The story of the Manitou

Thu, 06/25/2020 - 5:45pm
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The date was June 13, 1970 and at 9:30 a.m., a shrill whistle sounded from the top of the pilothouse signifying a boat was leaving the pier. In the pilothouse, Capt. Everett Henry slid the two brass throttles forward and the newly-built stern loading vessel M/V Manitou was underway on her maiden voyage to Block Island from Galilee. The arrival of the Manitou on the scene signified the beginning of the end for the side loading vessels which had served the island for over a century. From that day forward the Manitou would also become “Block Island’s Winter Lifeline” as a replacement for the veteran ex steam vessel Sprigg Carroll. Yankee Magazine actually did an article in one of their 1957 issues about the Sprigg Carroll and her role as “Block Island’s Winter Lifeline.” A role that thirteen years later would be taken over by the Manitou.

Manitou was not the first vessel slated to replace the Sprigg Carroll as the winter life line for Block Island. In the late 1950’s or early 1960’s Interstate Navigation purchased the former Welfare Island steamer Welfare from New York City. She was brought to Shaw’s Cove in New London, Conn. and was stripped down to her main deck and a design was drawn up to rebuild her as a diesel-powered sideloading vessel. The actual reconstruction was started and then stopped and then started again many times. But by the late 1960’s interest to finish her had dwindled and the concept of a stern loading vessel seem more practical. Interstate Navigation then hired the services of Naval Architect Robert Simons of Paramus, New Jersey to design and draw up plans for a new stern loading vessel which ultimately became the Manitou. The Welfare subsequently was then sold to a Providence, RI restauranteur and was towed to Providence for use as a dockside restaurant and renamed Victoria.

The Sprigg Carroll (formerly steam-powered and then diesel-ized in 1948) had provided winter service to Block Island since 1949 and proved to be a formidable “sea vessel”. Built for the Quartermaster’s Department of the U.S. Army, and slated to be used in South Carolina, her plans were drawn up in 1902 and construction took place in 1903 at the Pusey and Jones Shipyard in Wilmington, Delaware. The all steel constructed hull had a design length of 110’ (OA) and 104’ (WL) with a molded beam of 24’-8” and listed at 232 tons and originally steam powered with a two-cylinder compound engine that was replaced in 1948 with a 900 HP GM diesel engine from a surplus LST. Her superstructure and pilothouse were constructed of wood. She had a main deck and boat/observation deck. Her low profile and lower center of gravity as well as less windage contributed to her good sea keeping abilities as professed from true mariners.

In comparison the Manitou has a length of 100-foot (WL) and 110-foot -11.5-inch (OA) and a maximum beam of 27-foot- 7” and listed as 97 tons with twin Cummins VTA 1710 diesel engines rated at 500 HP each turning 5-inch steel shafts with 5-foot diameter bronze propellers with a 54-inch pitch. Manitou also had three decks making her more susceptible to windage. Her passenger and vehicle capacity varied in accordance to the number of vehicles she was carrying. The less vehicles she carried then more passengers would be permitted. The maximum vehicles allowed was fourteen and the maximum passengers allowed was approximately 450. She was also designed with forward and aft trim tanks whereby the tanks could be flooded to trim the vessel.

Rumors of the new vessel, which would replace the Sprigg Carroll as the winter lifeline and then run in conjunction with the summer vessel Quonset during the peak summer season, began circulating in 1968 and the new published timetables for 1968 and 1969 indicated a summer season that would have a two-boat schedule from Galilee. But it did not materialize in 1968 or 1969 much to the anticipation of the permanent residents of Block Island.

The new vessel was to have an open stern area with a tailgate whereby vehicles could simply back onto the vessel as opposed to the typical sideloading vessels whereby the vehicles drove onto a ramp and through a 10-foot opening in the side of the vessel and then jockeyed around so that they could be backed down inside of the vessel. The stern loading concept also gave promise of an easier way to transport freight since trucks could actually drive onto the vessel and be transported to the island instead of having to offload the freight from the truck and onload it onto the vessel and then offload it from the vessel on arrival in Block Island. A stern loading vessel would also facilitate the use of forklifts to load and unload freight from the vessel.

The two vessels were polar opposites in design, Sprigg Carroll had a decent freeboard but was otherwise low to the water. She had an open bow on the main deck and a superstructure that started about 1/3rd of the way back from the stem and continued to the stern and sported a small passenger cabin in the fantail on the main deck. Sprigg Carroll only had two decks, the upper deck (01) deck had the pilothouse, funnel, lifeboats and a few benches for passengers. TheManitou had three decks, and her bow was enclosed. She had a superstructure from the stem to approximately mid ships at which point the upper two decks ended and the main deck was open and uncovered for freight and vehicles with a stern loading tailgate. Her (01) deck had a passenger cabin and lifejacket boxes. The pilothouse as well as open seating were located on the observation (02) deck. The Manitou, by design, did not have a funnel on the upper deck. Instead she had engine and generator exhaust pipes located in the transom below the tailgate. Overall the Manitou had a high profile whereby the Sprigg Carroll had a lower profile. Both vessels throughout their careers proved to be formidable sea vessels. But the true “old salts” would prefer the Sprigg Carroll.

The plans drawn up by Robert Simon also mentioned a second sister vessel that was to be constructed from the same plans but would include the (01) deck to have two catwalks that would extend from the deckhouse to the stern over the freight deck on both sides of the vessel for additional passenger seating. The second vessel would be an improved version of Manitou passenger wise but less versatile for freight purposes. That vessel would be built a few years later and be given the name Manisee.

With Robert Simon’s completed plans in hand construction began at the Thames Shipyard and Repair Company on the Thames River in New London Connecticut. Interstate Navigation owner John H. Wronowski and other family members as well as shipyard workers contributed to the physical construction of the Manitou. It took a compliment of eleven workers approximately two years to build the Manitou. Mr. Wronowski, himself, took to handling a welding torch and was often seen as part of the crew of workers during the construction. All of the work took place at the Thames Shipyard except for the nose of the vessel which was rolled at Bath Iron Works in Maine and shipped to the Thames Shipyard by truck and welded in place as the vessel was being built. Manitou was christened on July 9. 1969 by Mary Jo Hewitt, 9, granddaughter of owner John H. Wronowski. After the ceremonious breaking of the champagne bottle on her bow Manitou slid down the ways for her first splash into the briny water.

Her livery was somewhat more festive looking than the older venerable sideloading vessels too. She was painted black from the boot top to the top of the guard rail and her superstructure above the guard was painted white with a blue stripe on the upper part of the coaming and a blue ring accentuated the seven portholes on each side of the vessel. Her bow, port and starboard, displayed the Interstate Navigation logo and name. The deck house exterior and lifejacket boxes on the (01) deck were painted a seafoam green with a darker green trim on the double hung window frames and doors. The decks and the steel mesh railings were painted gray. On her (02) deck was the pilothouse which also sported the seafoam green color exterior with a white roof, visor and mast. But what really made her look a little more festive was the alternating multicolored pastel plastic seats which were permanently affixed as opposed to the typical gray wooden benches that the older vessels had. Another innovation that was tried out on the vessel was to have stereo music piped in through the PA system on the (02) deck while she was underway. I do recall her departing Galilee and hearing the second side of the Beatles “Abbey Road” album playing through the PA system. Over the years her livery would change and the pastel colored deck seats would give way to wooden benches. By the late 80’s the sea foam green would give way to a white passenger cabin and buff colored pilothouse and by the 2000’s she would sport a white passenger cabin and white pilothouse with a blue roof, visor and mast and the steel mesh railings were painted white. She would also receive a red stripe around the (02)-deck coaming.

Her passenger cabin was simple and designed to hold about 48 passengers. It was insulated with a baseboard heating system for winter comfort. It also contained the Men and Women rooms and a small snack bar. Seating in the passenger cabin also consisted of the same alternating colorful pastel plastic deck seats that adorned the (02) deck.

After completion of construction and the final fitting out the vessel’s sea trials commenced with no problems being detected. One obstacle did stand in the way of her being put on the run. Both the Block Island and Galilee terminals had no docking provisions for a stern loading vessel. Subsequently, an opening was made in her bulwarks (port side only) in the open freight area to allow her to side load freight, vehicles and passengers until the stern-loading ramps could be built at both terminals. With this modification Manitou was placed into service as a side loading vessel. she originally had a relatively tall tailgate which was eventually cut down to be slightly taller than the bulwarks. A control station was added to the aft end of the (02) deck so that the captain could visually see and control the vessel during docking procedures particularly when backing into the stern loading ramps. She, originally, also had a workboat that hung vertically behind the passenger deckhouse and was attached to a single davit. By her second year of service the workboat and davit were removed, the tailgate was shortened in height and in later years was completely removed and the freight deck was wedged up in the stern to match the thickness of the stern loading ramp on the pier.

Per her log book, Manitou, made her inaugural trip out to the island from Galilee in 1 hour and two minutes and the return trip in just 56 minutes. In comparison the Quonset, her older running mate, would make the trip in 1 hour and 15 minutes. Manitou was designed and capable of achieving 12 knots as opposed to the Quonset’s lumbering 10.5 knots. Yet her full potential of efficiency did not show through in her first year of service due to the lack of stern loading ramps at both terminals. By the end of her second and third years of service stern loading ramps were installed at both terminals and she could finally be used as she was ultimately designed.

Manitou’s service record is actually pretty easy to follow. From 1970 to 1997 she served Block Island exclusively from Galilee and for a while also served on the Friday night summer run from New London to Block Island which is affectionately known as the “Daddy Boat” run. She also did small stints as a head boat for the Americas Cup Races between 1970 and 1983 and has filled in for the Orient Point to Plum Island run. In 1997 Interstate Navigation put into service the newly built M/V Block Island (stern loader) which has more than doubled the combined capacity of the Manitou and Manisee and essentially took the two sister vessels out of service and held them in reserve. Eventually, Interstate Navigation opted to sell the Manisee and keep the Manitou. The thinking was that the Manitou would be more versatile to carry trucks and freight if needed since she did not have the catwalks over the freight deck. Manitou also seemed to be less forlorn than Manisee from wear and tear for the years of service they provided.

Manitou also provided service from Newport to Block Island for three consecutive seasons 2001-2003 and then for one season in 2008 when the M/V Nelseco was chartered to Hornblower Yacht Cruises for their newly acquired Statue of Liberty run from Battery Park in New York City. Even after the Nelseco’s New York charter was completed Manitou would still fill in on the Newport run from time to time.

In her tenure of service to Block Island, Manitou had many different captains at the helm. Probably the most notable to the islanders and winter travelers was Captain Matt Rooney. Matty, as people called him, started as a deckhand on the various Interstate vessels and worked his way up to captain. A phrase often heard around the docks was; “If Matty didn’t want to go out there then you didn’t want to be out there either”. Under his command, Manitou made some very rough crossings. Joe Houlihan, who worked with Matty on the Manitou describes in his book, “The Monkey Fist,” of crossings on the Manitou whereby he and another deckhand would actually stand on each side of Matty in the pilothouse and actually hold him in the chair at the helm as he negotiated the Manitou in the heavy seas during rough crossings. Another point brought up in Joe’s book was that Manitou really did not have accommodations for the crew and that it was not unusual for crew members to take refuge inside a passenger’s private vehicle during a rough crossing. Vehicle owners for the most part were usually sympathetic about seeing a crew member sitting in their vehicles. Contrary to what many people thought of the Manitou, she proved to be a formidable vessel in rough seas, as well as reliable, and fulfilled her role as a winter lifeline to Block Island. That was not to say that rough crossings were fun or without nausea. Chances are that a good number of passengers would have felt scared or nauseous on any size vessel during those types of crossings. Another passage in Joe Houlihan’s book “The Monkey Fist” describes Captain Lew Tews saying, “What the hell are we doing out here?” as he piloted the sister ship Manisee on a rough crossing. Passengers often forget that they always have the choice to make the crossing or not. However, the captain and crew do not have that option and try at their best ability to make the crossing as safe and as comfortable as possible. Fred Benson, a long time Block Islander, once wrote “A boat will scare the heck out of you before it would ever sink.” The Manitou and the Sprigg Carroll have proven Mr. Benson’s adage many times over.

The period of time between the end of World War II and the late 1960’s Block Island’s popularity seem to decline and running a second vessel from Galilee did not seem warranted. However economic factors always affect our lives and the infamous gasoline shortages of the 1970’s affected just about every household. People were experiencing fuel rationing, rising fuel prices, lines at the pumps and even alternating days that you could get fuel depending on the last digit of your car registration plate. Ultimately, families opted to stay closer to home for vacations and day-tripping became popular as a means to save fuel and money. So, it is no wonder that Block Island began to gain popularity again which of course required more daily trips and multiple vessels to meet the increasing demands. By the early 1980’s Interstate Navigation had four vessels providing at least two roundtrips per day from Galilee to meet the demand during the summer months as well as two other vessels providing service from Providence-Newport-Block Island and New London-Block Island one round trip per day. Many people also realized that Block Island was just as nice or better to visit during the off-peak summer months. Again, more demand meant more trips and Manitou was an integral part at the onset of it all. By the summer of 1981 service to Block Island from Galilee was being handled by four different vessels: Three vessels that carried passengers and cars and freight and one vessel that carried only passengers and yet the demand kept on increasing, even in the off season. In 1984 the newly built M/V Carol Jean (stern loader) made her debut on the Block Island run replacing the Quonset and Nelseco. The Nelseco was then placed on the Providence to Newport to Block Island run replacing the Yankee. In one fell swoop two sideloading vessels were taken out of service. Then in 1986 Nelseco Navigation brought the newly built M/V Anna C. (stern loader) on line to replace the Block Island (1926), another sideloading vessel, on the New London to Block Island run. The ANNA C. was an improved version of the Carol Jean. She was built with a heftier bank of engines for speed and power and was insulated with a finished interior. Anna C. also became the winter vessel replacing Manitou and Manisee as the winter life line to the island. So as of 1986 Block Island was being served by four stern loading vessels and one sideloading vessel. The transition from sideloading to stern loading was just about complete and in later years even the Nelseco was slightly altered to allow loading passengers from the stern loading ramps in Galilee and Block Island. Even the present-day high-speed ferries have the ability to load passengers from the stern loading ramps. As stated, earlier Manitou continued serving Block Island until 1997 when Interstate Navigation built the present-day Block Island (1997) and withdrew both Manitou and Manisee from service. The Block Island also replaced the Anna C. as the winter lifeline for Block Island.

For the past three years Manitou has done one round trip on Saturdays out to Block Island from Galilee carrying over a truck for groceries and other freight. Interstate has also found another unique charter for her whereby she provides passenger service from Jamestown to Newport for patrons of the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals respectively two weekends per year. This winter she has been busy carrying house modules and a crane from Galilee to Block Island for the Cherry Hill Lane housing project.

So, June 13, 2020 will mark 50 years ago that Manitou made her inaugural trip to Block Island. Amazingly, she proved the naysayers wrong. Whether you liked her or not she got you to the island and she brought your vehicle or freight over too. She proved to be a good commercial work vessel. A little-known fact about Manitou, which should be mentioned here, is that she was built out of US steel from the Bethlehem Steel Yard and per audio gaging by the US Coast Guard (every two years) Manitou did not need any hull plates replaced until 2005, an astonishing 35 years.

By definition the name Manitou is a supernatural being that controls nature or an object that possesses supernatural powers. Although she was small and it seemed that at times the realm of King Neptune would conquer her, the Manitou always survived her journeys, and as she would rise from a trough and onto the crest of another wave, she would stare right back at King Neptune with indifference and continue on with her voyage amongst the peaks and valleys of Block Island Sound.

During World War II, the battleship (BB-38) U.S.S. Pennsylvania’s motto was “Always prepared for action.” Perhaps the Manitou fulfills that status for Interstate Navigation and Block Island. At times the crossings were serene and at other times crossings might of have been scary and certainly not comfortable but the Manitou and her crew managed to get the job done.

Three cheers for the Manitou and congratulations for 50 years of faithful service.