George Aldrich is a tough teacher. When Isle au Haut Boat Services’ former ferry captain was training his son, he would throw a rag over the compass, turn off the radar and run the boat in circles before asking the teen to identify the different islands and other points of reference in East Penobscot Bay.
“He was trying to teach me how to read radar,” says Deer Isle native Garrett Aldrich, who first started working as a deckhand on the mailboat at 15. The same vessel he played hide-and-seek on as a kid.
“He taught me pretty much everything I know about running these boats and taking care of them,” related Garrett, who captains for and co-manages Isle au Haut Boat Services. The Stonington-based boating company offers sightseeing and lighthouse cruises and lobster fishing trips in Penobscot Bay.
The boating company also provides year-round passenger, freight and mail service to Isle au Haut, which lies six nautical miles off Stonington. The boat service is the “main support system” for the island’s 50 or so year-round residents.
In order for most folks to set foot on the highest island in Penobscot Bay, named by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, they have to first step aboard Garrett’s mailboat, The Mink.
“You can’t be a captain on my ship without experience,” declared George Aldrich, clad in a checked shirt and gray sweater vest. “If you haven’t been back and forth at 60 to 80 miles an hour [winds] in the middle of winter in a blizzard, you won’t know what you’re doing.”
The Aldriches have navigated rough seas, piercing winter winds, water spouts and dealt with broken windshields, engine failure and other mishaps during their journeys between Isle au Haut and the mainland.
In a blizzard, when the sea and islands are covered by snow and “everything is white,” the Aldriches identify an island by its shape in the snow. They also shut off the engine and listen to the crash of waves on shore to tell which island they are next to.
“Pay attention to what’s going on around you,” relates Garrett, who has worked as a licensed captain for 17 years. “It’s all the little details that will tell you where you are and how to get yourself home.”
It’s such details, he explains, that enable Stonington lobster fishermen to recognize each other’s boats from miles apart.
“They know just by the shape of that little target whose boat it is. They’ve memorized the outlines.”
Garrett skippers the company’s lobster-fishing trips with his nephew and deckhand, Patrick Haskell, aboard the Miss Lizzie, which is named after a beloved former postmaster and island resident.
One recent afternoon, the Miss Lizzie plies the sparkling waters of Penobscot Bay. Passengers learn about various islands, lighthouses and granite quarrying. The Crotch Island quarry supplied granite for the John F. Kennedy memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Miss Lizzie draws up beside the 35-foot lobster boat Arlene J. Garrett explains how the vessel’s hydraulic hauler rotates counterclockwise and pulls the lobster traps up from the ocean floor. Lobstermen, he adds, find their traps by the colorful buoys floating on the ocean’s surface.
Farther along, the Miss Lizzie’s deckhand snags one of the lobster boat’s orange and blue buoys. Patrick hauls up a trap, revealing a spiny creature within, prompting a cheer from passengers.
Not all lobsters can be kept. When they’re pulled out, their underbelly is first checked for “berries” — fertilized lobster eggs that look like their name suggests. These pregnant lobsters get tossed back to sea.
“There can be tens of thousands of eggs on it,” Garrett says, turning over a lobster. “When she’s ready to release them, she flaps her tail.”
Also, each lobster gets measured.
“If it’s too small, or too big, it’s returned to the water,” he says, using a size gauge before throwing the lobster overboard.
A lot of Garrett’s fishing and marine-related education during his teenage years “went in one ear and out the other.”
But those lessons come back to him time and again when he gets caught in tough situations.
“As time goes on, you start to remember things and why they were important,” he reflects with a laugh. “It makes a lot of sense down the road.”
During Garrett’s youth, lobster fishing and working on the water were a given.
“I thought I was going to do bigger, more exciting things,” recalls the captain, who studied business administration at the University of Southern Maine and later worked for a telecom company. “It wasn’t until I actually left that I realized this was what I always wanted to do. This is what I loved.”
Isle au Haut Boat Services
What: Island, lighthouse and lobster-fishing cruises
Where: 27 Seabreeze Ave., Stonington
When: Through Sept. 11, Monday through Saturday at 2 p.m.
How much: $22 per adult and $8 per child under 12
Contact: 367-5193, www.isleauhaut.com