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Ferry Captains at Sea

~ by Richard Trust ~

Hy-Line Cruises | Nantucket, MAAn old saying that applies to many professions can be lightly tied to those who are captains of ferry boats sailing between Hyannis and Nantucket.

“There’s an old-timer who once said, ‘The job is hours and hours of boredom intermingled with moments of sheer terror,’ ” said Rob Sicard, a boat captain for the Steamship Authority since 1986. While “hours and hours of boredom” don’t particularly ring true for Captain Sicard or for Hy-Line Captain Bob Levine, they did explain that the potential for “sheer terror” can fall into several categories.

Sicard said that equipment failure could cause moments of great angst, while both he and Levine agree that colliding with another vessel would be the ultimate in “sheer terror.”

The collision factor is in the minds of all ship captains and their crews. It goes with the awesome responsibility of transporting as many as 800 or more passengers across almost 30 miles of sea.

“There are always near misses,” Sicard, 62, said. “We had several over the summer involving crazy boaters. It’s not usually commercial boats… You have to think ahead, and if you see something shaping up, then you start doing what you’ve been trained to do. First, you try to communicate with them by radio. Then, if there’s no response on that, you have to give them an obvious idea of what your intentions are, maybe come dramatically away from them, make a large course change.”

Therein lay the problem when, in July 1956, the Italian luxury passenger liner Andrea Doria collided with the Swedish cruise ship Stockholm in fogbogged waters 45 miles south of Nantucket Island. “The problem with the Stockholm and the Andrea Doria was that they were making small course changes and that resulted in their colliding,” explained Sicard, “they didn’t know exactly what the other was going to do. So you want to make your decision as soon as you possibly can and as obvious as you can. If you have to, stop the boat and back away from them, so if you’re under investigation for a collision, you can show them that you did everything you were supposed to do.”

Levine, of Hy-Line, also feels the responsibility of his position.

“All the time,” said Levine, a Hyannis native who, like Fairhaven native Sicard, began sailing small boats when his age was measured in a single digit. “You know you’re trained well, so just do your job. There’ll always be incidents beyond your control, so keep your eye out, be awake, and be alert.”

Fog sometimes confuses private boaters. The ferries have radar and other means of dealing with reduced visibility, but those operating smaller boats in such conditions might be well equipped but at times not well prepared.

“One of the main problems in fog is where private boat owners don’t know the rules or they don’t have radar or they don’t know how to use it,” Levine said. “They go like a bat out of Hades in restricted visibility, and that’s where you have to be on your toes. We’ll sound the horn and the next thing you know, they follow the sound and they’re coming to you – right side, left side, no matter who has the right of way.

“When it’s foggy, we’re like Mother Goose and they’re like ducklings: ‘Oh, this guy knows where he’s going, so let’s follow him.’ He gets real close to us and stops us in our tracks.”

Sometimes the moments of terror happen aboard the boats. Sicard explained, “We’ve had people die, people fall down stairs and break limbs.”

Heart attacks have occurred at sea, and the captains and their crews have defibrillators, oxygen, and training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to assist “until we’re relieved by someone with more medical experience than we have,” Sicard said. “You do what you can, and with a defibrillator you can probably save someone having a heart attack…One winter a man jumped over the side with a backpack of rocks. You never know what’s going to go on.”

With such a range of possibilities, the captains say they rarely are bored despite crossing to and from the same island every time they set sail. “I don’t get bored too often,” said Levine, married with two adult children and three grandchildren. “I like it. It’s fun. When you relax too much, that’s when you can get in trouble. Some days nothing is happening, but most days something happens, like crazy people cutting in front of you in fog. They’re not paying attention, forgetting where they are, and they might be running aground. Other boats get in trouble and we stop and help them out.”

Sicard, too, said boredom is seldom an issue.

“Sometimes,” he said, “it looks like nothing is going on, but actually there’s always something you need to stay on top of. People say, ‘You’re going back and forth to the same island. Isn’t it boring?’ No, it’s never boring.” Another responsibility of the captains is deciding whether to cancel a trip. Snow, rain, and fog aren’t necessarily causes of cancellations—radar is a wonderful thing—but winds in excess of 35 miles an hour can keep a ferry from venturing forth. The regular ferries take a little more than two hours to reach Nantucket from Hyannis, and the fast ferries cross in an hour. It makes no sense to rock the boat amid wind-whipped high seas.

“It’s a fine line whether you run or tie up,” Sicard said. “No one likes to tie up. It’s just not fun. You get backed up with freight, and people want to get on or off the island. There comes a point where you’re going to beat the boat up, and the passengers, too. Maybe you’ll scare them, and if they’re frightened, that’s not a good thing, either.”

“You have to make sure the boats are not rockin’ and rollin’ and the passengers are not falling all over the place,” Levine said.

“(The captains) have a good handle on it,” Sicard said. “It never comes to a situation where management says you’ve got to run. They’re pretty understanding. With the senior captains’ experience, management has learned to trust and respect our decision on whether to run or tie up. They know you want to run.”

Levine first captained fishing and sightseeing boats in 1969, at age 19, and graduated to ferry captaincy for Hy-Line Cruises six years later. Sicard entered the captain’s wheelhouse for the Steamship Authority in 1986, when he was 33. One big thing that has changed since then is the increase in security. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, made that a reality.

“There’s a security sweep at the docks, we check for items left behind, and we have bomb drills periodically,” Sicard said.

The Coast Guard comes in quarterly and examines the crews. Fire, rescue boat and security drills are conducted. Freight is inspected, with bomb sniffing dogs on duty.

“There are no guarantees,’ Sicard said, “but there are many measures taken and enough policy in place to keep the traveling public safe. I think they’ve got a good system.”

Becoming a ship’s captain requires a good system, and both Levine and Sicard had what it takes to rise through the ranks and reach the skipper’s wheel.

“One way is you can go to Mass. Maritime and work your way up,” Captain Levine said. “Most people do it that way. Or you can start on small boats and work your way up to bigger boats, get on the job training, and take the tests for your license. I did hard knocks. I started working at the age of 13 on all kinds of fishing boats in Hyannis, then running the fishing and sightseeing boats before captaining the ferries in 1975.” Levine said he was “taught by some old salts who were very, very good.”

Levine majored in economics and finance before graduating from the University of New Hampshire (’72). That was followed by study of business and law in a certificate program at Harvard, and more schooling was completed at the University of Rhode Island. Levine taught math “and some science” for 31 years at Barnstable High and three at the vocational school.

At the end of teaching day during September through June, Levine would go to work at privately-owned Hy-Line and toil into the evening hours. Summers have been all Hy-Line. He retired as a teacher in 2008.

Captain Sicard’s life at sea began when, as a kid growing up in Fairhaven, he had “a little 16-foot wooden sailboat that was salvaged from a hurricane and I restored that with my brother. I also had a little aluminum boat with a 5-horse outboard, so boating was a big thing even then.”

and film production at Boston University. He applied that major briefly, working at TV station WRAL in Raleigh, N.C, before moving back to Cape Cod for a change in lifestyle.

That led Sicard to his roots, a style of life on the water. He took various jobs, including one he hated: refueling ships at night one winter—one he liked: traveling the globe for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution—and one he loves: being at the wheel of a 200-foot ferry of the state-funded Steamship Authority.

When he came to the Authority, Sicard studied for his pilotage and mate’s license. “I studied a lot on my own and at Mass. Maritime and Maine Maritime,” Sicard, father of a grown son and daughter, said. “You need to have certain requirements. You can study on your own and take the Coast Guard exam and get your licensing. That’s how I got it. I started working as a pilot in 1983 and got the captain’s license after that, waited my turn and in 1986 that came around. The rest is history.”

Levine and Sicard undergo continuing education at Mass. or Maine Maritime, radar certification every five years, class time in STCW (standards of training, certification and watchkeeping), and firefighting every five years.

While they spend their working hours at sea, both Sicard and Levine are often on the water during their off-time, too. It’s not unusual for Levine, who lives in Centerville, to spend five hours fishing with his grandkids when not operating a ferry. Sicard, a Barnstable resident, owns several boats which keep him busy – “I like being on the water; that’s why we work here” – but he also keeps five motorcycles to indulge in another of his passions.

Asked what he considers the best part of his Hy-Line job, Levine said, “Being on the water, having fun, meeting a lot of different people. It’s a great job for what I did for most of my life, which was teaching and doing this.”

Responding to the same question, Sicard said, “That it’s not 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. A nice thing is having time off during the week. And I’m not in an office.”

The ocean constitutes an oversized office for Levine and Sicard, an office shared by two sea-going competitors who nonetheless are marked by cooperation. “There’s a lot of cooperation (between the passenger lines) on the water. There has to be,” Levine said. “We’re talking all the time. If we’re close by, heading in the same direction, I’ll slow down and let them go or they’ll slow down and let me go.”

Cooperation and love of job are part of the captains’ profiles. And when they stand at the controls in their respective wheelhouses, high above the passenger decks, they’re at the top of their world – one that is hardly ever boring.