Chappaquiddick resident Peter Wells has been hanging around the Chappy ferries since he was was a boy. He has been working on the ferries since 1966 and a captain since 1974. He has owned the ferry service since 2008 and he says he is still learning the business.
The Chappaquiddick Ferry operates two 64-foot boats, the “On Time II” and the “On Time III.” They shuttle everything there is to be shuttled between Edgartown and the island known by locals as “Chappy.” Cement mixers, flatbed trucks filled with lumber, cars, vans, buses, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and their dogs — it’s all moved across the 527-foot channel on either one of the Chappy ferries.
The roundtrip passenger fare is $4. A car and driver costs $12 roundtrip.
“It’s a 24-hour a day job,” Mr. Wells said with a chuckle. “It’s exhausting: I think and worry about it all the time.” He said he worries a little less now than when he first purchased the business from prior owner Roy Hayes in January of 2008. In part because his son-in-law, Erik Gilley, a trained boat motor mechanic and diver, and his daughter, Molly, are now working with him.
It is a good arrangement, according to Mr. Wells. He and his wife Sally Snipes Wells live across the road from their extended family, Erik, Molly and their three grand children on Chappaquiddick.
The learning curve has sometimes been expensive. “When I first took over I had a cell phone with a 10-hour a month calling plan,” Mr. Wells said. At the end of the first month I owed $450. “People often don’t realize what it takes behind the scenes to keep things going.”
During summers more than 30 people work for him, mostly drivers. “There are days when nothing really happens, no big accidents, or crises,” he said.
Then there are days when they don’t make any headway on any of their ongoing projects, mostly maintenance and upgrades. “I told Erik when he mentioned a lack of progress one day that we operated the ferry and got people back and forth all day long,” Mr. Wells said. “We accomplished our primary goal.”
Mr. Wells’s association with the Chappy ferry began long before he began driving the boats across the Edgartown channel. He was a young red-headed boy when his father brought the family to Chappy after retiring from a career in the Air Force. Up to that time he had lived in many different places. “It must have been when I was in the sixth or seventh grade when I started helping out John Willoughby on the ferries,” he said. The boats then were the “City of Chappaquiddick” and the “On Time.”
The Wells family lived on Chappaquiddick in the summer and in “wintered” in Edgartown. He attended the Edgartown School. He worked for the ferry fulltime for 12 years after graduating from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 1974. Even after moving on to a 20-year career as a surveyor with Glenn Provost, he worked part-time, mostly weekends, on the boat.
After retiring from surveying, Mr. Wells went back to working more hours on the ferry with Mr. Hayes. In 2007 Mr. Hayes began talking to other ferry companies about buying the business when he decided to sell. Mr. Wells said he couldn’t imagine having the same working relationship with another company owning the ferries, and he started to think about buying the boat himself.
He said that he gave it a lot of thought. He had learned to work with a variety of Island governments and organizations working as a surveyor and though he had never had a hand in the business of the ferry he certainly knew the boats and what it took to keep them running. They worked out a deal. Mr. Wells took over early in 2008.
The ferry had operated without a significant problem for many years until two months after Mr. Wells purchased the business. A tragedy was narrowly averted when a woman ran her car off the bow of the ferry as it was about to dock. He said the car landed on a shallow spot that allowed the occupants to escape. “I had seen this happen in my nightmares many times,'” he said. “We were lucky no one was injured.” Nothing like it has happened since.
Even with the responsibility of providing a service that the residents of Chappaquiddick rely on, Mr. Wells said that he appreciates having a job that gives him the daily freedom to chose what he will do, even if it is almost always ferry-related.
One of his projects is building a third boat. He said that it would look just like the On Time III. He said that if one of the boats were to break down in the summer when the two boats are in use constantly during the day they would be in real trouble. He is researching different materials for the new boat and is looking at ways to make the boats more fuel-efficient. He is considering converting the boats to diesel-electric hybrid power-trains which he points out could be recharged at night when the ferries aren’t running.
He said when he bought the business he knew ferries, and now he said he knows people a lot better. And he knows the business. “It’s about people and its boats we do,” he said. “I’m getting the hang of it.”
In the beginning he said he was worried about all kinds of things he realized later he didn’t need to worry about or shouldn’t worry about because he couldn’t do anything about them. He has since learned there were other things he should have been worried about. “I am learning as I go,” he said.
“It’s a good job for me. I like this job. It’s pretty easy making the decisions living on this side and depending on the ferry just like everyone else does.” He said that he enjoys “the sociability of it.”
Mr. Wells is 60 years old and much of that early signature red hair has matured into other colors, the colors of a grandfather. The business has been running pretty well, but he still has a number of goals that he hopes to achieve, none more important than making sure his granddaughters, the ones who live across the road, “have a place to work when they are old enough to help people get back and forth on the ferry.”
Even though the ferry does not run late at night and it runs on a shortened schedule during the winter, the boats are always available in the case of an emergency. But don’t call the ferry numbers. Call 911 or 508-693-1212 from a cell phone. For more information on the Chappy Ferry go to www.chappyferry.com
The Chappy Ferry is the subject of a Martha’s Vineyard Museum exhibit that runs through December 22. For more information go to www.mvmuseum.org.