This summer marks the 30th anniversary of musician David Gagne’s Reggae Cruise, Sunday evenings, rain or shine, from June to September since 1989.
The cruises started on Captain David Walker’s Islander about 13 years after Gagne began playing gigs at McSeagulls and at J.H. Hawke, where Mine Oyster is now.
“It was cozy, a beautiful little boat. We did it maybe two or three years on that boat and then we were hired by the folks who owned Cabbage Island … We just kept going and going and going. Then the cruises were bought by John Fish.”
The cruise has always been an important part of Gagne’s life, as evidenced by 15 years of commuting from his full-time job at New Hampton School in New Hampshire. Gagne taught full time and ran a summer music camp until 2008, when he and his family moved to Boothbay Harbor full time.
“I would leave New Hampshire, three hours away, drive here, play, and then sleep in my vehicle until daybreak and drive back to teach class the next day. This cruise has been that important to me. That's why it's gone 30 years without a break in the action.”
Now, the Reggae Cruise is played on the Harbor Princess and the band, which often features various musicians, usually has Gagne on lead, Paul D’Allesio on rhythm, Tina Murphy on vocals and piano, Mike Murphy on drums, and, on bass, Tony Simmons, occasionally filled in by “Featuring Dan” Grish.
The Murphys’ children and his were brought up on the Cruise, Gagne said. Gagne’s oldest, David, now a successful musician in New York, was 5 when they started. Gagne could not remember if he ever got his stepdaughter Rayanna on board as a child, but his youngest, Gerald, came aboard right out of the womb. “Chris would bring him on in the front-pack, so he was brought up bouncing up and down and singing and watching us.”
Gagne credits the Boothbay Harbor community with a big part of the Cruise’s success as many have become just like family with their love and support.
“The band members have been tremendous over the years. Tony’s been with us off and on consistently since the 1980s … And 'Featuring Dan' – we never use his last name. It was just kind of this thing that happened one night. I said 'and tonight, I'm featuring Dan' and it kind of stuck.”
Gagne has also been playing a variety of gigs from Hallowell to Boothbay Harbor and with a variety of musicians, but most notably as the band Dani Tribesmen which often includes the Murphys, Simmons, Featuring Dan, and Gagne’s wife, Chris, among several other musicians.
“I mix and match the bands a little bit, but they're all people I've been playing with for decades. It's really fun … I brought (Bob) Marley's saxophone player on the boat a couple years ago – Glen DaCosta. He toured with (Marley) for years and did all the horn parts on all the songs you love from Marley. He's a tremendous musician. That was very memorable.”
After a set of about an hour and a half, the band took a break, giving Gagne a chance to chat with passengers. Gagne said he will often find himself catching up with people who came on the cruise 20 years ago. That’s out of about 650 cruises and thousands of people over the years. Once, Gagne was lounging on a beach in Florida when someone shouted down from a balcony, they recognized him from the Cruise. “It happens. Sometimes it's in Boston, sometimes anywhere.”
Too many good memories to count, Gagne said the ones that always come back are of the generations of people coming back to enjoy the cruise and the music. There have been several instances of Gagne and his band playing to a crowd in which two people have met, then fallen in love and gotten married, and then their children have come on the cruise after their 21st birthdays and meet their spouses to be. On a couple occasions, Gagne ended up playing at their weddings. “All from meeting on the Reggae Cruise. It’s just one of those romantic things. It's pretty cool.”