PORTLAND, Maine — The third season of the Outside Edge begins on the water. We joined Capt. Gene Willard and his crew on an afternoon mailboat run on Casco Bay Lines. The vessel carried quite a bit of cargo: oodles of Amazon boxes, roofing shingles, beverages, and even plants heading over to the islands of Casco Bay.
“How [Amazon] has changed the island, is amazing. People don’t have to go to the mainland anymore,” Willard said.
The emergence of online shopping and grocery services allows islanders to have their goods brought to them. Mailboat runs set off several times a day in all weather conditions between the mainland and the islands. Willard said that while they may reassess certain stops in bad weather, he's never seen an entire day that a ferry didn't run.
The mailboat run also allows those who live on the mainland to get a different perspective of life in Maine.
“Once you’re on the mailboat, you start seeing people getting on the boat, getting off the boat, and start observing the things they’re picking up for freight on the dock, and you start wondering what it would be like to live here or there,” Willard explained.
He said each island is very different from one another, and riding the mailboat provides a snippet of each.
“Often you get to meet a lot of the locals, and you may take the mailboat and end up visiting an island more often. Or people who come for a ride and next thing you know you’re moving to the islands," Willard said.
Michele Martin, a born and raised Mainer, has always told folks from away to take the run, but had never gone herself despite a family connection to it.
“My father worked for the postal service for 38 years, actually 38.5 to count every day. And he was, toward the end of that time, he was responsible for preparing the mail runs for the mailboat in the morning,” Martin said.
Seeing both the functional and recreational spectrums of this service to the islands is eye-opening.
“I feel like to get a sense of Casco Bay and really understand how much is out here and how many different spots you can land at, I really recommend it ... Maine is such a special place, I’ve lived here my whole life, my entire life, and I feel like the access to things like this is unique and we’re so fortunate to have it," Martin added.
Capt. Willard knows these islands, docks, and waters by heart, pulling into each stop by muscle memory. He grew up on Peaks Island and has been with Casco Bay Lines since 1979.
“As a kid, I was asked to cover for a deckhand that didn’t show up for work. So that’s how it all began. [They] said, 'Hey kid, we need a deckhand, want to be a deckhand?' No. 'We’ll pay you.' How much? All of a sudden I hopped on the boat and I'm still here. I’ve been a captain for almost 40 years.”
Not far from retirement, roughly five years he said, Capt. Willard will miss just simply running the boat.
“This is my favorite thing to do ... is run the boat. Meet people, I love meeting people, that’s the best part of the job ... It’s not just a job, never has been. This is my home, my hobby, I love what I do,” Willard said.
The mailboat runs are open to the public at 10 a.m., 12 p.m., and 3 p.m. year-round. More information can be found here.