Taking a ride with a South Ferry captain

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Captain Jon Westervelt of South Ferry, at the controls during one of 30 round trips he makes in a nine hour shift.

When asked what a typical day working on the South Ferry entails, Captain Jon Westervelt summed it up in just a few words: “We go back and forth. That’s what we do.”

After 35 years on the job, it’s an easy summation for Captain Westervelt, but if you enquire further, you’ll discover his job is so much more than that.

Tuesday morning, with the sun shining but the air crisp, the Suffolk Times went along for the ride at South Ferry. All was calm out on the water, so the approximately five-minute trip from Shelter Island to North Haven was “just another day” for the captain.

He skillfully maneuvered the ferryboat across his pilot-in-training, Liam Schulz, performed routine safety checks and closely observed his mentor. “Once a month, we service the boat, change the oil, and make sure everything — the radars, radios, devices, and man overboard rescue equipment — is all working properly,” the captain was saying.

Down below, two young deck hands loaded cars, trucks and people onto the boat, carefully balancing the vessel. Captain Westervelt is one of three instructor captains who teach newly licensed operators how to safely drive the boats.

What exactly does it take to drive one of these things? “Some instruction. But mostly common sense,” the captain said, with Mr. Schulz nodding in agreement. “It’s nerve-wracking, definitely, but also a rewarding experience.”

It’s drummed into trainees that timing is crucial, especially while docking adjusting constantly on the fly to wind, tides, and speed.

There’s a mandate of 60 hours of driving newly licensed operators must complete before they are able to go it alone, but Captain Westervelt said that everyone he’s trained has had “much more experience” on the boats than the required minimum.

The ferryboat he was driving Tuesday morning was commissioned in 1997 and was South Ferry’s first “big” boat. “The day it arrived, we put it right to work,” the captain recalled. “It was a game changer,” he added, referring to immediately helping alleviate an increase in ferry traffic.

Formerly known as the M/V Southern Cross, it was recommissioned by the company in 2010 to honor the memory and sacrifice made by 1st Lieutenant Joseph Theinert, a Shelter Island native killed on active duty in Afghanistan. Joey worked summers at the South Ferry as a deck hand from 2007 to 2009.

The Lt. Joseph Theinert can hold up to 18 vehicles, compared to the smaller boats that transport about 10. It’s one of three big boats the company operates, in addition to a fourth smaller boat. On busy days, or on days like last week when traffic was higher than usual due to road closures on Route 39 on the South Fork, all four boats are put out, transporting hundreds of people across the narrow channel.

The traffic, though, isn’t close to being the hardest part of the job. “It’s the elements,” explained Captain Westervelt. He takes a stoic approach. “Each winter seems to be getting a little bit longer, but it comes with the job.”

With so many years on the job, the man does have stories. One that he won’t ever forget is an emergency evacuation during Hurricane Sandy. Sandy’s record tides flooded roadways and the water between the ramp and boat deck was too much for an ambulance to navigate. So when an elderly woman had to be taken to Southampton Hospital, a Good Samaritan with a pickup truck, along with Island first responders and Captain Westervelt braved the storm to help safely transport the patient. It was at the height of the hurricane’s fury, but despite winds up to 90 mph and rising water, there was no question what had to be done.

“Getting everyone across safely was the only option,” Captain Westervelt said. “These challenges test your knowledge of the water.” But that day howling winds and record high tides weren’t the biggest dangers. It was all the debris — some of it massive — floating and surging in the wicked swells.

His stoicism is a method he uses approaching the future. “Sandy wasn’t the first hurricane, and it won’t be the last,” he said, not forgetting to add that he couldn’t have brought the woman safely across without the combined efforts of police and fire department personnel, EMTs, and his coworkers.

The Clark family’s connection to the South Ferry Company dates back to 1714. “This is a family-run business,” said President Cliff Clark. His nephew, Bill Clark, is the family historian, having researched everything from family lineage to the details of every boat ever used by the company.

Mr. Clark explained that in the 18th century, the method of crossing was a sailboat. In 1832 Samuel G. Clark introduced the first barge ferry and in the early 1900s Clifford Youngs Clark incorporated the company and brought in motorboat and “double-enders,” similar to today’s boats.

A native of New Jersey but graduate of Shelter Island High School, Captain. Westervelt started working for South Ferry after graduation, when Cliff Clark’s father was still the boss. “So I feel like I’m a part of the family here,” he said,

The captain recalled coming to Shelter Island on a whim, courtesy of his father. A family friend had a house here on the Island and suggested to his father, then a tugboat captain in New York City, that he “should come out here and drive the ferries,” he said. “It’s kind of funny where people end up.”

And so each day, Captain Westervelt and his crew set out to do more than go back and forth, but to safely get people to where they need to be. In one nine-hour shift, they make around 30 round trips. With 15-18 cars on a boat, and the tendency to fill them to capacity especially during the summer, they are always kept busy.

As Captain Westervelt joked, “You do the math.”