Isle au Haut celebrates the arrival of Otter



ISLE AU HAUT — It’s possible that some sleeping infant or doddering codger missed it, but Sunday afternoon just about everyone who lives in this rugged island community was on hand to celebrate the arrival of Otter.

The spanking new ferry is the culmination of more than five years of planning and effort by the Isle au Haut Co., myriad generous benefactors, island residents and Wesmac Custom Boats in Surry.

With Captain Garrett Aldrich at the helm, and his father, George, the now-retired, longtime ferry skipper close at hand, Otter left Stonington shortly after 3 p.m. filled with well-wishers, current and former boat company staff and a few other celebrants bound for the island. She arrived right on schedule to find the town dock packed by a cheering throng waiting for the chance to inspect the new boat, toast her with champagne and get aboard for free joyrides past the Robinson Point lighthouse and into the Isle au Haut Thorofare.

The new ferry is a big deal for Isle au Haut. Unlike many year-round island communities with no bridge to the mainland that are served by the Maine State Ferry Service, the boats of the private Isle au Haut Co. provide the only regular transportation on and off the island. Groceries, mail, propane fuel, high school students and construction workers are all dependant on the company’s aging Mink or, now, Otter.

Skipper Garrett Aldrich (right) at the helm of the new Isle au Haut ferry Otter on the boat’s celebratory visit to the island last Sunday. His father, George (left), skippered an earlier Isle au Haut ferry and mail boat for decades. PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT
Skipper Garrett Aldrich (right) at the helm of the new Isle au Haut ferry Otter on the boat’s celebratory visit to the island last Sunday. His father, George (left), skippered an earlier Isle au Haut ferry and mail boat for decades.
PHOTO BY STEPHEN RAPPAPORT

Built by Wesmac Custom Boats in Surry, the $800,000-plus cost of the new ferry was funded almost entirely with private donations. According to company President George Cole, major gifts came from the Friends of Acadia and the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, but other substantial contributions came from members of the Isle au Haut Co. board and people “with connections” to the island.

“The board has been incredibly supportive and generous,” Cole told the crowd gathered on the pier Sunday afternoon. They were not alone.

More than 40 supporters contributed to the cost of building Otter, “and the town is not much bigger,” Cole said.

If the Coast Guard signed off on the boat’s final inspection slated for Tuesday in Stonington, Otter could begin limited service this week, splitting the daily schedule with Mink. By next week, both boats may be in service.

The split schedule will give Aldrich and his fellow captains an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the boat’s operation and handling characteristics, which differ considerably from the old ferry’s.

Otter can travel twice as fast as Mink, though it will usually make the trip at the same 10-knot speed to conserve fuel. The new boat also is considerably more maneuverable — with much quicker steering — something the skippers will need to get used to in the tight eel rut that serves as Isle au Haut’s harbor.

On Sunday, George Aldridge stood quietly at his son’s shoulder as the younger captain drove Otter on its way to Isle au Haut. Asked on arrival what he thought of the new ferry, the retired longtime mail boat skipper and boat company manager paused briefly, nodded and said, “It’s a boat.”

Stephen Rappaport

Stephen Rappaport

Waterfront Editor at The Ellsworth American
Stephen Rappaport has lived in Maine for nearly 30 years. A lifelong sailor, he spends as much time as possible messing about in boats. [email protected]

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