Passengers are not frequent on the Penobscot Pilot, the 48-foot powerboat with twin C-series 430 hp Cummins engines that rendezvous with barges, tugs and tankers bringing cargo to the ports of Penobscot Bay. As Capt. Jane Ryan slowly motors away from the wharf off Tillson Avenue in full dark at 4:45 a.m. on Feb. 10, Mate Matt Jacobson familiarizes this reporter with the safety equipment and protocol – emergency beacons, flares, flotation jackets, rafts, medical gloves and flashlights.

Outside, the temperature is below 20 degrees. After a quick breakfast, and suited up in long johns, a silk turtleneck and several more layers of clothing, I was grateful the frost was light and the distance to the dock from my home short. Rockland’s streets were empty, except for an oil delivery truck. As I walked down the gangway to the floating dock, Ryan was already in the midst of her routine. The sea is unseasonably calm, under a moon just past full, with not much wind and waves only one to two feet high.

Today’s rendezvous with the motor vessel Transporter, out of Rotterdam, is Ryan’s fifth trip this week to the WP Buoy, north of Matinicus Island at latitude 43-55.5 north/longitude 068-53.1 west, “but it really varies widely,” she says.

A few minutes before 5 a.m., Jacobson unplugged the Penobscot Pilot from dockside power, Ryan took a space heater below, and pilot Skip Strong arrived. Strong lives on Mount Desert Island and, after leaving his car at Searsport, has been brought to Rockland by a car service.

As the boat leaves the dock, he and Ryan discuss the schedule for their later runs. When he has finished guiding the Transporter to Mack Point, Strong will return to Rockland for a noon meeting with the Nor’Easter, leaving Bucksport empty and heading to Saint John, N.B. Later in the day the pilot team will meet up with the Nord Traveler, carrying salt from Chile and bound for Searsport’s Port Authority dock. In all, Ryan will assist with five vessel movements today and three or four more on Saturday, Feb. 11.

Today’s cargo is a crane, built in Germany and destined for the Sprague Energy terminal at Mack Point.

Because VHF communication travels by line of sight, the Penobscot Pilot is halfway to the breakwater before clear communication is established with the Dutch ship. Ryan and the Transporter’s captain confirm a rendezvous at 5:50 a.m. and agree that a ladder will be set one-and-a-half meters above the waterline on the 330-foot ship’s starboard side. They speak English, the language spoken on the bridges of all vessels in international waters. When they meet, they will match speeds at 8 knots.

To the east-northeast, off Vinalhaven, a bright light shines on the horizon, probably a fishing boat. It’s the only light visible on the water. Behind it, the three red lights of Fox Islands Wind’s turbines shine. Owls Head Light’s steady white beacon glows and the only other lights not on shore come from the just-past-full moon, about 20 degrees above the western horizon, and about a million stars. Looking toward shore, there are few lights outside of the city.

As we pass Owls Head, we see Browns Head light, a sector light that shows white to those approaching safely and red where dangerous rocks or shoals lie in a vessel’s path.

Strong has been a pilot for “a long time,” he says. Fifteen years full time. Originally from Vermont, he has spent most of his life on the Maine Coast. “I get unsettled if I get away from the water. Uncomfortable,” he says.

We remark on the mirror-like surface of the bay, “completely unusual for this time of year,” says Strong. “This time of year, you’re likely to get howling winds, big seas and frozen decks.”

Strong says the convention that has made English the common language at sea puts Americans at a disadvantage. While those from China, Russia and some other countries may not be fluent or may have accents that are difficult to the unfamiliar ear, they have the ability to get their message across.

“We’re the only country in the world where knowing a second language is considered a drawback,” says Strong, who has a rudimentary knowledge of French and Italian and four years of high school Latin that “make it possible to conjugate verbs that no one understands.”

At 5:23 a.m. a bright spot appears on the eastern horizon that, viewed through binoculars, resolves into the deck lights on the Transporter. The moon’s reflection off the water creates the illusion of dawn, its surface no longer a mirror but still quite calm, mere ripples that shatter the moonlight into myriad facets of shimmering light. The speed of our passage, at 20 knots, cannot shrink the enormity of an ocean unbroken by land.

Ten minutes later, as we pass Heron Neck, we see a rosy tint on the eastern horizon, a thin slice of the day to come. The Penobscot Pilot’s electronic equipment seeks a signal from the ship and we are now near enough to it to see the full height of its booms and cranes, 137 feet above the water’s surface. It is traveling at a speed of 8.2 knots.

Our instruments tell us the wind is now coming from the southeast and we talk of the storm predicted to reach the Maine Coast later that day. The sliver of dawn has grown and layers of rose, peach and purple stretch across the edge of the sky.

Strong says the Transporter, at 330 feet, is one of the smaller vessels that Penobscot Bay & River Pilots Association members guide between what they refer to as the Whiskey Papa Buoy and upriver ports. He says these waters will be teeming with activity in another month or so. It is 5:46 a.m. and he reaches for the VHF to call the Transporter and check that the boarding ladder is ready. As the two vessels match speed, he and Jacobson leave the cabin. By the time I suit up with flotation jacket, hat and gloves, Strong has crossed the gangway from the Penobscot Pilot, grabbed the ladder and climbed to the deck of the larger ship.

The only lights visible from land come from Carvers Harbor on Vinalhaven and the broadcast towers atop Dodges and Ragged mountains.

Ryan offers to keep pace with the ship until sunrise, and we travel together, toward Rockland, at 13.4 knots. The eastern sky turns golden before us and inside the cabin I can now read the clock that says it is 6:20 a.m.

Three cranes are visible on Transporter’s deck – the one being brought to Mack Point and two that are part of the ship’s equipment, used to move cargo on, off and inside the cavernous hold that reaches 6.4 meters –  more than 20 feet – below the waterline. Thirteen days earlier, the Transporter steamed from Rostock, Germany, more than 3,000 miles to the east.

Ryan said a ship such as the Transporter is very different to run from one like hers. Prior to turning, the captain of the larger vessel makes calculations, based on his speed and the ocean’s currents, to determine how he will use a system called advanced transfer. As the ship makes its turn, thrusters in the rear will move the stern and the ship will actually pivot, almost on an axis. In order to anticipate just how that will work, the ship’s bridge crew creates a schematic plot of the manner in which the boat will move.

“In a small boat, you have a feel for it,” says Ryan.

Jacobson holds a license to operate commercial and inspected vessels such as the Penobscot Pilot and acts as skipper for a private lobster yacht.

A weather report at 6:40 a.m. tells us that a winter storm watch is in effect, with predictions for a 30 percent chance of precipitation on Friday, increasing to 100 percent on Saturday. Today’s calm seas will become a thing of the past, as the wind moves to the north with gusts up to 24 mph.

By now we’re approaching the PB buoy, midway between Rockland and Vinalhaven at approximately 44-05.9 north longitude/069-00.2 west latitude, and the Transporter makes its turn to the north, headed for Searsport. We hear Strong’s voice over the VHF radio, making the security call that alerts all shipping in the bay to the transit of the large ship.

Tiny squares of brilliant light come from shore, reflections of the sun that is just now rising in the east. I ask Ryan if we can slow down enough to allow me to go on deck for some photographs and she agrees.

“Yes,” she says. “I just want to watch.” She waits as the Transporter crosses between us and Monroe and Sheep islands.

Shortly before 7 a.m. we part ways, increase our speed and head west, to Rockland. We enter the harbor, passing the Vinalhaven-bound Governor Curtis at the No. 2 buoy at 7:07 a.m., as it begins its first ferry run of the day. Ryan and Jacobson confirm the time for their next run. We motor past the Coast Guard Buoy Tender Abbie Burgess and slip back onto the dock as Rockland awakens to another day.