So, so many years ago, Captain George Edward Cartwright and I were working the last boat shift on the South Ferry boat to Shelter Island – 3 p.m. to midnight.
As I left to go to work it was snowing and blowing a real nor’easter and the forecast was for worse. When we relieved the early shift, they told us to keep an eye out for some islanders who had gone up west to JFK airport to pick up a friend who was flying home.
We had a mildly busy afternoon, getting folks home as the storm buried the east end of Long Island in several feet of snow, but by 7 p.m. the sensible people of Shelter Island had lost their urge for going. I sat in the cabin, continuing my mission of reading the Shelter Island Library fiction section through in alphabetical order. I was working on Leonard Wibberley at the time and looking forward to P.G. Wodehouse and P.C. Wren, but dreading the coming X, Y and Z sections.
Captain Ed told me to stay in the cabin, warm and dry, and every ten minutes or so he would put the boat in gear and run through the blinding snow to the other side to see if anyone was waiting. If he needed me to tie up, he would stomp on the pilothouse floor so I would know to go out and get to work, otherwise we would lie at idle off the dock.
For two hours at least, we just went slowly back and forth, alone. Every half hour or so I would hear the pilot house door open, and Ed’s footsteps descend the ladder to the deck. I knew he was coming down to shovel snow, so I would grab my gear and join him. The warm engine room beneath kept the middle part of the deck melted, but the ends and sides needed tending. Ten minutes work had the deck back in order and we returned to our books and thermoses of coffee.
Around 11 p.m. we pulled into North Haven and Ed stomped on the deck overhead. We had paying passengers. Hot diggity! I went out, tied up, shoveled off the dock ramp, and let them on. These were our missing islanders. Ed and I were both relieved to know we would go home that night without worrying about leaving someone behind. We got to Shelter Island and let them off the boat. Since we had a few minutes before it was time to untie and resume our drifting back and forth, I went into the cabin to get out of the weather.
I heard Ed come down from above, and went out to see what he was about. Ed pointed at the seawall, where the water was edging over the top and beginning to climb up into the road. “Say Tom” he boomed. Did I mention that Captain Ed was a large gangly man with a deep resonant voice and somber, even ponderous, demeanor? Tolkien must have had him in mind when he wrote of Ents. He boomed.
“I think we better move our cars up the road a bit to higher ground. This tide is coming up strong, and with the east wind behind it, we might have a problem,” the captain said.
We chained the boat to the dock so she wouldn’t get into much mischief without us, and went to move our cars. The town snowplow came down to the ferry just then (John Oliver driving I think) and Ed got him to plow a little pull-off spot for us to park out of the way alongside the road but further up from the water.
We pulled our cars into this cozy parking space, shut them down and climbed out to walk back through the blowing snow to the boat. After about ten steps Ed stopped so suddenly I almost bumped into him.
Then I saw what stopped him. In the five minutes we were distracted, the tide had come in with a vengeance, and there was a 100 yard stretch of water, four feet deep, between us and the ferry; the ferry that was sitting there running, gates open, lights on, but not a person on board. Ice floes driven by the wind and the tide started punching through the ferry parking lot, sweeping all before them. I watched the ferry landing’s new stainless steel phone booth set sail for Riverhead on the back of an ice floe. We were not going to get back on board.
Ed pondered (lesser men might think, but Ed pondered) a moment and then said that he would go up the road to get Bill Clark, our “on-call” Clark family boss that night (in those days it was usually Tink Clark on call, but he must have had the night off so his uncle had the watch), and that I should stay here and keep an eye on things. So, at 11:30 p.m. Ed climbed into his car and disappeared north into the snow storm. I sat in my car and waited.
At midnight, there was still no sign of Ed, so I decided that I better go after him. I drove the couple of hundred yards up to Bill Clark’s house and stopped the car. The road was plowed, but just one narrow lane in each direction, bordered by waist-high plow berms; there was no place to park.
There was also no sign of Captain Ed! No Captain Ed, no Captain Ed car, no Captain Ed footsteps in the snow up to Bill’s house. No Captain Ed tire tracks! An inch of fresh, undisturbed snow covered the road.
This is not possible. What a nightmare. Ed can’t just disappear. I could not have passed his car in the few hundred yards I’ve driven, despite the blowing snow and poor visibility. Nope, no way. Maybe I better go check? Nope, no way; I could not have missed him. Better go wake up the boss. So I left the car running in the road, with the lights on, climbed over the plow berm and waded, tried to run, tripped, recovered and staggered through several feet of snow up to Bill’s door. I am now officially freaked out.
When I rang the doorbell at some time after midnight, Mrs. Mabel Clark answered the door in her bathrobe, and was gracious, as always, but confused. While any of the crew were welcome to drop by, the timing might be better? My, probably incoherent, attempts to explain that I “seem to have lost Ed” did not provide sufficient clarity, so she brought me into the kitchen, offered me milk and cookies (she was that way, just a lovely person) and went to wake her husband.
When Bill came down from bed, he too was in his bathrobe. With those few moments to pull myself together I was able to describe the problem more concisely. Bill phoned into the police (that conversation alone is probably part of Shelter Island Police Department lore “You’ve lost your captain? Should we call the Coast Guard?”), went upstairs to dress, and Mabel made cocoa.
When Bill came back down he was pulling the suspender straps of a chest high pair of rubber waders over his shoulders (ok – not what I was expecting, but really, haberdashery was never my strength). Almost immediately, a knock came at the door, and an embarrassed Captain Ed walked in.
It seems that when Ed drove up to Bills house, he wanted to turn his car around. He knew that once Bill was awake, he would want to go back to the ferry to study the problem firsthand. But the plowed road was much too narrow, so Ed continued north looking for a place to make a U-turn. He got all the way up to the first traffic circle, Islanders know where I mean, and got stuck on the bank of snow left by the plow when it went around the circle. Bill’s call to the police sent them to the rescue, and they freed Ed and sent him back to us.
We rejoiced in Ed’s return, laughed, relaxed, had a bit of cocoa, and then remembered the boat still running at the dock we could not reach. We thanked Mabel for her hospitality and the men hopped into Ed’s car and went down to the landing. The storm surge had receded somewhat, leaving the parking lot covered with three-foot-thick ice floes the size of Buicks.
The boat was bright and shiny in the distance, all lit up and purring away at the dock, but none of us were content to leave her like that. Ed offered to try to jump from ice floe to ice floe, but Bill would not have it. Ed could slip and break a leg and be pinned in the thigh deep water that still flowed between them.
Finally Bill turned his back to me, bent over and said “Hop on, Cap”. Huh? Bill was 70 years old if he was a day. But he was the boss. So I hopped on and rode piggy-back on Bill while he waded through the thigh-deep water between the ice floes (his questionable fashion sense thus justified) and carried me out to the boat.
Just as we climbed up onto the deck, the snow eased up for a few minutes, and we were able to see across the ferry channel to the other side well enough to see that no one was stranded there, though what we could have done for them I’m not sure. Actually, I am sure. We would have gone to them and brought them over. Bill would carry us all on his back though the freezing water, and then we would have driven them home in our cars. It is that kind of place, with that kind of people. Anyway, we did all the things on the boat that needed doing, and again Bill carried me back through the ice and the water and the storm.
The snow plow came back about then, probably sent by the police to keep us out of trouble. The driver told Captain Ed that his route home was cleared. He asked me where I was going and I told him about the house Chris Mosca and I had rented on Fresh Pond. He promised to head there next, and with that offer on the table, for once, I went straight home (on a beautifully plowed road) instead of to the Harbor Inn, Jack Cahill, proprietor. Jack never mentioned that he missed me that night. But Jack Cahill never mentioned that he missed me. Ever. But he did. I could tell.
Anyway, I think Bill went home and woke up Frank Klenawicus or Hap Bowditch, because I heard someone was there before dawn with a bulldozer to clear the ice floes off the road at the ferry landing, and service resumed on schedule at 6am. Just about any place I have ever worked, before or since, could learn something from the Clarks about customer service.
And that’s the story of the night I lost Captain Ed.