Dave Cote sat between a couple from Connecticut and talked nonstop for an hour about the history of Portland Harbor.
Cote, a 38-year-old major in the Marine reserves, detailed the histories of seven lighthouses, several forts and a shipwreck, and provided insights on local bakeries and beaches. He was particularly animated in explaining South Portland’s history as a shipbuilding center during World War II.
“I know Rosie the Riveter is iconic, but here in South Portland when they built the Liberty Ships (WWII cargo vessels), they found that welding was better,” said Cote. “So here in South Portland, Maine, we celebrate Wendy the Welder.”
Most days this summer, Cote can be found giving animated history talks during the one-hour historic harbor tours being offered by Portland Harbor Water Taxi. Besides historic harbor tours for $15 offered most days, the water taxi service also offers a regular sunset lighthouse cruise for $20 and a Friday night-star gazing cruise for $30. The latter is narrated by Ed Gleason from the University of Southern Maine’s Southworth Planetarium.
The service was started last year by Maine Maritime Academy graduate Ben Graffius, who spent several years captaining an old drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico before returning to Maine.
On the historic harbor tours, offered most days and sometimes more than once, the main attraction is Cote’s colorful and nonstop narration. Cote is a pilot in the Marine reserves who is headed to business school at Boston College next fall. He is also an amateur historian who clearly loves Portland Harbor and the stories behind it.
On a recent historic harbor tour, Graffius was at the wheel of one of his two boats, the 33-foot “Elizabeth Grace,” which holds about 37 people and has three canopies to keep riders shielded from the sun. On this tour, there were seven passengers, so there was lots of room to spread out on the bench seats along the boat’s sides.
Cote had a visual aid with him as he talked: a binder with illustrations detailing historic moments in ways most people would not have imagined. When talking about forts in the harbor in use during the War of 1812 and the tensions between England, the U.S. and France, he showed a colorful printout of a Napoleon character, a British royal and “Pat Patriot,” New England Patriot’s logo, with a word bubble that said, “Game On!”
When describing the bombardment of Portland by British ships during the Revolutionary War, he called the attack “a punk move.”
The tour started from the water taxi dock near the Maine State Pier and headed out toward Fort Gorges in the middle of the harbor and Bug Light Park in South Portland. The boat came very near an osprey nest on a stanchion in the water, built as a guide for oil tankers. Cote pointed out that, while the mother and baby ospreys were in the nest, the father osprey was high up on a crane on the South Portland shore, watching and ready to swoop in at the sign of danger.
The cruise took the passengers by the giant sculpture of a Liberty Ship in Bug Light Park, the former fort barracks and cannon walls at Southern Maine Community College, Willard Beach and the rocky cliffs and hidden beaches along the shore of Cape Elizabeth.
Passengers on the tour on a recent Wednesday included Brad and Destinee Davidson of Thompson, Connecticut, with their two children, ages 7 months and 6 years. Brad Davidson’s mother, Pat Davidson, was with them. She had heard about the cruise from a friend and thought it would be a fun combination of history and ocean scenery. It was a small enough crowd and boat that Cote served as the group’s personal tour guide.
At Portland Head Light, Cote asked his the passengers if they could guess which president had commissioned the lighthouse.
“I’ll say George Washington,” said Davidson. As Cote congratulated him, Davidson admitted he wasn’t playing fair. “I saw it in your binder.”
Graffius encourages people to bring a light jacket, as Maine weather can’t really predicted, and any snacks or drinks they might want. It’s also good to remember that a 33-foot boat doesn’t have the stability of a Casco Bay ferry. So you’re likely to feel water. There were times during the cruise when the boat rocked from side to side like a porch glider. Bryce Davidson, 6, became adept at riding the rocking motion out while standing on the deck, looking like a longtime surfer.
The cruise on this day was at 11:30 a.m. Because Graffius has a taxi service and rents out his boats for charters and events, the days and times of the historic harbor cruises vary. They are offered most days, often more than once a day, but it’s best to check the water taxi’s website and book a place on the boat before heading down to the dock.
Cote talked about history, but also pointed out all sorts of interesting tidbits on the cruise. He told people to go to Scratch bakery in South Portland, which you can’t technically see from the water. And he pointed to the stage on the Maine State Pier and noted that that evening, everyone on the water would be “rocking out” to a concert by Pat Benatar.
At one point during the cruise, Cote asked his passengers if they wanted him to stop talking for a moment. They told him to keep going.
“Best summer job I’ve ever had,” Cote said.
WHERE: 86 Commercial St., Portland
WHEN: Times and days vary, so check the water taxi’s website; some days there as many as three tours scheduled.
HOW MUCH: $15
WHAT ELSE: Portland Harbor Water Taxi offers a regular sunset lighthouse cruise for $20 and a Friday night star-gazing cruise for $30, narrated by Ed Gleason from the University of Southern Maine’s Southworth Planetarium.