Day in the life of a Cross Sound Ferry bartender

Although John Venduras lives in Connecticut, his face is familiar to many who live on the North Fork. They meet in the middle of Long Island Sound aboard the Cross Sound Ferry.

For some passengers, the 80-minute ride between Orient Point and New London, Conn. — offering views of Plum Island and Fishers Island — is a perfect opportunity to relax with a cocktail.

Enter Mr. Venduras, one of 10 of bartenders who serve up drinks aboard Cross Sound Ferry’s fleet of vessels.

Mr. Venduras’ career has always been behind the bar.

After serving a term in the Army in his early twenties, he began working as a waiter in Manhattan, where he grew up. One day, he received a phone call from a friend who asked him to bartend at a new restaurant he was opening.

“I said, ‘I don’t know how to be a bartender,’ ” Mr. Venduras recalled telling his friend at the time. The response he got back was: “You’re gonna figure it out.”

“And I became a bartender and I never left,” Mr. Venduras said.

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John Venduras on board the Susan Anne. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

At 76 years old, he’s still a master of his craft, explaining the tastes of the different beers to customers and mixing up multiple bloody Mary’s at once — the drink he said the ferry is famous for.

He has been a seagoing bartender for seven years and said it’s no different from any other bar.

“Sometimes you eat chicken and sometimes you eat feathers, that’s the best way I can describe it,” he said, meaning it’s either very busy or very slow.

“Most of the time it’s busy,” he added.

Serving drinks aboard a moving vessel can still create a unique atmosphere for both patrons and the bartender. Cross Sound Ferry is based in Connecticut, so its liquor license is not valid in New York. While the boat is docked in Orient Point, Mr. Venduras stands patiently behind the bar and greets everyone with a smile; drinks cannot be served until the boat leaves the dock.

As the countdown begins, the bar seats start to fill.

Once he feels the boat move, he springs into action.

“You start running at the gate,” Mr. Venduras said. “And you don’t stop until you have helped everyone.”

Orient Point Light, the Coffee Pot. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Orient Point Light, the Coffee Pot. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

He begins to replay the previous moments in his mind, thinking of who sat down first and helping everyone almost in the exact order they showed up around the bar.

“Everybody is important,” he said. “You have to get to everyone.”

He zips around behind the bar — pouring beer after beer, mixing up cocktails and getting food orders in and out of the kitchen.

After about 15 minutes, the initial rush dies down and Mr. Venduras can finally slow down. He then makes his way around the bar, making small conversation with customers.

“You meet people from every [sector] of life,” he said. “The more people you meet, the more knowledge you gain.”

For Mr. Venduras, the interaction with bar patrons is one of the things he loves about his job. He meets businessmen on their way back from meetings, a local Long Islander returning home after working on a boat docked in Connecticut and groups of women eager to enjoy a weekend at North Fork wineries.

When the ferry arrives at its destination and the crowd files out, he can recite who sat where and share their stories.

Venduras serves up a drink aboard the Susan Anne. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

Venduras serves up a drink aboard the Susan Anne. (Credit: Krysten Massa)

On a recent Friday afternoon aboard the Susan Anne, he pointed to an empty seat in the middle of the bar.

“She was from Ireland,” he recalled, reciting that the woman was in her twenties and in the bar business herself and was here on vacation.

“He never forgets a face and he always makes you very welcome,” passenger Mike Gaines said during his trip from Orient last week. Mr. Gaines lives in Connecticut, but takes the ferry regularly to do business on the North Fork and the rest of Long Island. He said that while he thinks all the bartenders on each ferry are great, he seems to always catch Mr. Venduras’ shift.

“John makes the trip,” he said. “It’s always a pleasure to see him behind the bar.”

Similar to the atmosphere in a community pub, Mr. Venduras has his regular customers.

“There’s people who come on board on a very regular basis, but I don’t see them every day,” he said.

His stories are what his “regulars” enjoy the most.

“You can get into a conversation with John and not realize that an hour went by,” said Jim Doray, another passenger who travels regularly from Massachusetts to Long Island. “So the trip goes real fast and it’s just fun.”

Mr. Venduras works five days a week on the ferry, jumping around to the different boats each day.

“I’m happy on the ferry. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t still be on the ferry,” he said with a laugh as he geared up for his next crowd.

kmassa@timesreview.com