Recently there have been a flurry of posts about the old Islander steamship on the social media Facebook site Islanders Talk. Apparently there was nothing in particular to spark the posts, just a random comment that set off an avalanche of remembrances, simply because of the fact that people really had a soft spot for the “old tub,” as she was called.
Maybe the comments were rooted in nostalgia, and maybe people yearn for earlier days when things were simpler and more reliable. And the old Islander was nothing if not simple — it looked like it had been carved out of a block of balsa wood by a kid with a jackknife.
The Islander crossed between Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard for more than 50 years; in 2007, she was replaced by the larger and more luxurious Island Home.
But comment after comment revealed that the Islander was not just a form of transportation, she was an integral and intimate part of people’s lives.
I reached out to Sara Costa about her effusive post, and she emailed me back: “When I was in high school, I traveled on the Islander to basketball games against other schools. She took me school shopping every fall, to Boston when family members were sick. I will always remember her with love because my memories, good and bad, are firmly connected to her.”
Others spoke of how reliable the Islander was. “I knew she would be there as scheduled,” wrote Lee Ann Tavares, “and make the trip on time. She wasn’t fancy, but she was dependable!”
Bob Gosselin posted, “No matter the weather, she always ran.”
And Dana Nunes emailed me, “She could handle rough water better than any of the other boats, and was reliable as clockwork. During her years of operation, there was never any of the now-constant anxiety over whether the boat was going to run. Except for the weather, it never, ever occurred to us that the boat wouldn’t depart when scheduled. Now we leave a day ahead of whatever we have scheduled, to be sure we get there on time.”
Of course one of the reasons the Islander was reliable was that she dared sail in conditions that might intimidate other boats.
In an email to me, Mary White recalled one of the Islander’s more tempestuous trips. “My most exciting trip was heading home from Boston, tail end of a hurricane, sitting near the food counter watching waves smash up against the windows as she broke through the seas! Even the sound was frightening! Only trip that made me seasick … but she was ‘old reliable.’”
But many others recalled the more peaceful side of the Islander. Dana Nunes remembers, “It was an easier time — as a teenager, I used to sit up on the bulkhead at the top of the stairs overlooking the car deck, something unthinkable now, but then nobody gave it a second thought.”
An easier time indeed. I can remember when I was racing to catch the Islander in Woods Hole as the boat was departing, and the crewmember advised me to jump for it. Those were the days.
Nunes also remembers “quiet off-season nights coming back home, the Islander gently rolling, someone playing guitar …”
While Carolee Souweine Gooderl Haruff put her experience more succinctly: “Drive on, haul butt upstairs, hang over the rail, enjoy the salt air and breeze.”
Kate Putnam missed the funky green deck chairs. “I loved the deck chairs that you could move around and form your own group,” she said. “I miss that boat.”
Whereas with Albie Scott, it was all about the chow. “Steamed hot dogs, buns from the hot press, mustard, relish, and onions, washed down with a couple of Buds,” he said.
David Bigelow emailed me, “I was just a child when the Islander was in service, but she was a sturdy girl. It wasn’t as spacious as the more modern vessels we have now.”
Dana Gaines posted, “While at MVRHS, I did this drawing for a story written by my wonderful Edgartown School English teacher Shirley Mayhew, about the circus coming to M.V.” And Shirley’s daughter Deborah Mayhew emailed me, “Mom memorialized the Islander in her self-published children’s book, based on a true historical event.”
Tom Hodgson talks about his earliest memories on the Islander: “My first rides on her were when I was a toddler. I still remember the varnished white oak banquette seats with red fake leather upholstery.” Hodgson also had a theory about the Islander’s longevity. “Part of the Islander’s charm,” he wrote me, “is maybe that she served so long. You know how much Vineyarders hate change!”
He also had thoughts on the implications of the Islander being a double-ender. “You always knew that if you got on walking in one direction, you’d keep going in the same direction to get off. Part of the Islander’s charm may have been that it was so symmetrical, so easy to orient yourself on, compared to the rabbit warrens that some of the bigger, newer boats are. It was at least 10 or 20 trips before I felt I could get from one place to another on the Island Home.”
In March 1980, the Islander suffered a near-fatal blow. Michaela Henderson recalls in a post, “I remember the Islander when it hit rocks in O.B., we were down on the beach watching.”
And “Capt. Everett” posted, “The Island grapevine word of mouth spread fast, and spectators came from [all across the Island] to sit on the bluffs of Pay Beach to witness the fire trucks pumping the water off the car deck to keep Ol’ Islander afloat!”
One of the salvage divers, Barry Clifford, went on to discover the remains of the pirate ship Whydah, and along with other Island volunteers, kept the Islander from sinking in what amounted to a heroic effort.
Antoinette Snow, in an email to me, recalled another close call for the Islander in the aftermath of Hurricane Carol in 1955. “In Hurricane Carol, the Islander was pushed up on the pier, then when the storm surge quickly retreated, she was impaled on the spiles, and we had no ferry service for weeks.”
But it wouldn’t be weather that ultimately would be the downfall of the Islander, it would be the ravages of time. In 2007, the Islander was tired after 57 years of service, and scheduled to be replaced by the Island Home. The beloved Islander was scrapped, and ultimately junked in a ship graveyard off Staten Island, N.Y.
“I didn’t realize how much the Islander meant to me,” posted Sarah Costa, “until I found the picture of it in the ‘Boat Graveyard,’ reduced to a huge scrap of rusty metal. That’s when my tears started to flow down my face.”