Former ferry manager, lifelong Rockland resident not ready to stop adventuring at 91

Capt. Richard Spear at his Rockland home.
Capt. Richard Spear at his Rockland home. Buy Photo
Posted Jan. 19, 2013, at 1:41 p.m.
Capt. Richard Spear went to the North Pole in 1989.
Courtesy of Richard Spear
Capt. Richard Spear went to the North Pole in 1989.
The Capitaine is the sailing vessel in which a teen Richard Spear of Rockland sailed in 1939, following the route of Christopher Columbus.
Courtesy of Richard Spear
The Capitaine is the sailing vessel in which a teen Richard Spear of Rockland sailed in 1939, following the route of Christopher Columbus.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Richard Spear was about to enter his senior year at Rockland High School when he had the opportunity to sail on a square-rigged vessel and follow the route that Christopher Columbus took.

Spear spent the next six months sailing the Atlantic aboard the Harvard University vessel Capitaine, visiting ports from Maine to Central America.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, that love for the sea and travel have not left Capt. Spear.

The 91-year-old Rockland resident said that seafaring runs in the family, with many of his ancestors being ship captains. In addition to being in Scouting, where he attained the rank of an Eagle Scout, he was a member of the Sea Scouts.

When Spear learned about the opportunity to follow Columbus’ route, he jumped at the chance and was supported by his father, who was a marine engineer.

He joined the ship off Long Island and the day the voyage started — Sept. 1, 1939 — World War II started in Europe when Germany attacked Poland. Spear said that this put them on the watch for enemy ships, although the United States had not yet entered the conflict.

But, he said, the crew never spotted any submarines during the voyage.

Spear served as a messman aboard the ship and was paid $20 per month for his duties, along with the free room and board.

“I was below deck much of the time. I had to wash the dishes and other chores,” he recounted. “I was seasick for the first five days.”

But he also got to work on deck and during storms would climb masts to lower the sails of the square-rigged ship.

When Spear returned home, he completed his high school education and then attended the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, graduating in the second Class of 1943. He said his experiences as a Scout and aboard the Capitaine helped him at Maine Maritime.

“Some people didn’t know the difference between a bow and a stern,” Spear recalled.

He then became a merchant mariner for two years. He estimates he visited more than 200 ports during those two years. His favorite ports were in South America, including Buenos Aires in Argentina and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. He said the cities were beautiful and the climate excellent. He also enjoyed English ports for their historic values.

Ports in northern Africa were his least favorite stops. He said in addition to the intense heat, which forced the crews to work at night, the cities were dirty.

“There was so much miserable filth,” Spear recalled.

The temperature was 132 degrees in the shade and 150 degrees on deck.

He also recalled stopping in Dubai, which was then “just sand” but now is a metropolis of more than 2 million residents.

Upon the completion of his merchant marine experience, he worked jobs that included what he called the lousiest one he ever held, working at a General Electric light bulb manufacturing plant in East Boston. He said the heat was overwhelming and the work not challenging.

He soon returned to Rockland and worked at various jobs.

In 1954, he ran for and was elected to the newly created Rockland Port District. The port district was formed to oversee freight and passenger transportation in Rockland. He has been elected by Rockland voters every four years since then to the port district. He was re-elected chairman of the port district’s board earlier this month.

When the Maine State Ferry Service was created in the 1950s, Spear applied and was hired in 1959 to be assistant manager of the then-under construction Maine State Ferry facilities in Rockland. The terminal had been built but the docks and the ferries were not yet complete.

Spear was thrust into the leadership of the ferry service when manager Ralph Brown became ill and died two months after Spear had been hired.

Before the state ferry service was created, Vinalhaven had a ferry that it operated and came into port at the then McLoon Wharf — now the location of the Rockland Fish Pier.

Spear’s duties included traveling to Maryland, where the ferries were being constructed.

The first ferry was the Governor Muskie, launched around Labor Day in 1959, serving Islesboro. A few months later, within a week of each other, the William Silsby and the North Haven began serving Vinalhaven and North Haven.

The amount of traffic on the ferries increased dramatically during those 30 years.

“There were times on a Sunday afternoon that there would be no passengers on the North Haven run,” Spear said. Now there are two vessels running to the island during the summer.

He served as ferry service manager for 30 years, retiring in May 1989.

He praised the newest ferry that was launched last year — the Captain E. Frank Thompson — saying it was a great vessel that handles well.

Spear has continued his world travel. A month before his retirement in May 1989, he traveled to the North Pole. He jogged around the pole, saying he could then tell people that he ran around the world.

Ships have not been the only mode of travel enjoyed by the lifelong Rockland resident. Spear obtained his pilot’s license and flew planes until he turned 80. He has ridden in hot air balloons, parasailed and operated a one-person submarine off South Thomaston.

“I’ve had a pretty good life,” Spear said.

But he does not want his travel days to end. Spear said he still wants to visit the one continent he has yet to visit — Australia. He also wants to visit the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.

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