Ferry skipper replaces a Sinclair Bay legend

How does it feel to replace a minor legend on the Port Orchard dock?

According to Tom Cain, it’s no problem at all.

Cain replaced Bill Nearhoff, a legendary skipper on board the fleet of mosquito ferries that have plied the waters between Bremerton and Port Orchard since the 1930s, when Nearhoff retired at age 77 a couple of months ago with health problems.

But Cain didn’t require much introduction. A 27-year Navy veteran with 10 years of experience working with Kitsap Harbor Tours, the easy-going Florida native fit right into the slot formerly occupied by the curmudgeonly skipper, a lifelong employee whose family had owned the business since the 1930s.

“Tom’s a great employee,” said Rick Leenstra, whose family owned Kitsap Harbor Tours before Kitsap Transit bought the business. “He gets along with everyone. We’re very blessed.”

But the one thing that remains a part of Bill Nearhoff’s legend is his exquisite command of the Carlisle II. Built in 1927, driven by a single screw and highly sensitive to wind, Cain acknowledged Neerhoff’s touch in handling the difficult old ferry.

“He always seemed to like that old boat,” Cain said. “I saw him park that boat in some very difficult winds.”

In an interview a few months ago, Nearhoff agreed that he seemed to have an unusual touch with that particular vessel. “I don’t how I do it with that boat,” he said then. “I’ve done it for so long I don’t really know how.”

The Carlisle II had two knocks against it from a skipper’s point of view: first, it presented a large side area, meaning it could be rocked by heavy winds — which is the norm when trying to dock at Bremerton. Second, the boat has just one screw (propeller), meaning fine adjustments while docking is a challenge. His favorite of the Kitsap Harbor Tours fleet is the Admiral Pete, built in 1994 and boasting a number of dramatic improvements — twin screw power, better aerodynamics and much-refined handling.

Nearhoff actually seemed to prefer the Carlisle II.

“Old Bill just seemed to have the knack with that boat,” Cain said.

Born in Ontario but raised in St. Petersburg, Fla., Cain is Nearhoff’s polar opposite in temperament. He speaks with an easy drawl and gives the impression that nothing excites or upsets him. Cain spent 27 years in the Navy, and one of his notable accomplishments was docking a submarine at Submarine Base Bangor. He joined Kitsap Harbor Tours after retirement, and has worked at KHT for 10 years.

“The Navy is where I really learned to drive boats,” he said.

Like Nearhoff, Cain has worked with the same deckhands for years.

“I have worked with Taylor Close for years. I’ve watched her grow up,” he said. “You get to do that in this job.”

Mark Briant is a reporter for the Central Kitsap Reporter, Bremerton Patriot and Kitsap Daily News. He can be reached at mbriant@soundpublishing.com. 23