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Corinne Marchand checked the weather during a recent voyage from Woods Hole to Vinyard Haven on the MV Islander.
Corinne Marchand checked the weather during a recent voyage from Woods Hole to Vinyard Haven on the MV Islander. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

Bowing out

After 57 years of taking many to the Vineyard, the Islander reaches the end of the line

VINEYARD HAVEN -- For 57 years, the MV Islander, the Steamship Authority ferry that chugs between Woods Hole and Martha's Vineyard, has always been there when islanders needed it.

For untold thousands in the summer, the Islander has been the water taxi that begins and ends a vacation. For islanders, it has been the vessel that takes them to visit a sick parent, shop for holiday gifts, or commute to their jobs.

But at noon tomorrow, after a farewell ceremony in Vineyard Haven, the stout and staunch double-ender will ferry passengers for the last time on the 45-minute journey across the 7 -mile expanse of Vineyard Sound.

Then it will set sail for the Thames Shipyard in New London, Conn., with Captain James Lodge at its wheel for what probably will be its final voyage.

No captain has logged more hours in the Islander's wheelhouse than Lodge, 54, who has spent almost half his life as its skipper.

"If you know how to let the tides and wind work with you, the Islander can do some amazing things," Lodge said last month on one of his last stints at the wheel of the venerable ferry. "That's why she can run in terrible weather time and time again."

Even during Friday's gale winds, high seas, and horizontal rains, the Islander's diesel engines carried it across the sound, steady but slow at 11.5 knots.

The Islander is probably headed to the maritime knackers for scrap. The vessel crafted from World War II-vintage surplus submarine steel, the kind that helped win the war in the Pacific, may someday come back to the Vineyard as car door panels that rust in the salt air.

"Once the Islander gets to New London, she'll be considered surplus, and if there's no buyers, it's anyone's guess after that," said Curt Duane, pilot of the ferry.

With more than a million miles in its wake, the Islander has been both a marathoner and a bargain spanning two centuries. The low-profile design burns two-thirds less fuel than other ferries of its class. When the Islander was finished at a Baltimore shipyard in 1950, the price tag was a paltry $687,510: $5.75 million in today's inflation-adjusted figures.

By comparison, the Islander's plush replacement, the Island Home, has cost $32.2 million and may need further modifications, which could push up the price tag. When the two vessels are side by side, the Island Home, with its twin passenger decks, towers over the Islander.

Some frugal Vineyarders look at the new boat and see a profligate oceanic hole into which riders will pour fares and fuel.

"I know the Islander inside and out, and investing another few million dollars in her would keep her going another 10 years. That's just plain fact," said one Islander crewmember who asked for anonymity, not wanting to irritate management.

Except for the times when the Islander was down for maintenance, Ralph Friedman has been aboard every weekday as part of his 32-year commute to a job in the Taunton area. He has spent almost 13,000 hours -- about a year-and-a-half -- on board, probably more than any Vineyarder other than the Steamship Authority crew.

"Of course, I will miss her and all the little peculiarities, and maybe she could keep running for a while longer, but 57 years is a long, long time for a seagoing vessel," Friedman said. "We all retire someday, we all just wear out. Time and hard work do that."

As much as ferries are a presence in Vineyard Haven harbor, so too are the wooden tall ships Shenandoah and Alabama. Owned and skippered by Captain Robert Douglas for tourists in the summer, the schooners have rocked in rhythm for decades alongside an ever-increasing number of ferries, a kind of foil to the gradual ceding of the waterfront to the appetite of the Steamship Authority.

"Very few things in life are perfect, in the sense they do everything we ask of them for little in return," Douglas said. "Put the Islander on that list."

On a bone-cold morning last month, Ray and Lillian Kellman of Chilmark tucked themselves into one of the Islander's favorite warm spots. The couple, both in their 70s, cuddled up at a table on the way to Massachusetts General Hospital for twin MRIs, his for a cranky back and hers for an unruly pancreas.

"Of course we'll miss this boat; we've been on her so many, many years," said Lillian Kellman. "But like us, sometimes you just get too old to fix right."

In her years of service, the Islander had her share of headlines, beginning with the champagne christening by Cathleen Cagney, the 8-year-old daughter of late actor James Cagney, who summered on the Vineyard.

On a September night in 1972, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara barely avoided assassination on the Islander. A passenger approached him and said an emergency call waited in the wheelhouse. As McNamara walked the stern deck, the assailant tried to hurl him over the rail and into the sea. According to witnesses, McNamara held on until passengers fought off the would-be assassin and rescued the terrified defense secretary. Authorities failed to apprehend the perpetrator, though Vineyard lore has its homegrown prime suspects.

"Most of the drama is minor indeed," said the purser of the Islander, Bernie Holzer, 73, whose vaudeville voice has reminded passengers not to "leave their pets or children behind" since 1971. "You do get some folks now and again, after a few cocktails, who get to snoozing in some out-of-the-way spot and don't get off and wake up going back to where they started."

Sometimes the drama has been major. Hurricane Carol in 1954 forced the vessel to lay up in a cove on Naushon Island. In 1980, the Islander hit a shoal off the Oak Bluffs terminal, ripping a near fatal hole in the hull.

"She was our boat, when the Vineyard was still ours," said Karen Achille, a former librarian on the Vineyard. She pointed to crayon drawings by schoolchildren framed and hanging on the walls, priceless vestiges of a deep attachment. "Many families here have four generations who have ridden the Islander together to the good times and the bad."

Acknowledging that someday the Islander must stop, James Kozak of Vineyard Haven has his own literary ending. In 1974, after Steven Spielberg finished filming Jaws on the Vineyard, the hull of the fictional Captain Quint's boat, Orca, was left to disintegrate on the shoreline of Menemsha Pond.

"I'd like to see the Islander sitting on the sandbar in the sun next to what's left of Orca, slowly rusting," Kozak said. "And make some tall tales for another century or so."

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in Sunday's City & Region section incorrectly identified Robert McNamara as secretary of defense in 1972. McNamara was secretary of defense until 1968.)

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