BAR HARBOR — The cruise ship slows to seven or eight knots but doesn’t stop for its rendezvous with the boat that has come to pick up the harbor pilot who guided the big ship out of Frenchman Bay on its departure from Bar Harbor.
As the bow of the ship cuts through the water, it creates waves and churn that make it challenging for the captain of the pilot boat to sidle up next to the cruise ship without running into it. At the right moment, the pilot emerges from a door in the ship’s hull about 10 feet above the water, climbs down a rope ladder and steps onto the pilot boat.
“It’s intimidating the first time you see it done,” said pilot boat Captain Kaitlyn Mullen, who had just done it, picking up pilot Skip Strong from the cruise ship Zaandam last Sunday afternoon. Last month, she took over the job from Dave Spear, who had ferried pilots to and from cruise ships for a number of years.
“I always thought Dave Spear was Superman,” Mullen said. “It took me a couple of times of trying it and just feeling it out. It is highly technical.
“It’s mostly a game of patience and probably not a job for someone who loses their temper easily, because little movements once you’re inside that [turbulence] zone can put you into the ship’s suction or can push you right out.”
Nevertheless, she said, “It’s fun. It’s a good challenge.”
Mullen spent the last three summers operating the “yellow ferry” between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor. She decided not to resume that service this year. At about the same time, the four pilots who serve the cruise ships and own the pilot boat were looking for a new captain because Spear was ready to spend more time lobstering and less time ferrying the pilots.
“He couldn’t do the cruise ships in the morning and afternoon and the CAT [ferry to Nova Scotia] in the middle of the day and still try and lobster,” Strong said. “But he told us he would stand by; if something happened he could always fill in.”
(As it turned out, the CAT has not been able run this summer and is not expected to start until sometime in September.)
Spear continued to captain the pilot boat until Mullen was trained and ready to take over.
Spear had worked under contract with the pilots’ group, which was formed as the Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association, even though much of their work is in Frenchman Bay.
Mullen is a full-time employee of the association. She also was able to bring along as part-time employees about a dozen people who had worked with her as part-time crew on the yellow ferry.
Asked why she wanted the pilot boat captain’s job, she said, “There were many reasons. First, after three years of ferrying, a paycheck sounded appealing. And working on the water is the only way I want to earn a paycheck.”
As for the pilots’ willingness to hire her former part-time crew members, Mullen said, “These guys were so fabulous to us. They could have just hired me.”
The formal name of Mullen’s ferry service between Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor was Frenchman Bay Research Boating. She partnered with various organizations to use the ferry as a platform for ecosystem studies of the bay, including marine mammal and seabird monitoring.
She said the cruise ship pilots asked if she would like to transfer those research activities to the pilot boat.
“The opportunity to continue that work was absolutely impossible to pass up,” she said. So sometimes, researchers ride along on the pilot boat trips.
Strong said there were a number of reasons he and the other pilots — David Gelinas, Adam Philbrook and David Smith — wanted to hire Mullen.
“She’s local and she has experience running back and forth on the water on a twin-screw boat (one with two propellers),” he said. “Most of the guys who work up here commercially are all single-screw boat people.
“She also came with a ready source of crew, and she pays attention to details. That’s what we need.”
Most of the cruise ships that visit Bar Harbor, and the CAT ferry when it operates, are required to have a state-licensed pilot on board to navigate them in and out of Frenchman Bay.
The state pilotage law states: “Every foreign vessel and every American vessel under register, with a draft of nine feet or more, entering or departing from any port or harbor (cover by the law) must take a pilot.”