The mayor of the marina is gone

Johnston’s Carver 28, which he lived aboard in summer, very late in the season. Photo courtesy Randy Randall

By Randy Randall

Some people you meet in this life leave a lasting impression. I suppose the grizzled waterfront character is a stereotype, and people coming to the marina or boatyard are not surprised when they run into such a bard roaming the docks. These old salts are often bigger than life, colorful, independent and eccentric.

Bruce Johnston was just such a person. He arrived here at our marina in the spring of 2019, living in his camper van and towing his Seaswirl powerboat. He launched, plugged into shore power, and promptly set up housekeeping. His was a bachelor’s existence dividing his time between his boat and his camper, and occasionally visiting his sister and his mom.

Bruce was a retired long-haul truck driver. To loosely paraphrase the song made famous by Johnny Cash, “He’d been everywhere, man.” He was full of stories and opinions. Moreover, he looked the character part, with a robust physique, ruddy tan, and lush white Santa Claus beard. At heart, Bruce was a free spirit, sorting out the remainder of his life after so many years on the road. It wasn’t long before his outsized personality became known up and down the marina docks.

Bruce lived here aboard his Seaswirl, and he was always ready to lend a hand, help someone dock his boat, or give advice. Bruce was one of those unusual people who had no hidden agendas. Everything about his day-to-day existence was transparent and open for discussion. Without even asking, we soon knew all about his personal life (he had a son somewhere), his politics (pretty conservative), and his likes in beer (cold) and music (country western, played loudly). He showed up one day clean-shaven, and we didn’t recognize him. He’d cut it all off for the summer, he said.

Bruce was helpful and generous almost to a fault. If we mentioned that we needed a part or a wrench, he’d find one for us. We shared the ailment called arthritis, and he was constantly bringing me new remedies guaranteed to cure the pain. Bruce may have been a little rough around the edges, but his heart was big.

His boat was a mess, a regular bachelor pad. There was hardly room to move about the deck. Eventually, he came to the conclusion he needed a bigger boat, and put his Seaswirl out on Craigslist to swap. Behind his back, we rolled our eyes, thinking that swapping a smaller boat for a larger one would never work. But he did it. He found a couple in Kittery with a 28-foot Carver who wanted to downsize and were willing to trade boats, plus a little cash.

We heard all about it each day as the negotiations progressed and the sea trials took place: the visit to the credit union, and his arguments with people who didn’t know anything about boats. We heard it all, until one day Bruce disappeared, and a few days later came cruising up the river in his “new” luxury apartment. He’d found a really nice Carver, with plush accommodations and plenty of room for all his belongings.

We shared in his enthusiasm as he pulled up to the fuel dock and showed off his new boat. He bubbled over with plans and improvements. He was enjoying himself immensely, getting to know his new home. We had to move him out to a mooring; he used a kayak for a dinghy. Since he lived here – and knew everything and everyone – we called him the “Mayor of the Marina.” He became sort of a night watchman.

Then came September, and Bruce began talking about fall and the impending winter. He thought maybe he’d go south down the ICW. The Carver certainly was capable of the journey. But then he told us about modifications he wanted to make during the winter, and said that maybe he’d just stay in Maine. His camper van had a propane furnace to keep him warm, he said. When he pulled out at the end of the season, he took his new boat into Portland, where it was hauled, put up on jack stands, and Bruce began making his changes.

We didn’t see him again until one cold midwinter morning, when he knocked on our back door. He was delivering his 2020 docking contract, making a payment and bringing me a salve for my arthritis. A few days later, his sister called, asking if we’d seen Bruce. We told her about his visit. She was worried because neither she nor their mother had heard from him.

The police found his camper van parked in Biddeford, with Bruce dead inside. He’d had a heart attack. When we got the news, we could not believe it. It was all so sudden and unexpected. Just like that, Bruce was gone from our life. We’d known him for less than a year.

Bruce lived his life on his own terms. He was unconventional, colorful, opinionated, enthusiastic and generous. He was a huge part of the 2019 marina season at Marston’s. We can’t believe he’s no longer with us.

Frequent contributor, correspondent and friend Randy Randall is co-owner of Marston’s Marina in Saco, Maine, and a dreamer and waterman of the first order.