Nods to the past and present
“Okay, Joe Joe, we’re taking car reservations starting today for the summer,” said Janette Centracchio. “Here are the new ledgers, and could you please write as legibly as you can, okay?” In 1980 this is the way car reservations were done at the Block Island Ferry. Here was the drill when Janette would put the spanking new black ledgers in the ticket office sometime in January. In those days I would hang in the ticket office after we loaded the Manitou and she left for her one round trip to Old Harbor. There would be no freight to receive on Sundays, so I’d burn five hours in the ticket office while writing a paper for graduate school, studying, or answering the telephone - if it actually rang - for car reservations. Ahem, Galilee was very quiet during those winter days. The drill was a simple exchange where the customer’s name and vehicle type were entered into
the respective ledgers. Said ledgers were labeled PJ-BI and BI-PJ and I’d scribble in the proper information, and that was that. I know, things have changed since the 80s. More about reservations, later.
In 1991 there was a noteworthy weather event along the eastern seaboard. This system was also known as the No-Name Storm, and the Halloween Storm. It was also referred to as the Perfect Storm by the weather guys in Boston who were monitoring this unfolding and expanding weather anomaly. Although, it was hurricane season, these unstable weather elements evolved into a massive blast of sustained hurricane force energy that threatened coastal communities. The shorthand of this storm was that a standard issue nor’easter became enmeshed in Hurricane Grace. Subsequently, the nor’easter became an unnamed hurricane with a mind of its own regardless of what
the forecasters were predicting. This storm looped back or retrograded toward the coast and proceeded to do $200 million in coastal damages, while it blew steadily over a period of five days. Beginning when Hurricane Grace formed on 28 October this disturbance didn’t shut down until 2 November. The Block Island ferries were canceled for four business days during this storm. This was a prodigious and noteworthy storm that eventually morphed into a book called “The Perfect Storm” written by Sebastian Junger. Fortunately, there was advance warning from substantial weather models for what was coming; nevertheless 13 people perished in this dangerous storm. (See Junger’s book for an in-depth analysis of this historic weather event.)
In the late seventies and eighties, where the main ferry building now stands in Galilee, was where the one-story freight shed and ticket office were housed, along with a small waiting room. Ferry tickets were sold, we freight guys humped and loaded the freight, and the boats left the dock for Block Island. Simple stuff. The way we got weather information in those days - in addition to monitoring NOAA’s forecast - was by calling Jimmy Mott at the freight shed in Old Harbor and ask him how big the seas were from the east. We’d hover around the telephone while he’d estimate wave height at the entrance to Old Harbor and give the wind direction and velocity. This was boots-on-the-ground weather intel and was our idea of a storm chaser like Jim Cantore. Wink Nod. Also, Captain Matty Rooney would go to the Manitou’s wheelhouse and look for weather intel on his VHF radio from any ships transiting Block Island Sound and sometimes he got some good takes on seas and wind conditions. Information was gold, and along with this information the mates could figure how to load their cargo and balance their load while the captain could assess whether the boat would sail. The boat usually went, as the M/V Manitou was designed to take a beating and Captain Matty Rooney wasn’t fond of canceling a trip. Moreover, anyone who has ever ridden on said ferryboat can recall ahem, fond memories. Nota Bene: In the present day when people talk of rough ferryboat rides, I kind of grin because nothing, and I mean nothing can compare with a rough crossing - rolling 50-plus degrees - on the M/V Manitou, M/V Quonset, and M/V Manisee. Those who know, know. Just sayin’.
Beginning on Saturday 7 May, some incoming weather shut the ferry company down for the next three-and-a-half days. The Carol Jean made her trip off the island, and the Block Island did one round trip. Then, the boats were strapped to the docks and stayed put for the next three days. This massive little weather anomaly just sat and spun off Cape Hatteras for a few days and created a very sloppy sea state along the entire east coast. I took our dog Mr. Cricket to the beach and would watch him get blasted by 35 knot gusts from the northeast. I did this for three days! It was like Groundhog Day. The wind simply did not let go, nor change direction or velocity for four consecutive days. This is an anomaly because it rarely happens. Actually, in my lifetime I can’t recall a gale lasting that long.
When ferryboats cancel trips it doesn’t stop freight from showing up to be off-loaded in the freight yard. Life goes on and commerce continues because of the steady supply and demand chains on Block Island. Moreover, cars and trucks that were scheduled must be rescheduled. The more trips the ferries cancel; the bigger the headaches later. It’s a fait accompli.
And, because of the three-and-a-half Purple Flag days that stacked up in May 2022, there were some logistics to contend with when the boats resumed service. Basically, regarding cars and trucks, Janette and her team had to realign three-and-a- half business days into one business day. With the addition of a couple of extra trips, that is exactly what happened on 10 May. However, there was a catch.
On 10 May, Captains Chris Meyers and Colin Waitkun and their crew were tasked with taking the M/V Carol Jean to Block Island at 0730. It was still blowing hard from the ENE. According to Captain Myers, “It was a survey trip to see how the day might go.” The Carol Jean took some substantial rolls entering the harbor; however, it turned out that
things went very well. Because this passenger-less survey trip was a success, the three-and-a-half business days could be compressed into one business day as planned by Janette et al. Win, Win, Win.
Whether it is a black ledger, telephone, VHF radio, computer or a satellite, all of these things are outgunned by the capricious nature of rough and unstable weather. What is the constant, however, is the human element that makes this ferry company run under adverse and ever-changing conditions. Finally, my hat is off to Janette, Lynn Kennedy,
Meghan Moran, Lisa O’Neil, Tim McCandlish, George Lyons III, and all freight guys and captains, engineers and crew. Bravo Zulu, and all good on ya.