MOUNT DESERT – By the end of this coming February, the Maine Sea Coast Mission will find itself in a position it has not been in for nearly 30 years.
It will no longer have David and Betty Allen as the husband-and-wife team that helps run the mission’s flagship outreach vessel, the Sunbeam V.
The Allens have decided to retire after decades of service to the Bar Harbor-based mission, a nondenominational Christian organization that offers a variety of services to those most in need in Down East Maine.
David Allen, the captain of Sunbeam V, has been with the mission since 1971. Betty Allen, the ship’s steward, has been running the Sunbeam’s galley since they got married in 1978. Their final trip on the vessel as mission employees will be at the end of February.
“We’re getting older,” Betty, 71, said Tuesday. “Most people our age have already retired.”
Allen said she and her husband, who is 68, have kept busy schedules working for the mission. They want more time to do things they enjoy such as going to airplane fly-ins during the summer and seeing their granddaughter Shanna Allen perform in theater productions at Mount Desert Island High School.
“We’ve missed funerals and we missed kids’ events when they were in school,” Betty said while sitting in the unfinished kitchen of their new home on Route 198 near Somesville.
The Allens have been working on renovating an old barn and workshop into a house while she is on sick leave and he is on two weeks vacation.
“We’re planning on driving to Alaska, probably, and some other traveling,” she said.
The 75-foot, steel-hulled Sunbeam V is the latest of several vessels the mission has used since 1905 to minister to the island communities off the Maine coast. Based in the local port of Northeast Harbor, the Sunbeam spends as many as two weeks at sea every month providing mission programs and other services to Frenchboro, Great Cranberry Island, Isle au Haut, Islesboro, Matinicus, Monhegan, North Haven, Swans Island, and Vinalhaven.
In the mission’s early years the Sunbeam was an essential part of the organization’s effort to construct schools, churches and post offices on the islands. More recently it has been used as a gathering space where islanders could attend church services conducted by the mission’s Rev. Rob Benson, eat at community suppers, and even as a dental clinic.
The Sunbeam also has been used the past few years for the mission’s telemedicine program, in which islanders needing medical care can meet with mission nurse Sharon Daley on the vessel and remotely consult with a physician or counselor on the mainland through a videoconference hookup. And every Christmas, it delivers gifts donated new to the mission to island residents.
Gary DeLong, executive director of the mission, said Tuesday that the Allens have played a crucial role in making sure these services have been effective, and not just by piloting the boat or by feeding people who come on board. The mission does not preach so much as provide island residents with social programs they want and need, he said.
“The islanders don’t need anyone coming out to save them or to tell them how to live,” he said. “It’s a partnership.”
Whether it’s Betty giving island children painting lessons aboard the Sunbeam or David helping an islander with a carpentry job or hauling lobster traps, the couple’s ability to connect with islanders has been key to the Sunbeam’s continued success, DeLong said.
“It’s all about those relationships,” he said. “They’ve been powerful ambassadors for the mission in so many ways.”
Frenchboro resident Barbara Sawyer said Tuesday that in getting to know the Allens, local islanders have learned that when the Sunbeam pulls into port after having made the 15-mile trip from Mount Desert Island, it is best to meet the boat with empty stomachs – especially when there are fresh-baked creme puffs on board.
“Betty’s known for her cooking,” Sawyer said. “Everyone looks forward to it. They say ‘What do you have this time, Betty?'”
Allen acknowledged her creme puffs have been a hit. On one occasion the baked goods proved so tempting that Sawyer’s uncle, Dick Lunt, fell from the Frenchboro pier onto the Sunbeam in his eagerness to get to the galley and have one.
“Nothing too serious,” Betty Allen said, recalling the incident. “I mean, he could have broken his neck.”
Sawyer, a diabetic, said Allen also makes sure there is healthful food available. Sawyer frequently uses the Sunbeam’s telemedicine program to check in with her doctor and sometimes gets an added bonus, such as a card game with Betty or a warm slice of mushroom pizza.
“You never want for anything to eat,” Sawyer said. “She can whip up anything at anytime.”
The Allens also have been a reassuring presence to many people on occasions when a recently deceased island resident has been returned from the mainland for a funeral. It is the Sunbeam that frequently delivers the casket and mourning relatives of the deceased back to the island community.
“Betty would put on a feast,” DeLong said. “The ride over and back was often very therapeutic.”
Sawyer said just knowing that the Sunbeam is available to help in such situations, be it delivering a casket or breaking up ice in a frozen harbor, is a source of comfort for many coastal Maine residents.
“It’s always there if you need it,” she said. “It’s a good feeling to know.”
Paul Murray, a full-time Matinicus resident since 1982, said Tuesday that the Allens have done as much for the remote island community as anyone else at the mission. David helped Murray build his electrician’s workshop in 1993 and, every winter, Betty throws an islandwide community supper, he said.
“They do that kind of thing on all the islands,” Murray said. “It’s a bigger deal than just bringing out a minister.”
The Allens say they have made many fast friends over the years and that making the decision to retire has been emotionally difficult.
“Every island out there is like a hometown,” David Allen said. “Island people have been real good to us.”
Betty Allen lamented many of the changes the couple has seen over the years, such as the increase in wealthy summer people buying homes on the islands. She said a lot of the island residents they got to know early in their careers with the mission have died or moved away.
“It’s going to be a big change,” she said. “But I won’t miss the schedule. It’s not just a 9-to-5 job.”
As for life on the Sunbeam after the Allens retire, Murray said the vessel’s visits will present island residents with the chance, perhaps, to get to know some more people who will help enrich their lives.
“It’s going to be a big change, but change is unavoidable,” Murray said. “We’re hopeful the mission will find some interesting people to take the job over and make it their own. “No one’s going to replace the Allens,” he said.