BRANFORD — When he was around 15, Bob Milne heard Bob Marley for the first time. That was it.
“It wasn’t just the music,” his older brother Andrew Milne said of Captain Bob, who died at 58 on Sunday evening, Sept. 9 surrounded by his family. “It was the message, about how to live and how to treat people.”
Back in October 1998, while on his way to ferry an islander back to the mainland, he rescued a fisherman on East Crib Island whose craft had struck a rock and capsized on the choppy, windswept waters of the Sound. Milne had the difficult job of pulling the body of the fisherman’s companion from the sea while comforting his friend, Andrew recalled.
Of course, that was only the most public of Captain Bob’s good works. As the longtime ferry captain of the Volsunga, “Bob talked all day, but he didn’t like to talk about himself,” said Mike Infantino, captain of the Sea Mist and Milne’s childhood friend. “You found out about it from someone else later.”
Like the time he watched Infantino’s son Justin taking out the ferry boat on a stormy night and then left a note on Justin’s car about how well he’d handled himself, Infantino said. And the police officers he’d helped get their captain’s licenses. And the way he offered his ferry boat for transport to the annual open house on the protected Falkner’s Island in Guilford.
And what he did for Stony Creek itself, serving on committees that kept the area functioning as a small-town marina and preserving the treasure that is the village, until the 2015 motorcycle accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury.
That’s part of his legacy for sure. What’s less known is where it came from.
The fourth of six children, he grew up a stone’s throw from the Stony Creek town dock. He played fife in the Fife & Drum Corps on Thursday nights. Early on, he took to art. When he was in fifth grade, he entered in the Guilford Fair an oil painting of the marina. He didn’t win because no one could believe someone that young could be so accomplished, said his older sister Elizabeth Spilsbury.
The talent for art came from his mother Frances Milne, an oil painter. From her also came the admonition to “be gentle with nature and listen to the trees,” Spilsbury said. Long before Earth Day, she’d regularly send her children to pick up litter even if it wasn’t theirs.
Like Frances, his father James taught their kids to respect everyone, no matter the color of their skin or where they were from. From James Milne grew Bob’s love of the water. A Boston native, he studied to be a merchant marine, then served the Navy in Korea. He settled his family in Stony Creek, working in insurance, sailing when he could, and serving on committees that would help preserve the village’s unique character.
As with his father, the allure of the sea took hold of Milne early. By 14, he was working aboard the small private ferry and tour service that operated from the town dock.
He wanted to be Jacques Cousteau. Then he found out that following in the famed undersea explorer’s footsteps would require at least four years of biology courses. He ditched counting squid eggs for the study of navigation and mechanics.
Not long after he completed the two-year marine studies program course at Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute in Portland, he found out that the tour and ferry business he’d worked for as a teen was up for sale. In 1986, he bought the Volsunga III from Captain Dwight Carter. He was 26.
“I never dreamed of being the captain of a ferryboat,” he told the Hartford Courant in 2001. “I thought you had to be an old man.”
Three years later, he bought a diesel-powered ferry boat devoted to transporting islanders to their homes, separating the ferry service from the sightseeing service, and ensuring that islanders didn’t have to hear about the trials of Tom Thumb and Miss Emily on Cut-in-Two Island for the umpteenth time.
“It was ingenious,” Infantino said. “Everyone ended up getting better service.”
He named the ferry boat Charly More, a nautical term for someone who practices honesty and fair play. “He put a lot of thought into that name,” his younger brother Alexander Milne recalled. “It was his philosophy. It was what had been ingrained in him by our parents. And the influence of listening to Bob Marley all those years.”
Meanwhile, he was also making subtle changes to the narration that had been passed down from Captain Dick Howd to Captain Carter to him.
“Bob added in more science and ecology and history,” Alexander said. “He’d point out a Great American egret and the monarchs that would fly across the horizon there. And there was his wit. It was dry. You had to listen for it.”
All along, Milne was jotting down impressions in a daily log, about spotting a new bird or the return of an old-feathered friend. These he collected and published in his 2005 “Thimble Islands Storybook: A Captain’s View,” an effort, as he put it, “to reproduce in a homespun manner, a literal Thimble Islands cruise experience.”
By then, as he reported, he’d narrated “approximately 12,960 forty-five-minute sightseeing tours around the islands.” He’d seen a belted kingfisher with “the spiked hair of a punk rocker” and American oyster catchers “constantly calling to one another with a loud shrill kleep.” He’d experienced the power of a ferry boat to “provide the whitewash to fade away many a care and bother,” the rhythms of the tides, and the destructive force of nature.
You could argue that the book, in its encyclopedic exuberance of the Thimble Islands that he navigated for most of his life, is his legacy. It might also be the sheer enjoyment he offered tourists year after year on the Volsunga. Or the dependable service he afforded islanders.
It could be the way he quietly saw to it that the village of Stony Creek retained its ineffable charm. Or how the father of four passed down his pride of seamanship to his youngest daughter Anna Milne, who now captains the Volsunga.
These all are his legacy, to be sure. But it’s more than that.
It’s who Bob Milne was. It’s the singular way he lived his life.
Details of a memorial service will be forthcoming. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that contributions in Bob Milne’s name be made to the Stony Creek Museum, the Willoughby Wallace Library, the Stony Creek Church, the Stony Creek Fife & Drum Corps, and the Stony Creek Fire Department.
“Thimble Islands Storybook: A Captain’s View” is available at R.J. Julia Booksellers, Breakwater Books, Taken for Granite, The Thimbleberry, Seaside Gifts, and Towne Pharmacy.