Woman at the Wheel

A day on the water with Capt. Catherine Corey, the only woman with Casco Bay’s water taxi service.

“This is my own boat,” yells Capt. Catherine Corey, wearing a purple rain jacket and a cream-colored knitted hat and commanding a 24-foot enclosed boat she has named Island Girl. “Isn’t she pretty?”

Capt. Catherine Corey surveys the bay at first light from the deck of Island Girl. Photo by Heidi Kirn

A subcontractor with Fogg’s Water Taxis & Charters, Corey is the only female water taxi captain on Casco Bay. In the busy season (July would be the height of it) she might do upwards of 20 runs a day. Some of her customers are tourists, but others are repeat customers, including islanders, construction crews and people like Portland Public School teacher Hannah Edwards, who taxis to and from Cliff and Peaks Island a couple times a week to meet with students.

After Corey picked up Edwards on a recent morning, she mentions to the teacher that the little school on Cliff is the oldest continuously functioning schoolhouse in the nation, established in 1880.

“I always learn a little something from the captain,” says Edwards. At Cliff, Edwards walks uphill in the rain, knowing Island Girl will be back in a few hours to pick her up.

Many of Corey’s repeat passengers become friends with her over time. “My connections with the islanders, some more salty than others, go beyond the water taxi service of taking them down the bay,” she says. “We have a shared investment with one another and with the bay.”

Those connections are also forged on the fact that Fogg Water Taxis are nearly as dependable as the U.S. Postal Service, heading out in all kinds of weather, including gusts (although once winds go over 30 knots, they stay in port.) There were only a half dozen days that they were shut down in the past year, all of those in the winter. Unlike the postman (or postwoman) they let you know when they’ll arrive.

“Capt. Catherine is always there when you need her to be,” says Allyson Jordan, who is renovating a house on Long Island and relies on Corey to deliver workmen and materials. “It’s great to have a woman on the water.”

Photo by Heidi Kirn

Corey’s schedule is a carefully managed puzzle, assembled with a varying number of always-moving pieces. In addition to Island Girl, Fogg’s runs three other taxi boats (plus a new 49-passenger catamaran, the Casco Bay Cat, built in Yarmouth). Each time someone calls wanting to go from one island to another at a specific time, Corey consults her Google calendar, color-coded by vessel, and mentally calculates.

Her cell starts buzzing again. “Always, when you’re docking—” Corey says, navigating both the boat and her phone’s touchscreen while floating into a marina. She answers: “Fogg Water Taxi, this is Capt. Catherine.”

At the marina, general contractors from Woodward Thomsen Co. and a window installation crew from Pella scurry out of the rain and into the cab. They’re headed to another island renovation job. When someone mentions Catherine by her name, Tom Thomsen chides: “It’s Captain Catherine. We salute when we come onboard.”

He’s kidding about that second point, not about the first.

Thomsen is a recreational sailor, and, knowing that, Corey lets him throw out the bumpers and tie up when they get to the private home where the crew is going. The men pick up their backpacks and a large replacement window, waving as they estimate when they’ll be calling for a ride back to the mainland.

It’s not all errands and appointments though. The pace slows down a bit when Corey has a couple of hours at a time devoted to a private charter. It may be a couple on a sunset cruise sharing a champagne toast. Or a family interested in seeing seals gathering at the “smack shack” where lobstermen get their bait. Or history buffs bound for Eagle Island State Park to tour the former home of Arctic explorer Robert Peary. The most popular option for a two-hour charter is to see three Civil War-era forts (Gorges, Scammell and Preble) and four lighthouses (Bug Light, Spring Point Light, Portland Head Light and Ram Island Ledge Light).

“We even saw this old ferry from the 1800s that got stuck, and the ruins of the boat were still there,” said Ashley Cech of New York City, who recently booked a two-hour Island Girl charter for bonding time with her mother. Most charter customers are tourists or wedding guests from out of state.

“Every day is an adventure out there, because the weather changes, the environment changes and the people change.”

“Portland is growing rapidly, and we are the destination to come to for food, for beer, for lobster—and for the islands,” Corey says. “Every day is an adventure out there, because the weather changes, the environment changes and the people change.”

One day last year, she took former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and her astronaut husband Mark Kelly from Littlejohn Island to Diamond Cove on Great Diamond Island, where they were meeting friends for lunch. He rested his head in his wife’s lap, and, awestruck, Capt. Catherine didn’t want to spoil their privacy by letting on that she knew who they were.

“My heart was beating a thousand times,” Corey says. When the couple disembarked, Corey passed a note to their security person thanking them both for their service to the country and politely declined a photo op. By then, Giffords and Kelly were already swarmed by well-meaning folks with their cell phones out to take photos, but Corey felt good about keeping that aspect of their lives out of their private jaunt across Casco Bay. Giving each passenger the experience they want is her priority. Having spent decades in the restaurant business, putting the customer first seems as natural to Corey as the tides.

Photo by Heidi Kirn

Corey, 54, grew up in Yarmouth with classmates who lived on Cushing and Chebeague islands and with two older brothers who were her mentors. “Casco Bay was our playground,” she says. In her 30s, she became a Registered Maine Guide, leading off-the-grid sea kayaking trips Down East.

“I would go for five days at a time,” Corey says. “You’re so close to the water you’re at one with it.”

And yet she wanted more. Six years ago, Corey got her captain’s license and bought Island Girl. And that 24-foot vessel is indeed pretty, as well as efficient and practical.

“I call this my final act,” Corey says. “At 48, I needed to care for my parents and life took me in a different direction. For me, the best part of the job is connecting with people and with nature. It’s a passion and a way of life. I wish I had done this from the beginning. But I’m glad I found it now.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough who is always happy to research a story out on the water.

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