Steamship Authority captain Robert Sicard walked off the M/V Gay Head in Hyannis last week to the sound of the vessel's horn blaring, friends waiting to hug him, and a slight tear in his eye. And for good reason. After 47 years plying the waters of Nantucket Sound, Captain Sicard was calling it a career.
There were mixed emotions as he retired from the Steamship, he said, but ultimately it was his time to move on.
"I’ll miss it," Sicard said on Tuesday. "But life is all about memories, and I have those."
Growing up in Fairhaven, Sicard loved being on water from a young age. After nearly five decades as a Steamship Authority captain, he said he still loves the job. s
“It’s a nice place to have an office,” Sicard said of the wheelhouse atop the Steamship vessels. “You get to see the sunrise and sunset, you see all the nature out there - birds, fish, mammals. A lot of people work in cubicles and don’t get to experience that sort of thing. That was the draw for me. When you pull away from the dock, you’re your own boss. Back in the day they couldn't get a hold of you after you left port. There was a certain joy in that. You had policies you had to follow of course, but as soon as you left the dock it was all yours.”
Sicard, who owns a home in West Barnstable, logged thousands of trips to and from Nantucket during his 47 years with the Steamship Authority, carrying countless passengers, vehicles and freight to the island. His career was so long that it bridges several different eras of the Steamship: for one summer Sicard was the captain the SS Naushon, the Steamship’s last real steamboat.
“That was the most fun of all,” he recalled. “They had a telegraph system, it was a totally old fashioned setup. We had probably 20 people in the crew. There were state rooms with stewardesses, firemen, wipers, and two engineers. I spanned a time where they had crystal radios, each radio was dedicated to a specific channel.”
Inside the wheelhouse of the Steamship’s vessels, you’d probably find Captain Sicard listening to jazz or WMVY - the Martha’s Vineyard radio station - so he could expose his crew to music they’d likely never heard before. The job of being a Steamship Authority captain, he said, could be charactereized as “hours and hours of boredom intermingled with moments of sheer terror.”
Those moments usually came in bad weather, like the time a fuel tanker aboard one of the freight boats he was bringing to Nantucket flipped over on the deck. The tanker was carrying 10,000 gallons of fuel, and fell against a flat bed truck that was next to it.
“That was probably one of the worst days,” Sicard said. “We went out and put on chains and straps and milled the two together. We notified all the authorities and went back to the mainland, thinking there was more wherewithal to deal the problem than on Nantucket. They evacuated the harbor. It was a major."
Among Sicard's best memories of his time with the Steamship was piloting the inter-island ferry between Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard for the annual Island Cup game. The rivalry, he said, was special for both islands, and as captain he would try to add to the atmosphere by flying the banner from each school on the mast of the boat. And he loved to see the entire police and fire department waiting with sirens on for the arrival of the winning team back at their home port.
Beyond those fond memories, Sicard said he's seen incredible sights on his crossings of Nantucket Sound - from marine life to water spouts. The people of Nantucket, he added, had always been kind to him. He recalled Mary Malavase putting him up with lodging when he was on the island for a March of Dimes fundraiser, and people lending him bicycles to explore Nantucket back when the Steamship schedule provided him with a little break in between trips.
As for his plans for retirement, Sicard said he plans ride his collection of motorcycles and do as much hiking, skiing, and sailing as he can before he gets too old.
"I've still got my health - I'm not in the fourth quarter, I'm probably in overtime - so how many good years do I have where I can still ski and ride motorcycles?" he said. "I’m gonna miss the interaction with all the people. I think part of the joy is running the boat, but there comes a time when it’s time to move on. I’m getting older, so it’s time to flex some other muscles."