I’m sitting on the Vineyard waiting for the wind to let go so the ferries will start running again so I can drive up to Boston to meet my wife who is in a hotel, also waiting for the wind to die down. When we lived on one of the small islands in Gosnold, the transportation situation was entirely different. The regular ferry service is privately owned and not under the same scrutiny as the Steamship Authority. It’s the captain’s call whether he is going or coming or not coming, and the decision can hinge completely on his ego or not being late for a high school hockey game.
The first ferry I can remember was built originally in 1913 of cedar on oak to haul building materials to the island for the construction of the William Wood mansion. The house was of the old-school Hamptons type, and for the next 70 years was the only thing that even came close to decadent. For the curious, it can still be seen clearly from the Gay Head Cliffs. Upon completion of the house, the boat became a passenger ferry, and that’s where the adventure stories begin. Guts, glory, stubbornness and stupidity are all terms that apply to those of us who used our own boats to travel back and forth year round. Never turn back: that’s the rule. It would be a disgrace and they’re always watching. I still get a pucker at the memory of a terrified wife and four kids while crashing through a northeast gale in February in a 22-foot hard-chined boat to get to a dentist appointment, or just a little time at Grandma’s house. Our youngest daughter who was just a toddler at the time tells me now that she was never afraid for herself, just afraid that everything we owned was going to go overboard and felt it her job to make sure that didn’t happen. Except for a few hats, she was completely successful.
The ferry horror stories, while more fun, have to be gotten while the passengers are still in shock or you’ll never get it out of them. Blocked forever. I have not heard a single story about the ferry prior to my moving to the island; they don’t exist. All I know is that there are some islanders who will not set foot on a boat, any boat. If they can’t fly they don’t go, and now that there are no longer any flights they don’t go. Ever. There are others who fear nothing. Neither camp knows why.
One story comes from my own mother who would come to the island to visit the kids and bring a few groceries. One of those times all went well coming over, although it was a little breezy. But early during the trip home, Captain Bob suddenly ran out of the wheelhouse, forward and through the passenger compartment screaming, “The steering’s out! The steering’s out!” In the years I had ridden in that boat, I had always wondered what the wooden box in the stern was all about. It was always in the way. Well according to my mother, under that box is a post with two holes in it, the rudder post, and if you stick a pipe through it and have available two men and a boy, the boat can be controlled. And that’s exactly what happened, minutes before she washed up onto Nashaweena island. Captain Bob had to settle for three women and a boy including my mother. Mom took that one in stride; she’d ridden with me quite a few times and was no longer afraid of anything.
Another incident occurred on a blustery January day when Captain Bob had to get back to the mainland to attend his son’s hockey game in New Bedford. While the boat was tied up at the dock on the island, a front came through bringing with it what would be a 60-mile-an-hour head wind for the trip back.
The ferry left the dock as the wind came up, and as soon as she turned the corner, cleared the breakwater and headed northeast to New Bedford a wave broke over her bow so big that the back of the wave was still coming when the front of the wave hit the water to her stern, completely hiding her from view. I knew then she was in trouble. That was not a rogue wave, they just kept coming. Halfway through the trip two planks opened up and she started taking on water. Four passengers took charge of the deck pumps after the electric bilge pumps went out, and still the water made its way halfway up the side of the engine which never quit. Meanwhile, Captain Bob was making frequent trips down into the fo’c’sle to “check on something.” Four hours after the end of the hockey game and eight hours after leaving the dock for an hourlong crossing, she limped into New Bedford Harbor and was greeted by two pumpers from the fire department, which kept her afloat until she could be hauled out. A lot of ground kissing followed.
You’d think Captain Bob would have learned a lesson, considered himself lucky and moved on. But two weeks later nearly the same bungle happened, again for a hockey game. But this time as soon as the ferry turned the corner and the first wave broke over the top of her, all the passengers ran up to the wheelhouse, grabbed Captain Bob, locked him in the fo’c’sle and took the boat back to the dock themselves. Captain Bob didn’t emerge until sometime before daylight. The ferry was gone by the time we all got out and about. Nothing was ever mentioned.
So here I am sitting aboard the climate-controlled Island Home sipping coffee so strong I wish I had half a valium to offset it, reminiscing and thinking about change while checking my email, watching the news on CNN and thinking that I never would have wanted that valium with my coffee in the old days. Adrenaline was my friend; it said so on the button on my hat: “High on Stress.”
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.