Night Ride on The Police Boat to Peaks Island. “Who’s Driving this Boat Anyways?”

I flipped off the headlights of my truck on Widgery Wharf and clicked my neck, first to the right, then more forcibly to the left. Another missed ferry. A half-eaten chicken salad sandwich and an unopened Snicker’s bar lay within arm’s reach on the passenger seat. A stethoscope and 6 patient charts from my afternoon clinic on Chebeague Island protruded from my green satchel. My beeper vibrated. 766-5915. That would be home.    

It is 1989. A phone booth stood at the far end of the wharf beneath a street light. The only person I know with a cell phone is my friend Jim. His phone takes up a third of the space in his briefcase. When he needs to make a call, he pulls over and places a specialized antenna with a suction cup on his car roof before dialing. His phone costs nearly $4,000. That’s a lot of quarters. Gulping down the remnants of the sandwich, I stuffed the Snicker’s bar into the front pocket of my windbreaker, zipped up the satchel, and headed for the phone booth. Before clicking the door shut, I remembered, backpack on the jump seat. Good.

 My boots crunched against a thin rim of ice where the afternoon’s rain pooled on the rutted wharf.  A brisk, raw wind flushed dried leaves, light gravel, and empty beer cans off the end of the wharf into Casco Bay. I thumbed through the pockets of my windbreaker, hoping to find a knit cap or gloves and remembered exactly where they were: at home, in the kitchen closet, stuffed in the pocket of my parka, the parka my wife Sandi reminded me to wear today because most people change into more sensible clothes when the temperature dips into the teens. When I deposited a quarter into the coin slot, I heard a hollow metallic clink, then, a dial tone. I exhaled and felt my neck and shoulders relax. At least I’m out of the wind.

“Hi Sandra.” In the background I could hear jumping and squealing. Kate, age 5 was challenging her sister, Molly, nearly 2, to jump from the landing of the stairs into a jungle pit of friendly snakes.

“Hello my mate. Missed the 5:35 ferry?” Her voice was even, unhurried, even if she was monitoring controlled chaos. I imagined her looking up at the clock above the closet. If the closet was open she might even notice that my parka was neatly hung on a hook with a knit cap and mittens protruding from the pocket.

“I hit some traffic coming down Commercial Street and just now pulled into Widgery Wharf,” I explained.

“I know you try,” her voice trailed off, “but this is the third 5:35 ferry you’ve missed this week.” It wasn’t an accusation, merely a statement of fact. “The next ferry doesn’t leave Portland until 7:15, and by the time you walk home it’ll be after 8. I’ll need to put Molly to bed before you arrive. She’ll be…”

“Hey, Sandra,” I interrupted, “I’m in luck. A police cruiser just pulled into the lot. It’s Officer Mike and Big John. I bet they’re heading for the police boat down by the fish pier. If I hurry, I can catch a ride on the Connolly to Peaks and be home in thirty minutes. Lucky me. Love you.”

Heading off at a lope I caught the pair as they clambered down the iron ladder to the dock where the police boat was cleated. Mike, short and solid as a fire hydrant descended first; Big John, his crewcut exposing a pair of outsized ears, lowered himself two rungs at a time, the iron ladder swaying under his weight. A sprinkling of ice from my boots peppered John’s head as I followed him down the ladder. He released a hand and looked upwards, shielding his head from the debris, and grinned. “Doctor Radis, great night for a boat ride.”   

Although the Connolly was more than thirty feet long and heavy-beamed, a wave suddenly lifted the bow and slammed it against the oversized fenders holding it off the dock. Bulky chains creaked and groaned as the dock rode up and down again a pair of telephone pole sized pilings. Mike and Big John boarded the Connolly while I prepared to release the lines.

Mike motioned me inside and closed the door of the pilot house. “It may be a few minutes. They need to pull one of the Lieutenants off the front desk uptown so we have someone to captain the boat again tonight.” Mike methodically checked the navigational lights and bilge pump and flipped on the radar and heater before reaching up overhead for a spare key taped inside a navigational chart. The engine turned over and idled smoothly.

“I hope it’s not Lieutenant Benton,” Big John said, warming his hands over the blower. “I hear the guy managed to blow an engine off Fort Gorges a couple of months ago and they had to drop anchor and wait for the Coast Guard to tow the Connolly back to town. Jerk.”   

I raised an eyebrow. “Let me try to understand this,” I said as I stored my backpack and satchel under the console. “You and Mike both have your own boats and lobster in your spare time. Right?” John nodded and handed me a life jacket as he zipped up his own. “So why don’t one of you captain the boat?”

“Because,” Mike glared, turning back to me, “Because a Lieutenant needs to pilot the boat. That’s our orders.”

“Oh,” I smiled. Delicate topic.

There was a tap on the window. A pasty faced, plump man in a white parka, wearing penny loafers, police trousers with a side holster, and a pair of arctic mittens stared back at me. “Gentlemen! It’s a hell of a night! Should I get the lines?” he shouted above the wind.

“No sir. You’re piloting the boat sir. I’ll get the lines.” Big John exchanged places with the lieutenant and stood motionless on the dock, awaiting further instructions. Inside the dimly lit cabin, the lieutenant produced a key attached to a miniature red foam buoy from his zippered front pocket, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to force it into the ignition. There seemed to be something blocking access. He sat down in the pilot seat and tried again. It was Mike who explained that it was awfully dark in the pilot house, but there was already a key in the ignition. The engine was running. He and John wanted to make sure the Connolly was running smoothly before heading across the bay.  

“Of course,” Lieutenant Benton said stiffly.  “Makes sense. Good work,” he added.

“Are you ready sir?” Big John undid the bow and stern lines and held the Connolly off against the wind. “I need to give the Connolly a push to clear the dock to get us underway, otherwise we’re going to grind against the pilings.” He shouted, then mumbled, “Like we did last time, sir.” 

Officer Benton clutched the wheel. John pushed off against the wheel house, separating the boat from the dock. “Now!” Big John yelled. The lieutenant thrust the throttle forward and the Connolly lurched away, Big John just barely grabbing a side-rail as he jumped onboard. For a big man he was agile as a cat.

Underway, Lieutenant Benton turned the bow towards the islands of Casco Bay, the compass on the console swinging around to 85 degrees, a straight shot to the first green blinking navigational can, a mile distant. I was lulled into a measure of comfort; the Connolly had the wind and following seas at her back, and the Lieutenant opened a thermos of coffee and poured himself a half cup as he concentrated on the  back-lit radar screen. Three miles distant a faint cluster of lights marked the wharf on Peaks Island.

November is an unpredictable month on Casco Bay. By the first of the month, virtually all the pleasure boats, both motorized and sail are on jack stands in boat yards or driveways, winterized and shrink-wrapped, awaiting spring. Lobster traps have been pulled and stacked; seal and whale watching tour boats have motored south to winter tourist areas. A few larger lobster boats and trawlers still ply the deeper, offshore waters but the work can be brutal; gale-force winds and heavy snow may blanket Casco Bay one day, and the next, a warm breeze might flutter in from the south with temperatures in the fifties.  

The water cools slowly. By mid-November, which is to say, now, the bay water temperature is usually in the high 40’s, by January, mid 30’s. Every five or ten years, the inner bay, at least around the Portland waterfront, freezes solid. Every twenty or thirty years, the bay ices over as far as Peaks Island. Looking out from the Connolly, I figured I’d last ten, maybe fifteen minutes tonight if I fell overboard, that is, if I didn’t cramp or panic.

Lieutenant Benton’s nose pressed up against the radar screen, his parka’s tunneled hood obscuring his face. We passed an ocean tugboat pushing a barge towards Merrill’s Marine Terminal up the Fore River. A flock of seagulls flushed from where they rested on the water. The trawler, Northern Lights, unloaded its catch at the Custom House Wharf. Three spot-lights illuminated the deck while a hose suctioned up thousands of pounds of herring from the hold. Lieutenant Benton pushed the throttle forward and the Connolly accelerated through the rolling, black, seas. A loon, panicking, rose up and dove for cover. I reached out and grabbed the console for support. We came over the top of one wave and bounced heavily into the trough and I noticed that the flooring was awash in coffee.

“Lieutenant,” Mike peered through the windshield. “We’re coming up on the number 5 green can.”

“I know. I can see it clearly on the radar.”

“Lieutenant!” Mike repeated. “We’re dead on.

“I know,” the lieutenant answered. There was a note of irritation in his voice. “I can see exactly…” Abruptly his head bobbed up from the screen. The green, one-ton blinking number 5 navigational can loomed directly ahead. He swung the wheel sharply but in his panic neglected to throttle back. The bow of the Connolly nearly clipped the can. I fell off my seat. Big John banged his head on the low ceiling of the cabin. Mike, legs firmly planted apart, glowered at the back of the Lieutenant.

“That came up fast,” Lieutenant Benton muttered as he stroked his pencil thin mustache. On we sped towards Peaks Island. The gray silhouette of Fort Gorges—a Civil War fortification, rose up on our port side, shouldered by breaking waves churning over a shallow ledge extending east and west. We’re a good hundred yards outside the blinking red buoy, safely away from the shoals. Through the gunnery openings I noticed a flickering, orange glow.  

Big John pointed to the pale outlines of a skiff pulled up on the sand beach. “Party Island, Doc. Some group of yahoos is camping somewhere inside. They probably have a bon-fire going in the courtyard.  Probably didn’t count on this kind of wind. I hope they have their skiff squared away and don’t get too drunk. The last thing I want to do is rescue some idiot with a broken leg later tonight. And don’t think we won’t call you for help,” John smirked.

I peered past Fort Gorges down Diamond Pass–the channel separating the Diamond Islands from Peaks Island and spied a pair of red and green navigational lights plowing through the waves. Probably a lobster boat from Long Island down the bay, I decided, or maybe even a vessel from Chebeague or Cliff Island bucking the headwinds to drop off their catch in Portland. The sight of the lobster boat triggered something else. That’s the problem with bouncing around the bay to four islands, daily hospital rounds, and a part-time in-town practice, I have an uneasy feeling there’s something I promised to do tomorrow and neglected to write down; a phone call, maybe a request or favor. I closed my eyes and focused. Something I need to do tomorrow. Something. I pulled my 3 by 5 inch pocket calendar from my shirt pocket and clicked my ballpoint pen. There. Now I remembered, and scribbled, House Call Cliff Island, Yohanna VonTiling and then, Hat/Gloves.

Officer Mike tapped his commanding officer on the shoulder. The outline of Peaks loomed ahead in the darkness, the wharf coming into sharp relief. From the wharf, a metal ramp angled down to the public safety float. “Lieutenant, we’re coming up on Peaks.”

“I can see it on the screen. I’m heading for the public safety float.” Lieutenant Benton replied.

“Sir, you’re coming in too fast.”

A van pulled up on the wharf, its headlights bouncing off the water. We flew by Rick Callow’s scallop boat, E. Cosi, and Bobbi Emerson’s lobster boat, the Carrie Anne, nodding on their moorings. The lieutenant pulled back ever so slightly on the throttle, his face still glued to the hypnotizing game being played out on the radar screen.

Big John whispered in my ear, “Grab your stuff, NOW. This guy is a major jerk.” Two figures on the wharf emerged from the van and waved the Connolly off. We were coming in hot. Reflexively, I grabbed my backpack and satchel and scrambled after Mike and John outside the pilot house. For a moment I didn’t quite understand what Big John had in mind. Then he leaned into my ear and shouted, “When I count to three, jump onto the public safety float!”

Wait. That was the plan? Jump? I blinked and tried to make sense of our predicament. Dead on, not thirty feet beyond the public safety float, was Covey’s Lobster Shack. On the waterside of Covey’s shack, was a finger pier with lobster traps neatly stacked on one end and a dingy tied on the other. Oh my.

“One.” Mike and John crouched on the rail of the Connolly.

“Two.” I reluctantly joined them.

“Three!”

At the moment we jumped, Lieutenant Benton abruptly threw the Connolly into full reverse. We tumbled onto the public safety float, rolling towards the opposite edge. Big John reached out and caught my leg. I felt a sudden, unwelcome tearing sensation in both shins. We sprung upright. The Connolly lurched to a full-on STOP, the back-wake surging over the float nearly knocking us over, as the boat settled in the water.

 Lieutenant Benton stuck his head out the pilot window. “You guys are crazy! There was no need to jump!” Above the howling wind I heard a tinny, abrasive, grinding noise. A puff of smoke rose from the diesel cowling. A darker cloud followed. “Wait! I need help tying off!” the lieutenant shouted. Big John and Mike, pretending not to hear, silently headed up the ramp. Somehow, I’d held on to my satchel and backpack.