Barf Boat or Whale Watching in Bar Harbor, Maine

Warning: Read this story only if you have a strong stomach

Barf Boat or Whale Watching in Bar Harbor, Maine

Ten years ago, my wife and I drove to a remote province of Canada–through New Brunswick and past the fiords–to go whale watching in Toudesac. Nine hours northeast of the U.S.-Canadian border, it was as close to nowhere as I have ever been.

We arrived in a town that was nothing more than a few docks. We boarded a little saucer of a boat, the Zodiak, that held maybe twenty people. Although the day was comfortable, the crew issued everyone massive red jackets, the kind explorers wear to Antarctica. We were then issued life jackets and instructed to put them on—“Just in case anyone falls out,” the Capt. joked.

Once we started zipping around in the open water, the waves splashing over the sides of the boat, we quickly became cold; nevertheless, we didn’t complain. In three hours we saw more whales than Capt. Ahab.

The experience was extraordinary and I crossed it off my bucket list, but when my wife planned a trip to Acadia National Park this year, we had a chance to take my two daughters whale watching in Bar Harbor, Maine. Though my oldest didn’t want to go, we convinced her that this would be a trip she’d remember for the rest of her life. Truer words were never spoken.

Our first three days in Maine had all been foggy. We missed the legendary views from Acadia, but today looked like it would be different. We ate a hurried breakfast then boarded the boat at eight o’clock. Along with the other early birds, we sat outside on the bow and rented binoculars so we’d be the first to spot the whales.

This time instead of the small boat we had taken before, we chose a much larger vessel, a double hulled catamaran—virtually unsinkable—because although I am not normally paranoid, I do have an irrational fear of my children and water. I found the children’s life vests—just in case–I have seen Titanic after all.

Once the boat left the harbor, it sped up considerably. The wind picked up and even with our sweatshirts and jackets on, we were cold. The ship’s naturalist called over the P.A. system to announce a bird which we couldn’t see since the fog had rolled in.

I was the first in my family to go in. I found a cluster of 8 seats around a table. Most of the 350 passengers were still outside. A few minutes later, my wife and youngest daughter joined me. My oldest stayed out front, exulting in the fresh air and the motion of the boat which felt like a ride at the amusement park we had gone to the week before.

Out of the harbor the water was rough. The front of the boat whanged up and down in the churning waves. Usually, if you’re feeling motion sickness, people recommend that you look off at a distant object on the horizon, but the fog had rolled in and sky and water merged into one uniform sheet of gray. My youngest was the first to feel the effects. I gave her the only two tablets of Dramamine and hoped for the best.

As the boat rocked and pitched, I waved to my oldest to come inside so she wouldn’t get tossed in the ocean, though I couldn’t bring myself to stand and get her.

My wife told me to talk with a crew member and find out if there was any place on the boat that felt less choppy. I stood and was nearly swept off my feet as the boat heaved over a wave. I crouched, lowering my center of gravity, and held on—slowly making my way toward the snack bar.

By now the main cabin was filling up with refugees. A crew member told me that the back of the boat was calmer, and that I could buy wristbands that would alleviate motion sickness. I took out a couple of singles from my wallet, the price of the Dramamine, only to be told that they were $10 each. I bought four.

My youngest was petrified. She felt sick and so did we. My wife took her to the back of the boat while my eldest sat in front, riding the waves like a dolphin.

A huge wave lifted up the front of the boat like a kite into the air, and finally, as the water surged and roared, my daughter stumbled in. I was glad to have her near me.

More people staggered into the main cabin. When the boat lurched, a young girl, in her teens perhaps, went down hard, crashing into the windows like a hockey player or a bird. She struggled to her feet, but no one moved to help her. We were all frozen to our chairs. It was every man for himself. Though I hoped my wife and daughter were ok, my horizon was getting smaller and smaller. I was now focused on the heaving feeling in my stomach.

The staff had begun distributing envelopes that contained plastic barf bags. They scattered them onto the tables like direct mail advertising during a political campaign. What could I possibly do with the 8 barf bags on my table?

My oldest watched in curious silence as our neighbors frantically reached for the envelopes and went belly up.

Unlike when you get sick at home, this was not a private act. The violent retching was a signal for the crew members who cut through the aisles like porpoises. Sitting to my right, a family of four vomited, one after another. They’d fill up a bag, tie it shut, and a crew member with a spray bottle, rubber gloves, and a roll of paper towels would pick up the package and deliver it into the trashcans–like UPS but only for vomit.

The crewmen were busy. A husband vomited and so did his wife. A gaunt man in a wheelchair threw up and so did the girl in the Italian soccer jersey beside him. The man in the spectacles threw up. And so did the man without them. Shaken by the motion and the smell of vomit, stomachs gave out, one after another. The crew couldn’t keep up.

Passengers tied their bags and rested them on the table as if they were beer cans they had finished. Others clutched partially full bags, waiting until the overwhelmed crew members could get to them. Everyone was connected by misery; we had all gotten sick or were fighting sickness. No one took out a cell phone.

The wrist bands pushed into my tendons, leaving a circular imprint. I pressed down harder, hoping to avoid a similar fate. Finally, I vomited, catching most of it in the bag. Disgusted, my oldest went to the back of the boat with her mother and sister. We had finished the first half hour of our trip. Only three hours more to go.

The family directly to my right threw up. The woman at 1 o’clock threw up. The boy who sat across the table and two seats to my left threw up—on the floor—no less. I passed him a bag but it was too late. The amiable crew member came over with the towels and spray bottle, leaving a pile of additional barf bags on the table. We couldn’t possibly need more, could we? As if in answer, the family to my right threw up—again.

After getting sick, I thought that maybe I’d feel better. I didn’t, yet I felt an obligation to check on my family. I staggered to the back where my daughters clung to their mother as if she could protect them from the disaster that was unfolding around them. None of them had puked, but by now even my oldest, my mariner—felt sick. Though the back of the boat was calmer, the smell of the diesel engines instantly sickened me.

My wife’s eyes were wide with distress. I gave her several bags Just in case. It was a small gesture and all I could offer. Sickened passengers exploded through the back door to vomit over the side of the boat. We were surrounded, but not by sharks as I feared, but by barf.

The diesel smell was too much for me and I went back inside, carefully avoiding the slick spots. The boy to my left threw up again. Again he didn’t manage to make it into the bag.

The boat was a raft of misery. My stomach gave out and I coughed up something sweet and disgusting. Was that my blueberry muffin?

As I sat in silence, I noticed with surprise that no one, not even young children were crying. The boat was deathly silent, except for the ship’s naturalist, who cheerfully explained that if we looked to the left, we could see a puffin. Needless to say, no one looked.

At 10:30, we arrived at the first of several places where we might see the whales. I wondered if seeing one would salvage the trip—somehow I doubted it. We motored from place to place, going farther and farther out in search of whales that we had no chance of seeing. We checked one spot—nothing. And then another as more and more people succumbed.

As painful as it was, I knew that what I was witnessing was not only horrible but horribly funny. You couldn’t make up a story like this.

Finally, we began heading for home. The naturalist came over the P.A.  Since the company guaranteed that we’d see a whale, we’d all receive vouchers—the next time we wanted to go would be free.

Of the 350 people on board, I’d estimate that at least 75% or about 250 people joined in the orgy of vomit. My wife and daughters were not, I’m happy to say, three of them. My wife said accusingly that she willed herself not to puke since, “Someone had to take care of the girls.”

As we arrived at the dock, my daughters swore they’d never go back to Barf Harbor again. We were the first people down the gangplank, and we had never been so glad to be on dry land, and yet I couldn’t help but turn to my daughters and ask, “What’s for lunch? I’m starving.”

(August 2012)

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