Perhaps Chesney caught Olympic fever, or, as do many visitors who fall in love with the Island, she just did not want her vacation to end — or chalk it up to dogs will be dogs. Whatever the reason, shortly after the Steamship Authority ferry Martha’s Vineyard departed Oak Bluffs Monday morning bound for Woods Hole, Chesney, a 12-year-old Brittany, ran through an opening at the stern of the car deck used to pass dock lines and plunged into the swift, swirling currents about one mile off East Chop.
The Martha’s Vineyard had departed the Oak Bluffs SSA terminal at 10:45 am on her 45-minute crossing bound for Woods Hole. On board, the dog’s owner let Chesney out of the car to give her a drink of water, and she disappeared among the vehicles on the freight deck.
Her New Hampshire family, assuming she was wandering around on one of the decks, alerted the crew, and began to search for their missing pet. The family had no idea that Chesney was paddling for her life as she battled the east-running tide. Luckily for Chesney, as the Martha’s Vineyard sailed away, the Island Queen, a seasonal passenger vessel with a dog-loving experienced captain at the helm, had left Falmouth at 10:30 am bound for Oak Bluffs. It would be a fortuitous crossing of paths.
The Island Queen is a traditional ferry of the type widely used to transport passengers in the days before high-speed catamarans. The 125-foot-long, 99-ton vessel cruises at 12 knots, and passengers enjoy sitting outside as part of the experience, particularly on a warm, beautiful August day.
“We were running with a pretty full boat,” Capt. Ron Rock, her captain for the past 24 years, told The Times. By coincidence the passengers included two members of the Coast Guard, along on a routine security patrol.
As the Island Queen approached the green buoy that marks the channel off East Chop at about 11 am, Captain Rock saw something in the water.
“I put the binoculars on it and I recognized it as a dog,” he said. “So my first mate was on the bridge and I told him what was going on. I told him, ‘we’re going to go try to retrieve the dog.’”
The captain slowed the ferry, had his crew go to their emergency positions and attempted to get close. “The dog at this point was quite panicked and was swimming erratically — in circles, one way then the other way — so it was difficult for me to make an approach that was going to be safe for the dog,” he said.
The high sides of the Island Queen presented a problem. The captain considered deploying the ship’s Jacob’s ladder, used to rescue a person in the water, but it would require a crewmember to go over the side — which always presents a risk and was not a decision he would make lightly.
Captain Rock spotted a recreational boat fishing about one quarter of a mile away. He sounded the marine danger signal to get his attention — five quick blasts of the horn.
Michael Hamel was fishing with family members aboard his Grady White, Lovely Day, out of Falmouth when he realized something was wrong.
“All of a sudden the Island Queen turned around and started circling something,” Mr. Hamel told a WCVB reporter. He saw something white in the water. When he realized it was a dog, he grabbed a fishing net. Chesney, realizing salvation was at hand, swam to the boat and into the net.
On board the Island Queen, passengers began yelling, cheering, and clapping: “Go doggie, go,” one woman can be heard shouting on a video clip provided to The Times by Leslie Souza. Once Chesney was safely on board the Lovely Day, a loud cheer and clapping erupted on the deck of the Island Queen.
Marine Sgt. Leslie Souza, an aviation ordnance technician, was enjoying a one-week vacation in Falmouth and was making a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard with her sister aboard the Island Queen when they thought they saw a seal in the water then quickly realized it was a dog.
Sergeant Souza, who recently returned from a deployment to the Middle East, said the captain and ferry crew did a great job “given the situation.”
Sergeant Souza provided her video to news outlets, because she said, the news is so often about the bad things and “people need to see something good.”
Captain Rock alerted Oak Bluffs harbormaster Todd Alexander that he had tried to pick up a small dog off the green bell off East Chop, but was unable to do it. He told him the Lovely Day had the dog, though, and was heading into the harbor.
Of his efforts, Captain Rock, who owns a Shih Tzu, said, “I was trying to help the dog out.”
Not very happy with dad
Mr. Alexander was waiting at the fuel dock. He said Chesney looked none the worse for wear and “didn’t want any water and didn’t want any food. He was pretty calm,” he said.
One of Mr. Alexander’s assistants took Chesney for a little walk as he tried to get to the bottom of how she ended up in the ocean. Many of the passengers who had been on the Island Queen crowded around the harbormaster’s shed, anxious to know that Chesney was fine. A few passengers told him they thought the dog had jumped off the Woods Hole ferry, Mr. Alexander said.
He called the Dukes County Communications Center, the Island’s central dispatch center for all emergencies, and asked them to contact the Steamship Authority and “see if they were missing a dog.”
The response came back quickly that nobody was missing a dog. He thought perhaps the dog had fallen off a passing boat or swam out from shore, but concluded “neither of those things made much sense.”
Five minutes later the communications center called back: “They said they did indeed have a family that was missing their dog from the ferry.”
Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said the owner had let the dog out of the car to give it water when it took off.
“And the next thing you know, it goes through the chock just below the line-handling door on the stern of the boat — we were probably underway three or four minutes when this happened.”
Mr. Lamson said the owner, “thinking the dog was on the boat somewhere,” asked the crew to help him locate Chesney. It was not until the SSA received a call from the Martha’s Vineyard Communications Center asking if anyone was missing a dog that the mystery of the missing Chesney was solved.
The SSA crews regularly practice man overboard drills. Asked if the crew also practices dog overboard drills, Mr. Lamson chuckled and said, “No, this is the first I can remember anything like this.”
He added, “It sounds like it ended up okay and I’m thankful for that.”
Mr. Alexander called the distraught owner waiting in Woods Hole for news of Chesney. “Obviously, he was very relieved because his wife and three kids were not very happy with him.”
The owner, who said he was very grateful to all involved but declined to speak to The Times about what he said had been a traumatic experience for his family, asked Mr. Alexander to put Chesney on the next ferry to Falmouth. He said his dog liked to jump in the water and pick up rocks.
The harbormaster figured Chesney had had enough ferry rides for one day. He and his wife Kara, who had come down to the harbor to walk the family dog, decided they would deliver Chesney personally and told the family to meet them at the Patriot dock.
“So I put him on the harbormaster boat and took him over,” Mr. Alexander said. “And that was pretty much the end of it. They were very relieved — the kids were crying. It was nice.”