Ferry Tales: 10 stories from the Shelter Island ferry

Just another dusk off South Ferry. (Credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

Just another dusk off South Ferry. (Credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

Those of us who live on Shelter Island know that it’s a unique place and one reason is because if you live here you must use the ferry. (I am aware that many locals have access to the secret tunnel, but the last time I mentioned the tunnel I got in trouble, so let’s not go there. Literally.)

For Islanders, locals, visitors, those just crossing the Island to get somewhere else, rich, poor, young or old — and that covers just about everyone — these ferry boats are the common bond that unites us all. And oh, do we have stories.

Line cutter
Every community has the miscreants who jump the queue, but for people who live on the Island, ferry-line cutters add a bitter ingredient to our summer stew pot. When someone cuts the line at the post office or deli, we’ll glare at the back of the offender’s fat head. Not so with ferry-line cutters. And I have my own ferry tale to share. This happened in the olden days, when we traveled on small, 10 to 12 car ferries.

I was in a long line at North Ferry that moved forward, 10 cars every 15 minutes, when a cutter driving a green BMW squeezed between my car and the one in front of me.

Horns blasted. I got out and rapped on the driver’s window. “You cut the line,” I said. “This is Shelter Island, we don’t do that here!”

Apparently I was invisible because he stared straight ahead and ignored me, but he couldn’t ignore everyone, and by then other bumped-back drivers milled around the BMW; so many we probably could have picked it up and moved it out of the line, and we were about to do that when the official ferry-line guy arrived. He was the ferry’s version of Marshall Dillon. He had the whistle and his job was to maintain ferry-line order.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“This guy cut the line,” a dozen of us shouted at once.
“I did not!” the man countered.

Imagine that, a cutter and a liar. People started yelling and pointing but the official ferry-line guy said “Okay, break it up” and sent us back to our cars. We obeyed because, after all, he had the whistle. But we stood beside our cars and watched as the cutter was ordered out of his stolen spot and had to slink to behind the very last car, very end, proving that, at least in the ferry line, justice prevails.

Here comes the judge
Let this next ferry tale serve as a gentle warning — many people on Shelter Island wear two or three different hats. Remember, the person you snap your fingers at in a local restaurant might be the same one who gives you a tetanus shot after you step on a rusty nail.

Once there was a visitor who, as he was leaving the Island after a weekend visit, complained to the ferry purser that he had to come back because some @#$#@! cop had given him a @#$#@! ticket. The purser asked the name of the cop and the guy told him. “That cop’s my son,” the purser said and the guy didn’t care. He let loose with even more unflattering language and said that he intended to come back to the rinky-dink court and fight the ticket.

Didn’t that guy’s face turn cinder-block gray when he walked into the rinky-dink court and found himself facing the familiar face of the judge, who also worked part-time on the ferry.

Poop-y Deck
Picture this: A hot summer afternoon and vehicles crowd the 12-car ferry, parked cheek to jowl, so tight it’s hard to get the doors open far enough to get out. Imagine that right down the center of the ferry is a “honey-bucket” truck, its tanker filled with the stuff removed from porta-potties.

As the ferry leaves Greenport some people manage to squeeze out of their vehicles to stand on deck. Others stay inside, but with the windows down because it’s hot. About half-way across, the metal tanker springs a leak creating a geyser that spurts out like a fountain into the open window of the car parked right beside it. What didn’t go into the car, oozed down the side and onto the deck.

Witnesses reported that people started screaming and yelling because honey-bucket contents smell really bad and are slime-like, which meant that people rushing for the (relative) safety of their cars couldn’t keep their footing. Within a few minutes the deck and the people on it were covered in ick, especially the unfortunate grandma seated by the open window of the car parked beside the truck. It was mayhem.

According to the poop-y-deck legend, as soon as the boat landed the driver of the truck ran to the phone booth, called his boss, then walked on to the next ferry headed to Greenport, leaving behind his leaking honey bucket and a really icky mess.

It’s not the Titanic
Long before that monumental movie, couples in love would stand at the bow of the ferry boats clutched in passionate embraces, oblivious to the fact that dozens of people were watching them and more than one heard to shout, “Get a room!”

If you don’t like it, don’t look, might be the response. But we do because we know that at some moment the boat’s captain might turn the vessel into a wake and a spray of green water will wash over and disengage the couple. That’s entertainment!

Good people
One former South Ferry captain recalled a difficult crossing in the mid-1970s when he was new on the job and having a difficult time maneuvering the boat through ice. “It was a small boat,” he said, “and didn’t have the hydraulic steering we have now.”

The boat kept getting stuck in ice. He’d back up a little and push forward a little, but it was taking a long time. There was one vehicle on board, a small camper. After about a half hour of getting almost nowhere, he could see from the pilot house that the driver had left the camper and was climbing the ladder. He said, “I was sure he was coming to let me have it.” Instead, the man handed him a mug of hot coffee and said, “We thought you could use this.”

The old salt got misty as he remembered that act of kindness so long ago.

Oh deer
Another story about an act of kindness has been told and retold. It happened at least 20 years ago when a North Ferry pilot steering the boat with several cars on board spotted a doe stuck in, not on, an ice floe. He and the purser were both avid deer hunters. After making sure it was okay with the drivers on board, the pilot took a nautical detour and carefully nudged the floe that had captured the deer just enough so that the ice broke apart and the deer was freed. Legend has it that all the drivers cheered.

So did the deer.

Another ferry detour happened on a July night during the fireworks at Crescent Beach. The show started as the boat pulled out of Greenport and everyone left their cars to stand along the rail. The captain slowed down and maneuvered the boat, idling for 20, minutes so that those passengers could watch the show.

Do you know who I am…
There was a driver once, who didn’t want to listen to the ferry captain. Story goes that the two went nose to nose in a shouting match until the man, who is rich and famous, threatened the ferryman that he was going to buy the company just so he could tell him, “You’re fired!”

I bet not many people can Trump that story.

I’m gonna make you a star
Shelter Island was frozen over in February 1982 when Valerie Harper and 5-year-old Sarah Michelle Gellar spent weeks here filming the TV movie, “Invasion of Privacy,” about a woman and her daughter who move to Maine island.

Most of the movie was shot on the Island in easily recognizable buildings and locations. Dozens of locals were hired as extras, as were their cars and, in some cases, their dogs if they had the right New England look.

Part of the North Ferry office was commandeered by the film crew who hung blankets over the glass windows of the manager’s office and turned it into Ms. Harper’s dressing room. A lot of people still remember the afternoon when the “Invasion” helicopter was trying to shoot closing scenes of the ferry as it left the Island. But someone on the Shelter Island side kept waving at the helicopter. You could hear the director repeatedly holler “Cut!” all the way to Greenport.

In what might be the best part of the movie, for several minutes the closing credits scroll over that aerial footage of the ferry boat working its way through the ice. Look for the guy in the parking lot, waving.

I think we’re alone now
They don’t show movies on ferries, but passengers on foot and in vehicles provide more than enough entertainment. People might think they’re invisible in the privacy of their vehicles, but if they were to look out the window and up, they would see people in the pilot house looking down and they’ve seen it all. They’ve witnessed people having fights, changing clothes, scratching where it itches and numerous others engaged in activities that are illegal in 11 states.

Once Upon a Time
It was a dark stormy night and a woman was convinced she would die on the ferry. There was so much ice in the bay the boat had to meander to dodge massive floes and was constantly nudged by jagged chunks of ice that clanked against the bottom. But this is her story, let’s let her tell it.

“There was a spotlight shining from the upper deck that searched for a path through the ice. When the ferry’s engines revved to push against the ice the spotlight dimmed. I remember thinking, what if that light goes out?

What if all the lights go out? It’s so dark, the pilot won’t be able to see where the ice is. What if this boat gets hit by a big piece of ice and sinks? No, that’s silly, it won’t sink. Wait, isn’t that what they said about the Titanic?

What if the boat sinks and I go under the water and I can’t tell which way is up?

“Air bubbles! I’d watch the air bubbles and follow them. But it would be even darker under the water. I wouldn’t be able to see the bubbles. I thought this is it! I’m going die! And I left my house a wreck. I’m going to die under the ice and all people will talk about is what a slob I am.”

Not willing to go quietly into that dark night she devised a plan and unlatched her seat belt, prepared to leap from her car, off the ferry and onto a passing ice floe the minute the boat started to sink.

“At least I wouldn’t be trapped underwater. But then I wondered if I shouldn’t stay in the car. I mean, don’t they tell you that? Isn’t there that air-pocket thing that happens when a car goes under water? I would stay in my car, on the sunken ferry, under water, beneath the ice and wait for someone to save me. And then I thought, but what if no one does? And my car is such a mess! At my funeral all people will talk about is that my car was a pig pen.

And then someone else will say, ‘That was nothing, you should see the way she left her house.’”

She was etching her will on the door panel with a nail file when she felt a jolt and muttered, “Oh, dear Lord, we’re goin’ down.“ Her last thought was that she had wasted a round-trip ticket.

Taking a deep gulp of air, she shut her eyes because she didn’t want to watch her own demise, but she could hear the ice rapping against the window.

It was the purser, knocking to get her attention. The ferry had docked and he signaled her to drive off, which she did, and lived happily ever after.

Don’t you just love ferry tales with happy endings.

P.S. I was kidding about the locals’ secret tunnel. Really.