Forecaster Forum: Tide of support lifts Chebeague Island ferry

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In an era of “it’s all about me,” how heartening to discover that people still jump to help when help is really needed. That’s what this story is about. It began unfolding on Nov. 15, around 6:30 p.m.

The Chebeague Transportation Co. had just returned from its regular 15-minute run to Cousins Island. Two weeks earlier, CTC’s ferry, the Islander, had been hauled out for inspection and routine maintenance, expected to require about a month.

In the meantime, CTC was using the Merrymeeting, on loan from the Maine Maritime Museum as its backup vessel to transport residents, school students, workers and the occasional emergency rescue. This backup arrangement was known around CTC as “Plan B,” and it had worked smoothly in the past.

That night, the CTC crew discovered problems with the Merrymeeting’s port engine. U.S. Coast Guard regulations prohibit passenger vessels from operating if propulsion is lost, and the Merrymeeting was taken out of service. Her captain, David Etnier, showed up soon after to offer CTC whatever assistance he could provide. With the Islander and the Merrymeeting both out of commission, “Plan C” – a backup plan that had never been tested – suddenly had to be instituted.

Would it work? Normal life on the island depended on it.

Five years ago, CTC signed an agreement with Casco Bay Lines to provide backup service in an emergency. The call went out; CTC had no boat. By 9 that evening, Nick Mavodones, the Casco Bay Lines’ operations manager, was rounding up a crew and readying the Bay Mist to head to Chebeague to take over CTC’s regular schedule. By 6:30 the next morning, the big Bay Mist towered over Chebeague’s Stone Wharf, ready to haul commuters, school children, and the regular flow of passengers and freight.

For the next three days, Casco Bay Lines crews staffed CTC’s 11 daily round trips, landing and loading the Bay Mist on floats, not wharves as they were accustomed to. In all, five Casco Bay crews were deployed, and islanders greeted the new faces with enthusiasm. Between runs, CTC employees offered the crews the use of their island cars to explore Chebeague. The mother of a CTC captain showed up each evening with dinner for the crew.

In the meantime, a decision had to be made: Repair the Merrymeeting or race to complete essential maintenance on the Islander, now sitting at the Royal River Boatyard in Yarmouth. The Islander got the nod, but the repair and maintenance list was nowhere close to completion. And a Coast Guard inspection of major repairs then had to be conducted.

With boatyard owner Alan Dugas’ blessing, relaunching the Islander became priority No. 1. Mechanic Anthony Norton and three boatyard employees deferred work on other boats and crawled all over the Islander, performing mechanical and electrical repairs until 8 p.m. two nights in a row. A week and a half of work was completed in two days.

CTC Captain Matt Ridgway moved to the boatyard; Captains Jeremy Ames and Amanda Campbell, scheduled for days off, joined the team, pitching in to help Maintenance Director Mary Todd and her helpers Alisha Jones and Colleen Franke complete exterior painting and other tasks. Everyone had one goal: Get the Islander back in service on Saturday.

But what about the Coast Guard inspection? Throughout the service interruption, Ridgway had kept the Coast Guard informed. Now he had a question: Could the inspection be performed on a Saturday morning? That and a little wet paint in the Islander’s main cabin, was all that was standing in the way of a return to service.

Happily, the answer was yes. Inspector Mark Morrisey arrived, the Islander passed, and Ridgway steered the ferry down the Royal River toward home.

On Chebeague, the Islander’s return was greeted enthusiastically. CTC is about to build a replacement for the 32-year-old Islander, which will then become the backup vessel. That will eliminate the need for mutual assistance agreements with Maine Maritime and Casco Bay Lines.

But it won’t erase the memories of the week that CTC needed friends – and discovered it has lots of them.

Susan Q. Stranahan of Chebeague Island is a journalist and author, and a member of the Chebeague Transportation Co. board.