The Block Island Times

The Chappy Ferry

By J.V. Houlihan, Jr. | Dec 28, 2013
Photo by: J.V. Houlihan Jr. The On Time II takes the one minute trip between Edgartown and Cappaquiddick many times a day. Its 200-year history is recounted in a new book.

The Chappaquiddick Ferry, a.k.a. the Chappy Ferry, is punctual. The On Time II, runs between Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard and Chappaquiddick Island. The trip takes one minute. Back and forth she goes every day. Here’s the drill: the 55-foot ferry leaves the dock after crewmember; Maddie Le Coq, guides the three cars on board and chocks a wheel of the first car. It’s the same style of chock used on the Block Island ferries, only it has a 3-foot vertical extension that makes for perfect placement in front of the tire — safety first.

Next, a chain with chafing gear is fastened across the ferry in front of the car. Then, Capt. Bob Gilkes puts On Time II in gear, and powers her up to head across the channel to the Chappaquiddick loading ramp. While underway, Maddie walks around the boat with a benign countenance and collects the money. The ferry docks and unloads. Then Maddie directs three more cars aboard the ferry, while Captain Bob and I trade places at the helm station so he can be looking at Edgartown for our return trip. Eight round-trips later, with some scribbled notes tucked in my pocket, we say our “good-byes.”

The first Chappy ferry rides were done in a rowboat back in the early 1800s. A guy named Uriah Morse, a cooper in the whaling trade, saw that there was some business and industry going on out on Chappaquiddick. He also noticed that many people who lived out there did not own boats. He saw the need and met the demand, in his rowboat on an as-need basis. The Chappy Ferry remained a rowboat service until 1929; the last guy feathering the oars was named Jimmy Yates. Prior to Jimmy Yates, a guy named Charles B. Osborn rowed the ferry for 40 years — he was blind. The trip from dock to dock is 527 feet. Steven Spielberg’s production designer, Joe Alves, thought it would be a good idea to use the Chappy Ferry in a little film called Jaws. Her stage name became Amity. Needless to say the, the history of this service is quite interesting.

Now we might want to know how much information a scribbling writer could glean in the span of one minute while transiting the 527 feet between the two islands.

“I’m an Oak Bluffs’ boy,” says Captain Bob. He is also USCG Master, a nature and landscape photographer, and does dynamic wood sculpture; ‘tis but a surface scratch for this guy.

Maddie Le Coq was delivering a Hinckley 70 when, in a Pacific storm in French Polynesia, they were dismasted. “We sought shelter in the Cook Islands until Hinckley sent a mast and the rod rigging and put the boat back together,” she said. “And then when we got to Australia, I had to get off the boat.” That phrase hung like a big cumulonimbus cloud — a long story. Walking off the ferry, I wanted to get right back on; I just couldn’t get enough of these characters, and the boat!

Peter Wells is the current owner of the Chappy Ferry. Since 2008, Peter and his wife Sally Snipes have been maintaining this link between the 2 islands. Peter was a deckhand on the ferry during the 60s, graduated from Maine Maritime in ‘74 and returned to Chappaquiddick with a license and became a captain. The shorthand of this guy is that he was fated to be bringing this operation into the future. With two ferries now in operation, Peter and Sally are planning to build a third ferry; if one boat is down in the peak season, there will always be two ferries running to meet the demand. In addition to being a ferry owner, Peter is also a columnist for all the happenings on Chappaquiddick, and his column appears in the Vineyard Gazette.

“The Chappy Ferry Book” by Tom Dunlop and photographer Alison Shaw is a comprehensive look at the entire history of this ferry since its modest beginnings. The timeline of the ferry’s history is augmented with terrific photographs. Over the course of 200 years, and 12 owners, this book details a very American experience of forthrightness and entrepreneurship. It is exactly in this tradition that Peter Wells and Sally Snipes will continue, one that started with a row boat, on an “as need basis,” in order to supply a certain demand. Finally, Peter and Sally already settled on the name of the new fleet member, The City of Chappaquiddick.


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