LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Islesboro mariner Peter Willcox spent 38 eventful, sometimes-harrowing years working as a sea captain for the environmental activist organization Greenpeace. But this week, he had a much more low-key job: loading and unloading vehicles and passengers on the Captain Richard G. Spear, a Maine State Ferry Service vessel that was plying the waters between Lincolnville and Islesboro.
Willcox, 69, offered to work on the ferry after he learned that crew shortages would cause the service to reduce its runs to Islesboro this week.
“It’s nothing I ever thought I’d do in life, but there you go,” Willcox, an affable, bearded man, said, adding that he figured his trips on the ferry would be less dramatic than his work as a Greenpeace captain. “It’s just a matter of getting my fellow islanders back and forth to the mainland.”
Last week, the news that the ferry service would have to offer a hybrid schedule for its Islesboro runs on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week came as an unwelcome surprise for most islanders. Paul Hatch, a construction company owner whose fleet of trucks haul material from the mainland to the island, was one of them.
“Of all times to do this, I think it’s crazy,” he said last week. “This is the busiest time of year, when all the summer people are coming and going … We’re just trying to make a living here. Now they’re taking trips away from us. I just don’t understand it. If I ran the business the way the state is running this, I’d have to fold the first year. I’d go bankrupt.”
But the shortage of able seamen is a national problem, according to an official from the Maine State Ferry Service. Dave Bernhardt is the director of maintenance and operations at the Maine Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the ferry service. He said that the state’s vessels are minimally crewed right now.
In order to be certified as an able seaman, a person must have at least 180 days of documented sea service and pass a U.S. Coast Guard written exam covering multiple areas of mariner knowledge, among other requirements.
“It’s been tough. We’ve had a hard time hiring,” Bernhardt said. “It’s a nationwide issue. Any maritime industry is having a hard time finding people who are willing to work these types of hours and these types of shifts. We’re working on additional pay and more incentives … We want to let our staff know we’re working on things.”
The Maine DOT knows that worker shortages can have far-reaching, negative consequences — especially on Maine’s offshore island communities, where the ferries serve as lifelines. And although the staffing shortage problem was solved this week, that doesn’t mean it will be smooth sailing for the ferry service from here on out.
“Is the staffing problem that led to the reduced schedule something that could happen again? Yeah,” Paul Merrill, director of communications for the department, said. “We could be a couple sick calls away from being in a similar predicament. Staffing’s a real challenge right now and has been for a while.”
The department is always looking for good, reliable workers, he said, adding that the ferry service does not want to reduce the schedule.
“We know it’s disruptive. We’re sorry that it is disruptive,” he said. “We need these vessels staffed with appropriate personnel. If we come across somebody, either by our own outreach efforts or by dumb luck, we are filling a need that desperately needs to be filled.”
Willcox likely best fits into the latter category.
The mariner had a long career with Greenpeace, an international network of independent organizations that use peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental problems.
Over the decades, Willcox was a witness to historic events, including the 1985 harbor bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, New Zealand. He was the skipper of the vessel, which was blown up by French secret agents after the ship took part in protests against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. The attack killed one crew member and sank the boat.
He also made headlines in 2013, when he was one of 30 Greenpeace activists and freelance journalists jailed for two months in Russia after that country’s officials labeled an Arctic protest an act of piracy. Willcox was the captain of the Greenpeace Vessel Arctic Sunrise, from which protesters launched inflatable boats in order to climb onto the platform of an oil rig owned by the Russian government-operated corporation Gazprom in the Arctic Sea.
For the moment, though, he’s content to make sure people get back and forth safely to Islesboro. On Wednesday morning, he helped arrange vehicles on board the brand-new boat being used for the island run while the Margaret Chase Smith, the usual island ferry, was undergoing a scheduled Coast Guard inspection. Willcox waved aboard passenger cars, dump trucks and pickup trucks carrying payloads of rose bushes, patio pavers and other goods destined for Islesboro.
“You load and unload the cars, primarily. That’s really it,” he said. “You act as a lookout every other trip, but primarily you’re down on the deck loading cars.”
Willcox does not plan to continue working for the ferry service on a regular basis. However, if another emergency situation arises, he’d be happy to come back. The captain and the regular crew members have been great to work with, he said, and have shown him the ropes.
“I’m way over-qualified,” he said with a laugh. “But there’s so many people who depend on the ferry. I got a lot of kudos around the community. People were happy that I did it. I picked up two days of work, and everybody’s excited. It’s a win-win for me.”
One of those happy islanders was Hatch, whose trucks were able to run normally because of Willcox.
“My hat’s off to Peter,” he said. “It’s going to help us all out. My trucks are hauling today. I think it’s great, and I think more people should do it. If they’re able bodied seamen, come on, step up to the plate.”
A crew member on the Captain Richard G. Spear said that a second islander actually had done just that, signing up to work as an able seaman with the ferry service. That person’s name was not immediately available.
The work is enjoyable, Willcox said, but the 11-hour days aren’t necessarily easy.
“By the time 6 o’clock came around, I was ready to take my shoes off,” he said.