It was misty and cold as the Margaret Todd glided off the Bar Harbor Inn pier and into Frenchman Bay. Passengers lined the green benches around the edges of the 151-foot schooner, decked out in sweatshirts and heavy coats for two hours of exploring Acadia National Park by sea.
It was a slow day on the water, according to Captain Steven Pagels. Later in the summer, more than 100 passengers at a time will cruise the bay on the wooden vessel.
The crew called for volunteers to help manually raise the ship’s sails.
“One, two, one, two, one, two,” they chorused, pulling the ropes down to propel the heavy canvas up.
With the sails catching wind and Todd Miller, an Acadia National Park ranger, at the microphone to point out wildlife, the vessel skimmed past Bar Island.
The picturesque white schooner is a replica of a late-1800s cargo vessel, and it’s the only four-mast schooner on the East Coast. It’s just one part of Pagels’ fleet, though. The captain exclusively sails the Margaret Todd during the summer, but as owner of Downeast Windjammer Cruises, a ferry and cruise service based in Bar Harbor, he has about 12 to 14 boats.
This summer, Pagels welcomes two new ferries to the family: the Schoodic Lion and the Sebago.
The relation? The crafts are sister ships constructed from the same plans with similar hulls, superstructure and equipment. Pagels’ new sisters aren’t identical — their decks are slightly different — but they are rare.
“To have sister vessels that were built in the ’60s is pretty unusual, especially wooden vessels,” the captain said.
Pagels bought the two last summer from Fire Line Ferries out of Bay Shore, N.Y. The boats have quite the Maine connection, though. Last summer, Pagels brought the Sebago from New York to Maine and ran the ferry out of Bangor. John Feuille of Holden happened to be crossing the Penobscot River when he glanced down from the bridge and spotted the Sebago on his way to work in Bangor. He recognized the vessel as one that he had worked on in the mid-’60s. The Sebago was built for the ferry service his wife’s family operated out of New York.
Now, the ferries will run from Bar Harbor to the Schoodic Peninsula. Eventually, the captain hopes to start a ferry service to St. Andrews, Canada, with the Sebago, he said.
“As the ferry business has increased over the years from Bar Harbor to Schoodic, there are times where a little bit larger vessel would be helpful, not only for the passengers but for the bikes,” Pagels said.
The 150-passenger Schoodic Lion fits the bill. It made such a splash in the bay upon its arrival that the floats had to be replaced to accommodate its size.
It’s easy to see why the ferry business is expanding beyond floats’ limits. The view from the water was hard to rival as the Margaret Todd scooted through the evergreen-capped Porcupine Islands, squeezed between Sheep Porcupine and Bald Porcupine with Burnt Porcupine dead ahead. Black guillemots crowded on the rocks around the islands and flapped through the air.
“There it is!” park ranger Miller said. “Eagle at 2 o’clock!”
A bald eagle soared overhead to its nest in a towering tree. Passengers on the far side of the boat stood up and craned their necks to spot the bird.
Most of the Margaret Todd’s guests were tourists from out of town or out of state, but the ferries shuttle a mix of locals and summer visitors. Bicyclists often take ferries to get to or from Bar Harbor on biking trips, the captain said.
Bar Harbor residents can ride across to Winter Harbor to cycle the 12-mile loop around Schoodic Peninsula or the 10-mile jaunt from Winter Harbor to Summer Harbor. Heading the other way, those staying on Schoodic can ferry their bikes to town or head to the carriage roads on the other half of Acadia. The park’s free shuttle bus eases the task of getting around on a bike.
Pagels’ ferry company has been connecting the two halves of Acadia for 10 years. The captain started sailing as a kid on Great South Bay in New York, where he was on the water by elementary school and earned his captain’s license at 25. He started out working on small boats and made his way up to bigger ships.
After the new ferries get up to speed, he has his eye on a lobster sloop that’s over 100 years old.
“I’m interested in the history of working vessels,” he said.
The wooden sloop is at risk of being “sawed up,” and Pagels has a thing for saving old boats, he said.
Meanwhile, he captains the Margaret Todd. As the trip came to a chilly end around 4 p.m., he expertly maneuvered the schooner up to the pier. Back to life on land.
“The only relative quiet time I have is on cruises,” Pagels said.
Perhaps that’s part of the water’s draw.