The Little Boat that Could

The Patriot always seems to find its way from Falmouth to the Vineyard – bringing newspapers and bagels as well as a family of workers who commute to the Island.

It is a brisk April day and stormy, with full-cycle turbulence on Nantucket Sound. Captain Bob Boden is pulling the Quickwater ferryboat out of the Oak Bluffs channel when a rapid series of huge waves crashes over the prow and hurtles right through the cabin window, blowing it out. It is this same storm that is blowing a hole through Norton Point Beach in Edgartown. A check of the vessel shows no other damage and no injuries. Captain Bob brings her into Falmouth without further incident.

But what follows is one of the rarest events on these waters: Patriot Party Boats owner Jim Tietje cancels the next six scheduled trips until the storm passes. It is so rare for trips to be cancelled that this Monday in April has been the only day in 2007 he has cancelled a scheduled run. The Patriot runs at least eight trips on weekdays, and two or three on Saturdays and Sundays, all year long.

Just a week later, Captain Bob is piloting the Patriot Too on a morning trip carrying more cargo than passengers. The regular boat, the Quickwater, is in the shop for an engine overhaul. He’s already made two trips this day, starting with the 4 a.m. scheduled run, which brings the newspapers and the daily bread to the Vineyard. He tilts his head back at the suggestion that it’s a very early hour.

“Yes, but the people do want their newspapers,” he says.

Beyond the eight scheduled trips, the ferry will go whenever asked. It will make a water taxi run at any time of the day or night, any day of the year – in almost any weather.

One old-timer from Oak Bluffs puts it this way: “That boat makes the trip when a submarine wouldn’t dare.”

“’Bout right,” agrees Captain Bob. But he is quick to point out that all the captains are fully licensed and checked out regularly, as are the boats, by the Coast Guard. Captain Bob’s been at this boat-steering business pretty much all his life since graduating from Massachusetts Maritime Academy ages ago. He’s been on big ships around the world, tours of two months on and two months off. But working this run for the last half decade has given him the opportunity to stay home. “Watch my son grow up,” he says with joy. It’s a seasoned group of skippers. Captain Dick Smith’s been working the Patriot boats for fifteen years, and owner Jim Tietje is the third full-time captain.

Several months later, the Quickwater is back to work. At the wheel during one afternoon run in early July, Jim is dressed in a gray sweater and khaki slacks, looking more like the New York marketing man that he once was than a sea captain. But this is what he was born to do.

“I worked with my father from the time I was fourteen until I was in college,” he says. “Then I came back after working in New York City.”

His father, known as Captain Bud, started the business some fifty years ago when he came to Falmouth from New Jersey.

“He liked to fish,” explains Jim. So he started buying up canal-side property and soon assembled the land that became the Green Pond Boat Yard in the late 1950s. He bought a party fishing boat, “an old wooden boat,” says Jim, “the Patriot.” Hence the name of the company, Patriot Party Boats. In 1978, they replaced her with the Patriot Too, which still runs along with a third boat, the Minuteman, but those are mostly used for private charters. The whole business is now based on the water in Falmouth at the end of Clinton Avenue.

The freight part of the business started in the late sixties when Bud was asked to haul The Boston Globe over to Martha’s Vineyard. That led to hauling other things from the mainland that are always needed on the Island. Regular passenger service started about twenty years ago, but it wasn’t Captain Bud’s idea, or Jim’s for that matter. The workers who had to get to the Island in the morning came to them.

“The Falmouth police chief decided that no walk-on passengers could ride the 6 a.m. Steamship Authority boat, which carried hazardous materials,” explains Jim. So the workers, who had long used the Patriot boats to ship materials across, asked if they could also ride out. He said yes and the passenger ferry business began.

After young Jim got his master’s degree and was happily busy in the rat race of New York, his dad asked if he would come back to the Cape to help in the business. So he did.

For the record, there is one rule and only one rule posted in the cabin of the Quickwater: “Please do not,” it reads, “annoy, torment, pester, plague, molest, worry, badger, harry, harass, heckle, persecute, irk, bullyrag, vex, disquiet, grate, beset, bother, tease, nettle, tantalize or ruffle the crew.”

The Quickwater holds a maximum of forty passengers and just as many conversations. It is a refurbished oil-rig crew boat out of New Orleans, forty-eight feet long, with ten bench seats in the cabin. What you see a lot of, on the early run, is coffee cups and camaraderie. On the dock in Falmouth, several workmen begin to gather for the 7:15 ride to Oak Bluffs. One passenger shows another a family picture stored on his cell phone. Another, loaded down with his cooler and power tools, struggles with a heavy cardboard box. A fellow rider takes the box from him and walks it on board. In all, thirty-nine people get aboard this morning.

As long as the weather is sunny and fair, the atmosphere is relaxed, almost Zen-like.

“My, the loons are large this year,” says Captain Jim, looking through the cabin window. He sees all kinds of sea ducks on the trip. “They just arrived a couple of weeks ago. Soon they’ll be on their way to New Hampshire and Maine.” As we pull into Oak Bluffs, Jim points to a majestic bird perched atop a tall pole. “The osprey is back too.”

 So while millions of Americans battle traffic for hours, the small community aboard the Quickwater gets a boat ride every workday morning, preparing the passengers for the same calm and serenity the Island itself is known for.

Of course, on many days the ride is not so relaxing. It’s not just the effects of the fall hurricane season or a driving winter ice storm that influence the mood on board. Some days are so windy or rainy everyone squishes inside. Some days the water is so choppy, everyone needs to hold on tight.

But on this early summer morning, some chat, some listen to the birds, some watch quietly as the east-rising sun bounces its light across the New
England blue of Nantucket Sound and begins to warm the sweet sea air.

Everyone rides at ease on this voyage. It has more of a family feeling on board than the big boats that seem to be more about shipping cargo, human and otherwise. In fact, riding along in the back of the boat feels like you’re sitting around a country kitchen.

The ferry hasn’t lost its roots though. It still ships cargo of all kinds, loaded up mostly on the back deck. With so much building and remodeling on the Vineyard, the Quickwater is often loaded with related material. Sheet metal ductwork for Rusty’s Plumbing sits on the back deck alongside someone else’s spackle and compound for a drywall job. G. Hatch Restorations has soapstone and marble clamped onto the ship’s rail, soon to be a part of a kitchen.

But for all the builders making the crossing, there are as many professionals. Here is a couple arriving, each with a computer slung over a shoulder. On any given day, there will be lawyers, doctors, hospital administrators, and schoolteachers. And watching over them all is Helayne Allen, the first mate who is affectionately referred to on board as the mother hen. Helayne knows them all and clucks proudly.

She worked in the Falmouth School System for the years when her kids were young. But now that they are grown, one already off to college, she has gotten back to her old love, the sea. “I did the thing that I wanted to do,” she says, lifting her tinted glasses for the full effect. But in reality, she is still looking out for her charges, just a different group of them.

As the boat is loading one morning, a woman dashes across the parking lot toward Helayne and hands her a tied plastic bag. “It’s his phones,” she says – and she is gone. Helayne shakes her head.

“That’s John Osborn’s wife,” she says. “And do you know who he works for? Verizon!” Helayne will make sure he gets them when she gets to Oak Bluffs.
There is no book that will tell you that the first mate should worry about the regular passengers, but Helayne believes that it is part of the job description. Recently, when one of the regulars hadn’t arrived and it was time to push off from the dock in Falmouth, Helayne called the woman to check on her.

It should be noted, Helayne is not about to make regular wake-up calls, but if she worries, she will act. It’s that sense of community that is unmistakable on board. “If it weren’t for this boat,” says Helayne, “most of these people would never have met. Now everyone knows each other – by their first name too.
“There’s Peggy and her daughter,” points out Helayne. The mother works in the radiology department at the hospital; her daughter is interning to become an emergency medical technician.

The mother hen’s got nicknames for many of her brood. There’s Magazine Mike, Pie Lady Mary, Dollar Bill – all said with affection. For half an hour, huddled on the bench seats in the cabin, they talk like old friends. For the length of the ferry ride, it is a community of caring and warmth.

Here is Ray, a craftsman. He is a tall man with shoulder-length hair, and he is covered with tattoos. He chats quietly with his bench neighbor, a judge at the Edgartown courthouse.

“We’ve even seen relationships start because of this boat,” Helayne says. In one case, she played cupid. One of the regulars asked Helayne if she would ask a woman if he could call her. Helayne asked, got the phone number, and now they’re engaged.

One of today’s passengers is Zach Tileston, a music teacher at Island elementary schools. He has played in a Cape-based band since the mid-nineties. How he came to ride this ferry gives you something of the history of the boat: It has carried music makers to and from the Vineyard for decades.

“Some of the old timers at the Edgartown Yacht Club probably remember Ralph Stuart, who played there for years,” says Captain Jim. Stuart was the Lester Lanin of Martha’s Vineyard. Usually musicians don’t play according to the Steamship Authority’s schedules; they often stay on the Island later for parties or weddings. So for years, the Patriot boats have been the ones to offer water taxi service, both ways. Ask any off-Island musicians who play on Martha’s Vineyard, they will tell you about the Patriot boats.

Where the Patriot boats land in Oak Bluffs – near the mouth of the harbor by the parking lot – is as much a scene as the boats themselves. Most of the overnight vehicles in the area belong to the commuters. They disembark and within minutes, they are gone, whether in cars, vans, pickups, or by foot. Some carpool; many go their separate ways.

The parking lot comes to life again in the afternoon, but don’t blink. The Quickwater approaches, and as if someone blew a whistle, people emerge from the vehicles and head toward the dock. The captain and mate tie up just long enough for the passengers to board, without ceremony. They just pour over the side. It’s all over in a brief moment and the ferry leaves the Vineyard behind.

On the morning run, toolboxes and brief cases were prominent. But on the afternoon leg, ice chests seem to pop into view. From these, cold beers and sodas emerge. The regulars know there are no fancy amenities on board, like a snack bar. Twenty-four passengers huddle in the back, including, on this voyage, a puppy.

“That’s Lola,” says Helayne. She not only knows the names of the two-legged riders, but the four-legged ones as well. “Dick and Marilyn have a summer home here. Lola’s the puppy they got after the golden retriever they had for years died.”

The Patriot boats do more than shuttle the homeowners and workers though. Shoppers from the Island also take the boat because of the free shuttle service the boat line provides to and from the Falmouth Mall and Falmouth Plaza. If someone needs a prescription filled quickly, the Patriot sends it over. Often, loads of wedding flowers brighten the deck.

From the evidence aboard the Quickwater, Vineyarders love to read. On one run, one hundred red and blue plastic boxes, piled like Legos on the back deck, contain magazines. On another, Captain Jim ships across more than a dozen gray plastic boxes (with labels proclaiming “Property of Southeastern Massachusetts Regional Library System”) containing hundreds of library books.

On the 8:30 boat one morning was a box containing a part for Courtesy Motors in Vineyard Haven. It sat at the Oak Bluffs dock all day. Helayne noticed it when they pulled up on the afternoon boat. Out came her cell phone to alert the Courtesy Motors folks that the package was still there. Another potential crisis averted by the first mate.

Not all cargo has worked out for the best for Helayne. During the months when the fishing is busy, and especially during the tournaments, the Patriot boats can be gunnel-full with buckets of bait.

“There was the time we loaded several buckets of eels on board,” she recalls. “Each bucket containing 300 to 400 eels. Live eels.”

The rough seas were bouncing the buckets about when one tipped over, spilling the slithering creatures across the deck, making the place look like a Jackson Pollock painting.

“And I’m in flip-flops,” says Helayne. Nevertheless, she sprang into action. “The eels were headed for ramps, for the water, and for freedom. She blocked the exits with towels and started gathering up the escape artists. The passengers pitched in too. They finally got them all relocated into the bucket.

“That’s when I went below decks,” says Helayne, “and lost it.” She promises that will never happen again on her watch. “I will make sure that those buckets are secure.”

What is really telling about that story isn’t that the eels were captured but that the paying customers didn’t mind getting their hands wet. That feeling pervades the boat, the feeling of old-fashioned community, of neighborliness.