Talking shop and ship with operations manager (and former ferryboat captain) Nick Mavodones of Casco Bay Lines.
When Nick Mavodones looks out at Casco Bay, he sees something different from what you or I might see. He can read the bay like a book. He knows its finicky weather and its hidden rock formations. He knows the islands, too, and their distinct characteristics. He can tell you which island has summer water (Little Diamond) and which ones have winter people (Long, Cliff, Chebeague, Peaks). He has a special fondness for Cliff Island. Visiting Cliff, he says, is like “going back in time a century.” He used to know an old man who called it “the very end of the world.”
“ There’s some truth to that,” he agrees. “It’s quiet out there.” It’s a place apart.
Mavodones has spent his entire life ferrying from one place to another. As a child, he split his time between Yarmouth and Great Diamond, where his family had a three-season house. He began working on the Casco Bay Lines as a deckhand right out of high school.
“It was my plan to do it for a year, and see how it went,” he says. He liked the job so much that he stayed on, moving from deckhand to captain. In the late 1990s, he hung up his captain’s hat and became the operations manager for Casco Bay Lines, a transition that wasn’t exactly easy for the water-loving Mavodones. He’s a man who enjoys the challenge of stormy days and the deep silencing power of the fog. “Frankly,” he says, “I miss the rough conditions, the strong winds, and the thick fog the most.” He originally took the operations manager position on an interim basis. “It wasn’t until the GM asked me to stay on that I realized: I really like doing it,” he says.
As operations manager, Mavodones oversees the construction of new boats, the maintenance of old standbys, the hiring of new deckhands, and adjusting the workload of each ship’s crew. He talks to the Coast Guard to keep them abreast of situations at Casco Bay Lines, and works with regulatory agencies to make sure everything is ship-shape. “I also deal with customers, and I talk to all of our staff,” he says. “You name it, and I’ve dealt with it.”
Hank Berg is Casco Bay Lines’s general manager. “Nick has an amazing historical knowledge of where we’ve been, and why we do the work we do. at makes him invaluable,” Berg says. “He’s seen what works, and he knows what doesn’t work.” Berg points out that Casco Bay Lines has a longer heritage than most Portlanders might realize; the company has operated ferries since the late 1800s. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Casco Bay Lines became legally obligated by the State of Maine to serve the islands. “In 1981, they created special legislation saying we have to serve these six islands, and as a result, we have almost exclusive rights to serve those islands,” says Berg. “It’s a tough business; we make money for three months and we lose money for nine months. It’s been a real up-and-down ride.”
Casco Bay Lines transports 1.1 million passengers, over 35,000 vehicles, and more than 500,000 pieces of freight each year. “That’s a lot of stuff going through one little piece of the waterfront,” Berg notes dryly. “When I first started, we handled literally everything by hand,” Mavodones recalls. “Whether we were transporting livestock or sheetrock. If you had an 80-pound bag of cement, you had to swing it and throw it—and of course, somebody else had to catch it.” Decades ago, if you were building a house on Peaks Island, you would have to ship everything through Casco Bay Lines, from your heirloom furniture to your garden mulch. Now, they use pallets and pulleys to take larger items on and off the ferries. “We’ve shipped over a few ballroom pianos in my day,” Mavodones says. He even recalls one summer in the 1980s when the film The Whales of August was filming out on Cliff Island. “We had Bette Davis and Vincent Price out there for weeks, and we would take their dailies as freight back to Portland,” he says.
Mavodones is filled with these kinds of stories— tales of everyday work made intriguing by proximity to the sea. In person, he’s warm but a little guarded. He speaks eloquently about the ocean, and can wax poetic about the northern lights, but when I ask him about a new ferry under construction, he gets almost giddy. “Is it like you’re getting a new toy?” I ask him. “It’s exactly like getting a new toy!” he replies.
As a part of our interview, Mavodones and I took the ferry from Portland to Peaks and back. He talked about the clouds, which were high, puffy cumulus clouds, and pointed to where in the sky pressure was forming. He told me about the history of the Machigonne II, a 399-passenger ferryboat built in 1987 in Rhode Island that boasts a fantastically loud engine (I can attest to this) and a comfortable wheelhouse (manned that day by a charming and self-effacing captain named Billy). Although Mavodones is very serious about his job, he does see some funny things while at work, like that summer when a few wedding guests decided to jump overboard as a prank. “One of our guys chased them through the Old Port,” he says. “By the time I got there, they’d called the police, who caught them. And I just happened to know the police officer who detained them—he used to be one of my deckhands.” Rail jumping, Mavodones informs me, is a crime. The wedding-drunk guests were fined $2,500, which one man contested in court. “The judge then fined that guy $5,000,” Mavodones adds with a half smile.
While Mavodones is no longer required to spend his days on the water, he likes to ride the ferries as often as he can. “The ferryboat captains have the best job in Portland,” he says. “But on the other hand, we’re really blessed with our crew. You know, we never need to advertise for deckhands—every year, we get more applicants than we can hire.” It’s a good problem for a manager to have, and Mavodones knows it. “I consider myself really lucky,” he says. “We’re all fortunate to be here,” he says, looking out toward the Portland skyline. And I have to agree.