Gulf Guardian

From fishing to research to Maine Marine Patrol, Corrie Roberts has found her sea legs.

Corrie Roberts, the captain of the Maine Marine Patrol’s flagship vessel, walks down the pier in baggy fatigues, sea bag over her shoulder, Glock on her hip, and a crooked grin on her face, then she boards the Guardian III. At 56, she has a few streaks of gray hair, but otherwise looks the same as when we worked together a decade and a half ago, when she skippered her own marine research vessel. Roberts invites me into the pilothouse of Guardian’s nicely finished 46-foot Wesmac hull, powered by a 1,300-horsepower Man engine. This fast but solidly built vessel was specifically tailored for the Maine Marine Patrol’s offshore work.

On this blustery morning at Rockland’s busy working waterfront, Roberts has just come from a whale-entanglement training meeting and is a bit behind schedule. She is one of ten specially trained Marine Patrol officers authorized to approach endangered whales in the Gulf of Maine. The training is detailed because the risks are high. Just this past summer, a whale-entanglement specialist operating in the Bay of Fundy near Eastport was killed when trying to free a North Atlantic right whale from fishing gear. Roberts wishes that more fishermen would call in the Marine Patrol when they find a whale entangled in gear. “But fishermen want to get incriminating gear off,” she says, even though clumsy attempts to remove it can kill the whales.

Roberts’s daily schedule is packed. Like other Marine Patrol officers, she works six days on, two off, followed by six days on and then three off. But even so, she says, “You are on call 24 hours—we are the ones that respond to emergencies. You can’t leave the area; you have to have your phone on you— and not on vibrate,” she adds.

In October 2015 she got one of those calls from her supervisor, Matt Talbot. “Get down to the Protector now,” is all he had time to tell her. Roberts met Talbot at the Protector, a 32-foot fast rigid-hull boat with twin 225-horsepower outboards tied up at the Rockland Ferry terminal, and they took off. On the way out, Talbot told her that the Coast Guard had radioed in a report of a runaway boat with an unconscious male aboard. The Coast Guard was on the scene with its 44-footer, but they couldn’t get alongside the North Haven lobster boat, the Legacy, in the heavy seas being whipped into frothy whitecaps by 30-knot winds.

“We were airborne on the way out in a steep chop,” says Roberts, “hitting the tops of waves.” When Roberts and Talbot arrived, the Legacy was circling at full throttle trailing a long line attached to a Polyform buoy. A local fisherman had thrown the line aboard to try to stop the engine by fouling its propeller, but this made the situation all the more dangerous. “Normally you want to board a runaway vessel on the inside,” says Roberts, explaining that, when a runaway vessel is turning toward you, it’s easier to attempt to board it, “but that wasn’t going to happen, because if we fouled that trailing line, it would be a disaster.” If the Protector’s outboard propellers had gotten wound up in the line, she explains it could have flipped the lightweight vessel over.

Several Coast Guard members on the 44-footer were ready to go with jump helmets and life vests, and radioed for the Protector to take them aboard for the rescue, but they were awaiting permission from their supervisor. Meanwhile the lobster boat was getting closer and closer to the rocks. “We waited a couple of minutes, but then Matt said, ‘We don’t have time for this,’” Roberts says. She knew she would have to try to board an out-of-control vessel at full throttle on the outside.

“We tried to match our speed with the speed of the lobster boat,” says Roberts. “On the first pass, I got my foot on the stern quarter, but then the boat slipped away,” she continues. “The second pass didn’t go so well either. In any of these things, you have to be hard up against the other boat—you have to be in contact with the rail.” Roberts credits Talbot with expert helmsmanship. “He and I both had a lot of heavy weather experience,” says Roberts. On the last pass, the timing was perfect, and Roberts “just stepped aboard and got control of the boat,” before it went up on the rocks.

Roberts’s account of this rescue sounds straightforward until you watch a YouTube video of the incident shot from ashore. The Legacy spins wildly past the Vinalhaven ferry, and you catch a glimpse of Roberts crouched on the gunwale of the Protector, back-to, hanging on to handrails as they close in on the lurching vessel, waiting for that single adrenaline-fueled instant when she can board.

Once aboard, Roberts hauled back on the throttle. The Coast Guard members were able to get aboard and start CPR as Roberts “booked it” for the harbor, where an ambulance waited with emergency resuscitation equipment. But the fisherman had suffered an aortic aneurysm, and did not survive.

Roberts’s life on the water began with considerably less drama. Roberts hadmoved to Wiscasset from California with her parents and sister in 1971 when she was ten. “We lived right on the Sheepscot River. I got involved in a sailing program on Westport Island,” she recalls, “and discovered you could get places on the water. Back when there was still a bridge at Westport, I learned you could take the mast down and shoot under the causeway into Montsweag Bay and get down to Boothbay.”

The world of boats in Boothbay Harbor beckoned, and she began working in boatyards as an eighth grader. Soon Roberts had saved up enough money to buy a small Whaler with an outboard engine. When she began high school, her studies were a distinctly secondary consideration. Her parents, however, had academic aspirations for her, and sent her to Gould Academy in Bethel. It was far from the ocean, but for her senior thesis, Roberts nevertheless completed a project on the ecology of the intertidal zone off Clark Cove in the Damariscotta River, and also learned how to scuba dive. Roberts enrolled at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she graduated with a degree in marine biology in 1983.

After college, Roberts wanted to get into marine science, but, she says, “I was never willing to pay my dues and work in a lab. I was not patient enough.” So Roberts began working on the water, doing whatever she could to make a living. She pitchforked mussels, sold oysters, and dove for scallops and urchins in an early vintage dry suit.

Eventually she bought her own fishing boat, a strip-built Novi boat—20 feet long with a 90-horsepower Mercury from Stetson and Pinkham. In the late winter, when work on the water was scarce, she began to drive a truck for a fisherman who was buying groundfish and mussels in South Bristol to deliver to North End fish markets in Boston. “I like to drive big things,” Roberts says, “and I liked setting my own schedule, deciding when to stop and eat.”

Roberts hired the fisherman’s brother to be her tender on her Novi boat while diving for scallops in Muscongus Bay. On a particularly memorable day, Roberts had put out her dive flags, marking the area where she was diving, and gone over the side. She collected nearly a full bag of scallops and used most of her tank of air, but unbeknownst to her, her tender had wandered away from the dive site. When Roberts heard the vibrations of another boat overhead and saw a bubble trail over her left shoulder from a scallop drag’s wire slicing through the water, she knew she was in big trouble. Getting tangled in a scallop drag’s heavy steel gear could easily be fatal. With no time to think, Roberts instinctively spun to her right and pushed the drag off with her left hand. She barely escaped the drag, but her bag of scallops disappeared into it. After she got back aboard her boat and had some choice words with her tender, she approached the scallop dragger to retrieve her scallops. That’s when she learned another hard lesson on the water: those scallops were no longer hers.

Roberts’s next waterfront gig involved driving truckloads of fish and shellfish to Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. She started out working with smaller fish businesses that had partial loads of 20 to 30 boxes of fish to sell, then graduated to driving tractor-trailer loads of mahogany clams throughout the Northeast. Through the connections she made in this business, Roberts was introduced to the O’Hara Corporation in Rockland, “who were landing hake like you wouldn’t believe during the mid-to-late ’80s.” Roberts worked driving trucks for the fishing company for a decade. “That was the heyday,” she says, before chronic overfishing depleted stocks in the Gulf of Maine. “We caught the last fish. I was still in my 20s, working hard. Finally, I said, ‘I’m done.’ I was burned out.”

Roberts moved to Orono and started a second degree in music, another longtime passion of hers. She thought she might become a studio musician, perhaps in Nashville, and to fuel this passion she began substitute teaching to earn a living. In a studio photo of her with her base guitar taken at the time, she looks every bit the part of a sideman in a country and western band. That’s when Roberts’s sister told her of a job posting looking for a certified scuba diver with experience in marine science and aquaculture to run a boat. “It’s perfect for you,” her sister told her. The project involved supporting the Penobscot Bay Marine Collaborative, a federally funded project coordinated by the Island Institute, and this is how I first met Roberts. The focus of the research was collecting ecological information on the lobster fishery in Penobscot Bay to determine whether lobsters were being overfished. Although the applicant pool included many other talented people with experience on the water, I had never met anyone with Roberts’s unusual combination of knowledge and skills, and I hired her on the spot.

As the lobster project expanded, Roberts supported divers collecting baby lobsters from nursery areas and surveyed bottom types with remotely operated underwater videos. Before long Roberts saw an opportunity to captain her own research boat. She commissioned a 36-foot Calvin Beal vessel, which she rigged as a marine research platform. She went back out on her own as owner-operator of the Alice Siegmund, named after her mother. But marine science work, like fishing, proved to be an up-and-down business. As scientists began analyzing the reams of data they had collected during the five-year Pen Bay Collaborative project, the demand for field work dropped away.

After the project ended, one of the partici- pants, Carl Wilson, who had become Maine’s Department of Marine Resources chief lobster biologist, called Roberts to let her know of an opening for the captain’s position on DMR’s flagship vessel, the Guardian, a position that involves enforcing the Department’s strict fishing regulations. Her first reaction was to laugh. Me, she thought, in law enforcement? But she had always loved crime shows, especially those that had “chick cops,” she said, and Roberts got the job in 2006.

Ever since, Roberts’s boat life has covered large portions of the Gulf of Maine. “My job is to go wherever anyone has an issue,” she told me. She deals daily with untagged lobster gear, as well as problems in the herring, scallop, and urchin fisheries. “Any type of gear conflict, we’re present.” Roberts and her team of five other Marine Patrol officers focus on hauling gear or boarding boats. They do search and rescue and assist other agencies, including the Maine State Police. “Basically we’re cops. We go to the Police Academy, but we have a passion for conservation law.”

In March of 2017 the U.S. Coast Guard awarded Roberts the Silver Star Lifesaving Medal and Talbot a Certificate of Valor for their boarding of the Legacy. The Coast Guard cited their “quick and decisive action under extremely challenging circumstances to bring a difficult and dangerous situation to a closure,” according to the citation at the ceremony where the Governor Paul LePage presented the awards.

Roberts did not think too much about the award until sometime later, when she was speaking with the crew of the Coast Guard’s largest vessel in Rockland, the Abbie Burgess. That’s when she learned that the Silver Star is the highest award given to non–Coast Guard individuals. The crew of the Abbie Burgess told her they had never met anyone else who had received that award.

For those, like Roberts, who have risked their life in service to another, awards are the least of it. To Roberts, an infinitely changing, relentlessly challenging life on the waters of the Gulf of Maine is her real reward.