BAR HARBOR — From April through the end of October, pilot boat captain David Spear has a more unpredictable schedule than an on-call obstetrician.
That’s because the lobsterman is quietly one of the most important cogs in Bar Harbor’s cruise industry machine.
For the past 20 years, Spear has met every single cruise ship that has come into Frenchman Bay and has watched as the town transformed into a wildly popular cruise destination with more than 100 visits each year.
“Back then, there were only about four or five ships in a season,” he said. “Now it’s just nonstop.”
By the end of November, the Hulls Cove resident will have transported harbor pilots to and from each of this season’s 117 cruise ship arrivals. That is nearly 500 trips from the town pier to the pilot station and back.
Regulations require cruise ships to hire pilots because the ship’s captain is not familiar with every port’s waters. The pilot, who is an expert on the region, guides the ship into port.
While there are four rotating harbor pilots who meet the cruise ships, there is only one man responsible for getting them to work and back. His is the only pilot boat in town that works under contract with Penobscot Bay & River Pilots.
“We really rely on Dave,” pilot Skip Strong said one recent morning aboard Spear’s boat, Frenchman Bay. Strong was on his way to guide the 965-foot Norwegian Gem into port.
Cruise ships can arrive at anytime, rain or shine.
Spear recently got home at midnight from a shift and went back out again before sunrise the following day. Sometimes Spear is notified of a time change just hours prior to a ship’s scheduled arrival.
“It’s unpredictable,” he said.
On “easy” days, Spear meets one cruise ship. On more challenging days, there are up to three arrivals.
Once the pilots have been transported, Spear heads to his day job – hauling lobster traps. He returns to pick the pilots up once they’ve guided the ship back out to open water in the Gulf of Maine.
Not only are Spear’s hours inconsistent, but the job itself takes considerable skills.
Spear meets a ship at one of two pilot stations about 9 miles offshore. The gargantuan steel ships often tower more than 150 feet above his modest fiberglass vessel.
Once he matches the cruise ship’s speed, he carefully edges ahead and brings his boat alongside the cruise ship as the pilot inches along the gunwale and grabs a hanging rope ladder on the side of the ship.
“We never stop,” Spear said. “That’s the tricky part.”
There isn’t a training class on how to pull a lobster boat up alongside moving ships up to 1,000-feet long.
“It was on-the-job training,” he said.
Larger cruise ships are easier to handle, Spear said, because they are more stable in the water than smaller vessels.
The importance of precision is not just a matter of scuffing up the side of the boat. It also can be a matter of life and death for the pilots.
“If you fall in the water doing this, you’d be very lucky to survive,” said Strong.
For safety reasons, Spear’s sternman of five years, Vinny Abbott, is always on board.
While Spear has never run into an emergency while transporting pilots, he did once come to the rescue of a cruise ship tender.
Four years ago, nearly 100 cruise ship passengers from Celebrity Summit had to be rescued after the tender boat they were traveling in ran aground near Bar Island.
Spear was nearby when the accident occurred and immediately began evacuating passengers onto Frenchman Bay.
“It was pouring rain, and there were about 40 people on board all trying to fit in the cockpit,” said Spear.
He took the passengers to shore and then towed the tender back to Celebrity Summit.
After Spear makes his final roundtrip of the season to Caribbean Princess on Oct. 29, he is looking forward to a break.
But he won’t be booking a Royal Caribbean holiday anytime soon.
“I see cruise ships every day,” said Spear. “The last thing I want to do is go on a cruise ship for vacation. I’d like a resort on the beach.”