RYE, N.H. — Retired last week, after 21 years as captain of the Uncle Oscar tour boat, Sue Reynolds climbed aboard her first boat about 70 years ago.
She was summering with family at a Hampton cottage, about 3-years-old at the time and was friends with the daughter of a lobster fisherman next door.
“He put us in a tethered rowboat and pulled us back and forth,” Reynolds said. “I’ve always liked boats.”
For the last two decades, Reynolds has motored passengers to and from the Isles of Shoals, while sharing tales of its salty history. She founded a nonprofit to restore an offshore lighthouse, showed visitors how lobsters are caught and mentored young mariners.
On Sunday, Reynolds watched as the Uncle Oscar left Rye Harbor in a thick fog for its new home on Martha’s Vineyard. She took a phone photo of the departing stern, she said, because, “I wanted a record of it.”
Before she was a tour-boat captain, Reynolds was a sailor.
While in college, she bought her first sailboat with her brother and to learn how to sail, “we read a book and taught each other,” she said. Later she, her brother and sister all got moorings in Rye Harbor and would “race each other around.”
A teacher for 40 years, the last 38 in North Hampton, Reynolds worked summers and weekends out of Rye Harbor aboard the Granite State whale watch boat, which was then owned by Rye Harbormaster Leo Axtin. The Granite state is now owned by Reynolds’ son Pete who “first sailed when he was two weeks old,” she said. “He’s been on boats ever since.”
Axtin is now her “life partner.”
Reynolds later got her license to operate a charter sailboat business to the Isles of Shoals and back. She said the charters “supported my habit of wanting to be on the water” and for fun she raced sailboats in Portsmouth Marblehead and Edgartown, Massachusetts, and the Gulf of Maine.
Once while navigating a boat, owned and being raced by a Boston lawyer, she went to a captain’s meeting the night before a race and was told by “a prominent national figure” that “the women are having cocktails and hors d’oeurvres in there.”
“I said, ‘Well I’m going in there,’ Reynolds recalled.
She and the Boston lawyer beat the prominent national figure in the sailboat race, she said.
“I loved sailing,” Reynolds said. “But you don’t make any money.”
While a single parent in 1995 and time for her son to go to college, Reynolds sold her 37-foot, 2-mast sailboat to pay for his education. There was enough money left over to buy a used lobster boat, which she turned into the educational tour boat she named Uncle Oscar, after 99-year Isles of Shoals resident Oscar Leighton.
“He was very nice to all the kids,” Reynolds said. “He would take them fishing and sailing and they all called him Uncle Oscar.”
Reynolds said she, “never really got sick of teaching,” but was offered a good retirement package and retirement allowed her to spend more time at her second career on the water. When the Granite State stopped running tours to the Isles of Shoals, to instead run two whale watches a day, she took over the Isles tours.
At the advice of an intern, she also started running lobster tours.
“I was really fishing for people to come on the boat,” she said.
While operating the boat tours, Reynolds in 2000 founded Lighthouse Kids in conjunction with local elementary school students. Through the nonprofit, she said, about $450,000 has been raised to save and maintain the White Island Lighthouse Station at the Shoals.
Sailing is more physical than operating motor boats, Reynolds explained, but being the owner and captain of a motor boat is “greasier.”
“Working on the engine, you have to know how to troubleshoot,” she said. “You have to know how to jury rig something so you can get to a safe place.”
“Sure,” Reynolds said, she’s felt in danger once or twice. She always watches the weather on radar, but summer storms can hit fast.
During one over Star Island, she recalled, she got her passengers off the Uncle Oscar and into the island hotel, just before 80 mph winds battered the island. Reynolds said she ran the boat in reverse to keep it in place, while the captain of a boat next to her had a heart attack.
“Usually you cancel,” she said about bad weather. “But you have those pop-up things you can’t predict.”
Reynolds said she wasn’t sad watching the Uncle Oscar leave its home port of the past 21 years after selling the boat because, “I’m ready for this.”
She still has a 14-foot skiff and Axtin has a 23-foot Eastern they’ll share. She’ll keep pulling lobster traps to keep the Rye Harborside restaurant in lobster rolls, while managing the restaurant that’s owned by her son.
Reynolds said she’ll continue to motor back and forth to the Isles of Shoals and next year will take a whale watch trip of her own. She said she’ll also continue running the Lighthouse Kids program, teaching maritime history in local schools and raising money for the lighthouse station.
During the winters, she and Axtin will go to Florida where neither keeps a boat, but they’re on the water.
“We can see the boats go by,” she said.
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com