Passengers aboard the 40-foot R.L. Gott hop out of their seats to take pictures as the boat slows to a crawl.
About 30 seals are having a sunbathing party on the rocks near Blue Hill Bay, but they don’t mind their new guests one bit.
Captain Eli Strauss slowly spins the boat in the water so passengers on all sides can get a good look at the seals.
The captain is young, but he’s not new. He hung around Island Cruises in Bass Harbor all his life after his father, Kim Strauss, started the business about 25 years ago.
For the last two years, Eli Strauss has been the full owner and operator, even though his father still runs two boat cruises each week.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if going out around the islands hadn’t been my favorite thing to do for my whole life,” Eli Strauss said.
As the R.L. Gott leaves behind the protection of the bay, passengers can just barely register gentle swells rocking the boat. The vessel cruises steadily toward the Green Islands under a cloudless sky, the soft northerly breeze making the air crystal clear.
“How could you get bored of this?” Eli Strauss said.
Since his dad gave him a five-horsepower wooden boat when he was 7, the water has been his second home. He served in the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school and attended the Maine Maritime Academy.
When the father of two decided it was time to settle down and have children, he jumped back into the family business.
As the boat streams into Lunt Harbor in Frenchboro for a lunch break, the captain explains the history of the offshore island and its residents. Crew member Anna Clewley hops onto the dock to secure the vessel.
Parents, kids and elderly couples disembark. They’re ready to devour the lobster rolls, steak and cheese subs and salads they ordered before heading out to sea in the morning. Passenger Nancy Rohan knows this lunch stop well — this isn’t her first cruise, or her second. She always brings her visiting friends and family members on an Island Cruise.
“I think Eli is great,” Rohan said. “He is so informative. The way he talks and explains is so easy to understand.”
The captain grew up working on the boat with his dad, so manning the vessel was no problem. It took a lot of studying to memorize the history of coastal Maine, though.
“I started collecting books on Maine, the history of the lobster fishery and all that stuff,” Eli Strauss said. “I read everything I could find, and that’s something I still do.”
He tagged along on his dad’s cruises to take notes, and then he took over half the company’s cruises the next summer. The more he worked with visitors, the more he figured out what to say and how passengers respond to information.
“If you can feel that energy from people you’re talking to, you can tell what’s working and what isn’t,” Eli Strauss said.
The boat slows to a crawl and then stops near a buoy. The island historian pulls on green gloves and hauls up a lobster trap.
He uses a lobster gauge to measure each of about eight crustaceans scuttling around the bottom of the trap, keeping two and tossing the lucky ones back in the ocean.
He holds up a female lobster with eggs stuck to the bottom of her body and cuts a “v-notch,” a mark on her tail flipper, to indicate she is a breeder. Fishermen can never keep a lobster with a v-notch, so this one will be safe from capture for the rest of her life.
The trap goes back in the water with a splash and the boat is off again, porpoises swimming nearby, their fins peeking up above the surface every few seconds.
The playful animals follow the R.L. Gott part of the way back to shore, where passengers’ cars (with license plates from all over the United States — Arizona, Texas, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, to name a few) wait in the parking lot.
After the morning cruisers head home, Eli Strauss will run the afternoon cruise and then a make a quick trip or two back to Frenchboro.
Island Cruises operates as a ferry service for island residents when the weather allows. The R.L Gott has made more than one trip to the island in an emergency, sometimes very late at night or early in the morning.
“Being able to be helpful, to make it easier for people, is great,” the captain said. “I’m more than happy to help out.”
His schedule changes with the wind and weather patterns, but the heart of the business hasn’t changed a bit in 25 years.
“The tradition I’ve tried to continue is that every experience at this place has to be wonderful,” Eli Strauss said. “From the moment you use our website and drive this road to the moment you’re done, I want this to be something special.”