Workaday New Bedford fast ferry serves even the Island concert-goer
To the Whaling City to hear Kate sing
John Tiernan, the affable Island terminal manager for the New England Fast Ferry Company, LLC, strides into the terminal with a clipboard on a drizzly Friday afternoon, and calls out, "Anyone here for the concert?" and waits for reactions.
No, it's not the working guys in baseball caps who step up, the guys in cargo shorts and the heavy work boots bound for home at the end of the week. It's the folks out of the J. Crew catalogue, the women in white lace dresses, the men in chinos and penny loafers and sweaters tied at the waist.
The Whaling City Express, one of two fast ferries that sails the Vineyard- New Bedford route. Photo by Ezra Blair
Mr. Tiernan quickly dispenses round-trip tickets. And carrying their bottles of French varietal wines and containers of sushi, the concert-goers get in line among the guys with the toolboxes.
For the regulars, this 55-minute, 24-mile passage is the familiar road home after another profitable workday on Martha's Vineyard. For 27 others, this is the beginning of an adventure, a charter trip to hear Kate Taylor sing at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Jaime Hamlin finds a window seat with her friend Anne Foley, and they settle in as the M/V Martha's Vineyard Express backs, turns, and accelerates. "Whoa, this is fast!" says Anne, looking out. The boat isn't near its cruising speed, but already the sensation is new: Seen through the windows that line the cabin, the Island shore recedes as if in a wide-screen video with the scan button held down.
The twin 1,425-horse Detroit Diesels moan as the ferry settles in at 28 knots. The 65-ton, 99-foot vessel will burn just 80 gallons of fuel on its passage to New Bedford.
Kate Taylor entertained the crowd, including a contingent of Island fans, at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Friday evening. Photo By Nis Kildegaard
Ms. Hamlin has packed plastic glasses and a bottle of Picpoul-de-Pinet, but forgot to drop a corkscrew into her bag. The Steamship Authority's own Bridget Tobin, along for the evening concert, comes to the rescue. "It's Bridget, the mistress of everything!" exclaims Jaime, and she and Anne invite Bridget to sit with them, sip, and socialize.
Bridget has ridden the fast ferry only twice before. "Once," she recalls, "it was to see a Rolling Stones concert; the other time, I went to a funeral in New Bedford."
Bridget sees ferry services like this one playing an increasing role in the Vineyard's future. "I think you'll see a lot more people coming across without their cars," she says. "You'll see more public transportation, trains that get you down to the waterfront, right to the boat - and why not do it that way? You know, it's the old-fashioned way. This trip used to be very popular in the 1950s and '60s."
Traveling on Short Notice
Plans for this trip came together quickly, and the organizers of the outing were Kathleen Parsons and Linda McCarthy.
Kathleen, a resident of Oak Bluffs and an employee of the Steamship Authority since 1981, is a native of New Bedford and still has deep connections there. Her parents live in the city, and her husband is a third-generation member of one of New Bedford's important fishing families. "My maiden name is Sylvia," Kathleen says. "What could be more Portuguese than that?"
Kathleen is a member of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and she learned of this concert in its newsletter. She called Jim Barker, a founding partner of New England Fast Ferry, and they arranged a charter trip to bring the concert crowd home at the end of the night.
Kathleen passed along word of the concert to her friend Linda McCarthy at the beginning of the week. Linda and an up-Island friend, Beth Larsen, got to work calling fellow fans of Kate Taylor, and in short order they'd gathered more than two dozen people to make the trip.
Says Beth: "We just went through our address books, and we put this all together in three or four days. I really think if we'd had more time and had been more organized, we could have filled this boat."
Life in the Fast Lane
As the catamaran ferry approaches New Bedford Harbor, Mr. Tiernan provides a quick tour of the pilothouse. It's a peaceful space, filled with electronics, where Capt. Gibbs Landry stands at the wheel amid an arc of radar and GPS screens.
Capt. Albion Davis is relaxing in an easy chair, catching a lift back to New Bedford - he'll bring the concert-goers home at the end of the night, but he has time now to talk about the twin vessels owned by the fast ferry operation. "They're beautiful-handling boats," he says, "well-suited to these waters, and up here we have all the bells and whistles, as far as safety equipment. We have GPS that's hooked up to a chart plotter, so you know where you are within 50 feet."
Captain Davis allows that his work can be more stressful on a vessel where things happen at nearly 35 miles per hour: "It does take time to get used to it. I came to this from fishing, and it was a jump to going 30 knots after going 10 knots. But it gets more comfortable as you go along."
The fast ferries to New Bedford need little in the way of personnel - captain, mate, and deckhand comprise a full crew. In peak season, two boats run as many as nine round-trips a day to Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven.
Table Talk in New Bedford
Kathleen Parsons meets the Islanders at State Pier in New Bedford and ushers them into buses provided by the city. From dockside, it's only a minute to the Candleworks Restaurant on a cobblestone street in the whaling park district downtown. Candleworks serves high Italian cuisine - the calamari and portobello appetizers alone are enough to make this ferry trip worthwhile.
Among the diners at the Vineyard table is Jim Barker, a founding partner of the ferry company. As New England Fast Ferry heads into its third summer of service, he says he couldn't be happier with how this new enterprise is working out.
His company built its twin ferries, the M/V Whaling City Express and the Martha's Vineyard Express, with cash from the $6 million sale of a ship it owned on the Great Lakes. "We're not a highly leveraged company," he says. "We're basically the bank for ourselves. So even when we're not making a lot of money, we're not having to write a lot of checks. That's how we were able to do this."
Mr. Barker oversaw the construction of both ferries and is proud of the service they provide. He says, "A lot of thought went into these boats prior to construction. First of all, we were evaluated on a hundred different criteria by the Steamship Authority - ride control, passenger comfort, wake - wake was a big one. Also we wanted a fuel-efficient boat that was reliable. We did extensive modeling of the hull forms in Australia, and from our point of view the boats have worked out fantastic."
Running year-round, the new ferry company carried 75,000 passengers as a startup in 2004, the first year of continuous service to New Bedford since the Nobska ended her run in 1960. In 2005, the new service carried 115,000 people; this April, reservations were running 40 percent ahead of last year.
Mr. Barker is heartened. "This is basically an experiment for us, too. We lost money on the startup, but anyone would. We're very encouraged that this company will turn the corner financially in July or August."
He believes there's strong growth potential as Vineyarders learn about this new service. "It's incredible," he says: "One woman on the bus with me said she didn't even know we ran these ferries in the winter, and she's a Vineyard resident."
Several Vineyarders on the boat were surprised to learn that the fast ferry has arranged with Town Car Travel to offer limo service from the New Bedford docks to the terminals at T.F. Green Airport in Providence. It's a 40-minute trip from boat to plane, and it costs only $35 per person.
At the Concert
A short walk brought the well-fed Vineyarders to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where an audience of 220 was filling the brick-walled amphitheatre for an evening with Kate Taylor.
Ms. Taylor is a charmer who builds an easy rapport with her listeners. Her music is by turns wistful, rocking, humorous - and always lyrical. She punctuates her show with quirky little monologues, and seems tickled to see Vineyard fans in the audience. "We're going to get a little ferry thing going here back and forth, oh yeah!" she exclaims at one point. Later, she says, "I'm totally convinced now that we need to make this pathway bigger."
The concert is a generous two sets, with an intermission during which Ms. Taylor holds court in the foyer, signing CDs while visitors wander awestruck beneath the suspended skeletons of a 66-foot blue whale and a 35-foot humpback.
Kathleen Parsons is pleased to have introduced a few dozen Vineyarders to a transportation service she considers vital. "I live on a street in Oak Bluffs where everyone is Portuguese," she says. "In New Bedford, everyone is Portuguese. And everyone has a relative on the other side. So this service restores a big link that was broken for years."
After the concert, city buses again await the Islanders, carrying them back to the ferry. On the trip home, the Vineyarders are excited about the possibilities this service presents: "A group of us," says Linda McCarthy, "are talking now about coming over for a day and exploring the museum."
Beneath the drone of the diesels, we can still hear the strains of the encore Kate Taylor sang after the audience's standing ovation. Perhaps in a send-off to her friends, the traveling Vineyarders, she sang the Huey Smith classic:
Ooo eee, ooo eee baby
Won't you let me take you on a sea cruise?