Ex-Greenpeace captain steps in as crew shortage threatens island ferry service

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LINCOLNVILLE, Maine — Islesboro sailor Peter Willcox spent 38 eventful, sometimes heartbreaking years working as a ship’s captain for the environmental activist organization Greenpeace. But this week, he had a much more low-key job: loading and unloading vehicles and passengers onto the Captain Richard G. Spear, a Maine State Ferry Service vessel that plowed the waters between Lincolnville and Islesboro.

Willcox, 69, offered to work on the ferry after learning crew shortages would force the service to cut trips to Islesboro this week.

“It’s nothing I ever thought I would do in life, but here it is,” said Willcox, an affable, bearded man, adding that he thought his trips on the ferry would be less dramatic than his job as a as captain of Greenpeace. “It’s just a matter of getting my fellow islanders back and forth on the mainland.”

Peter Willcox of Islesboro worked for 38 years as a captain for Greenpeace ships. Credit: Abigail Curtis/BDN

News last week that the ferry service is set to offer a hybrid schedule for its trips to Islesboro on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week came as an unpleasant surprise to most islanders. Paul Hatch, owner of a construction company whose fleet of trucks transports materials from the mainland to the island, was one of them.

“Of all the time to do this, I think it’s crazy,” he said last week. “It’s the busiest time of the year, when all the summer visitors come and go… We’re just trying to make a living here. Now they are taking trips away from us. I just don’t understand it. If I ran the business like the state does, I would have to fold the first year. I would go bankrupt.

But the shortage of skilled seafarers is a national problem, according to an official with the Maine State Ferry Service. Dave Bernhardt is director of maintenance and operations at the Maine Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the ferry service. He said state ships have a minimum crew 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 US Coast Guard written exam covering several areas of seafarer knowledge, among other requirements.

“It was tough. We struggled to hire,” Bernhardt said. “It’s a national problem. Any marine industry has difficulty finding people who are willing to work those kinds of hours and those kinds of shifts. We are working on additional salaries and more incentives… We want to let our staff know that we are working on things.

The Maine DOT knows that labor shortages can have far-reaching negative consequences, especially on island communities off Maine, where ferries serve as a lifeline. And while the staff shortage issue was resolved this week, that doesn’t mean all will be well for the ferry service from now on.

“Is the staffing issue that led to the reduced hours something that could happen again? Yeah,” said Paul Merrill, director of communications for the department. “We could be a few sick calls away from being in a similar situation. Staffing is a real challenge right now and has been for some time.

The department is always looking for good, reliable workers, he said, adding the ferry service didn’t want to cut the schedule.

“We know it’s disruptive. We are sorry this is disruptive,” he said. “We need these ships with the right personnel. If we meet someone, either through our own outreach efforts or through sheer bad luck, we are filling a need that desperately needs to be filled.

Willcox probably fits best into the latter category.

The sailor has had a long career with Greenpeace, an international network of independent organizations that use peaceful protest and creative communication to expose global environmental issues.

Over the decades, Willcox has witnessed historic events including the 1985 Rainbow Warrior harbor bombing in Auckland, New Zealand. He was the captain of the ship, which was destroyed by French secret agents after the ship took part in protests against French nuclear tests in the Pacific. The attack killed a crew member and sank the boat.

He also made headlines in 2013, when he was one of 30 Greenpeace activists and independent journalists jailed for two months in Russia after officials in that country called a protest in the Arctic 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 Russian government company Gazprom in the Arctic Sea.

For now, however, he is content to make sure people come and go safely to Islesboro. On Wednesday morning, he helped organize vehicles aboard the brand new boat being used for the island race while the Margaret Chase Smith, the island’s regular ferry, underwent a scheduled Coast Guard inspection. Willcox waved aboard passenger cars, dump trucks and vans carrying payloads of rose bushes, patio pavers and other goods destined for Islesboro.

“You load and unload the cars, mainly. That’s really it,” he said. “You act as a lookout every other trip, but you’re mostly on deck loading cars.”

Workers help load a ferry.
Peter Willcox helped unload the vehicles from Captain Richard G. Spear on Wednesday morning. When the Islesboro sailor and former longtime Greenpeace ship captain learned that a shortage of qualified crew meant the ferry would be operating a reduced schedule this week, he offered to work as an able seaman to help out. Credit: Abigail Curtis/BDN

Willcox does not plan to continue working regularly for the ferry service. However, if another emergency situation arose, he would be happy to come back. The captain and regular crew members were great to work with, he said, and showed him the ropes.

“I’m way overqualified,” he laughs. “But there are so many people who depend on the ferry. I received many accolades in the community. People were happy that I did. I picked up two days of work, and everyone is excited. It’s a win-win for me.

One such happy islander was Hatch, whose trucks were able to run normally thanks to Willcox.

“I tip my hat to Peter,” he said. “It will help us all. My trucks are towing today. I think it’s great, and I think more people should do it. If they are able-bodied sailors, come on, step up.

A crew member on the Captain Richard G. Spear said a second islander actually did just that, signing up to work as an able seaman with the ferry service. The name of this person was not immediately available.

The work is fun, Willcox said, but 11-hour days aren’t necessarily easy.

“By the time 6 a.m. came, I was ready to take my shoes off,” he said.

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