever, maybe you like to knit (I’m a good crocheter). Anyway, so you go to town to get these items then once you’re on the boat you realize you forgot that item. Then, you forget about it and you can get it next time you are in town. If you live on the mainland you’re going to be halfway home and you’re turning around going back to whatever supermarket you want to go to. When island people get home, they’re home. They’re not going back. They’re not running back to town to get some small items. I call it forced relaxation but so many people disengage today. For example, we’ve gotten underway in the morning with the most beautiful sunrise coming up and I’m shocked at the number of people looking at their tablets and their iPhones and things. They’re totally missing out. They paid all this money to spend the best part of the morning on the water, with sometimes blood-red sky coming up and they’ve missed it.
TELL ME ABOUT HOW DECISIONS ARE MADE FOR THE FERRIES
The State Legislature, at the request of the islanders, created a special law back in the 80s creating Casco Bay Transit District. It gave this district to the ferries. So when they gave the district exclusivity to the six islands, they gave each island, by law, a representatives based on population. For example, Peaks Island has two representatives. So you have representatives from each island and then you have “at large” seats. The island representative needs to be a property owner on the island or a resident. To get “at large” seats you need to be a state resident. And then you have a representative from the Maine State Department of Transportation and you also get a representative from the Portland City Council. Those folks get together once a month and they’re the ones that make the rules and they set the rates. The purpose of the district was to make sure that these islands could remain viable and retain the island way of life. If they don’t have regular and reliable ferry service to these islands…because companies before the transit district would go bankrupt. The transit district now is eligible for lots of grants, state, federal, local grants. Our newest ferry was purchased 100 percent by the state stimulus package. So the newest ferry was built for the state of Maine, and for the Casco Bay Island Transit District. And after it was built the state gave ownership title to the district.
TELL ME ABOUT THE WILDLIFE THAT YOU SEE OUT HERE
We see plenty of it! You can see bald eagles, but ten years ago you’d never see one, it’d be extremely rare, now it’s rare not to see one. Things are so clean today, the water’s so clean everywhere. Back in the 80s I remember being interviewed, I think by the Boston Globe, it was a Boston paper, I was being interviewed about all the garbage that was everywhere. The city of New York used to put it on a barge and take it out to the ocean and dump it. We have a healthy herd of deer in Maine now. They can swim back and forth. We do see them swimming a lot, in fact sometimes they’ll be swimming and they’ll be confused for a downed tree in the water because of their antlers. Sometimes we’ll say, “Look at that pot buoy, does that look a little funny?” and you realize it’s a deer. Deer hair is hollow inside so they float. They can drown, they get tired and drown, but they’re not going to sink. So if they do drown they’ll be floating on the surface. Moose occasionally make it out here to the islands and it’s always a big thing because everybody’s talking about it like, “the moose that was on Chebeague.”
TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE DIFFERENT ROLES THE FERRY HAS FOR THE ISLAND COMMUNITY
Anything that you would need on these islands, we can get to you. Unless, for the outer islands, it’s a very large dump truck or moving van or something like that. Anything. Like, chickens in the mail. They don’t always arrive live, sometimes those boxes are pretty silent. But they still have to go to their destination. We keep them up top in here with us. People from away, they’ll come out here for a boat ride, and they’ll see, they’ll just think it’s a load of bananas because all the groceries are shipped in banana boxes, they all say bananas. Every variety of banana box is on the boats but they’re full of food stuffs, they’re not full of bananas.
TELL ME ABOUT THE MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES WITH A TRAVELER ON THE FERRY
This couple was on the boat – most people find their way up here where we are, and this one couple was on here one day and they said, “We’re going to get married.” We said, “Where are you getting married.” And they replied, “Oh, we don’t know yet, we just picked up our marriage license.” I don’t know who brought it up but I think one of the crew said, “Well, Gene marries people.” As a notary. People assume it’s because I’m a captain. So they said “Will you marry us?” and I said, “Yeah, I could do that. What town do you want to get married in? Do you want to get married in the city of Portland, the town of Long Island, or the town of Chebeague?” So they just chose Chebeague because they couldn’t pronounce it. My two deck hands were the witnesses and I married them and signed all the documents. So that’s a really memorable thing. A couple of years later, they showed up on the boat.
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU AS A PERSON?
What’s most important to me as a person is family. That’s it. Family.
WHAT’S A LESSON YOU’RE LEARNING IN YOUR LIFE OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?
Well, it’s like anything, you just can’t take things for granted. My daughter’s been gone for several months now at school. Not that I ever did, but you kind of look back and say, “I wish I had a little more time.”
WHAT IS THE GREATEST GIFT OR BLESSING IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
It’s my family. I’m very blessed to have my mom, my whole family. All of us. I’m 50 and there’s ten of us kids, we’re all alive, all our kids are alive, our parents our alive, my mum’s got 34 grandchildren, she’s 68 years old, that’s crazy. So to have all that. They’re always there for me, guaranteed. I don’t know what the weather’s going to be next week but I know my family’s always there for me.
WHAT IS THE GREATEST STRUGGLE IN YOUR LIFE RIGHT NOW?
I don’t really have a struggle. Well all run into problems and struggles but I always look at struggles as opportunities. Because without struggle, what do you learn? You don’t learn anything. So with struggle comes opportunity. So I run into them, I do, but I embrace them. Because you have to, because what are you going to do? They’re going to come, you’ve got to deal with it.
IF YOU HAD A MOTTO OR A MANTRA, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
My daughter, with her athleticism, has taught me more than a lot of people have. I’m drawing a blank on what she says, but it’s like this: “To give anything less than your best is to give away the gift we all have.” We all have that gift to be the best and give the best and it may not always seem like that but I do do that, I know I do that here on the boat. I’m part of this bay. I’m just one little part of it but I’m part of it. And I like being part of it.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
The best moment of the average day is that rare time that I can actually smell the ocean. I can’t always smell it, but every now and then I’ll get that smell that’s just unique to the ocean. That ocean air, that’s the best part of some of the senses.