Researching a story for Martha’s Vineyard magazine about Capt. William A. Martin resulted in my book, Whaling Captains of Color — America’s First Meritocracy, a story about some 50 men among about 2,500 who pursued the difficult occupation during over 250 years of the whaling industry. Many were from Cape Verde, a popular stop off the western coast of Africa for reprovisioning whale ships. This sparked my introduction to another author and translator by a reader and new fan. We made plans for him to come over on the ferry for a meet and greet.

I suggested coffee at the conveniently located Black Dog Tavern and gave step-by-step directions from the dock. Upon arrival at the restaurant I was stunned to hear the waitstaff greet one man — “Captain Ramos, welcome back!”

Rarely am I speechless, but I thought to myself, Captain? Did I give a Steamship Authority captain directions to the Black Dog?

In fact I had done just that.

Capt. Bernardino (Didino) Ramos is one of 30 people who captain those 10 gleaming white vessels, the year-round lifeline to the two Islands. Born to a large family on Brava in Cabo Verde, as the island nation is known today, he was introduced to the sea by his grandfather who had worked aboard whalers, and an uncle who captained the legendary Ernestina — which Didino worked on himself. A heralded packet ship transporting passengers and goods between America and Cabo Verde, the schooner Ernestina today is a fully operational museum and educational vessel, sailing from its home port in New Bedford.

His life on the water began at age 11 and continued with attendance at nautical school where he became an able bodied seaman. To avoid going to war for Cabo Verde’s patrician Portugal in 1973, he immigrated to America. In 1987 he went to work for the SSA where, after performing every task, he became an officer and a pilot in 1997. He has been a licensed captain for 1,600-ton vessels worldwide since 2000. On a recent round trip aboard the M/V Eagle between Hyannis and Nantucket I had the pleasure of interviewing him and his talented officer deck crew.

Away from the wheelhouse, pilot Karl Riddar [a pilot maneuvers ships through dangerous or congested waters, such as harbors] was effusive in his praise for Captain Ramos and his management skills. Walking around the boat, it was abundantly clear the captain was well liked and respected. As we departed Hyannis, backing out from the harbor I was interested to hear over the public address system a seaman counting down the distance from the opposite shore as the 233-foot vessel made her turn: 100, 80, 60 feet. All this, bearing in mind that no one in the wheelhouse could see the stern. Imagine doing that in the dark, or fog. Pilot Riddar gave me a more detailed understanding of the expectations of captains and pilots. For example, in Nantucket Sound there are 314 aids to navigation (from lighthouses to individual buoys) that in tests must be memorized well enough to mark each one on a sheet of velum placed over an actual chart. Every incorrect answer reduces the test score by five per cent.

Playfully, I recounted “white every 8.5 seconds.” Nearly in unison they replied: “Gay Head Light and you forgot the red one!”

Black myself, and mildly embarrassed not to have expected to find a captain of color at the Steamship Authority, I made the delightful discovery that Captain Ramos isn’t alone. Not only are there more Black captains and officers (past and present), but the port captain — who all the captains report to — is of Cape Verdean heritage. Charles M. Monteiro, formerly an SSA captain himself had joined the SSA in 1976.

Asked what advice he might have for young folks, Captain Ramos said: “Don’t lose sight of your dream — stay the course, stay focused. Never ask anybody to do anything you would not do yourself. Be fair with your crew, and respect will follow.”

His remark brought to mind another one, often quoted: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
(In the event one of those four children happens to be a girl, you should know that our Steamship Authority also has at least two female captains).

Fair winds and following seas, Captain Ramos. And thanks for the ride.

Skip Finley is an Oak Bluffs author and director of marketing for the Gazette.