The Chappaquiddick Ferry
Patrick was the quietest of the ferry captains who piloted the On Time II and On Time III—a pair of green and white barges scarcely big enough to carry three cars and assorted bicycles and foot passengers across the 527-foot channel of water that separates Chappaquiddick Island from Edgartown and the rest of Martha’s Vineyard.
Chapter 1, “The Hermit of Chappaquiddick”
The tiny Chappy ferry is our lifeline to Chappaquiddick. Starting at 6:45 in the morning and running through midnight (somewhat more restricted hours off season), it connects us to the “Big Island,” as we call Martha’s Vineyard. Newcomers are surprised by the boat’s modest dimensions: the longer of the two ferries measures 64 feet long and 18 feet wide—just large enough to hold three cars. In high season, two ferries run in tandem, crisscrossing midway through the harbor.
We’ve ridden the Chappy ferry in fog, rain, sleet, and snow. Last summer we watched with awe as Captain Bob Gilkes (who took the handsome photo on the cover of Island Apart) ferried an ambulance with a medical emergency across the harbor in the 60 mile-an-hour winds that followed in the wake of hurricane Irene.
But the Chappy ferry is more than just a means of transportation in Island Apart. I consider it a character—a witness personified by ferry captain Patrick Riordan to the vicissitudes and moods of Claire, the Hermit, and the other characters. It takes Claire literally and symbolically from illness to health, from society to solitude to companionship, and it sets the stage—it is the stage—for the two most dramatic events in Claire’s life on Chappaquiddick.
If you happen to ride the Chappy ferry, or just hang around Edgartown, you’ll see a T-shirt with the questions most commonly asked of the Chappy ferry captains and deckhands. To help you know the ferry and our island better, here’s how the Hermit might answer the questions.
1. Where is the town of Chappaquiddick? You know, with the stores and restaurants?
There is no town. There are no hotels or restaurants. That’s why most of us choose to live here. There is the tiny Chappy store, which sells groceries and t-shirts–open most of July and August.
2. Where is the Kennedy bridge?
There is no “Kennedy bridge.” There is a Dyke Bridge that leads from Chappaquiddick to East Beach, and it was here, on July 18, 1969, that Senator Kennedy accidentally drove a black Oldsmobile off the bridge and his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned.
3. Did he really swim the harbor?
At that time of night and before the advent of cell phones, there was no other way to get across.
4. Where does the Chappy ferry go?
To Chappaquiddick and back to Edgartown. That’s it. Depending on the weather, the crossing takes about 2 minutes.
5. Why are there so many cars in the line today?
Each ferry can carry only three cars, so when a lot of people want to visit Chappaquiddick, they have to wait in line. Of course, why people would want to visit Chappaquiddick, with its bumpy dirt roads and ferocious mosquitos, is beyond me.
6. Do you need reservations?
You neither need nor can make reservations for the Chappy ferry. It’s first come, first serve. However, if you want to leave the island earlier than the first 6:45 ferry, you can pay for a private crossing.
7. Why did they tear down the bridge that used to be here?
There was never a bridge across Edgartown Harbor. In 1923, some local businessmen floated plans for a bridge—described in Chapter 20, “The Elephants in the Room” in Island Apart.
8. When will the next boat be in?
Each crossing takes about 2 minutes, with another 2 to 5 minutes to load cars and passengers. So normally, you rarely have to wait for more than 5 minutes for another boat.
9. I remember when it cost 35 cents. What happened?
Lucky you. Today, the round trip costs $4 for a foot passenger and $10 for a car with a driver.
10. How do you say W-A-S-Q-U-E?
Theories vary on the correct pronunciation of Wasque, the Wampanoag Indian name for the southeast corner of Chappaquiddick. (The term meant “Place of Ending.”) My wife and I, following the example of local friends, say “Waysh-quee.”)
Want to read more about the Chappy ferry? Check out The Chappy Ferry Book by Tom Dunlop (Vineyard Stories): http://vineyardstories.com/book.php/19/The-Chappy-Ferry-Book