Peter Wells stands in the sun between Chappaquiddick and Edgartown on the On Time III, the Chappaquiddick ferry, which come Monday he will own, after a third of a century spent behind its wheel as captain.
“I expect to be greasy and sooty for the rest of my life,” he says. Wearing a red wool beanie and a dirty Gohn Brothers quaker jacket, he looks like a man who doesn’t spend much time on land, though this is not technically true: he is only fully free of terra firma for around 60 seconds at any one time during the 527-foot trip on the three-car ferry between the metal ramps of Edgartown and Chappaquiddick. Equal time is spent idling with a ramp connecting him and the ferry to one of the Islands.
These tiny increments of time are now of special interest to Mr. Wells who, at 55, is a businessman for the first time in his life. “If the water is like this, then the trip will take a minute but with heavy currents it can be twice that,” he says. This means that his fuel consumption can double for getting the same number of passengers across depending on the currents. The increased currents — largely a result of the breach which opened at Katama during a storm last April — have coincided with other national issues. “The price of fuel goes up and the economy goes down,” he says. “But politicians talk like that all the time; they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
At a short Edgartown meeting on Tuesday a 75-year ground lease for the ferry, previously held by Roy Hayes, was transferred to Mr. Wells by the Edgartown selectmen. Mr. Wells and his wife Sally Snipes will buy the enterprise for $3 million, which includes two ferries — the On Time II and III — as well as the ramps, slips and ferry sheds, from Mr. Hayes next week. There were two rounds of applause for Mr. Wells and another one for Mr. Hayes at the meeting which was well attended by enthusiastic Chappaquiddickers.
The following day on the boat, Mr. Wells remembers how he arrived at this point. Though discussions about a possible purchase of the ferry started in September of last year, the idea has been there for much longer. “There was one time 12 years ago when I asked ‘Can I buy it?’ and he [Mr. Hayes] said ‘Sure,’” he recalls.
His cell phone goes off with a jolly ring and when ferry captain Brad Fligor takes another call a few seconds later, the open deck barge briefly resembles a floating office. “He’s on the other line, can I have him call you back?” Mr. Fligor asks his caller, grinning at his own formality before handing Mr. Wells a note with the caller’s details.
Since no one these days — except for boat owners and the occasional desperate swimmer — gets off Chappaquiddick without the help of this ferry, Mr. Wells found that leading up to the deal, he could conduct much of his business from the deck. “I’d see half of who I wanted to see coming through here in the morning and then walk up to town hall to see the others,” he says.
Finishing another call, Mr. Wells eyes the phone suspiciously as he slides it back into his inside pocket. “I was given this by a friend who went off-Island but I used it once a day, if I was running late. But now . . . . in September Sally checked my bill and it was $400 over my minutes.”
Mr. Wells is also the captain of Chappaquiddick fire department. In his dual roles as guardian he sleeps nights with his state-issued pager under his ear. One night he heard over the scanner at 5 a.m. that a baby had gone into seizure; he was at the ferry before the ambulance arrived. The distraught mother refused to sit down on the ferry bench during the crossing. “There was no way she was letting that baby go and since she was standing up I had to make a soft landing. She looked at EMT Alex Schaeffer and handed him her baby . . . It was nice to be part of that,” he says.
Later he stands on the town dock with his wife and looks out at Mr. Fligor’s progress as he tackles the increasingly strong currents. What started as a straight line journey is now completed in a series of increasingly wide S shapes.
“When the current’s out we can get dragged halfway to the yacht club and it can make a fair landing almost impossible,” he says.
Born on Long Island, Mr. Wells has spent all his summers here since first grade. His father’s job as an air pilot meant that he moved a lot as a child, spending years in Morocco and Colorado before moving to the Vineyard for sixth through ninth grade, when his father got a job with a commercial airline serving the Vineyard. His father was later killed in a plane crash and Mr. Wells completed high school in New Jersey.
“All he wanted to do is get back here,” Ms. Snipes says, accompanied by steady nods from her husband. “He wanted his sailing and the water.” After attending Maine Maritime Academy he returned to the Vineyard and, penniless, started looking for a job. He landed the job as a captain on the ferry. Then in 1987 he took a job as a surveyor, though he continued to drive the ferry part-time. He liked surveying, “but it made me sad to go inland to work,” he says. He met Ms. Snipes at a family day care center in Vineyard Haven in the fall of 1976 when he came to drop off his 18-month-old daughter.
Mr. Wells, now a devoted grandfather of five, points to his name in the roofing of the town dock. Sure enough, “Pete Wells” is scrawled there in large permanent marker next to the date, ’67. “We used to crawl around up in there all the time,” he says. “And then we got caught, I remember thinking ‘Oh that’s it, I’m going to jail . . .”
The conversation moves to the former Chappaquiddick spectator sport of aqua-biking, pioneered by Sally’s brother and Mr. Wells in the early 1980s, which involved riding a bicycle at full tilt down the Chappaquiddick Road and launching off the ramp into the water.
“Those days are over,” Sally says emphatically. “I wouldn’t want people to do it and I don’t want to advertise it,” agrees Mr. Wells, though his message is less clear. “It’s really fun,” he adds before swiftly changing subjects.
In his new role as owner and operator of the ferry, Mr. Wells has more serious issues to think about, such as payroll, health insurance, overheads and bottom lines. This month he is sending one of his captains to Massachusetts Maritime Academy for a four-day seminar, so someone on the team is familiar with the diesel aspects of the On Time III’s 200-horsepower engine.
And plans are on the drawing board to build another ferry next winter and launch it in the spring of 2009.
“First, though, I’ve got to figure out how to do all this,” Mr. Wells says. The job can be overwhelming he admits, but he is clearly happy. “The public are always in a hurry and we’re the reason they’re late but, you know, I get to drive a boat,” he says.
“And every landing’s a challenge.”