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Volunteer Spotlight: Fern Rouleau

  • by Ryan Devlin
  • 4 min read

If you’ve ever managed to snag a position on the basin, It’s likely you’ve seen the work of Captain Fern Rouleau, a staple of the WaterFire Volunteers who’s been with us since 1996.

Captain Fern Rouleau with a fire dancer and guest lighters during the lighting ceremony on May 19th, 2017.

Captain Fern Rouleau (far left) with a fire dancer and guest lighters during the lighting ceremony on May 19th, 2017. Photograph by Luis Andrade.

Since the very beginning, Fern was attracted to the event. Driving her own boat, Fern naturally gravitated to the fleet of boats that traveled the river each night to light the braziers. Soon after, she began her work on the fleet as a first mate of the vessels; working in harmony with the ship’s captain to ensure the safety of those inside the boat, and everyone on the water.

“It took me five years to be really comfortable with being in charge of a boat at night. Driving during the day was fine. For a while, I preferred being the first mate because it was less anxiety producing.” Fern adds, “It wasn’t always driving the vessels during the event, but at this point, it’s almost second nature.”

Since the beginning, participating in WaterFire events has been a family tradition. Fern often works directly with her husband Bob, who serves as her First Mate. But it was her oldest daughter, Jami, who cemented the family tradition with her. Unfortunately, Jami passed away in February 2001.

“WaterFire will always have a special meaning and a very special place in my heart because Jami and I enjoyed working together on the boats. Every time I’m on the water, I think of her.”

In 2010, Fern and the WaterFire community came together to remember the life of Jami on her birthday, July 31st.

“I brought about three dozen red roses on that day. I tied her name and picture with a ribbon, on each rose and gave each boat captain several of them to divide among their crews. Each member of the crew placed their rose in the burning braziers.” Fern stated, “It was such a beautiful way to commemorate her and it touched the hearts of everyone watching.”

Over the last 20 years, Fern has had a unique opportunity to see WaterFire evolve and grow with the new volunteers and staff. Being able to help the event get bigger and better each year, Fern has worked with numerous volunteers, staff, and visitors who come together and create a long-lasting, tight-knit community.

Fern Rouleau (center) with former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. Photograph by Emily Chadwick.

Fern Rouleau (center) with former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras. Photograph by Emily Chadwick.

There have been unique things to remember during WaterFire such as the time Fern’s boat was lighting the basin and mall and they found a squirrel sitting in one of the braziers.

“We came upon the brazier ready to light it and saw the scared little guy sitting there. We tried to coax him onto the net but he wanted no part of it. He finally jumped out of the brazier and swam away. The entire audience gave us a standing ovation. I didn’t even know squirrels could swim!

“The same night we were supposed to place a very large heavy burning orb in a brazier in the basin and I was told to quickly drive away since it would make a large fire. We did but then saw the brazier had come loose since the orb was so heavy and it was heading toward the audience who were sitting around the basin with their legs in the water. We quickly drove toward it and Bob, caught the orb and we dragged it to the middle of the basin. Several people told us that they loved the ‘staged performance!’”

Fern remarked, “The events are wonderful, but I also really love the non-event side of WaterFire. It’s a really large community and I’ve met some of my best friends through WaterFire.”

Once you see firsthand just how big the WaterFire community has grown, it’s not surprising that many of the volunteers see each other on non-event days. From Truck Together Tuesdays to Woodpile Workouts, monthly socials and the Great WaterFire Bake Off, there are always activities to get involved in.

“It’s just such a wonderful way of paying back your community. It’s so much fun. And I love it.”

Featured image: Captain Fern Rouleau along with her wood boat crew and guest lighters during the lighting ceremony on June 14th, 2014. Photograph by David Dobrzynski. 


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