It might not be obvious, looking at the fleet today, but right from the start in 1950, the Steamship Authority has followed fairly clear lines of thought when it comes to naming the ferries and freight boats it builds, buys and runs. In broad terms, the boat line gives the biggest boats the biggest names, the smaller boats smaller names, and either way, history counts for a lot.
The issue comes up because this month the boat line governors will vote to choose a name for the new freight ferry, which is scheduled to go into service in 2016. The names come from employees — and at random from the public — in what appears to have been a fairly sequestered process. The port council will send recommendations to the board of governors, which will choose the name at its meeting in Vineyard Haven on July 15.
Each of the four names would be new to the fleet. They are Island Spirit, Quissett, Vineyard Sound and Woods Hole.
Of the four, Vineyard Sound and Island Spirit depart more radically from existing ferry names than Quissett or Woods Hole — and both are names borrowed by Island businesses today (a kayak company and a college a cappella group). So it’s likely that the boat line will pass on both.
The Steamship Authority has followed certain principles regarding the naming of ferries since it built its first one and named it Islander in 1950. This was a name given briefly to a steamer in 1923 and a renovated old river ferry in 1946, so the choice established a pattern of looking back for inspiration, and perhaps ahead for wide support. Who could object to Islander when the boat line itself was established to serve Islands?
The SSA has built six full-sized car and passenger ferries since then, two named Nantucket (1957 and 1974) as well as Uncatena (1965), Eagle (1987), Martha’s Vineyard (1993) and Island Home (2007). These names all honor either an Island lying on or near a regular boat line route, or a steamboat from eras past, be they pioneering vessels in the case of the original Eagle (1818) or gilded ones in the cases of the first Uncatena (1902) and Island Home (1855). The Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket of today commemorate both the Islands they serve as well as two steamers apiece (at least) that carried those names at one time or another in their careers.
So that’s how big boats get bigger names and longer histories. (When the time comes to replace the Nantucket, now the oldest ferry sailing year round, bet on her replacement to claim that name based on those two factors alone. Especially as there is already a Martha’s Vineyard.)
It’s a different and more fragmented story when it comes to freight boats — the Spartan vessels with wide, unroofed decks for trucks and cars and spaces for passengers that are tucked away and lightly appointed. The SSA has never built a freight boat new, as it will this time around. So it has always faced the question of whether and how to re-name one that it bought used.
In the cases of three of them, all of which had previously served as supply ships to oil rigs, there was no question that new names would be required — they came to us as the Pro Navigator, Golden Mist and Insignia.
The boat line decided th at these auxiliary vessels ought to take names that represented parts of larger places, so they were re-christened Katama, Gay Head and Sankaty (a headland on Nantucket). The last two names also reference steamers from days gone by. Katama was the first original name ever chosen by the SSA, an ironically bucolic one for a vessel that carries trailer trucks and roars.
The boat line acquired two other freight boats along the way, deciding that the names of both were appropriate, or honorable enough, to keep. One was Auriga, a word meaning either charioteer or wagoneer in Latin. The other was Governor, which this new freight boat will replace.
The Governor — originally the Crown City and then the Kulshan when she served on the West Coast— was given her current name when she came east and steamed the short route between Coast Guard headquarters on Governor’s Island and the Battery in New York city. Serving a branch of the military earned her the right to keep that name when she came here.
At this point, you might wish that the boat line had opened up the whole process to the imagination of public thinking. But you would be wrong.
When the brand new SSA tried to curry favor by asking the people to help name the first boat it built in 1950, it received suggestions that ranged from passable (Islander, Island Queen) to precious (Queen Martha, Martha’s Islander) to preposterous (My Dream, Our Wish, Pride of the Sea, Lady from Falmouth, Duchess of Tisbury, Heavenly Isle, Bermuda of the North). It also received a jumble of acronyms like New-Mar-Nan and Ma-Wo-Na-Va. It went with Islander.
If the boat line selects a consistent name from the four now on the table for discussion, it could choose Quissett, a euphonious Algonquian word for a lovely village on the Buzzards Bay side of Falmouth.
Or it could choose Woods Hole, which sounds flat on the first go, particularly if you add in the home port, which would be stenciled below the name at the stern (Woods Hole/Woods Hole). But think about it. Indispensable to the Vineyard for generations, Woods Hole is a town that also plays host to two other huge, beneficial enterprises besides the Steamship Authority: the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Marine Biological Laboratory. It has been 86 years since the main boat line chose a mainland name for a conventional ferry (the steamer New Bedford of 1928), and nobody can readily point to a working vessel whose name has ever honored the place. Nice to be first.
Add to that the fact that Woods Hole faces three years of daily upheaval beginning around 2016, when the Steamship Authority will begin to rebuild the terminal, wharves and parking lots, largely for our benefit. Naming the new boat for the town would be a gracious way to say thank you in advance.