Featured Story

In the wheelhouse with South Ferry captains

One sunny and windless day last week, the Reporter went along for a ride on the Sunrise, one of five South Ferry boats, powered by two 450-horsepower engines.

Capt. Jon Westervelt, right, and Capt. Eric Curko in the wheelhouse of South Ferry’s Southside. (Credit: David Brush)

On board in the wheelhouse were Captains Jon Westervelt and Eric Curko, and their new deckhand Sarah Kravitz. Ms. Kravitz, who recently finished her masters degree in psychology at Arizona State, was in the middle of her third week as a deckhand. Her partner works for North Ferry, she said, and they both enjoy the social aspect of working on ferries.

“It’s really nice to meet new people,” Ms. Kravitz said, before  returning to her duties on deck.

Working alongside her was Capt. Westervelt, who chose to serve as a deckhand for the first half of his shift, despite being South Ferry’s senior captain. Up in the wheelhouse Capt. Curko, who has been a captain for over 10 years, was preparing to disembark.

The wheelhouse is a long and narrow room with windows making up most of its walls. Each side of it is identical, containing four levers, a GPS screen, a radar screen, and various other buttons to match. Instead of a wheel, each side of the room contains two primary levers to control speed and direction, and two backup levers to do the same if the primary ones were to fail.

This setup is placed on both sides of the wheelhouse in order to make it easier for the captains to face the direction in which they are moving, without having to spin the entire boat around.

A line of cars began moving forward as the gate was raised, waved on by Ms. Kravitz. Capt. Curko ran down to help while doing a headcount of everyone boarding. Meanwhile, Capt. Westervelt moved into the wheelhouse upon seeing a large red truck approaching the ferry.

“Hey, Jon, you got it?” shouted Capt. Curko from the deck. “Yep,” answered Capt. Westervelt, pressing the throttle forward to ensure that the ramp would stay level as the massive truck made its way into the center lane. Capt. Curko then came up to the wheelhouse. What had seemed like a difficult task had been handled smoothly and efficiently.

“Safety is our number one priority” he said, marking the total number of boarded passengers onto a spreadsheet.

South Ferry captains go through a lengthy training process, starting with the completion of a Coast Guard-approved maritime training course. Next, they need to obtain a “100-ton boating license,” and lodge 365 days on deck.

“I’ve seen just about everything,” Capt. Westervelt said. When asked about sailing through extreme conditions, both captains were nonchalant in recalling the challenges. “I’ve run in plenty of hurricanes, plenty of thick ice,” Captain Westervelt said. “Anything out of the ordinary merely changes the game. It’s fun.”

He brought up his most challenging day, which took place during Superstorm Sandy, when a medical emergency prompted him to board an elderly woman being transported by a Shelter Island Emergency Medical Services crew during the height of the storm.

Thinking back to that day, he recalled waist-deep water in the Island’s South Ferry parking lot, with only two of the dock’s tallest pilings visible.

On board was CEO Cliff Clark, who helped EMS volunteers strap the elderly woman to the back of a pickup truck to prevent her from being jostled around during the journey. “I’ll never forget Cliff standing out there on the deck,” said Capt. Westervelt. “There he was, in the back of that truck, holding down the blue tarp.”

“You either make this landing, or you’re done,” Capt. Westervelt remembers saying to himself as he navigated debris-filled waves in the howling wind. Eventually, he crossed safely to North Haven. An ambulance then took the woman to Southampton Hospital.

Capt. Westervelt has also found himself on rescue missions in relatively normal conditions, such as when a kayaker flipped over and found himself stranded in the middle of the Shelter Island Sound. He remembered pulling the ferry close to the man, and cutting the propeller early in order to avoid excess wake. At the time, Capt. Toby Green was serving as a deckhand and, according to Capt. Westervelt, “grabbed that kayak like he was superman.”

The whole incident lasted about 30 seconds, after which the captains wrapped the hypothermic man in their jackets and safely took him to shore. “We train for stuff like that all the time,” the captain said.

Looking out for accidents in the water, driving against strong currents, and catering to passengers requires focus and physical exertion, and South Ferry crews are always busy. According to Mr. Clark, “The days of waiting for cars to show up are gone.”

Ms. Kravitz estimated that she, like any South Ferry employee working on a boat, walks over 20,000 steps per day. That, in addition to the summer heat being magnified by steel and car engines, can test your endurance.

“Hydration is the most important thing,” Capt. Curko said, taking a sip from his water bottle. Beyond hydration and staying physically fit, the rest of his focus comes from simply loving his job.

“I grew up on the water, so this was kind of like home for me,” he said.

Like Ms. Kravitz, he also enjoys the social aspects of his work, regularly fist-bumping and waving to passengers during his intervals on deck. “It’s cool to see people return, and chat with them,” he said. “It makes this more like everyday life rather than a job.”

Docking one last time before his lunch break, Capt. Curko marked the end of a seemingly perfect shift where, despite a strong current, his dockings were smooth every single time.

As a captain, he said, “You’re always challenging yourself. Like, can I come in without touching the sides?” Small challenges like this, along with comparing loading cars to playing the video game Tetris, keeps him constantly invested in his work, he said, and enhances the safety of his passengers.

“When complacency hits, that’s when bad things can happen,” he said.

On shore stood Chief Engineer Joey Clark, who has been with South Ferry for 40 years, just finishing a morning shift as a captain. Despite his unique position, Chief Clark said that he participates in every aspect of South Ferry’s operation. Despite never knowing what challenges a typical day might bring, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Rust never sleeps” he said, adding that boats undergo weekly maintenance. “We like to catch these things before they become a big deal.”

SIDEBAR: From 1714 until now: South Ferry going strong for three centuries

South Ferry’s motto is, “Fast, Continuous, and Courteous Year-round Service.”

This is a motto that CEO Cliff Clark, whose family has been a part of South Ferry since 1714, said he ensures that he lives up to and impresses upon his employees on a daily basis.

Mr. Clark comes from a long line of Clarks who have run the business, and takes pride in South Ferry’s association with his family name.

“We see ourselves as the gatekeepers of Shelter Island,” he said, with the goal of ensuring that visitors can cross Shelter Island Sound quickly and safely. “We only have one product,” he said, “and that is service. We absolutely depend on the folks who pass through. Customers are our guests. We depend on them. We count on them.”

In the earliest days of South Ferry, which was founded by Samuel Clark, the company was a far cry from the high-tech docks and boats that we see today.

In the early part of the 18th century, Shelter Island Sound between the South Fork and the Island was considerably narrower and more shallow than it is today, and Samuel Clark started his business with a rowboat.

For years, the Clark family rowed passengers between North Haven and Shelter Island, before upgrading to the use of sailboats in the late 1800s. These boats would sometimes tow scows in order to accommodate horses and carriages. It wasn’t until 1943 that South Ferry installed its first diesel engines in a boat named Southside.

South Ferry’s logo is reflective of its motto, depicting a winged fish leaping out of water with a colorful circle on its side.

According to Mr. Clark, the fish represents Eastern Long Island, where fishing has always been a large part of the culture and community. The circle on its side represents traffic, with South Ferry moving vehicles and people across the water.

Finally, the wing represents the winged foot of Mercury, and is a reminder of the fast and reliable transportation, Mr. Clark said, that South Ferry aims to provide.