Ice! Ice on the freshwater ponds. Ice on the salt ponds. Ice in the harbor. Ice in the bird baths. A week of frigid temperatures is all it takes to begin the freeze-over of the surfaces of Katama Bay, Cape Pogue Bay and inner Edgartown Harbor from shore to shore. It always feels that it came on suddenly. The few above-freezing days ahead will only melt the snow offthe roof tops. The saltwater ice will continue to thicken for at least another week. The Chappy Ferry will be able to operate unimpeded by the harbor ice as long as the ice stays put. The ferry will makes its own open pathway through the sheet of ice that forms at the narrowest part of the channel. During the day, the ferry boat’s frequent comings and goings will enlarge the unfrozen area between the ferry slips. That may be the only accessible water for the gulls, ducks and other waterfowl that stay here through the winter.

Even if that area skims over during the night to a thickness of an inch, the ferry can get through without damage. Fortunately, saltwater ice is much softer than freshwater ice because of the salt crystals. The problem for boats with ice in the harbor begins when the sheet of ice breaks up, the floes end up in a jam at the edge and are stacked up three or four layers deep by the current. Then it becomes too much for the hull and propellers to withstand. The danger is compounded when rain falls on the surface of the harbor ice and freezes into a thin layer on top. The freshwater ice, being much harder, effectively forms a cutting blade of ice right at the water line of a vessel which will dig into fiberglass and wooden hulls. You don’t want to test your boat against that danger.

The ferryboats have a propellor at each end which allows the boats to break up the ice shelf by rapidly approaching the edge of the solid ice, stopping just before making contact and then backing down at full power. The wash from the propellor lifts the ice, cracking it to pieces and sends it up onto or under the continuous ice sheet. It’s a very satisfying operation to open up a nice wide channel for the ferryboats to run in safely.

The biggest problem and the one that can stop the ferry service for several hours is when the ice sheet breaks up on its own. Sometimes the tidal current and wind will work in unison to clog the harbor tightly with loose ice floes a couple of feet deep. There is nowhere for the ice to go even if the ferry blasts the ice away with the propellor. We just have to wait for the tide to change to carry the ice out into the outer harbor.

Due to the shape of the shorelines abutting the ferry run, the up-current ice will often stay wedged in place. Then the ferry is able to run until the tide turns and the ice comes back.

Two winters ago the ice flows were packed in so tight that we put an excavator aboard the ferry and dug our way across the harbor, lifting out two-foot thick chunks of ice the size of pool tables and setting them aside to make a path for the ferry in case of an emergency. Eight hours later the ice departed en masse, all of its own accord.

So just a heads-up to Chappy ferry users, we are at the mercy of the weather now more than ever. It’s possible that the ferry may be unpredictably stopped for a few hours occasionally. You can look at our webcams at the Chappy Ferry website. One of the camera views is across the harbor. In the daytime you will be able to see the extent of the ice. If the water is covered with ice and the vehicle waiting lines on each side don’t move, you will know that the ice has made it impossible or too risky for the ferry to operate and that we are awaiting a change in the tidal current or wind direction to open up the ice.

At the present, you can drive to town by the beach. We don’t like to have to stop running anymore than you like us to. We can’t risk breaking a propellor blade in the ice unless it’s an emergency. After all, we live on an Island surrounded by water. The water is wonderfully efficient at floating a boat just as long as it’s not frozen.

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