Captain Matty Rooney
Where the Block Island Ferry runs between Point Judith and Old Harbor lies a patch of ocean that offers a variety of conditions and concerns for mariners. Wind direction, wind velocity, wave height, swell direction, poor visibility, tankers, tugs and tows, commercial fishing draggers, recreational fishing boats and other assorted marine traffic requires complete vigilance while transiting this area. In this place off the coast of Rhode Island, as well as all of Narragansett Bay, is where a young guy named Matty Rooney came of age on his journey to become a Master in the Merchant Marine. Last Saturday evening at George’s Restaurant in Galilee, Ray and Sue Linda and their family feted Matty upon his retirement from his decades-long career in the employ of Interstate Navigation, aka, The Block Island Ferry. As Matty moved on from an expansive maritime career he deserved nothing less, and all in attendance would assuredly agree.
Hawsepiper or Hawsepipe Sailor are terms to describe an unlicensed sailor in the Merchant Marine. Some sailors receive maritime degrees from places like Mass and Maine Maritime and then begin their careers. (The Block Island Ferry company has been referred to with tongue in cheek, as Interstate Navigation Maritime Academy.) Then, there are Hawsepipers who come through the ranks from the bottom up; from the dirty part of the ship to her wheelhouse. From the bottom up is how Captain Matty Rooney began his career. I first laid eyes on Matty in 1970 while working at Ballard’s. I was on the M/V Yankee, tracking down some freight when I saw a very young-looking kid wearing a crew shirt—it was Matty and he was working as a deck hand on the ferry. Four years later he would hire me to work on the M/V Manitou; Matty was no longer a part of the deck crew, he was the captain - he was 18. In the interim of me seeing him on and around the ferries in 1970, Mat-
ty had acquired his one- hundred-ton license and so began his professional career, which over the years evolved into him becoming a highly respected Master Mariner. This guy has done it all and it started when he was a deck hand aboard the M/V Yankee all those years ago.
After he hired me I remember being in the wheelhouse of the Manitou and heard Matty using words like: pilotage, towing endorsements, and Unlimited Master’s license. It was very clear to all of the guys who worked on the boat that Matty Rooney, albeit a young guy, had a long game agenda. This guy had a plan. In those early days besides being an exemplary boat handler, the young Captain Matty Rooney knew his own job, and everybody else’s job on the boat because he came up
in the Hawsepipe tradition which Interstate Navigation fostered. To witness a young and extremely capable guy doing his job was noteworthy to all of the crew with whom I worked with in 1974. In addition to the aforementioned, I must say that this guy was ahem, also a complete character. Matty was and is direct, blunt, and salty. He was and is still, a wiseass who has a rapier wit; however, when it is time for the job at hand, he was and is, all business.
Interestingly, the first three guys I saw when we got to the party at George’s were Captain Wayne Browning, Captain Grant Parker, and Captain Chris Waitkun. All of us worked together with Matty back in the day. These guys were all Hawsepipe Sailors and went on to have solid careers in the Merchant Marine. Under the tutelage and mentorship of Matty Rooney, these formidable and very bright and capable guys will be the first ones to tell you that Matty set the bar very high - transporting people on a ferryboat is serious business. Moreover, they will be the first to say that they owe a serious degree of gratitude to Matty. Captain Wayne Browning and I were talking about Matty’s influence on his crew when we were young guys. Someone had asked him what he had learned from him and he replied, “Matty taught me how to run a ferry, he gave me my career.” The influence of Matty Rooney was seen all around the room at the party. Captains Steve Kimball, Jim Hickey, David DePetrillo, Paul Svenevik, Jim Chase, Donny Rooney, Colin Waitkun, Chris Meyers, Josh Linda, et al, would all agree that Matty deeply influenced their careers. Fur-
thermore, all of the aforementioned captains do very serious jobs and were all Hawsepipe Sailors.
After stacking sea time while working for the ferry company and upgrading his license, Captain Mattty Rooney moved on to work on oil rig supply ships—mud boats—to service the rigs looking for oil offshore in the late 1970s. Then he moved on to working tugs in New York Harbor, and he also worked in the coastal tanker trade. Given this substantial career advancement he would still always return to Interstate Navigation to fill in and run a ferry when he was off-duty from his other jobs. As the company was expanding, owner John Wronowski asked him to be the vessels operations manager—Port Captain. John knew that Matty could help bring the company forward and into the future with an expanding fleet. Subsequently, Matty returned to his roots, raised a family, and worked for the company where it all began.
Back in the day, Captain Matty Rooney was known to raise a little hell, and the stories of this guy are colorful and legion. Remember, Matty was a wild 18-year-old guy when he became a captain. He was an excitable boy and did what young guys are wont to do. On the other hand, I do have one particular memory of Matty that is still in an active file in my head, which speaks of him as a young and professional sailor. Shortly after I was hired the late Captain Lew Tew - who mentored Matty and others at Interstate - was taking the Manitou out of the harbor to head to the island. As we were standing at the stern of the ferry while passing George’s, Matty looked east as a huge wave broke over the Harbor of Refuge wall. I’d never seen a guy move so fast in my life. “Joey, get two chain binders,” he said. We had a U-Haul box truck on board that we hadn’t thought to chain down as it was the first trip of the day; we didn’t know there was a pumping swell. With Matty giving the orders we all hustled and chained the truck down before we got hit by the first seas while coming out of the west gap. He led by example on deck as well as in the wheelhouse. Finally, the night of the party there was an appropriate nod of respect to the man of the hour. As the M/V Block Island passed George’s while returning from the island, she gave one long, and one short horn salute to Captain Matty Rooney. Fair winds and following seas Matty, enjoy your slack time.