Have Ship Will Travel: A Basketball Adventure on Vinalhaven

Anyone who has spent time around athletics realizes the experience is about much more than the games themselves.  Contests fade from memory but the friendships made, the bus rides, the team dinners, linger forever.

Such was the case for the Jonesport-Beals basketball teams this past weekend and then some.  The Royals and Royalettes boarded a yellow bus late Friday morning to make the nearly three-hour ride to Rockland.  From there the teams got off the bus and boarded a ferry headed to their final destination, Vinalhaven.  Getting to and from Vinalhaven is no small trip.  The island community sits 15 miles off the coast of Rockland, which is about a one-hour, 15-minute boat ride.  The teams gave themselves plenty of time to reach the ferry terminal so they could be loaded and ready to go for the 2:45 departure.  The ferry does not wait for stragglers.  Tip-off was 5:30 for the girls and 7:00 for the boys.

Following the games, both Vinalhaven victories, the teams were fed and settled down for the night.  Air mattresses and sleeping bags accompanied the team members as they would spend the night sleeping on the hard floor of the Vinalhaven gym.  Many of the players admitted to getting little sleep Friday night in preparation for their quick turnaround.  The girls would be back at it at 9 Saturday morning, followed by the boys contest at 10:30 to allow time for their return ferry ride which departed at 1.

The Vinalhaven girls took Saturday morning’s game by a score of 48-27 while their boys completed the sweep with a 77-53 victory over the Royals.  The game results overall were secondary to the overall experience.  Both the girls and boys from Jonesport-Beals left the island in search of their first victories of the season but with lasting memories.

In assessing the trip, Jonesport-Beals boys coach Gordon Faulkingham remarked how nice and accommodating everyone from Vinalhaven was.  The two school communities are very similar in a lot of ways.  Both rely heavily on fishing and lobstering as a way of life.  Jonesport-Beals has a grades 9-12 enrollment of approximately 50-55 students while Vinalhaven’s enrollment is slightly above 60 in the high school. While it was a tough weekend on the scoreboard, Coach Faulkingham viewed the experience as a positive.  He noted the kids had a lot of fun together and got to build some added camaraderie.  Despite his players spending a lot of time on the water, the experience on the ferry was unique.

Senior boys team manager Tristan Alley and senior guard Kasden Beal summed up their experiences of the trip.  Both described the ferry experience as kind of a slow roll across the ocean.  Alley particularly noted how everyone was so accommodating on the island in helping out the team.  He enjoyed getting to spend more time with people that he may not always hang out with.  While many have gotten so used to technology, it was nice to unplug for the weekend as cell phone service on the island is virtually non-existent with many carriers.  Beal echoed many of Alley’s sentiments stating it was a great team bonding experience.  One of his concerns going into Saturday morning’s game was coming out flat with the quick turnaround.  The Royals managed to trip a large deficit to ten late in the third quarter before falling by 24 on Saturday.

Jonesport-Beals girls coach Troy Alley brought his very young squad over for the weekend.  The Royalettes feature five freshmen and only one senior on their nine-player roster.  He said the kids are used to traveling and spending time on the water so the boat ride was no big deal.  Overall, it was a great experience, the kids were able to bond and build relationships, and they had a good time.

These sentiments were also felt by senior Kali Alley and freshman Ivy Robinson.  Alley, who made the trip to Vinalhaven last year said the players were able to get out of their comfort zones and experience something different.  It was a great opportunity to unplug and come closer together.  Despite the two losses she thought that being close together and giving the effort they gave made it a positive weekend.  Robinson, making her first trip over, commented about how very long the trip was, as in junior high she was used to playing close by in Washington County.

Of course, for the hosts, the Vinalhaven Vikings, this weekend was the norm.  Living 15 miles off the mainland has its logistical challenges.  Everything must be planned.  Living on the island, you can’t just head out and pick something up at Wal-Mart.  The ferry runs six times a day in each direction, with the last ship leaving harbor in each direction at 4:30.  Oh, and if the ferry is full, you’d better have pontoons for your vehicle because you aren’t getting back that night unless you’ve made reservations.  Then there is the cost factor.  A round-trip ticket without a vehicle is $17.50 for anyone 12 years and older.  To take a car back and forth runs an extra $32.  The ferry terminal in Vinalhaven is right in the inner part of town so unless you want to explore the whole island you can reasonably get by visiting without a vehicle.

The logistical challenges of living on the island extend to all aspects of life, including the high school basketball program.  Virtually every weekend involves basketball.  Of the Vikings 18-game schedule, 16 of those games are Friday night-Saturday morning doubleheaders.  Their other two games, midweek contests, are against neighboring North Haven, a short boat ride across the bay.  In speaking with first-year girls coach Sandy Nelson, who also serves as the school’s athletic director, the schedule poses challenges, particularly with game preparation.  While most schools play a home and home schedule with dates set apart, the quick turnaround leaves little time for adjustments to be made from one game to the rematch.

Coach Nelson is in her first year coaching back at her alma mater, having spent over 30 years teaching and coaching in Massachusetts at a school of roughly 400-500 students.  Nelson’s team won the state championship in their class in 1999.  Another nuance for Coach Nelson has been the adjustment to not coaching with a shot clock. In Massachusetts the girls compete with a 30-second shot clock.

Boys Coach Matt Slivinsky has lived on Vinalhaven his entire life except when he went to college at the University of Southern Maine.  A lobsterman by trade, Slivinsky wears many hats including driving the bus, picking up the visiting teams from the ferry terminal and dropping them off following the games on Saturday morning.  Slivinsky also commented about some of the obstacles his teams face as opposed to schools on the mainland.  Every road trip begins with the 75-minute ferry ride to Rockland.  From there they rent a bus to go to their destination.  As a member of the East-West Conference, these road trips can often be a 2-to-3-hour bus ride to places like Bingham, Jackman, or Greenville.

Just like Jonesport-Beals did this weekend, Vinalhaven follows this routine when they travel.  They will play Friday night, sleep in the gym and get back at it Saturday morning before heading to Rockland to catch the return ferry.  Slivinsky stated they have a developed a great relationship with the schools they compete against to make it all happen.  It takes a real organized effort to maintain the basketball program at Vinalhaven.

The Vikings also lack what many of their mainland opponents have:  a structured summer basketball program.  Coach Slivinsky pointed out they are unable to participate in summer leagues due to the ferry schedule.  As a fishing community the players are often out on the water working during the summer, making the type of money that is unheard of in a typical teenage summer job.  Because of this factor it often takes about half the season for the team to “click”, according to Slivinsky.

Coach Nelson also commented what great troopers the kids are and how much of a bonding experience the season is.

While being on an island certainly has its challenges, the players I spoke with also stressed the advantages they felt.  Freshman Gilleyanne Davis-Oakes remarked about how easier it is to have close friends because of the smallness of the school and community as a whole.  She also appreciates the beauty on the island.  Because of the school size there is more opportunity to compete on a team.  Time management is essential as everything needs to be planned out.  As far as what her future holds, she isn’t sure if island life is in her future.  She would like to go off to college and become either an architect or a personal trainer.

Senior Taylor Littlefield really appreciates the close-knit community and only goes to the mainland when she has to.  Senior Noah Slivinsky also said that while they are secluded, it is a tight-knit community.  Everyone knows and helps each other out.  He does feel a bit of pressure on the floor as many take the game seriously on the island.  A sizable crowd did turn out for Saturday morning’s doubleheader.  Slivinsky’s sophomore teammate Max Stanley loves to deer hunt and stated there is a large population of deer on Vinalhaven.  Because they are so tight knit, Stanley said they play well together and trust one another.

Sophomore Cody Hamilton pointed out that it is much more expensive to live there than on the mainland.  From just the transportation costs to get around, goods and services are much more expensive due to the high costs of transportation.  In looking towards the game on Saturday morning, the team, who picked up their first win of the season against Jonesport-Beals Friday night, was starting to gel despite their early season struggles.

As I watched the Jonesport-Beals basketball teams pull their tired bodies off the ferry in Rockland on Saturday, I couldn’t help but think of the stories they will tell and the memories they will share.  This is the experience of high school basketball in Maine.

Bob Beatham

About Bob Beatham

Bob, a lifelong Bangor resident, has just completed his 21st season as the Public Address Announcer at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. Bob is also the public address voice for John Bapst Crusader football. He also currently serves as the scorekeeper for John Bapst basketball. Bob is an avid follower of Maine high school athletics, particularly football and basketball. The University of Maine at Farmington graduate is the service coordinator at Aging Excellence, which provides in-home care for seniors..