The Block Island Times

Ferry engineers make it work

By J. V. Houlihan Jr. | Jun 18, 2011

When I began working on the MV Quonset, our Chief Ted Gelinas referred to the engines as “stone crushers.” Going below into the Quonset’s engine room, I could understand his sense of humor — the sound and vibration of her engines could loosen the fillings in your teeth.

This was one place on board that I didn’t want to spend any portion of my day, if I could possibly help it. Earphones were a necessity. Working on the Quonset is where I got a sense of what went on to, in the Chief's words, “keep the wheels turning and the lights burning” aboard a ferry. This was also where I learned to respect the collective intelligence of Interstate Navigation’s engineers.

Long gone are the days of the Quonset and Chief Gelinas. These days the go-to guy for Interstate’s engine operations is John Tally. John is a graduate of Embry Riddle Aeronautical School in Daytona Beach, Florida, where he studied aeronautical maintenance management. According to captain and engineer Jordan Ryan,“Tally is a very bright guy.”

I agree with Jordan. I also believe that Tally’s mind is such that it would serve whatever intellectual discipline he pursued. John’s logical and analytical thinking skills are obvious when you ask him a question ― about anything. I’ve asked him questions about building houses, computers and diesel engines. Every question was answered in a measured, assured and precise manner. This is the kind of guy you want working on anything with moving parts or a system of logic.

I remember many years ago when John first worked at Interstate, and he always looked, head bowed, like he was thinking while walking onto the ferries. He was mentored by another very bright guy named Dave Jock, who was a Navy Veteran. John was always walking two steps behind Dave. I remember seeing these guys discussing stuff by the engine room, while I loaded freight onto the ferry.

“Dave was old school,” says Tally. Some days you’d come into the shop to say good morning, and be greeted by a wrench flying by your head. You also never asked Dave a question during a job. After the job was done you could — if you were careful to do it the old school way, fetching wrenches, keeping your mouth shut and paying attention.

I got the feeling that Dave followed Interstate’s owner (a very hands on guy) John Wrownoski around like Tally followed him. John also had some serious engineering and mechanical aptitude. I was in the engine room of the Quonset with him once, and he looked right at home checking gauges; it was obvious that he was a man who knew his engines.

Sometimes Tally is seated in the freight shed studying a big fat manual, and pushing some buttons on his computer. Our high-speed ferry Athena requires these accoutrements for her operation. John casually focuses on whatever he’s reading, but I’m sure analytical thinking is driving his brain. I tell young guys who aspire to be engineers to follow Tally around and absorb all he has to offer. I tell them they’ll learn by osmosis — if they don’t ask questions, and fetch the wrenches.

So there you have it folks: This is a thumbnail sketch of what makes the Block Island ferries run on schedule. There is a cast of characters down below in the groaning engine rooms. Maybe someday if you see a guy with grease all over him and earphones strapped to his head, give him a respectful nod or a “hello” and remember that he’s the guy “keeping the wheels turning and the lights burning” and getting you safely to Block Island.

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