This spring, the captains of the Chappaquiddick ferry have taken to calling the older of the two ferries the On Time II and a half.
As the summer season begins, the ferry, built in 1969 and the longest-serving car and passenger boat on the 527-foot route between Edgartown and the island of Chappaquiddick, looks brand new. Her deck is entirely rebuilt in plywood and fiberglass. Her wooden seats have been worked on. And Erik Gilley, a boatbuilder and skipper on the ferry, has designed and built a new console, painted hunter green, from which her captains run the vessel.
But it’s below deck where Mr. Gilley and Peter Wells, Mr. Gilley’s father in law and owner of the ferry with his wife Sally Snipes, have done the most substantial work.
Over the winter at the Tisbury Marine Railway in Vineyard Haven, with colleagues and fellow captains Jonathan Morse, Jeff LaMarche and George Fisher, they replaced three quarters of her fir frames and part of the starboard side of her hull, rewired her electrical system, reconfigured the layout of her propeller shafts and rebuilt some of the hydraulics that turn the rudders at both ends of the ferry.
To step down into the hull of the On Time II today is to see things that make engineers and builders smile. Once hoses and wires snaked like tentacles from amidships to either end of the boat, evidence of many repairs and ad hoc reconfigurations. Now everything runs fore and aft in orderly bundles and packages, and there are vast places within the hull where there is wide-open space to work. Mr. Gilley even installed fluorescent lights within the hull so that it is no longer necessary to work by torch light.
The Two, as the skippers call the ferry, is 55-feet long and carries three cars and a small squad of passengers on a minute-long trip across the hard-running currents between Edgartown and Chappy. She was hauled for the refit in October. Mr. Wells guessed that it might take until the end of December to finish the work. “I just laughed,” Mr. Gilley said during a review of the work on Sunday. He predicted mid-March at the earliest, and the boat was in fact re-commissioned in the middle of April, the job having taken six months and cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, Mr. Wells guessed.
With a history that goes back to 1807 at least, the Chappy ferry has always been privately owned but nowadays is licensed by the town. Mr. Wells and Ms. Snipes of Chappaquiddick are the 11th known owners of the ferry; they bought it from Roy Hayes of Edgartown in January 2008.
Starting this fall, Mr. Wells plans to do the same sort of structural, mechanical, electronic and hydraulic work on the second ferry, the On Time III, which was built in 1975. If he can find the money, he will replace the engines in both ferries this year, keeping the John Deere now driving the On Time II in reserve as a replacement in an emergency.
In the next few years, Mr. Wells also wants to buy a travel lift or a Brownell trailer so he can haul the ferries on Chappaquiddick Point to protect them on land when hurricanes threaten and also to do winter maintenance there. He also plans to turn each ferry upside down so he and Mr. Gilley can work on their bottoms in the next off-season or two. Eventually he plans to build a third ferry so he can have at least two in the water year-round, one of them always ready as a backup.
But Mr. Wells believes that both the On Time II and III — after she too is rehabbed this winter — are set to last “forever. There’s no reason they won’t. There’s nothing we can’t replace,” he said Sunday. Both were built well by the former owner Jared N. Grant, he added, and endure despite the fact that they are two of the oldest and hardest-working commercial boats on Island waters.
Meanwhile, the rejuvenated ferry, like her younger sister, flies the national and state ensigns, or flags, from her wheelhouse — and in a festive spirit, the number two (as rendered by code flags) from either end of her deck.
“I like owning the ferry,” Mr. Wells said. “And I want it to be fun.”
Gazette contributor Tom Dunlop is writing a book about the Chappaquiddick ferry to be published by Vineyard Stories in 2012.