Left behind on the ferry

Lost and found at Steamship Authority has a collection of coats, bottles, and canes, among other things.


The ferry was docking in Woods Hole, but I had one more thing to finish on my laptop. I had plugged in my iPhone charger when the crossing began, but unplugged it from the phone to take a call. Moving quickly, I walked off that night, leaving my 10-foot red cord still plugged into the outlet.

The next morning, I asked a ticket seller to point me in the direction of lost and found. There I met John Elichalt, an eager and helpful Steamship Authority employee who manages the lost and found inside one of the buildings to the side of the Woods Hole terminal.

He told me he would check in with the purser of the MV Martha’s Vineyard, but offered only a glimmer of hope that my charger would show up. “We don’t get a lot of chargers turned in,” he said. I thanked him and headed off on my commute.

A few hours later, Elichalt called and left a message on my cell phone. He had checked with the crew, and no charger, as he predicted, had been turned in. Someone walked away with a fairly new iPhone charger. Merry Christmas.

But I was intrigued. I had put in a request to do a story about the SSA’s lost and found months earlier, and had scheduled the interview before some breaking news pushed it to the back burner. Now it was personal. Inquiring minds wanted to know: What does get turned in, and how do people get reunited with their lost items?

“Water bottles,” Elichalt said pointing to a bin overflowing with a collection of refillable water bottles. “That’s by far, my Number 1.”

Elichalt works Monday through Friday collecting all the stuff left on both the Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket ferry runs. Typically, the pursers keep the stuff until the end of their 24-hour shifts, and then turn it over to him. Items are categorized by date in bins, so “three weeks later, when someone figures out they left something on the boat, I can find it,” he said.

Sometimes, Elichalt gets to play detective, like the time someone left a loved one’s ashes on the ferry. It was 2016, and the name of the deceased was on the outside of the urn. (He didn’t tell me the name and, frankly, I wouldn’t want to embarrass the person’s family.) Elichalt looked up the man’s obituary. He died in 2007, but it offered a very big clue: “He enjoyed summers on Martha’s Vineyard.”

As word spread among employees about the strange discovery, a pilot on one of the ferries heard about it, knew the family, and got in contact with the man’s daughter. The ashes and family were reunited.

“They’re pretty happy when they get something back they lost,” Elichalt said. “That’s the best part of the job. It restores faith in humanity.”

On a recent Monday morning, there were some — shall we say — other interesting things in the collection of goods retrieved from ferry seats. A fuchsia cowgirl hat with a blue star, a pillow with glitter lettering, a Little League baseball, a longboard skateboard, lacrosse sticks, and canes — lots and lots of canes.

“How does somebody forget a cane?” Sean Driscoll, a spokesman for the Steamship Authority, wondered aloud.

Think that’s odd? Elichalt said a wheelchair was left aboard one of the boats last summer.

Elichalt has some advice for travelers, especially those with suitcases. Put a ribbon or some identifying mark on it. Grabbing the wrong one off the luggage cart can be an ordeal for you and the person whose luggage you’ve walked away with, he said.

“That’s a huge problem,” he said. Sure enough, on one of the shelves, was a black suitcase waiting for its owner to call or email.

Things like wallets are easier to solve, especially in the age of Facebook. Elichalt says he uses social media to track down people and send them messages. It’s also pretty easy to get an owner’s iPhone back into his hands, so long as location services are turned on.

Well, except for that one Falmouth Academy student who left his phone on the morning boat from Vineyard Haven to his school bus in Woods Hole. This is how Elichalt recalled that conversation going.

Purser to student: “I found your iPhone. It’s in the ticket office.”

Student: “I know.”

Purser: “Don’t you want to get it?”

Student: “No, I’m hoping my parents will get me the newest model.”

Elichalt hangs onto items in the lost and found for at least 60 days. Coats, which are another popular item to leave behind and are rarely retrieved, are donated to Goodwill, books are brought to the library, and glasses go to a club that specializes in recycling them. He admits that he’s not sure what to do with some of the stuff. There are a couple of pretty large construction belts, filled with tools, tucked under one of the shelves.

Like almost everything having to do with the SSA, the lost and found ebbs and flows with the seasons. “In mid-July, it gets pretty crazy,” Elichalt said.

At the end of every voyage, the purser on duty reminds passengers to check around for any personal belongings. But if you’re like me, and forget, you can reach out to Elichalt by calling 508-548-5011, ext. 238, emailing lostandfound@steamshipauthority.com, or visiting him at his post Monday through Friday from 7 am to 3 pm. (You can ask an SSA employee in the ticket booth for help locating him.) He actually likes when people visit, especially when retrieving things like eyeglasses, which are complicated to match up over the phone.

As for my charger, I’ve given up hope, but Elichalt hasn’t. “I’m still looking,” he said.