Island profile: Glenn Waddington

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Retired Captain Glenn Waddington in the wheelhouse of the Southside, South Ferry’s newest vessel. It has the same name as the 6-car wooden boat he piloted over July 4 weekend in 1971, when he first took the wheel as a captain.

A fixture in the wheelhouse of South Ferry’s boats for 41 years, Glenn Waddington — the company’s chief training officer who taught more than 30 captains during his career — joined the ranks of the retired in December.

The former town councilman and candidate for supervisor, who lost in a squeaker to Jim Dougherty in 2011, still seems to have politics on his mind. “If people start seeing me attending meetings, watch out,” Mr. Waddington said. “And now I have the time to do that.”

As for his long career at South Ferry, “Oh yeah,” he said, he’s going to miss it. “But this summer just wrecked me. The heat, fighting with people to shut their engines off … 65 is not old but my shoulders ache, my knees ache, my feet ache. I almost want to retire so I can get myself back in shape,” he joked, saying that he’d joined Project FIT so he can start a workout regimen.

There will be more rides on his Harley, more time over at the Maidstone Gun Club, some travel with his wife Gwen and maybe some solo trips when she can’t take time off from the Wharf Shop. “I’ve never been out west and I’ve got a friend I’d like to see in Oklahoma,” he said.

As a member of the board and chairman of Sylvester Manor’s Farm Committee, “I love what I’m doing,” he said. “The potential for that place is unlimited. I like it because it’s productive conservation. What we’re trying to do is feed people while also keeping it undeveloped.”
Retired or not, he said, he’ll always be proud to be a ferryman.

“I love what we do,” he said. “It’s essential to Shelter Island and there’s real pride in it whether we’re North Ferry personnel or South Ferry personnel. We’re ferrymen. I get jazzed when I think that 99.99 percent of everything you see on this Island came across on ferry boats. Every nail, every roof shingle, the asphalt for the roads. They came over on ferry boats and they were brought here by ferrymen.”

Glenn grew up with his younger sister Sandy in a sprawling subdivision near Dayton, Ohio. When he was about 10, his father, a postal service employee, and mother, Islander Katherine Kit Hawkins, were divorced. She took the kids home to the Island, where they lived with her mother, Mary Conrad Hawkins.

“It made me real nervous and twitchy, the family broken up and coming to a new place,” Glenn said. “But I remember coming across on North Ferry with a U-Haul … and seeing White Hill and, as nervous as I was, kind of full of trepidation, I said to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m going to a place you have to take a boat to get to.’”

His mother dated Ben Byington, the police chief who’d been a town councilman; Ben took Glenn out hunting. “Another male who was important in my life was Gilbert Clark,” then an owner of South Ferry, Glenn said. “We were related to him through his wife Doris … Mom would drop me off down at the ferry and I would ride back and forth with him when I was a kid. I’d go down out of the wheelhouse to tie the boat up. Now and then he’d let me steer.”

Glenn started working at South Ferry as a summer deckhand when he was home from Syracuse University. But “my last two summers,” he said, “I had a falling out with them over money and I went and worked on the greens at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club. I missed the ferry. It was probably rash of me to quit.”

Gibby called him in Syracuse during his senior year and told him the company would put him on as a captain if he got his Coast Guard license. “It was something to do for the summer and it was something I’d always have,” Glenn decided.

He passed the tests. “I worked out okay. But the first couple of weeks, honestly there were times when I left the Shelter Island slip not knowing whether I’d be able to get back in” because of the wind and tide.

The summer job stretched into the fall. He sent out resumés and landed a mid-level managerial trainee position at Otis Elevator. When he told them he needed to give his current employer a month’s notice, “The guy looked at me and said why don’t you admit you don’t want to do this?”

He got a teaching certificate at Southampton College and put in his time as a trainee at the Shelter Island School. “I was unrealistic in applying for a teaching job. I only applied to about five places. I really didn’t have the temperament for it,” he said.

After he married Dorothy Allen of Sag Harbor, he went to work at her parents’ hardware store, the Emporium. “I didn’t like it. I was still working the ferry on weekends to keep my hand in and make a little extra money. After a couple of years, I told Dot it was not working.” The marriage ended in divorce.

He settled in to his calling. “When I was working night shift — and I would love this — you might sit 45 minutes waiting for a car to come. I can remember a trip with one car aboard, a couple who was out on deck leaning on the rail. It was a calm night, so I took the boat down around the buoy, just to give them a little night trip. You can’t do that now. There’s always a car waiting.”

That autonomy he sensed as a captain suited him. “We kind of ran the boats the way we wanted to run them,” he said. He also liked the chance to meet girls. One of them was Gwen, a Sag Harbor girl whom he married in a ceremony aboard a ferryboat in 1986. Their son, Morgan, is now a senor at Tulane in the Marines ROTC program.

Glenn brims with stories about ice, fog, tides and wind and the challenge of teaching the fine points of boat handling. He’s got stories about crew members, captains and Clark family characters. But people keep asking him if he didn’t get bored.

“It doesn’t get boring for me. I’m dealing with the two most changeable entities in existence, Mother Nature and human nature. There are eddies you expect to be there that aren’t there or it’s flat calm and then a sudden micro storm blows up. And you never know what some customer is going to throw at you.”

“The first year I ran in ice, back in the late 1970s, it was a Sunday night on the Piermont. We had a couple every Sunday evening that had a camper. I think he and his wife were country western singers. I was just beating myself to death trying to get the boat back to Shelter Island in the ice … We were out there about 45 minutes and out of the corner of my eye I see the door of the camper open and the guy comes out and steps up the ladder to the wheelhouse.

“I’m thinking he was going to give me a hard time. I turned around with a snarl, and he said, ‘My wife’s in the camper and she’s making coffee. You’re doing a great job. Do you want a cup?’

“I still get goose bumps when I think of that story,” Glenn said.