A couple of times each month, the daily routine on the “Steamboat Wharf” in Matinicus Harbor is pleasantly interrupted by the appearance of the Sunbeam. The crew of the 75-foot steel vessel, the fifth in a series so named, carries on a century-long tradition of service to some of Maine’s outer islands. The Sunbeam has always brought the minister, and now also brings the nurse, but perhaps most significantly, she brings a crew who have become fast friends with many island residents.
“We joke about the famous galley cookie jar,” said one islander, “but the socializing really is more important than they might realize, particularly during the winter. They’re not out here trying to make something happen or change our lives, they’re our friends, and they more or less understand what living in the middle of the ocean is all about.” For many islanders, especially those who’ve been here for decades, a visit from the Sunbeam means a visit with Betty and Dave Allen.
Captain David Allen had worked aboard the Sunbeam for 35 years, starting as engineer and soon becoming captain; his wife, Betty, joined the crew as steward shortly thereafter. In recent years, Betty had expanded her offerings to the islands to include professional painting lessons for both children and adults, at no cost, any time the weather allows the Sunbeam to stay long enough. For many of the guys, a few minutes hanging out in the wheelhouse with Dave, talking about seining for herring in the old days, or about airplanes (Dave is also a private pilot,) or about Moosehead Lake, or breaking ice in Isle au Haut Harbor, or whatever the topic, made for a nice break from the trap pile, the shop, or the powerhouse; Dave’s wide range of experiences makes him good company.
The one-room school teachers bring their students down to the Sunbeam, grounded out beside the wharf, to do a painting or craft project with Betty. Retired fisherman nurse cups of coffee and hold court among whichever other neighbors pass through to visit, as there is no longer any store or other public gathering place on Matinicus. Young moms and other busy work-from-home islanders steal a break from their usual jobs while waiting for the mail to be ready in the post office; we wander down for a cookie and indulge in an otherwise rare “coffee break.” Often, we are invited to supper, and after a healthy meal, diets and good intentions are wrecked with two or even three homemade desserts.
When the official word came out that Dave and Betty really would be retiring this winter, the message quickly spread to islanders working on the mainland, traveling down south on vacation, and away at school. “Will we still be able to go aboard?” asked one. “I’m sure going to miss Betty’s cooking,” commented several. Most of all, though, we heard people insist that “It isn’t going to be the same.” When the time came for the Allens’ last trip to Matinicus as captain and steward, what few of us were here in that late February cold gathered aboard the boat that evening, told a few stories, and this time, brought goodies from our own kitchens to Betty (for a change.) Two native Matinicus lobstermen, who had most certainly been here as children before Dave Allen was captain, still said they didn’t really remember much about the previous crew. “Maybe we just didn’t go aboard and hang around so much in those days,” said one.
It sounds like a large part of what we now think of as the Sunbeam’s primary purpose, to be a warm (if occasional) gathering place with coffee and pie, conversation and camaraderie, perhaps an art lesson or a game of cribbage or a musician aboard, and maybe even a bit of help with something, should we happen to need it…it appears that this role may have been established in large part by the Allens. For that, Dave and Betty, for your friendship, and for so many things, we thank you. You are always welcome on Matinicus; we hope you’ll come and visit.