Potluck on Chappy

On a foggy winter day, the Chappy ferry makes its familiar run. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

What brings a crowd of Chappaquiddickers together in early December that doesn’t even involve a controversy? Last Wednesday, at the fourth annual Chappy Ferry Captain and Crew Appreciation Potluck, nearly 100 residents gathered at the Chappaquiddick Community Center to celebrate the captains and crew who bring us home across the Edgartown channel so reliably day after day. Many of us on this island-off-an-island live down long dirt roads and are not generally social types, but this particular evening brought out even those who would otherwise never consider attending a potluck and aren’t seen at the Community Center any other time of the year.

Since the breach at Norton Point in 2007, the Chappy ferry, owned by Peter Wells and his wife, Sally Snipes, is the only way on and off the island. In the middle of winter, there are probably fewer than 100 residents, and the fact of living on this little island gives us Chappaquiddickers a sense of being in it together. Our dependence on the ferry gives us a special common bond. As Edo Potter said about the ferry, “It’s a gathering place where people meet and talk and get gossip. I always look forward to a trip over on the ferry.” Sometimes our common bond is grumbling about the ferry lines or the priority vehicles that get to cut the line, but because we rely on the captains (AKA ferry drivers), we appreciate the job they do and how reliably they do it.

There are seldom times when the ferry doesn’t run because of the weather; the channel is in the lee during most storms. The Chappy ferry often runs even when the Steamship is cancelled. The ferry drivers brave the winds and currents on days it doesn’t seem as if anyone should be out on the water. In the middle of a winter evening, in fact, no one else might be anywhere nearby on land or sea, should something go wrong. Peter said, “Once when someone complained about one of the captains being kind of gruff or short with them, I explained they should look at the captains like they’re Pony Express ponies. If they get too tame they can’t do the job, going out in all the rain and weather.”

Last Wednesday at the potluck, Community Center board president Marvene O’Rourke said the captains needed no introduction, and then proceeded to call each one up to the front while the crowd clapped and cheered. A loud hoot went out for captains Jeff LaMarche and Becca Hamilton, who met working on the ferry and recently got engaged to be married.

After applauding the captains, the movie screen on the wall was pulled down for a video slideshow put together by Captain Liz Villard. The first part of the show was pictures of the ferry crew working the chains and ramps, set to the chain gang song. (“That’s the sound of the men working on the chain ga-a-ang.”) Although the captains will say that each trip across the channel is different, Liz captured what has to be a certain amount of tedium in going back and forth, hour after hour.

The second section of the slideshow was on alternative means of transportation, which ranged from paddleboard to a giant Greek ferry, which had flattened the side of a wharf building. The crowd groaned and laughed at other ferry mishaps including a shot of the Balboa, California, ferry, a boat similar to the On Time, with a car dangling off the bow, it having been pushed over the edge by the vehicle behind it. The third section was shots of this year’s captains and crew at work, set to Kevin Keady’s “One Way Home,” a song commissioned by Peter for the DVD included in The Chappy Ferry Book, which was written by Tom Dunlop and published by Vineyard Stories. Some of the captains hadn’t made the dinner, like seasonal captain Tara Whiting, town clerk of West Tisbury, and Keith Jackson, who recently left the ferry after many years, having started as a deckhand.

We get to know the ferry drivers over time, through conversations limited to one minute or shorter — the time it takes to cross the channel. We know Charlie, who has driven the ferry for nearly 30 years, has another home in Boothbay, Maine, even if we don’t know much about it. We know about Bob’s photography skills because we have a photo of a sunrise or moonrise hanging on our walls that he’s given us. We see the captains handling the crowds of summer, responding to all the different ways that people ask for what they can’t have — a ferry after midnight, to cut the line because they’re late for an appointment, to not pay because they’re only going to town for a minute. We’ve seen them at work day after day over the years, and can even tell from across the channel who’s on duty.

Our affection for them remains long after captains move on. We fondly remember John, a long-time ferry driver who was known to fall asleep in the ferry house on quiet winter evenings. “John’s on,” was shorthand for a long wait in the ferry line. Peter likes to quote former captain Nelson Smith who said to someone with a complaint, “No one put a gun in your back and made you move to that God-forsaken rock.”

The captains get to know us Chappaquiddickers, too, from seeing us go back and forth. When Becca and Jeff arrived at the Community Center, Sally said, “they knew who was there because of which cars were in the parking lot. They know us by our cars.” They also know us by our habits of crossing, and by the special events in our lives. Brad, who started driving the ferry in 1983, said, “You get to see people as they’re on their way to do their errands, go get married, to the hospital to have their children…. I feel very much a part of a lot of people’s lives.”

The Chappy ferry has been around for 200 years, with upgrades. Thanks to the diligence of Peter Wells, his son-in-law Erik Gilley, and the captains and crew, the ferry is a part of our everyday lives that we can mostly take for granted. The potluck was a chance for us to appreciate this unique service, as well as being a rare opportunity to socialize on Chappaquiddick. And as Brad said, “It’s nice to get to talk to people for more than a minute.”

Writer Margaret Knight has spent most of her life on Chappaquiddick. She is also the creator of a line of clothing called Wooligans.