It’s 10:35 a.m., July 21, with hazy sun over Eastport and light fog over Campobello. The Eastport pilot boat, MEDRIC II, has left her berth at the Breakwater and is headed up Head Harbour Passage bound for the m/v SAGA MONEL at the pilot station in the Bay of Fundy.
Aboard are Eastport harbor pilot captain Bob Peacock who will bring the cargo ship into the pier at Estes Head, pilot boat captain Ralph DeWitt, DeWitt’s son, Jesse, who serves as mate, and on this occasion DeWitt’s young nephew, Ryan.
While it’s Peacock’s job to bring the SAGA MONEL safely to the pier – no small order given the extreme tides, tricky currents and prevalent fog – it’s DeWitt’s job to get Peacock safely aboard the ship’s pilot’s ladder. That’s no small order, either, in the Bay of Fundy even in good weather.
“I literally trust my life to Ralph’s ability,” Peacock says simply.
“Fundy Traffic, Eastport pilot boat,” DeWitt says into the radio and is acknowledged by the Canadian Coast Guard’s navigation center in Saint John, New Brunswick. “We’re at Four Papa, approximately 40 minutes from the pilot station.”
The fog, which in Friar Roads was light enough to see the Deer Island-Campobello ferry crossing, has become so thick at Head Harbour Light that the light station, close by on the radar, is invisible while its foghorn is loud and clear.
Peacock requests a speed of “three-and-a-half to four knots, please” from the cargo ship’s captain and is acknowledged. The ship’s whistle becomes louder, and as the fog scales a bit the vessel’s house becomes visible but not the hull.
“SAGA MONEL, pilot,” Peacock says into the radio. “We’re a half-mile away; start your swing, correct course to zero-four-zero.”
A few minutes later DeWitt radios, “SAGA MONEL, pilot boat. We’re making our approach.”
DeWitt maneuvers along the vessel’s port side, matching the ship’s speed. He eases the MEDRIC II to the pilot’s ladder, Peacock steps onto the lowest rung, grabs the ropes, and climbs aboard.
It’s 12 noon, and DeWitt’s job is done – for the moment.
As the pilot boat heads back to Eastport, the wheelhouse radio crackles, “Fundy Traffic, SAGA MONEL, pilot is aboard.” At Peacock’s request, DeWitt watches for small boats ahead of the cargo ship, and he says, “You know, a bad day on the water is still better than a good day in a cubicle.”
The MEDRIC II, a fishing/utility boat built in 1996 of high-density plastic, is not an imposing craft – 48 feet long with a 6-foot beam – but “she’s tough as nails,” Peacock says. “We’ve never missed a ship because of her.”
The MEDRIC II is named after the MEDRIC, a double-ender sardine carrier built at East Boothbay in 1919. As it happens, DeWitt was the last captain of the MEDRIC, owned by R.J. Peacock Canning Company, before she was laid up in 1994 after a hard-working career spanning 75 years.
In his chronicle of sardine carriers in and around Passamaquoddy Bay, Masts and Masters, John Gilman wrote, “`Frankie’ Pendleton ran the MEDRIC the first year she was used but he didn’t like her and went back to the SYLVINA BEAL.”
But if you ask DeWitt what he liked most about piloting the MEDRIC, he says, “No question, it was the boat herself. She was wonderful to run. And it was an absolute thrill to be part of that boat’s history.”
At first, nothing remarkable comes to DeWitt’s mind about piloting the MEDRIC. Then he says, “Well, there was the time we had a finback [whale] running alongside that was longer than the boat, and she was 65 feet long.”
He adds, “I guess I’d have to say the most exciting time was carrying herring. We knew it was a dying industry; I felt I was fortunate to have a part in it.”
The sardine carrier was also used to haul feed to salmon pens around the bay. “This was back in the days of moist feed,” DeWitt says. “We’d deliver at night usually starting about 10 o’clock so the salmon would have fresh feed in the morning. Well, I remember once we got a call about daybreak that the feed had spoiled so we had to take that feed back, then deliver new feed, about a thousand pounds in all. By the time we were done, it was just about time to start again. So we ended up working just about 24 hours. That’s three boats with their crews and the docking crews, and we were all tired.”
On and off the water, DeWitt has worked at a bit of everything. A graduate of the Eastport Boat School, his jobs have included Moose Island Marine “both in the retail operation and out at the boatyard,” and has taken on odd jobs around the area.
“We’re in a survival mode here most of the time; you have to take on three or four jobs just to get a decent paycheck,” he says. “Jobs are like the fog; they come and go.”
When Peacock asked DeWitt to pilot the MEDRIC, DeWitt actually refused. “I said no to Bob a couple of times,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I was up to it. But Bob was convinced I could do it and gave me time to practice with her. Finally saying yes was the best decision I ever made.”
DeWitt doesn’t talk much about his skills but Peacock says, “Ralph is truly a jack of all trades – fishing, carpentry, fiberglass repair, aquaculture, marine research, public affairs, teacher, expert boatman, engine and electronic repairs wrapped up in a very dependable, steady friend who has a great dry sense of humor.”
DeWitt’s roots go deep on both sides of the border. “On my father’s side, my ancestors arrived on Campobello in 1728. My mother’s people were from Eastport – I’m not sure how far back they go, but it’s a long way – and they were boatbuilders and fishermen.
As the MEDRIC II heads down Head Harbour Passage into Friar Roads, DeWitt picks up the mike. “Fundy Traffic, Eastport pilot boat. We’re just crossing Four Papa, 25 minutes to the Eastport Breakwater.”
Eastport is now in bright sunlight, and visibility is clear.
At 1 p.m., DeWitt is again on the radio. “Fundy Traffic, Eastport pilot boat. We’re secure at the Eastport Breakwater. Thanks for your assistance.”
“Eastport pilot boat, Fundy Traffic. Roger that.”