A day on the water with a North Ferry captain

Captain Tom McGriel aboard the North Ferry. (Credit: David Benthal)

When the 5:30 a.m. ferry left Shelter Island for Greenport on Jan. 13, 2018, Captain Tom McGriel was in his wheelhouse, figuratively and literally. Cloudy and raw, with the wind predicted to blow all day and the temperature dropping into the teens, the view through the windows of his perch was stark and magnificent. 

“Just another day in the office,” McGriel said, “but you can’t beat the view.”

McGriel, who lives on Shelter Island, has worked for the North Ferry for 16 years. He is one of a handful of ferry captains who work with two crew members to operate a 128-foot, 400-ton boat through eight hours of loading, transporting and unloading the cars, trucks, bicycles, schoolchildren, construction workers, teachers and tourists who make Shelter Island run.

On this day, the wind had blown a flat, white expanse of ice into the ferry’s normal path, and McGriel guided the boat through. “You search for leads where the ice is parting and slalom through it. You’re obviously traveling a longer distance, but these boats usually keep their schedule because they are so big.”

Snow was in the forecast, maybe one or two inches, posing a potential hazard since the crew would have to put down salt and drivers can’t see the lane markers — a danger for those working on the deck. 

“You just try to stay out of the way,” said crew member Mike Mundy.

On the first run to Greenport, the pilot house radio crackled with the voice of someone in the crew lounge looking for a newspaper. 

“Hey, you got any fake news over there?”

McGriel responded, “How fake do you want it?”

“Newsday?”

“No, we don’t have it.”

A sound reminiscent of the infamous baked beans scene from Blazing Saddles came out of the radio. 

“Welcome to the North Ferry!” McGriel said.

As the boat approached Greenport for the first landing of the day, McGriel explained how it’s done: “A lawn flamingo could drive it across. The challenge is putting it in the slips, without knocking anybody over and without knocking down the slips.” 

The brow protruding from the front of the Mashomack slid under the ramp with the solid “thunk” of the door on a BMW. “The boats are really quite maneuverable. But when the wind is howling, if you get it in, that’s good,” McGriel said. 

“1 down, 34 to go.”

The only thing that can stop the ferry is weather, and even that hasn’t suspended operations since Hurricane Sandy shut the North Ferry down as the water got too high to fit the boats under the ramp. McGriel was working that day, and remembers that service was interrupted for a matter of hours.

Unexpected weather? McGriel takes it in stride: “You can see it coming on the radar. That’s when everyone scrambles for their rain gear. If it’s really something dramatic, the Coast Guard will announce it over VHF.

To write this story, reporter Charity Robey wanted to get a sense of what it’s like to work on the ferry in difficult decisions. So early one January morning she met with Captain Tom McGriel and spent the day out on the water in icy conditions. This is one of her photos from her day aboard the North Ferry.

All creatures must eat, drink and visit the bathroom, but for astronauts and ferry crews, meeting basic needs takes some doing. On the question of how to use the bathroom when your workplace doesn’t have one and the closest is in the Greenport terminal, the captain is brutally frank: “There are times when you have to clinch. A discreet nod to the captain may increase the speed.”

About an hour after sunrise, McGriel announced to the crew that it was time to prepare for the breakfast run, timed to coincide with a daily schedule adjustment when the boat goes from three crossings per hour to four. The shift results in just enough time for a crew member to dash and grab a to-go order for all hands. The choice between Goldberg’s, located within sight of the Greenport ferry slip, and the lunch counter at the Shelter Island Pharmacy rests with the captain of the ship.

“Let’s go to the Pharm,” said McGriel, “I think I want a western wrap with ketchup.” As soon as the gate went down, Mike Mundy shot over to the pharmacy to pick up the grilled cheese, clam chowder, tuna melt and the Captain’s wrap. “On the next trip, we go at ‘food speed,’ so everybody gets a chance to eat,” McGriel said.

Running a ferry is known in maritime circles as being in the “flesh trade” and right after safety, great customer service is McGriel’s goal. “A more senior captain said to me, ‘There are two kinds of captains. One is the kind that lifts the ramp with his back to the road and the other kind lifts the ramp with his face to the road.’ If I can, within reason, get someone onto the ferry I will. But if we get backed up and the line stretches up to the Dory, the phones light up in the office like strategic air command.”

Keeping the schedule is part of customer service, and in the summer the captain’s job requires a sense of humor as well as punctuality. On a hot Friday afternoon, two women with the whiff of day-tripper about them, stood red-faced next to their bikes in the loading area. One pointed out a painted bird atop a wooden beam near the ferry slip. “Is that a pelican?” she asked Capt. McGriel.

“Actually, that’s not a pelican; it’s a pole-ican,” he quipped, directing the bikers to a safe spot near the stern of the boat.

Summer presents a different set of hazards, centered on the loading and unloading of the vessel. Facebook groups dedicated to stories of the dangerous antics of summertime ferry passengers can’t compete with what McGriel has witnessed. There was the guy with his legs hanging over the edge of the ramp as the ferry came into the slip, the weekly drunken exodus of merrymakers from the Wednesday cookout at the Pridwin and the driver who “whizzed by me, cellphone in one hand, iPad in the other and dog in his lap.”

McGriel has enough seniority now to work days — four on, then two off — and he’s grateful for it. “This is one of the great aspects of working on the ferry,” he said. “You can work on the water all day and sleep in your own bed at night.

“My motto is, go slow, crash slow,” he said, as he executed another perfect landing despite a stiff wind, with a comforting nudge as the ferry slid under the gate.

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