Small subject, big story in Tom Dunlop and Alison Shaw’s “Chappy Ferry”


Thursday, May 31: This article has been updated.

“The Chappy Ferry Book: Back and Forth Between Two Worlds – 527 Feet Apart,” by Tom Dunlop, photos by Alison Shaw. Vineyard Stories, July 1, 2012. 128 pp. $25.95.

At the age of four, author Tom Dunlop developed a fascination that would stay with him throughout his adult years and eventually propel him to use his writing talents to honor the object of his obsession – the Chappy Ferry.

In his attractive, fact-filled coffee table book — full of beautiful photos by Alison Shaw as well as renderings by local artists, archival photos, and old newspaper clippings — Mr. Dunlop has explored the history of service to and from tiny Chappaquiddick Island.

Whether you choose to read the book cover to cover or just flip through, “The Chappy Ferry Book: Back and Forth Between Two Worlds – 527 Feet Apart” satisfies as both an art book and a good read. The magazine-style format allows for quick perusal with short chapters, factoid and human interest snapshot sections, and a table of the end of each chapter that compares vital information such as the year-round population on Chappy (fluctuating from 12 to 200) and the ferry fares ($.02 to $2 for a passenger)

Alison Shaw, in her inimitable style, manages to take a small subject and artistically interpret it in dozens of ways. Each shot is gorgeous, whether it encompasses the entire Edgartown harbor or a tiny detail. A remarkable achievement that once again proves what an enduring talent Ms. Shaw has for capturing Vineyard life and finding beauty in the everyday.

In the book’s introduction, Mr. Dunlop makes a bold claim that the Chappy ferry “does its part to alter the political affairs of a nation and the popular culture of a planet.”

Unlikely as that may seem, the author makes an excellent argument in defense of this assertion as he describes the role that the ferry played in two events that put the Vineyard on the map in the 20th century – the 1969 fatal accident involving senator Edward Kennedy, and the filming of “Jaws” in 1974.

Although these are the two most notable times that the tiny ferry was called into service, the rest of the boat’s history makes up the bulk of the book and, surprisingly, provides some very interesting fodder for a professional author who has collaborated with Ms. Shaw on two other chronicles of Island life: “Morning Glory Farm and the Family That Feeds an Island” and “Schooner: Building a Wooden Boat on Martha’s Vineyard,” both published by Vineyard Stories.

A peek inside

The book is divided into 12 chapters, one for each of the owners of the ferry during its 200-year history — from a single row boat that was summoned by a bell to the current incarnation, a pair of motorized barges that were specially designed by Islanders to serve the unique needs of the community.

In a short documentary DVD that is included with the book, Mr. Dunlop states, “I think anything there is to know about Martha’s Vineyard is in Chappaquiddick — and everything there is to know about Chappaquiddick is in the Chappy ferry.” Through this microcosm view, the reader truly does get the story of Martha’s Vineyard — the growth that was at first welcomed, then feared, and the individualist spirit that still defines the Island community today. The book is full of fun anecdotes, colorful characters, snippets of all but forgotten news, and even quaint old newspaper advertisements.

The ferry

With the evolution of the boat, we see the changes, not only in technology but in the demands of the day and, in the spirit of ingenuity embodied by the ferry’s owners and designers, we see Vineyard individuality and self-sufficiency at its best.

The unique characters whose ongoing ownership of the small-scale ferry service have made it, according to the book, the third longest running business on the Island, covering a range of eccentricity from Jimmy Yates, who throughout the 1920s pulled the oars of his oversized rowboat outfitted in full captain’s regalia to his predecessor Charlie Osborn, who, although legally blind, managed the trip back and forth for 40 years before leaving the task to his simple-minded and equally poor-sighted son.

The ferry has made front page of the local news a handful of times in its history and Mr. Dunlop describes incidents in which it caught on fire, was struck by a seaplane, and dumped an SUV and its intoxicated driver and her passengers into the harbor.

However, these incidents are really the only drama in a history that is otherwise remarkable for its smooth sailing. “The success of the ferry is that it almost never makes the news,” Mr. Dunlop said in a telephone interview. “You want to ride a ferry that’s reliable and operates effectively.”

The amazing thing is that, from the time that the first motorized version was launched in 1935, the builders had no prototype. There had never been anything like it before. Previously a barge was towed by a row boat or motor boat. The design by owner Tony Bettencourt and legendary Island boatbuilder Manual Swartz Roberts, was powered by a car engine. Unusual in the extreme, the state refused to license it until it could prove its seaworthiness for a year.

Without exception, the ferry’s owners have all proven to be innovators who have each left their mark on the ever-evolving design of utility vessels, and their stories make for very interesting reading. Their backgrounds vary — the original ferryman was a southerner, another was from the Azores. Some came from nautical backgrounds, others were just interested in finding a profitable niche on the Island. However, they all shared a love for the Vineyard and a passion for the little ferry that has attracted more than a few lifelong fans.

Among these is 20-year sports television veteran John Wilson, who produced “The Chappy Ferry Movie.” Mr. Dunlop and Mr. Wilson have known each other since they were both summer kids on the Vineyard. Mr. Dunlop says that, like himself, Mr. Wilson, “has been completely taken with this operation since he was a little boy.”

When the veteran producer and director found out about Mr. Dunlop’s project he volunteered to bring his own expertise to the ferry’s story and his professional imprint is very much in evidence in the charming video, complete with wonderful aerial shots and fun interviews with, among others, Dick Ebersol, the former chairman of NBC Sports.

Another ferry fan jumped on board when he heard about the project. Musician Kevin Keady adds one of his characteristically homey folk ditties to the DVD.

Mr. Dunlop spent six months researching his book — putting in 15 hour days, seven days a week. He has uncovered a wealth of biographical information, wonderful old pictures of not just the ferry but Chappaquiddick and Edgartown in earlier days, and clippings and advertisements from the Vineyard Gazette. The project was a true labor of love and one that rewarded the author in many ways.

“I got to know Chappaquiddickers, people at the museum, at the courthouse, at the newspaper,” he says. “There’s no better way of making friends on Martha’s Vineyard than by writing a book.” Mr. Dunlop discovered that everyone he approached was happy to talk and he found more than he had even bargained for in his research — both archival and anecdotal. “It’s been amazing riding the wave of this story. I had no idea the story was going to unspool the way it did.

“There’s a really keen appreciation of history on this Island. I don’t know of any place that has as much interest in its past.”