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Ferry Boat Captain Navigates Tricky Waters

By Cindy Atoji Keene

As a ferryboat captain, Sean O'Connor regularly transports passengers and cargo between Martha’s Vineyard and Woods Hole, commanding the vessel Katama, a 220-foot converted freight vessel. His 11-hour voyage back and forth through the Sound can be monotonous, "just two rights and two lefts" but the hours of boredom are sometimes punctuated by moments of sheer terror. "Fog, high winds, and high seas can turn into a boating nightmare, especially during the summer, when there is high traffic density," said O'Connor.

O'Connor begins his 11-hour day at 5:30 a.m., the first of four round trips, powering up and testing the boat's generator, electronics, and steering system, then heading over to the transfer bridge to load the initial cargo, usually hazardous propane and gasoline to power Island homes and vehicles. The Katama also moves recycling trash off the Island, as well as food service and delivery trucks, and serves as the back-up passenger and vehicle ferry. O'Connor, 56, has been with The Steamship Authority for almost four decades, and remembers a simpler time. "It used to be that there were no shore lights at night till you were inside the Vineyard Haven harbor, but now the whole island is lit up like a Christmas tree."

Q: Do you need to navigate any tricky waters during your journeys?
A: Woods Hole is one of the most treacherous harbors on the East Coast because of the current and rock formation. The Steamship Authority, in their infinite wisdom, put a ferry slip right in front of the main pass of Woods Hole, where the current runs from 3.5 to 5 knots, depending on what cycle of the moon you’re in. This affects the steering of the vessel, pushing it one way or another; the ship doesn't just stop where it is.

Q: How did you first get into maritime work?
A: I was an accounting major and quit after two years of college when I realized I couldn't stand accounting. I decided I should get a job, and started washing dishes on one of the old steamers. So now I've spent my whole career on the water, beginning as a mess man in the galley as a teen, and working my way up the ranks to Captain.

Q: What’s the strangest thing you’ve carried on your boat?
A: That first summer when I was washing dishes, the shark from the movie Jaws came on the vessel. It had wires sticking out of it, and I thought, 'There is no way they can make that thing look real.' But the next summer, watching the movie in the theater, when the shark came out of the water, I almost jumped out of my seat.

Q: Do you ever get seasick?
A: Not since I worked in the galley. My first few years, working down below deck, with all those pots and pans swinging back and forth and the dishwater hitting me in my face, I realized it's better to be dead than seasick. First you're afraid you’re going to die from being so sick, then you're afraid you're not going to die.

Q: What are some misconceptions about your job?
A: The captain's job can seem very easy until something goes wrong - and then it’s all on you. It could be a car fire, an injured passenger, or a grounding or collision. Then you have to figure your way out of it.

Q: Do you own your own boat?
A: No. I don't go anywhere near the water on my day off. I have golf clubs. You can't have both a boat and golf clubs and do justice to either one.

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