Column: Long live the Queen that sailed for 50 years

08/18/2019 6:01 AM |

I was 11 when my father parked a brand-new Pontiac in our driveway. He named her Yvonne because he liked the way Yvonne LeMans rolled off his tongue.

On our first ride I sat on the back seat with my two sisters, bound for outer space. The motor sounded like the roar of a lightly-sedated tiger; the upholstery was clean and smooth. We rode around the block with my dad at the wheel, and my mother in the passenger seat.

I’m looking forward to reliving the feeling of a brand-new ride when the North Ferry Company puts The Menhaden into service later this summer. Will it hum companionably? Will it be so capacious that it will carry 40 Mini Coopers and a pool-water truck at the same time?

Will it have that new-ferry smell?

In 2003, Mike and Trish Bebon had the honor of accidentally being the first official passengers on The Mashomack — the first of the 25-car boats — when, planning to leave Shelter Island on the first boat of the morning, they got to the ferry way too early. When someone approached their car and asked how long had they “camped out” to be sure they were first, they were puzzled.

“We weren’t even aware that it was the first trip of the new boat,” Mike said. “We just have a habit of arriving early for everything.”

Acquiring a new ferry, like buying a new car, can mean parting with the old one, and alas for riders of the North Ferry, the time is fast approaching to say goodbye to The Islander, a boat that is called “The Queen” by her crew. Near the end of her 50-year reign, The Islander is a rusty link to times past.

There were ferry lines so long you bonded with your line-neighbors and joined them in freezing out any miscreants who attempted to cut in. With just enough space for 10 lucky cars to come aboard on each trip, survivors of this Darwinian process lost their troubles somewhere in the middle of the bay when the sea air swept away the bad. Foot passengers climbed the rust-lined stairs to the passenger area to say hello to the captain and take in the views. Inefficient, possibly dangerous, it was the best 15-minute ride ever.

Bill Cummings, who runs the House on Chase Creek, grew up on the Island and remembers riding the Islander when he was so small he had to stand on the bench in the passenger cabin to see out the windows during the crossing.

Paul McDowell, president of North Ferry, remembers telling his parents that he and his brother were going for a walk in the woods when they wanted to slip away in the late ’60s, a precursor of today’s “hiking the Appalachian Trail” excuse for doing something that’s no one’s business. In this case, Paul and his brother walked down to the ferry, boarded The Islander, sat upstairs watching the captain, and took in a Godzilla movie at the Greenport theater while their parents were unaware that their kids were on the lam.

Paul and his brother were not the only members of the McDowell family to use The Islander as a bridge to adventure. Their black lab Poker used to sneak onto the ferry, disembark in Greenport and head for the Drossos Motel, two miles down Route 25, to beg for food. This story sounded fantastical to me until I realized that Pat Lenox was cooking at the Drossos snack bar in those days, and no hound or human can forget her burgers.

Steve Lenox told me of the time he and Eddie Clark were captaining the Islander in the ’70s, during a crossing that was so rough, it resulted in a design modification of the boat. High seas tossed a wave of green water into the boat over the gate, overwhelming the drains on the deck. Suddenly the front of the ferry was filled hip-deep, and the gates had to be opened to drain the water.

As a result of this harrowing trip, a large gap was cut at the bottom of the gate, a modification made to allow water that washed into the boat to drain faster, and the Queen continued to make the roughest crossings safely.

Joanne Sherman tells one of the best ferry stories, a cautionary tale that resonates today and is even better because it is true. A fully-loaded sewage disposal truck boarded the ferry on a hot summer day bound for Shelter Island with sedans packed tightly around it. In the middle of the crossing, a breach in the tank storing raw sewage occurred and the contents — which must have been under pressure — shot in a spurt into the open window of the car parked next to it.

The sewage, a foul-smelling blue slime, continued to spurt out onto the deck while passengers ran for their autos on a surface of slippery waste that gave no purchase.

They pulled off the ferry on Shelter Island, tires splattered with muck as the truck driver abandoned his vehicle in the ferry parking lot and fled. Ferry employees hosed down the vehicles that were on board, many of the passengers, and themselves.

“Not too many people remember the poop-deck incident anymore, but I do,” Joanne said. “Whenever I’m on a boat and parked near a truck whose contents are under pressure, I keep my windows up.”

Gianna Volpe, who hosts a radio program on WPPB every weekday morning, got her start in journalism on Shelter Island. Her memories of the North Ferry from her days working at the Shelter Island Reporter are dear to her.

“I began my cub reporting days watching the sun rise from the ferries heading into the Reporter from Mattituck,” Gianna said. “It’s a meditative trip — and an invitation to remember why I work as hard as I do to live out here.”

Before The Islander retires later this summer, I plan to take another ride or two and remember the good times, like climbing up the stairs to the warm passenger room to watch my sons peer through the windows into the gloom of a frozen winter night, and their excitement when they spotted the lights of the ferry slip on the Shelter Island side.

We’ll make new memories on The Menhaden but I’ll never forget the Queen.

Photo credit: Charity Robey

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