At 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, almost exactly on the dot, an unassuming boat motored into the Oak Bluffs harbor. It was 31 degrees outside and the parking lot nearly empty. Overhead a crescent moon and pinprick stars lingered in the early morning sky as if to watch as the boat backed into the first mooring spot on the wharf.
On the hull of the boat, bright white block letters spelled out the name — Quickwater.
The day’s newspapers had arrived, bundled in stacks, and so did bagels bound for Espresso Love and Mocha Motts after being boiled to perfection at Cape Cod Bagel in Falmouth.
On the wharf Yann Meerseman, deliveryman and one half of the Vineyard Colors photography team, stood ready to receive the bundles of papers and boxes of bagels tossed to him by the Quickwater’s captain, Bob Boden.
The bagels weren’t the only carbs that would make the five-mile trip across the Sound. On its morning runs the Quickwater also brings bread from Pain d’Avignon in Hyannis.
“That’s the next trip,” Mr. Boden said.
Many Islanders know the Quickwater as “the paper boat” or “the bread boat.” Others know it as their savior when stranded on the mainland after the Steamship Authority boats have stopped running for the night.
There was just one passenger on board when Mr. Boden headed back to Falmouth on Saturday morning. And the 45-foot-long Quickwater, which in its former life was an oil patch crew boat in the Gulf of Mexico, was the only moving vessel on the dark water. To the west, two large lights shined like high beams coming from barges installing a fiber optic cable. Mr. Boden pointed out the lights of Falmouth Hospital, the blinking light at the entrance to the harbor and, far to the east, a faint light glowing at Otis Air Force Base.
“You get to know these things,” he said.
The original Patriot boat was a 34-foot wooden party boat purchased by Bud Tietje shortly after he bought the fish and clam shack at the end of the Falmouth pier. The fish and clam shack became headquarters for the Patriot boat, which eventually became Patriot Party Lines. The Patriot began carrying newspapers in the late 1960s, making one trip per day. Today, there are eight roundtrips Monday through Friday, three on Saturday and one on Sunday, plus any unanticipated water taxi trips for the stranded. Bud’s son Jim now owns the line, having come on board in 1984. Jim Tietje, along with Mr. Boden and Dick Smith, are the three captains of the boat line.
There are four boats in the Patriot line, but three are for sport fishing trips. Only one carries freight.
Some years after the original Patriot had started its paper runs, Bud Tietje realized he needed a better boat. The Patriot Too, a 50-foot steel trawler, was built to replace the aging party boat in 1978, and the old boat sold to a budding salvage company.
Over the years, the Patriot Too gained a reputation for braving stormy seas and high winds.
“The joke used to be that the Patriot would run when the submarines wouldn’t,” Mr. Boden said.
“At one stretch, the Patriot was running 365 days a year, consistently, without missing a day, for six years,” Mr. Tietje added. “Not a hurricane, not a nor’easter stopped it. That was a good record. I don’t know that we’ll get to that again.”
These days, the Coast Guard closes local waters when hurricane conditions are in effect. And the captains also make the call on whether or not to run. The east wind is the worst, Mr. Boden said.
“I don’t mind big waves,” he said. “But I want to see them.”
In Falmouth, boxes of bread were waiting to be picked up, 25 in total, and 10 small crates of library books. In the summer, Mr. Boden moves roughly 150 boxes of bread across the Sound.
“Cronig’s gets a lot,” he said.
For the return 6 a.m. trip to the Vineyard Mr. Boden also brought four passengers, all of whom were regulars and carrying small yellow commuter tickets riddled with hole-punch marks.
“Most of our regular passengers are commuters who work on the Island,” Mr. Tietje said. “Mainly construction workers [but also] judges, teachers, lawyers, usually a doctor.”
One or two regulars travel the reverse route, too. The Patriot can carry no more than 40 passengers.
Mr. Tietje lives in Falmouth and handles most of the off-schedule water taxi calls. When people get stuck in New York or Boston traffic and miss the last Steamship ferry, they often call from the Bourne bridge and the Quickwater is waiting for them by the former clam shack when they arrive. Vineyard sports teams occasionally make the trips as well, and the Patriot has a contract with the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks baseball team, which often finds itself returning from away games at odd hours.
Just about anything can be transported on the Patriot boat. Tires and auto parts make daily trips as do tropical fish, mice, rabbits and crickets headed to Little Leona’s Pet Shop. During wedding season, musicians and their instruments make late-night trips to get to their next gig. Shellfish and fish for restaurants depart from both sides of the channel. And sometimes the boat carries cremated remains of the deceased. The nearest crematorium is in Duxbury and the ashes need to be returned to families.
During the return trip on Saturday morning, the dark blue of pre-dawn changed to a hazy blue tinged with orange. To the west, the first Steamship boat departed from Vineyard Haven. In the distance another Steamship boat headed out of Woods Hole.
Upon reaching the Oak Bluffs harbor, the construction workers stepped off the boat and Mr. Boden began unloading the bread boxes, lifting them up to deliveryman Kevin Kane. One passenger waited to board.
Meeting people is the best part of the job, Mr. Tietje said.
“And being out on the water, obviously.”