There are two kinds of Chappaquiddick ferry boat captains. There are the ones that always use their left hand to operate the throttle and their right hand to steer. Then there are the ones who switch hands when the ferry boat switches direction and the captain steps around to the other side of the pilot house. Bob Gilkes was one of the ones who didn’t switch hands. Perhaps it’s a right brain/left brain thing. I think that it’s part of the individual’s personality. From my experience of knowing several dozen ferry boat captains, I would say that it has to do with the need to simplify a complicated task. 

Ferry boat driving requires multitasking. Lots of it. Bob had a lot going on in his head already. He had a great desire to share his thoughts and knowledge. He delighted in conversing as he drove the ferry and especially as you were about to drive off.

Bob had many projects underway all at the same time. He took thousands of photographs which he organized and categorized onto discs to share. He carved driftwood into elegant works of art. He seemed to enjoy the challenge of figuring out complicated computer stuff as well as complicated human stuff. Sometimes the complications were self-inflicted, but he seemed to relish solving the puzzlement. There were very few issues about which Bob hadn’t formed an opinion. You knew what was coming next when he said, “let me just say this about that.”

The interesting part was that Bob usually had more information than the newspaper printed or than the waterfront gossips were telling. Before he would divulge what he considered privileged insider news, he would always lay out the terms and conditions of the forthcoming revelation. “Between you, me and the wall,” he would say at a volume loud enough that he could be heard over the diesel engine noise. This meant that on a quiet night you could make out what he was saying as far away as the finger piers.

Bob was steadfast in his unwillingness to reveal his sources. Once he repeated something to me that I had told him the week before. He was so earnest about making sure that I was fully aware of all of the facts that I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I already knew that.

Bob was somewhat of an alarmist. He liked to warn of disasters about to strike. During his stint with Martha’s Vineyard Emergency Management he gave a seminar at the Chappy Community Center regarding what to do and what to expect when it came to hurricanes and tornadoes and the aftermath of such major storms. Among other hair-raising possibilities, he pointed out that large reptiles often take refuge behind major appliances when they are driven from their normal habitat by floodwaters. Perhaps it was because Bob told them in such wide-eyed seriousness about this nightmarish scenario that several Chappaquiddick women beseeched their husbands to seal up all of the little holes throughout their first floors where vipers and boa constrictors could gain entrance.

I asked Bob what in the world would possess him to tell a housewife to check for snakes behind the stove. He said that it was in the pamphlet and that he was just trying to be thorough.

Bob was a pack rat and consummate recycler. His front stoop is constructed of old Chappy ferry railings and seats. He was very thrifty and agonized over replacing his old worn out pickup. He had a knack for scavenging firewood. During the days of run-away erosion at Wasque, when cedar trees were on the brink of falling over the bluff, he would tie them back just in case the erosion ceased the next day and they could live on. He liked to save anything, anyway that he could.

Bob was delighted to have the opportunity to come to another’s rescue. He often had the tools and experience to fix unique mechanical problems. He was a mentor to many youthful deckhands over the years, encouraging them to get their licenses to drive the ferry. He was eager to be helpful. He gladly stayed at the ferry until way after midnight to bring home the Catch and Release Fishing Tournament participants as well as get out of bed at 4 a.m. to get the Chappy kids to their fishing derbies.

As much as Bob seemed to occasionally attract a little black cloud to hover over his head, I know that he was also a very hopeful romantic. A few years ago, a long-ago girlfriend of his was planning a visit to the Vineyard. She accepted his invitation to stay at his house. He told me that he was nervous about seeing her again after so many years. He thought that perhaps she might still have feelings for him. He thought that perhaps he still had feelings for her. He had decided a week before she arrived, that if she so desired, that he would be happy to marry her. Of course, that would depend upon whether Bob’s akita, Cane, liked her. Since Cane seemed to like everyone, Bob figured it was a done deal. After she had departed I asked Bob how the visit went. “Good. We had lots to talk about.” I asked if he was getting married. “Naw.” And with that, we were on to the next subject.

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