Farewell to the Islander

When I was a little kid, my family spent two years in North Carolina. Tacked onto the bathroom mirror was a postcard of a white, lozenge-shaped tub plowing through Vineyard Sound. You could not quite make out the word Islander on its name board, but I knew that’s what it said; I vaguely remembered it from toddlerhood, and I knew someday it would take me home, although at that time it seemed unfathomably far away.

When it was time to return to the Vineyard, we rounded that final curve that looks over the Steamship Authority wharves in Woods Hole, and lo and behold – there it was: the Islander. Just like in the postcard.

It carried me home. Even to this day, rounding that final curve, part of me always hopes it will be the Islander I see in the slip, because of the early, visceral memory I have that it is the boat that brings me home.

On March 5, Martha’s Vineyard lost one of its most beloved and well-known residents: the motor vessel Islander. She was a novelty when she was new, her hull compared to a Buck Rogers spaceship. This double-ended ferry was the first child of the newly formed New Bedford, Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Steamship Authority, better known, then as now, as the SSA. She was born in the spotlight, her progress reported in the Vineyard Gazette with the enthusiastic regularity that first-time parents now send e-photo albums to friends and family.

A spirited contest was called to name her, with entries including Bermuda of the North, Vacationland, Pocahontas, Heath Hen, Bartholomew Gosnold, and almost every place name associated with the Vineyard. Islander was chosen to honor a steam ferry that was being retired, and in late May of 1950 she was christened by eight-year-old Cathleen Cagney, daughter of James. (Cathleen used a bottle of champagne donated by Henry Cronig, salvaged from a nineteenth-century wreck off Gay Head.)

Thirty-four hundred people – more than half the Island’s population – turned out to see the new Islander arrive, greeting her with music and bunting and general hoopla. “Here was a craft that could be called the Island’s own,” said the Gazette.

Martha’s Vineyard, her first and only home (although, not having been born here, she could never claim to be a native), was a different place then. The year-round population was less than half what it is now; Henry Beetle and Elizabeth Bowie Hough had owned the Gazette for exactly thirty years; Vineyard Haven was the most populous town; Oak Bluffs had an airport (well, a grass airfield); West Tisbury was such an unpopular place to live, there weren’t any building codes or zoning regulations. But some things would be familiar to us: the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby had begun a few years earlier, and a contemporary travel guide commented that of the yacht clubs on the Vineyard, “Edgartown’s is the yachtingest.”

Once in service, the Islander was the toast of the coast. An article in the Fairbanks-Morse News, a newsletter published by the builder of her engines, proclaimed the Islander “the biggest ferry in New England waters salt or fresh. It is in fact a super ferry, and its termini – Woods Hole and the Vineyard – have that magnetic pull, which assures a happy passenger list in either direction of voyage. Like most ferries, this one makes the Island its home, laying over for a good night’s sleep after each busy day of commuting. Lucky ferry! To be able to call Martha’s Vineyard ‘home’ is a privilege denied to most of us.”

The “lucky ferry” joined the working ranks of fellow Vineyarders, putting in fifteen-hour days in season. From her first day on the job, she was much in the public eye, an uncomplaining workhorse that was only slightly modified over the years by the expectations and demands of the passengers she served. Her first year or so, she had a whistle even louder than her most recent one, and it was considered a huge relief when the Authority replaced it with a newer, more melodious type. When she first came into service, the seats were condemned as uncomfortable; they were replaced by seats with more comfortable angles – yes, those green Naugahyde things many people hated, until some were replaced by hard, day-glow plastic benches and tables, at which point the Naugahyde detractors became protective and appreciative of the stretch-out-and-take-a-nap Naugahyde.

The lunchroom was expanded twice over the years, mezzanine disembarkation doors were added (we used to just walk off the freight deck, remember?); so, too, were rows and rows of blue plastic deck chairs. She had fifty-seven years of Vineyard history and developments lurking in all her “improvements.” Some things became more beautiful, some things uglier; true also of the Island she served. The Islander was the Island’s mirror for more than half a century.
And over those same years, there were wonderful anecdotes about her adventures and misadventures, including a nearly successful attempt by an artist to kill Robert McNamara, then president of the World Bank and previously Secretary of Defense, by throwing him over the side one late-autumn night in 1972, and the morning she struck a rock off Oak Bluffs in 1980 and nearly sank.

The Islander was never considered lovely, but she was always loved. She was “known to be” (in that way that rumors seep into Island coffee breaks) all the ferrymen’s favorite boat – and all the ferrymen’s least favorite boat. Passengers tended to have strong feelings about her too. I once witnessed a personal conversion, in which a foot passenger, waiting for the boat to dock, made a casually disparaging comment about her, and the crewman by the door began to rattle off data about the boat’s fuel efficiency and performance record, at the end of which the passenger said, with a sheepish grin, “I never knew any of that. Hey, I guess I really like her.”

By the time she left us, the Islander had grown old; she was no longer a novelty; she was no longer the biggest ferry in these waters; she was no longer the “happy ferry.” But she remains loved and treasured, because the Vineyard values its own.