Still running on time

Chappy Ferry sees an uptick in riders, and manages to keep crew and customers safe during the pandemic.


If you want to get to and from Chappaquiddick, that beloved little island (and sometimes peninsula) a short distance from Edgartown, you’ll need to get acquainted with the well-loved Chappy car and passenger ferries, aptly named On Time I, II, and III. Research librarian at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum A. Bowdoin Van Riper says, “The first reference to a Chappy ferry service is in 1807, but there’s every reason to think it was older than that. The first modern, barge-style motorized ferry started operating in 1934.” And even our modern global pandemic hasn’t kept the ferries from running their one- to two-minute crossings seven days a week.

In March 2020, life turned on a dime for all of us. The Times asked Chappy Ferry owner Peter Wells how the ferry service pivoted to adapt to the new COVID challenges. “In the very beginning, I remember thinking, ‘My baseline here is that whatever I do on the ferry, it has to make the parents of my young deckhands feel comfortable enough to work here,’” Wells said. “That was my first thought, that I had to convince parents that their kids would be safe. I did pretty well getting kids to come.”

In fact, Wells shared an anecdote about having seen an online chat posting by one of his summer deckhands whom he didn’t recognize at first, since he had never seen him without a mask at work.

Wells said that his main focus early on was definitely trying to find ways to keep his crew safe. “In the beginning,” he says, “it was all about, ‘You can get COVID off a tabletop 48 hours after somebody touched it.’ Turns out that wasn’t true, but we were prepared for that. I also figured that I know a little bit about viruses. They don’t like the bright sun, and they blow away easily in the wind.” Because of the typical direction of the wind, the crew in the ferry house were safe. And Wells painted a sign that instructed walk-on passengers to stay on the opposite side of the crew.

We have all likely had it with wearing masks by now, even though they are part of our daily lives. Masks were another consideration for the Chappy ferry crew.

“The masks came a little slowly for passengers. We ran into some people who said they had exemptions, and I said, ‘Well, my workers on the ferry are essential. Your bike ride to Chappaquiddick is not, so you either put on your mask or you don’t go.’ I ran into one or two people for whom it was a big political issue. But once the town mandated masks outdoors, things went a lot more smoothly,” Wells said. His rules were pretty clear, with a big sign that reads “No Mask, No Service, No Exemptions.”

Wells issued a further protocol after hearing some of his crew were nervous early on about taking tickets from people in their cars. Anyone rolling down a window now has to wear a mask. “We had a couple of scares, but only where our people were involved with contact tracing, and it turned out to be just a scare. None of us got it, and all of us are vaccinated now,” Wells says. “But I still have deckhands who are too young to get vaccinated yet; I have to protect them. So I also just put up a sign that says that masks are still required on the ferry because six-foot social distance can’t be assured. After all, in an emergency, our people are going to be right on top of everybody.”

One of the ferry captains, Andrew Berry, talked about the early period of the pandemic: “Peter was very protective of us. I very much appreciated that. He really wanted to make sure that his crew and captains were safe, and he did a very good job. That was important from my point of view, because it was nice to know that he was looking after his folks. It was comforting because it was a pretty disconcerting time. Yet I never really felt unsafe at all driving the ferry. Frankly, I was happy to be out there. A lot of people were just shut indoors, and I got to go out there and do something. It felt gratifying that I was an important piece of making sure that emergency vehicles could get across.”

Another captain, Brock Callen, who just came on board in May 2020, has only known what it is like to work in a COVID-19 environment. “The good news is that it has gotten easier as time has gone on,” Callen says. “The average passenger better understands the situation that COVID-19 has put on all of us, and is generally respectful about the mask requirements. Initially that was a struggle. But I think as the death count increased, people began to realize, ‘Maybe I need to pay attention.’”

Even though the majority of people were happy to comply with the new protocol, not all of Callen’s experiences were particularly pleasant. “I got everything from ignoring the signage to wear masks to ignoring instructions that I or the deckhand would give. Some of the pushback was verbal, but I hate to say it, I got spit at once. You would get to the point where you would have to say to people, ‘You either put the mask on or you can’t come aboard.’”

Callen said he hated to be in that position because he feels the island is a friendly place. He is particularly enamored of the Chappy residents, whom he says are awesome. “They’re friendly and accepting of me. I never had an issue, and they are spectacular,” Callen says. “In fact, for me, the most pleasant part has been getting to know the Chappy people by name, and in some cases their dogs’ names.”

Berry found the biggest pivot was the volume of traffic. He explains, “The first winter before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time during January, February, and March in the ferry shack. But I spent virtually no time there this winter. It was just constant. I was amazed at how often we had to run two boats periodically because there was so much demand. That had never happened deep in the winter.”

Berry observes that one of the biggest changes was the uptick in winter traffic because of the increased number of people staying here year-round. He observes, “I realized that we’re taking lots of cars back and forth all winter from out of state — Florida, New York, Texas, Louisiana, and even Oregon and Wyoming.”

And now, as we move toward the throng of folks about to descend on both islands this summer, Callen has the right sentiment for everyone: “I guess, hang on!”